Experiencing the Divine through Prayer IV

      4 Comments on Experiencing the Divine through Prayer IV

I’m almost done, I think. I started with the idea that we seek to experience the Divine in prayer (among other reasons we come to services, of course) and went to the notion that when we do experience the Divine in prayer, we do it through metaphor. And that those metaphors by which we experience the Divine in prayer are dominant metaphors in the culture. Those metaphors change, and the liturgy changes, and the changes reflect each other, which (we hope) keeps the possibility of experiencing the Divine alive, while those experiences themselves change. And then I identified a metaphor that I think is new, and powerful, and newly powerful: the world is a web, where everything is connected to everything. The next step, then, is creating room in the liturgy for people to experience the Divine in prayer through the metaphor of connectedness.

Now, though, there’s this: while I think the attempt to create room in the liturgy for people to experience the Divine in prayer through the dominant metaphors of the time is fascinating, necessary and vitally important, I also fear it is foolish and dangerously wrongheaded. Here’s the thing—the Sages of Blessed and Holy Memory did not decide on a metaphor and then shape the liturgy to it. Even the Reform Movement did not decide on a metaphor and then shape the liturgy to it. They tried things, and did what worked, and then afterward, from hindsight, we can see that it works through metaphor, and what the metaphor is. The dominant metaphors of the age aren’t chosen by intellectual argument; they are felt. They are believed, without being known. The correct way, it seems to me, is to blunder into them, to try things that seem, somehow, to be right, and then find out that they aren’t right, and then try other things, and put them together in ways that seem to be helpful, and keep things that appeal and lose things that don’t, and most of all to argue about it a lot.

So maybe we should just try all the stupid stuff. Making a synogogue-specific social network, or a network of such networks. Replacing the siddur with a tablet and an app that encourages interaction during the service itself. Tweeting all the prayers in translations of 140 characters or fewer. Having screens for FaceTime interaction between a synagogue in Connecticut and a synagogue in Prague and a synagogue in Tel Aviv and a synagogue in Des Moines. Actually, I think literalizing the metaphor is a dead end, unlikely to heighten the actual experience. But I haven’t tried, have I? I still think instrumental music during service is crazy. We aren’t going to get to a good liturgy without making mistakes. I think it’s worth making mistakes. But it’s not easy.

Particularly since we don’t want to lose anything. Right? So what I’m looking for, I guess, are a hundred stupid ideas to try without changing anything whatsoever, which should lead to a service that might lead to people who think that the world is a web experiencing the Divine through prayer. Who’s got one?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

4 thoughts on “Experiencing the Divine through Prayer IV

  1. jaipur

    I just read Barbara Brown Taylor’s The Luminous Web: Essays on Science and Religion, recently. The world as a web is indeed a powerful metaphor. 🙂

    Though how you incorporate that into the liturgy I don’t know. My first thought is getting people to actually interact, as opposed to all standing facing forward like neatly combed hair, except for the few minutes when we pass the peace and everyone goes every which way… (Not sure how your services work, of course.)

  2. Chris Cobb

    Well, the way unprogrammed Friends meetings do it is to have everyone sit together, roughly in a circle, in silence, and to let anyone who wishes to speak out of the silence speak, while the others listen. It’s not exactly dynamic interaction and not exactly liturgical, but every worshiper is connected to every other worshiper, and pretty much everyone who worships this way regularly comes to have a deep sense of the interconnectedness of the congregants’ spiritual lives, as the spontaneous vocal ministry of one person speaks to the condition of others.

    On a different note, I think sacred circle dances are a fine idea, but they exclude the very old, the very young, and the disabled, which is a problem.

  3. Fran

    Back when I went to a tiny church, we passed the communion from person to person. It felt really lovely as a way to include everyone (and was an interesting de-emphasis/re-integration of the priest into the experience).

    It could work in a medium size church such as I attend now but larger than that seems daunting in terms of mechanics.

    Been to Christmas services too where flame of the candle was passed around to all; that seems similar as well. The equivalent of Jews touching the siddur to the Torah?

  4. Chaos

    Well… i’m biased here by what i already believe and by what i’m already thinking about (i’m synagogue-shopping at the moment; hopefully i’ll write more about this in some forum at some point). So bear with me.

    Having gotten my disclaimer out of the way, i think there should be more singing. I’m picturing here the difference between (a) a service where a couple of people are mumbling along and most people are … occasionally mumbling along, and frequently everyone drops out becasue the primary mumbler stopped so we think the local custom is for the leader to sing this part alone, vs. (b) a service where enough people are singing along confidently that the people who don’t know the tune and can’t read Hebrew at speed can mumble along confidently. In the latter service, you’re interacting much more with the other people there, just by hearing their voices. It’s exactly like a roundsing, in that sense in which we are all creating the experience by participating in it.

    What i don’t know is how you get there, if you’ve already got a synagogue, particularly a big one. Selfishly, i don’t want to get there by singing in English. Can i justify that other than by admitting to being a somewhat arbitrary snob? Maybe. First off: i’m an atheist. If i’m going to experience the divine through prayer, it’s very helpful for the prayer to occur in a language in which i’m not fluent, because i know enough to pull out the themes that work for me (hey, this one’s about peace, this one’s about renewal, this one’s about gratitude for our survival), but not enough to be distracted by the details (the Almighty smote who now? Are we happy about that?). I always feel sheepish saying that out loud, like the Real Jews who experience the divine by grappling with the truth and subtleties of everything they are reading will look down at me for my intellectual and moral laziness. But it’s undeniably true, and i can’t be the only one in the world, so there we are.

    Second, and this shades into the other thing i wanted to mention: i’m going to synagogue for two types of interconnectedness. One is with the other people who are there in the room (this is why i want to hear them singing; this is why i don’t think i will ever become a fan of the silent amidah). The other is with the historical tradition which (nominally, ideally with a bit of cheating as needed to make it a better story) led to the current service. I don’t like the idea of making up a lot of new stuff to create community amongst the people in the room, so much as the idea of picking a subset of the stuff that’s out there, and drawing in the people in the room by making it familiar and talking about where it came from.

    That’s not very concrete. I’ll keep pondering.


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