Why do we avoid G-d? What stops us from praying? Are we afraid of something?
I’d like to consider this from a Jewish Contemplative’s perspective, suggesting a few practical strategies for overcoming some of the more common and simple obstacles to perseverance in contemplative prayer.
I am writing this as part of a “Guide” for a community of full-time and part-time Jewish Contemplatives whose aim is to spend the majority of their time in prayer, I hope that some of it will be of relevance or interest to all praying Jews, and to contemplatives in other religious traditions.
1: What are we really afraid of?
It is said that the Baal Shem Tov declared that many of our fears were fears of things that could not harm us and that it was usually something inside ourselves that we feared. This week’s Torah portion (Sh’lach L’cha) describes one of the greatest fears...fear of what might happen in the future and warns us not to listen to negative voices too easily. For contemplatives, the grumbling rabble comes from within.
We ought to be in awe when we engage in prayer with G-d, and it is appropriate to be on edge when asking for G-d’s “input” into our lives as we often hear things we’d rather not hear. If we are serious and dedicated in our lives of prayer we will also find that the G-d we encounter is not the G-d we thought we were going to meet. That situation can be very frightening indeed. This kind of awe is often called the “fear of G-d”. It is not this laudable stance which I am considering here in this article, but those fears which might better be termed the “anxieties and neuroses” of the contemplative life.
They are most usually avoidance techniques practised with appalling regularity and efficiency by most religious professionals or dedicated amateurs . They can be worked through.
Contemplatives in many religious traditions are most often affected by five specific “anxieties”:
1. Doubt: They may fear that they are wasting their time trying to communicate with a G-d who may or not exist. That their dedication to a life of prayer is a waste or simply an evasion of responsibility.
2. Boredom: They may fear that they are wasting their time in the long periods of (apparent) inactivity when there seems to be no “contact” with G-d .... and so they get bored waiting.
3. Avoidance: They may fear the consequences of listening to G-d in prayer, and realise that they don’t really want to hear His Voice at all as it asks things that are demanding or shocking.
4. Negativity : They may be afraid that they are failing in G-d’s service. Or they may just be in a black mood, usually a self-centred one.
5. Fickleness: They may be afraid that they are too lazy or weak to persevere in the struggle. This may lead to the creation of diversions and substitutes for G-d.
The first of those fears is often the most traumatic and the most difficult to “manage”. Such management often gets easier with the passage of time, as a consistent prayer-life usually produces a healthy and growing awareness of our ignorance where G-d’s “Person or Nature” is concerned. The experience of contact with G-d is something simultaneously intimate and yet utterly un-graspable. “Paradoxical” does not even begin to describe it. The accompanying questioning of the value of “contemplative life” as a vocation is really an aspect of the same doubt, and is something which has to be tackled full-on each day: The Promethean task of all Contemplatives. Together they are (also paradoxically) their own reward. Purification and streamlining produce “brighter” souls. Souls which can be of more use to G-d. One is wise not to complain but be glad of the exercise.
The second, acedia (religious boredom), is not really an anxiety. It is the common path of all full time contemplatives. It too is a training device as it teaches us not to be in love with the side-effects or the occasional highs of a life of prayer, but with G-d Himself.
The last three in the list are the recurring experiences of any normal work-shy and apprehensive traveller into the realms of the contemplative desert... a realm where nobody can offer a map or a guide-book as the journey is utterly unique for each traveller. It is hard work, so of course we try to avoid it.- and of course we sometimes buckle up under the pressure.
Yet, all five are not so much “things to be afraid of” as blessings in disguise.
Whether we view them as the gift of a Divine Teacher or as a litmus test created by a thinking soul, they are a process of questioning, testing, and discovery which is creative and ultimately positive. They are the essential educational process which turns “contemplative experiences” into “a contemplative life” (see Psalm 109:4). The process should not be feared, but welcomed.
2: How to pray on a grey day
Let’s look at negativity for a moment to see how it can be turned on its head.
We are instructed not to even attempt to say the Amidah prayer (for instance) if we are sad or depressed and the reason for this is because the liturgy ought to be something performed in joy. This makes sense in many ways as there are times when depression can turn to anger when it is coupled with frustration and avoiding contact with G-d might be the only way we can avoid blasphemy. On the other hand, there is much to be said for recognising that it is precisely at such times that we need to be in direct (even if conflicted) contact with our G-d. Hitbodedus, the Breslov method of discussing ones thoughts out loud with G-d (melancholy or sad thoughts along with the joyous ones) often in the middle of the night -in an isolated and deserted location- would seem to be a method geared to effect this. Liturgy may be a difficult task to manage in such times of moodiness, but contemplative dialogue should surely flow naturally when things which are bottled up need to be poured out.
Many contemplatives turn to the Psalms at such times. Often they are doorways to the deepest forms of ecstatic prayer or to joyful exhilarating praise. At other times they assist us in our reflections on our relationship with G-d. But there are also many times when they are a comfort from a psychological point of view as well: We can relate to the very human conflicts which the Psalms describe. They are conflicts which are often internal or internalised, but whose solution is presented as being utter trust and dependence on G-d.
On those days when one feels too depressed or too sad to pray either the full siddur liturgy or to enter into the dialogue of contemplative prayer, this is my suggestion:
• Take just one psalm,• or just the first paragraph of the Amidah• or just the first paragraph of the Shema
• Tell G-d that you are both too depressed to pray• And too stressed to sit down with Him and “chat”
• But that you wish to worship Him and approach Him
• And wish to remember His mercies with gratitude
And then say your chosen short prayer as slowly and reverently as you possibly can.
Doing this has two very practical advantages:
Firstly it actually prevents you from dwelling on your self or your own problems and digging yourself further into a hole. Sometimes we all need to examine our own careers, thoughts, actions, and progress-- but those who are living contemplative lifestyles need to minimalise such activity. The balance should always be effected by looking at G-d not at one’s own navel. When we look at G-d, we are moved to compassion for all other creatures and our prayer for them spreads out “through G-d in us” to the world.
Secondly it generates positivity by allowing you to express gratitude...the attempt to worship in the midst of pressure is surely “acceptable” on high. The main thing is to do ones best and not fret.
Once such a brief but sincere attempt to pray is made.... immediately after such a prayer session one can move on to something mechanically active and productive (often some physical activity)while the sub-conscious deals with the problem “in the Presence”of G-d.
There is obviously a knack to knowing when this “practice” is a form of evasion and when it is a necessary tactic to prevent entrenchment in negative or selfish thoughts....but my guess is that it is most often wiser to take small steps well in such pressurised moments than to attempt heroic leaps of faith and perseverance. Domestic cleaning, washing, decorating, gardening, calligraphy, handicrafts, carpentry, and cooking -can all become a "Noble Path" when practised in a state of acceptance that we are “working” our “problem” out with our mind on G-d not on our selves.
Potentially, this “practice of the Presence of G-d” while engaged in another activity can be a profound form of “cleaving to” G-d, and a state in which one is “at rest in G-d” not fighting Him. G-d’s activity is then “free” to get to work on our innards while we are physically (but usually gently) occupied. The fight has become less of a blazing row or stand-off and more like a wrestling clinch which can more easily become transformed into an embrace.
3: Enthroning G-d in our Hearts
If you are still with me,I’d like to look at the relationship between our“avoidance of G-d” and our fidelity and laziness. I’m sorry if that sounds like it’s going to be as much fun as root canal treatment,but bear with me a little longer.... my aim is to turn these “negatives” into positives.
My mother was a pragmatic and stoical Northerner. She would not have described herself as a religious person yet the two phrases which I remember most from my childhood were: “There’s lots of things we want but we can’t have them.” and “Don’t just pray to G-d in the winter-time”. The latter phrase was an expression criticising a person who approaches G-d only when they need something or one who only prays when they “feel like it”. (There was not much to do of a winter evening in Birkenhead in the mid twentieth century)
Praying to G-d only when we need Him or when we feel like it?
We all do that, don’t we?
I am one who is convinced that G-d is to be found in the deepest self. But I am just as certain that G-d is more than the deepest reaches of our individual personality. It is remarkable how often we seem to forget that religion is not a therapy or a hobby....it is a relationship.
We can measure our fidelity (or fickleness) in that relationship by observing whether or not we make the effort to relate to G-d and continue in our Devotion and our “devotions” in times of total aridity.
All mystics experience times of revelation, of spiritual warmth, of an almost tangible intimacy with usually-concealed worlds...and perhaps with G-d Himself. But they are special treats - not our basic diet.
The very deepest forms of Divine-Human communication may only be experienced once or twice in a contemplative’s lifetime, and even then they are never as crystal clear or as dramatic as those who document them but do not experience them seem to think.
In my experience the “feel-good” aspects of religious ecstasy, of the physical calm which can sometimes be induced by postures or breathing exercises, or of altered states have little to do with the deep relationship between religious contemplatives and their G-d as they are so often merely sensations.
For some they become “G-d-substitutes”. Our G-d demands a kind of attention, a kind of “listening”, a kind of loving obedience which is rewarding, for certain, but not in the way of an occasional spiritual or mystical “experience”.
This is not to say it is a dry as dust matter, far from it. The “Lev” (heart) is a part of the mind. It is not predominantly intellectual like the brain or the parts of our mind which solve problems. It is the part of our mind which is directly hard-wired into our soul (and into Soul) and which makes intuitive observations, statements of pure dedicated love, prayers of commitment and devotion....all of which are best made when free of excessive bio-chemical stimulation or of roller-coaster emotions.
But it goes without saying that it CAN be boring. It can be tiresome waiting for flashes of inspiration. It can be frustrating returning to periods of doubt and even faithlessness time and time again. But no mystic, no religious contemplative worth their salt would ever choose any other path---so one has to accept that the rewards are very real, though not easily accessed, described or talked about. Ascending mountains was never meant to be easy. For that reason we have to accept that our biggest battle is going to be against laziness.
So what do we do about that one?
Here are some “suggestions” for Jewish Contemplatives:
If you know you are evading contemplative time with G-d, saying the liturgy can even be a way of avoiding Him.
If you are genuinely too busy or in total depressed anguish on a certain day to daven..close your eyes...make the slowest and most profound bow you can manage and say a line of personal prayer with every ounce of your love and dedication....even if you don’t feel it emotionally. I can make no promises, but I suggest that you will walk in His Presence after doing this and He will come to meet you during the day in other ways....through events, or through the Torah spoken by his human messengers along the way. You may even find that your ability to daven with kavanah returns unexpectedly later in the day.
If you find yourself saying “I’ll do it later”. If you find yourself thinking “I can’t concentrate now...I’ll pray properly at the weekend”.... The chances are you are merely prevaricating and not living in the honesty of the present moment. The chances are that when the weekend comes, you won’t “pray properly” either.
As always, I am speaking as a fellow sufferer as well as attempting to be a sort of doctor....both to you and to myself.....but perhaps a remedy for this little one is to rephrase your prayer and say:
“I’m running away from You, Hashem...I am sorry...I don’t want to be like thisbut I feel like I am rushing around too much to get anywhere near to You.Forgive me and help me to find You again soon.Come to find me before I get too lost.”
My guess is that He will be there for you that evening, or the next day, and that time will suddenly have been made for that “proper prayer” you had been avoiding. Seeds planted in this way seem to sprout rapidly without us having to watch out for them. The way of evasion just lets the seeds blow away in the wind. “Do it now” is the watchword of the contemplative who means business.
There will be times when the laziness of evasion is really masking rebellion. In a lifestyle which is dedicated to contemplation (either pre-eminently or totally) the tedium of repetition or of “stability” in one location can bubble up and threaten to burst into depressed rage. There are times when we are called to fight our rebellion and ascend to “the next stage” through a way of confinement or of comparative asceticism. I am not recommending acts of mortification or self-punishment. I mean here that we may experience times when we are called to let go of certain human dependencies, or needs, or even relationships in order to develop trust in G-d or reliance on G-d alone.
At these times the combat with our own self is often manifested as a struggle against laziness and the rather uninteresting solution is simply to get on with the job.
I’m sorry if that prosaic answer is not terribly comforting. But it is my measured and compassionate advice to you!
But what if it’s not just laziness? What if it really is the pre-eruptive stage of a rebellious explosion. My suggested remedy is equally prosaic—go for a bus-ride, visit a nearby town you rarely see, have an ice-lolly, watch a video, go away for a weekend. If your “laziness” is a symptom of acedia, it may disappear with such a simple action – long enough for you to come back refreshed and face it properly and without evasion.
4: Surrendering to G-d
What of those times when we avoid G-d because of a fear that we have failed, that we are crippled by a sense of our unworthiness and inadequacy?
Humility is probably the hardest virtue for a contemplative to attain or acquire. Though idealised “religious mystics” rarely make a show of themselves or talk about their lowliness, they are constantly involved in a tussle with the opposite poles of pride and humility. This is not something which should surprise us. A “Contemplative” is one who has the audacity to believe that they are called to be intimate with G-d. Chutzpah doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface in defining such an outrageously self-assertive and self aggrandising notion. Aware of this, the mystic casts himself or herself into a pit of self-deprecation. It is a trap. A sort of chuckle from a G-d with a wry sense of humour.
We are aware of our inadequacy.Yet we expect our prayers to be heard.
We are aware we can attain nothing by ourselves.Yet we expect, even demand, that G-d should stoop down and lift US up.
We know we are servantsYet we expect to be treated like children or marriage partners.
We expect to hear His Voice.Yet we run away from Him when He wants to speak to us.
I want to make just one suggestion on this one and it concerns the moments in our prayer when we stop our liturgical chanting and domestic chat and hand the microphone over to G-d Himself. This concerns the period of silent attentive contemplation described at length in Kuntres M’arat ha-Lev from page 52 onwards.... a period of silent attentiveness during or after the Amidah, or as a separate unit in a contemplative prayer session
This is a time when, most often, absolutely nothing tangible will ever appear to be happening.
Sometime we may convince ourselves to omit that pause...be it a question of a few minutes or many minutes or even hours. This is also often a trap. Not a funny one at all.
We may feel any combination of the following:
“I am not feeling up to listening to You like that today”“I haven’t got the time today, it takes too long”“ I don’t think it feels right to be doing it today...I’ll do it at another time”.“Actually I don’t think you can “speak” like that at all....its just a waste of time”
When all the time we are really saying:
“I am telling You what You are capable ofand what You ought to do to please me.”
There are times when within a microsecond of our beginning that period of intentional attentiveness that we are flooded with a rush of inspiration, apparently from “nowhere”, often when we are feeling about as pious as a hamburger, and sometimes....maybe once every twenty years we may hear something face to face. Sometimes one word or syllable can be enough to change our entire lives. If we had not stood there for that microsecond it would not have happened.
At the very least, my recommendation is as follows:
Always make a request to “hear G-d’s Voice” as part of your contemplative prayer.
You may very well experience nothing in your prayer itself, but the prayer will be answered by events which will follow closely after your request.
If you really want to hear G-d.
Trust Him to speak....in His time...in His way...not yours
Stand before G-d
Shut up for a few minutes
If you really want to meet G-d
Trust Him to act....in His time...in His way...not yours
To deny G-d the chance to get a word in edgeways is to surrender to unfounded fear, evasive laziness, and self-obsession.
To stop wittering for a few moments
and to declare your faith in G-d’s power
is to surrender both your fears-
and your entire self
That polite opportunity for G-d to speak or act or “do-whatever-G-d-does” is potentially more significant to Him than anything else we might ever do. It might show you the next step along the road, your next task in G-d’s service. It might turn out to be the task in itself.
Not something to be afraid of. Certainly not an opportunity we should miss.
If you really want to meet G-d in contemplative prayer,
Surrender to Him and He will find you.
Norman R Davies
28th May 2010