‘Prayer’ – A.J. Heschel (1945)

Notes on the essay by Abraham Joshua Heschel in Review of Religion vol. 9 no. 2, January (1945)

1. Prayer as an answer
  • “We do not refuse to pray; we abstain from it.”
  • “We cannot make Him visible to us, but we can make ourselves visible to Him. So we open our thoughts to Him.”
  • “To pray is to take notice of the wonder, to regain the sense of the mystery that animates all beings,”
  • “How good it is to wrap oneself in prayer, spinning a deep softness of gratitude to God around all thoughts,”
2. Prayer and the spiritual life
  • “Prayer is our attachment to the utmost.”
  • “We do not step out of the world when we pray; we merely see the world in a different setting.”
  • “Sometimes prayer is more than a light before us; it is a light within us. Those who have once been resplendent with this light find little meaning in speculations about the efficacy of prayer.”
3. Suffering – the source of prayer?
  • “Before the words of prayer come to the lips, the mind must believe in God’s willingness to draw near to us, and in our ability to clear the path for His approach.”
  • “It is incorrect to describe prayer on the analogy of human conversation; we do not communicate with God. We only make ourselves communicable to Him. Prayer is an emanation of what is most precious in us toward Him, the outpouring of the heart before Him.”
  • “Prayer is an answer to God: “Here am I. And this is the record of my days. Look into my heart, into my hopes and my regrets.””
  • “The purpose of prayer is to be brought to His attention, to be listened to, to be understood by Him; not to know Him, but to be known to Him.”
  • “Man waxes in God when serving the sacred, and wanes when he betrays his task.”
  • “God is not alone when discarded by man. But man is alone. To avoid prayer constantly is to dig a gap between man and God which can widen into an abyss.”
4. The nature of kavanah
  • “What we want is not to know Him, but to be known to Him;”
  • “Prayer is a spiritual source in itself. Though not born of an urge to learn, it often endows us with insights not attainable by speculation.”
  • “Prayer is not a thought that rambles alone in the world, but an event that starts in man and ends in God.”
5. The essence of prayer
  • “The hope of results may be the motive that leads the mind into prayer, but not the content which fills the worshiper’s consciousness in the essential moment of prayer. The artist may give a concert for the sake of the promised remuneration, but, in the moment when he is passionately seeking with his fingertips the vast swarm of swift and secret sounds, the consideration of subsequent reward is far from his mind. His whole being is immersed in the music.”
  • “The focus of prayer is not the self. A man may spend hours meditating about himself, or be stirred by the deepest sympathy for his fellow man, and no prayer will come to pass. Prayer comes to pass in a complete turning of the heart toward God, toward His goodness and power. It is the momentary disregard of our personal concerns, the absence of self-centered thoughts, which constitute the act of prayer. Feeling becomes prayer in the moment in which we forget ourselves and become aware of God. When we analyze the consciousness of a supplicant, we discover that it is not concentrated upon his own interests, but on something beyond the self. The thought of personal need is absent, and the thought of divine grace alone is present in his mind. Thus, in beseeching Him for bread, there is oneinstant, at least, in which our mind is directed neither to our hunger nor to food, but to His mercy. This instant is prayer.”
  • “Prayer is an invitation to God to intervene in our lives, to let His will prevail in our affairs; …We submit our interests to His concern, and seek to be allied with what is ultimately right. … Yet man listens to his fears and his whims, rather than to the soft petitions of God. The Lord of the universe is suing for the favor of man, but man fails to realize his own importance.”
6. The two main types of prayer
  • “two main types of prayer: prayer as an act of expression, and prayer as an act of empathy.”
  • “the more common type of prayer is an act of empathy. There need be no prayerful mood in us when we begin to pray. It is through our reading and feeling the words of the prayers, through imaginative projection of our consciousness into the meaning of the words, and through empathy into the ideas with which the words are pregnant, that this type of prayer comes to pass.”
  • “By our feeling we make manifest and real what is indicated in the texts.”
  • “Essential in prayer is the intention, not the technical skill. … prayer is almost pure content; the form is unimportant. It makes no difference whether we stammer or are eloquent.”
  • “Two brief stories may be told relative to the two main types of prayer, the expressive and the empathic. One of these, told in Sefer Hassidim, concerns a young shepherd who was unable to read the Hebrew prayers. The only way in which he worshiped God was to say: “O Lord, I should like to pray, but I cannot read Hebrew. There is only one thing I can do for you—if you would give me your sheep, I would take care of them for nothing.” One day a learned man passing by heard the shepherd pronounce his offer, and shouted at him: “You are blasphemous!” He told the boy that he should read the daily Hebrew prayers instead of uttering irreverent words. When the shepherd told him that he could not read Hebrew, he took him to his house and began to teach him to read the prayer-book. One night the learned man had a dream, in which he was told that there was great sadness in heaven because the young shepherd had ceased to say his usual prayer. He was commanded to advise the boy to return to his old way of praying.”
  • “Now many of us are so much on the side of the shepherd-boy as to be opposed to the institution of regular prayer, claiming that we should pray only when and as we feel inspired to do so. For such there is a story, told by Rabbi Israel Friedman, the Rizhiner, about a small Jewish town, far off from the main roads of the land. But it had all the necessary municipal institutions: a bathhouse, a cemetery, a hospital, and a law-court; as well as all sorts of craftsmen—tailors, shoemakers, carpenters, and masons. One trade, however, was lacking; there was no watchmaker. In the course of years many of the clocks became so annoyingly inaccurate that their owners just decided to let them run down, and ignore them altogether. There were others, however, who maintained that as long as the clocks ran they should not be abandoned. So they wound their clocks day after day, though they knew that they were not accurate. One day the news spread through the town that a watchmaker had arrived, and everyone rushed to him with their clocks. But the only ones he could repair were those that had been kept running—the abandoned clocks had grown too rusty!”
7. The vision of prayer
  • “Prayer is confidence, unbosoming oneself to God.”
  • “We forfeit our dignity when we abandon loyalty to what is sacred; our existence dwindles to trifles.”
  • “In prayer we establish a living contact with God”