Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Tree and the Soil

Sometimes,  if I have some time to kill, especially on Shabbat mornings before services, I’ll grab one of a few books which tend to put my in an inspired, Shabbat-like frame of mind. One of them is I Asked for Wonder – a collection of sound-bites from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Recently, on such a morning, I came across this passage about prayer:

Prayer begins where expression ends. The words that reach Our lips are often but waves of an overflowing stream touching the shore. We often seek and miss, struggle and fail to adjust our unique feelings to the patterns of texts. Where is the tree that can utter fully the silent passion of the soil? Words can only open the door, and we can only weep on the threshold of our incommunicable thirst after the incomprehensible.

Prayer is exceedingly difficult, and I think it’s more so for any of us who are non-literal believers. If God is a entity with a personality and a will, who can grant me what I want (or can decide not to), then prayer becomes relatively straightforward: I can tell God something, or I can ask God for something, very much like I would a parent.

But, what if I don’t believe in that kind of God?* What is prayer, then? There are lots of answers, of course, but Heschel offers one powerful image.

* hint: I don’t.

Prayer, to Heschel, is supposed to be an expression of some deep, ineffable, existential feeling. Prayer is attempting to connect to something that we don’t really understand, but which we know is somehow essential. I love that image of the tree – in prayer, I am the tree, and God is the soil. My foundation, and the creator of me, but not something I can possibly comprehend, or apprehend, totally, or even adequately.

Just another musing, as I think about a class I have to teach on “Radical Non-Fundamentalism…”

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