As part of my spirituality training, I have been exploring issues relating to personal prayer. Many of the articles I have read put down those people who use fixed prayer. A prayer book, many say, is a waste of time. Real prayer comes from the heart and must speak about what we are carrying in our soul. Fixed prayer is a performance and if we truly want to pray, we have to get out of our seats and put ourselves into the action. I understand the importance of personal prayer. I understand what it means to open your heart before God and spill out the pain, the hurt and the frustration as well as expressing the joy, the happiness and the gratefulness that reside there.
I was reading Rabbi Naomi Levy, the introduction to her book “Talking to God”. She writes, “When I was a teenager, my girlfriends and I were often trying to diet. Our motto was: A moment on the lips is a lifetime on the hips. It meant that an act that took just an instant could remain with you forever. I like to apply this phrase to the process of prayer. A prayer takes just a matter of seconds to utter, but its influence on our lives, on our behavior, on our hearts, on our perception can be permanent. A moment on our lips is a lifetime on our souls. A simple prayer can change us; can lead us on the path to healing ourselves and our world.”
There is no doubt in my heart that her words are true. Words uttered in sincerity and words that come from the heart are some of the most powerful words in the world. These are the kinds of words that can inspire a heart, a community, a nation to move to make life better. These words can set our souls free to soar closer to God. Words that come from the heart break out of the walls that we build around our hearts and around our lives so that we don’t have to care or be concerned about the injustice and the hurt. They can bring about an Arab Spring, motivate a Mother Theresa. When we can break out from behind the walls that protect and confine us, we are able to do the most amazing things. Personal prayer, the expression of our soul before God, can do all of this.
And yet, I know that this is not enough.
What are the words that keep us going when life is tough? What are the words that give us courage, hope and strength when our bodies are about to fail? What are the prayers that that are sung when we are climbing that impossible hill that separates us from our dreams? What words do we repeat over and over when we need to renew our hope and our resolve? It seems there is a role for a fixed liturgy after all.
A fixed liturgy represents the best words of some of our greatest minds. They are the map that shows us where others have marked the trail so we do not feel that we are alone and lost. Others have been here and have left us the words that helped them when they were in this dark and lonely stretch of highway. Are there not Jews who have faced the fears of the night by quoting Moshe Rabbenu saying, “Shema Yisroel…?” Every day Jews celebrate the joys of life by quoting the Sages of the Talmud saying, “Shehechiyanu V’Kiamanu …” It is very rare indeed to find a mourner who does not find comfort reciting, “Yitgadal v’Yitkadash…” In a modern congregation, it is hard to find those who would be uncomfortable praying for the sick by singing “Mi Shabyrach” with the new liturgical melody by Debbie Friedman.
The fixed liturgy is where we turn when we have no more words in our heart; when we face life and we don’t know what we should say, or what we could dare to say to God in that moment.
Some prayers are personal and need to be recited by the heart that carries them inside. Some prayers allow us to take the words of other people and make them our own. Personal prayers are about our longing; the fixed liturgy is about our responsibilities. Personal prayer starts in the heart and explodes outward into the rest of our life. The fixed liturgy starts on the outside and penetrates deep within our souls.
The ancient Rabbis were very wise. They gave us the fixed liturgy of the Shema and the personal space that comes with the Amida in every collection of prayer. When we have the words in our hearts, we have the space to express them in prayer. When our hearts seem empty, we have the liturgy to “prime the pump” to remind us of what prayer can be and what it should be. Sure, we could recite a fixed liturgy by rote. But just like an old love song can mean more to us when we hear it because of our history with that song, how it was played when we met our beloved, and when we married, and at our 50 anniversary; so too, a fixed liturgy can be an old friend, always there to express the everyday feelings that make up our lives.
I like this way of looking at words: Old and new friends helping us find our way to God.