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  • Writer's pictureRuth Schapira

Finding Sanctuary

The physical space that encloses us and our prayers is often exquisitely beautiful and majestic, speaking to a different realm entirely. The architecture alone can be uplifting and inspiring. But is that enough for us to feel transported to a place of depth and meaning? Can an attractive environment help move us (our meandering minds) to a place that is sacred and without distraction?

I have not found it to be so.

But, can't I expect more? Can't I hope that by being in this space it will help me feel that I can reach higher heights in prayer?

Instead, the formal prayer services tend to make me feel isolated---and not the kind that prompts me to feel alone in the presence of God, but the kind that makes me feel uncomfortable and self-conscious.

To make things worse, the usual tools of prayer choreography and chanting (often droning, not singing) makes meaningful prayer for me even more distant.

It turns out that I am not alone in this. In many conversations people shared that instead of spiritual transformation, they felt a spiritual emptiness while sitting in a synagogue service. Instead of feeling an uplift after engaging in prayer, they've felt a palpable void instead. They felt worse for actually having attended, because it made the lack they felt, that perhaps had been ignored, actually bubble up.

What should fill us up with contentment instead left a gaping hole of discontent.

We need to experience joy. After all, in the ideal, we are communicating with God.

I've written about a prayer experiences before, most recently in this post called "Funny, I only hear from you when you need something", and also about my experiences in an unlikely prayer space, so I guess this issue is important to me.

This yearning desire to experience more from synagogue and prayer comes from a deep space within us that longs for connection with a higher presence. And really, we shouldn't settle for any less of an experience when we enter into prayer.

Yet, most of us were not given the tools we need to be able to reach this state. Think about it...our sages, who were on such a high level spiritually, took one hour in preparatory prayers just to get ready to pray! Prayer was seen as such a holy endeavor, and it required a negation of the self, in order to be able to begin to pray.

It makes so much sense. How can we approach God if we are full of ourselves? How can we be open to experiencing something that is so 'other-worldly' if we are focused on the physical? There literally is no room for more if we can't get past our own noses.

What does this mean, negation of the self? Are we talking ego here? Freud was thousands of years in the future, and yet, we find this type of thinking existed all the way back to the source, in Torah. This idea of opening ourselves appears so often throughout the Tanakh (Torah, Prophets and Writings).

The first sentence of Bamidbar / Numbers states that the Torah was given to us in the wilderness of Sinai (1:1). An interpretation of this verse states that "anyone who does not make themselves ownerless like the wilderness cannot acquire the wisdom of the Torah [Bemidbar Rabbah 1:7].

Later, in Devarim / Deuteronomy 5:5 we read the phrase "I stand before you and God". A mystical interpretation is that the "I", the self, is what stands between us and God, preventing us from entering into relationship.

We need to become 'ownerless', less occupied with ourselves, less focused on our own needs and thoughts of the moment in order to get to a different place. Researchers tell us that on average, we have 60,000 thoughts a day. It takes work to let those interruptions go right through us without following them around.

What we need to do is engage in learning how to pray. Preparation for prayer has the intention of helping us get past our own selves, into a realm where we can be changed by the prayer experience.

There are many wonderful educational programs that synagogues offer to help us understand the words we're saying. But we also need tools for how to actually get there.

We can't expect that we have the knowledge to do this by ourselves. It is difficult to approach prayer unless we've done some spiritual work first.

Adults need courses in meditative prayer, chanting, and how to accept silence. We also need a safe space in which to talk about our belief (or not) in God. Courses that offer technical information about the meaning of the words and the choreography of prayer are essential also.

In thinking about this more, perhaps I will begin to offer options for some of these experiences. But it needs to happen in many more places. If we are carving out any amount of time in the effort to develop a relationship with God, we should at least be equipped for a meaningful experience. It won't just happen by walking into a building, even the most beautiful.


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