There was a time when God became so distant that we were almost ready to deny Him, had psychologists or sociologists not been willing to permit us to believe in Him. And how grateful some of us were when told ex cathedra that prayer is not totally irrelevant because it does satisfy an emotional need.
To Judaism the purpose of prayer isn’t to satisfy an emotional need. Prayer is not a need but an ontological necessity, an act that constitutes the very essence of man. He who has never prayed is not fully human. Ontology, not psychology or sociology, explains prayer.
-Abraham Joshua Heschel
“An Ontological Necessity,” p.78
Man’s Quest for God
I suppose a definition of Ontology is in order:
Ontology is the philosophical study of the nature of being, becoming, existence, or reality, as well as the basic categories of being and their relations. Traditionally listed as a part of the major branch of philosophy known as metaphysics, ontology deals with questions concerning what entities exist or can be said to exist, and how such entities can be grouped, related within a hierarchy, and subdivided according to similarities and differences.
That sounds very abstract and even cold, especially when applied to the intimacy of prayer, but I see where Heschel is coming from. Periodically, you may read about studies that say people who pray have less anxiety than those who don’t, or they (we) recover from illnesses faster than those who don’t pray. Prayer, from this perspective, is put in the same category as meditation, which doesn’t necessarily acknowledge the existence let alone the absolute necessity of God in our human lives. Thus prayer has value from the atheist’s point of view because it is a psychologically valid method of reducing stress or otherwise providing for a state of well-being.
But Heschel is saying that prayer is the reality of our existence, providing vital linkage with the source of our lives and the very author of all creation. Prayer is what gives a sense of completeness to our being, which is probably why Heschel says (outrageously, from an atheist’s point of view) that he “who has never prayed is not fully human.”
So in prayer we realize our full humanity, but in doing so, we collide head on with our vulnerability, our frailty, our mortality, with everything that separates us from God as well as what binds us to him.
Prayer also brings us perspective:
God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.
You probably recognize the Serenity Prayer which is regularly said at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings around the world. This prayer connects rather nicely with the image I placed toward the bottom of today’s “morning meditation” (scroll down).
I saw that diagram taped near the desk of one of my co-workers and, in considering the ongoing process of teshuvah, it made a great deal of sense. In the effort of making that 180 degree turn away from sin and toward God, a lot of information and emotion is thrown up in the air, like a sandstorm obscuring vision. How can I see when I’ve made my complete turnaround and know when I’m facing the right direction so I can begin to proceed if I’m confused by all the things that matter that I can’t control and all the things that don’t matter that I can?
The Serenity Prayer seems to be how to ask God to let you see through the sandstorm and pick out only those specific details that are necessary for you (or me) to start walking toward Him.
Why do we need serenity?
I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.
–Philippians 4:12-13 (NASB)
I maintain that only a person who is highly elevated spiritually can possibly stand in the eye of the hurricane and dispassionately watch the tempest rage and completely surround him. The rest of us would be running for the storm cellar.
But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a goal to shoot for, even if achieving it is years or a lifetime in the making.
I’ve mentioned before the seven steps in achieving teshuvah (repentance) which interestingly enough, are sort of connected to the 12 steps that are fundamental to Alcoholics Anonymous. It would seem that the process of recovering from additions can be extended to the process of “recovering” from all manner of sins, at least from the Jewish perspective.
And 12-Step groups call this “Willingness.”
Wow – I keep seeing how the 12-step recovery coincides with Judaism, it is beautiful.
Would it sound too crazy to suggest something called “Teshuvah Anonymous?”
God help me to accept the things I cannot control, understand all the things that matter, and focus on those things that matter I can control. For only there will my efforts be successful in changing my life so that I behave toward others with greater compassion, kindness, and care, and only there will I find my path to You in prayer.