Confession time: Impromptu, public prayer has always made me anxious. It has taken a lot of work to recognize and articulate the natural prayers that my soul wants to speak. From time to time, when called upon to pray in public, with no time to prepare my thoughts of what to say, I find myself tongue-tied.
Letting one’s soul loose is challenging.
I found myself confounded recently, in a situation only Serendipity, herself, could have foreseen. On a Friday afternoon, I was out and about running some errands. Along the way, I decided to stop off at a florist, to buy some flowers for my fiancé, Liz.
The florist shop was tiny, with only enough space for one customer and the florist, herself. Behind the counter stood a middle-aged, small, African-American woman in nurse’s scrubs. She was smiling as she was finishing up a beautiful bouquet. As I began to describe the thing I wanted to bring home, she decided she needed to make me something special, right there on the spot. Nothing already prepared from her; it was only made-to-order.
So I waited, as she made me this custom bouquet of flowers. She was performing art right in front of me, which I found transfixing. She brought me out of it when she struck up a conversation. “You look like a creative type,” she said. “What do you do for a living? Please tell me you do something where you create.”
“Well I suppose I have to be creative to a certain extent,” I replied. “But if I tell you what I do for a living, you have to promise to believe me.” How many rabbis does a person run into on a given day?
She agreed, and when I told her about my calling, she stopped what she was doing. She looked at me and said, “Thank God. I knew I was supposed to meet you today.”
The woman launched into a story of what had happened to her the evening before. She works as a nurse at night, at one of the hospitals in Longwood. The night before, she and a friend of hers, also dark-skinned, took a break around 3:00 AM. They were walking to a 24-hour Dunkin Donuts for a cup of coffee, when they walked past a group of white teenagers. They passed by them, when suddenly one of the boys spat on the ground in front of them and shouted the N-word right in their faces.
“I’ve lived in Boston all my life,” she told me, “and never before have I experienced such overt racism. Covert bigotry, yes. Overt, no. Boston can be a difficult city, but I haven’t ever had someone spit at me.
“I need you to pray for me, Rabbi. I need grace. I need grace, now. Will you pray for grace with me?”
I did not realize in the moment I was supposed to start praying then and there. I could not come up with any words. How could I pray? Here she was having just faced baseless hatred, and she wanted grace—what we would call chesed v’rachamim, kindness and compassion. I had no response. I felt the prayer sitting stone-heavy in my heart; it was real and it was present. But pray out loud at that moment, I could not bring myself to do it.
In the Jewish community in which our prayers are routinized, spontaneity has a place but is not easily achieved. I am envious of my Christian counterparts whose liturgies are flexible enough to allow them to speak aloud prayers that articulate their hopes, their dreams, their anxieties, and their reasons for thanks, praise and petition.
Prayer should be natural—as natural as breathing. To cultivate a prayer life takes work. And in our community, when we come into services, knowing what to expect, prayer can work if we work at it. And we can find the space within our liturgy to speak those prayers that exist genuinely within. Our liturgy is ripe with opportunities to connect—to connect with those around us and to connect with the Higher Realm. Prayer can take us to unexpected places. In the face of adversity, this woman wanted a prayer that would bring her grace, kindness and compassion. How she can place those things together within that experience is a real-life riddle for those looking from the outside. Prayer is the key to unlocking that riddle. The Jewish community would do well to imagine expansively about what prayer can be when we look up from our prayer books, forget the words we’re supposed to be saying, and get down to the real work of trying to pray with our whole souls.