When all is going well, most of us have no need for prayer. But when our lives take a drastic turn for the worse, we begin bargaining and making all sorts of vows. Is it childish to start praying only when we're in trouble? Is it selfish to expect God to remember us when we have taken God for granted most of our lives? I don't think so. When we pour our hearts out to God at our darkest hour, I don't think God says, "Look who's come crawling back to me now." God is there to embrace us whenever we choose to turn to God.
Prayer has the power to lift our spirits, to remind us that we are not alone.
Not long ago, a very ill man phoned me. It was not your normal conversation. As soon as I said "Hello?" he asked, "Rabbi Levy, tell me, does God answer our prayers?"
Does God answer our prayers? It is a fair question. After all, we are a results-oriented culture. Why should we ask if we are to receive no reply? The answer I gave the man, the best answer I know was, "I believe that God hears. And I believe that God answers. When we pray, we connect with God's power. It may not be power enough to cure all illnesses, to eradicate cancer, to overcome hate. But it is power enough to help us withstand those things." God's response may not eliminate our suffering, but it can strengthen us in the midst of our suffering.
Everyone Knows How to Pray
Often people who are in trouble ask me to pray for them or their loved ones. They say, Rabbi, I don't know how to pray." But anyone can pray. There are, of course, the prayers that were written long ago by our ancestors and have been codified into liturgy. But there are also the spontaneous prayers that flow from our hearts. They might not appear to be as beautifully crafted, but they are infused with an eloquence that is just as powerful--the passion of a soul crying out. A prayer does not have to be a ritualized, structured piece of writing. Anything that comes from the heart, that we communicate to God, can be a prayer.
There are prayers with no words at all. They are the thoughts that we don't even have to utter. Hagar and her son Ishmael were lost in the desert, dying of hunger and thirst. The Bible tells us that God heard the cry of the child. Nowhere in the narrative does it say that the child cried out to God. So how could God hear the cry? The answer, according to one interpretation, is that there are cries that are silent and are heard by no one. But God hears even our silent cries.
Every one of us has a different prayer on our lips. Some of us cry out in bitter protest. Some whisper a secret longing. Others weep in pain. Our needs may be vastly different, but ultimately all of our prayers contain the same yearning: a desire to be heard.
In our daily lives we are so often misunderstood. We carry thoughts within us that no one knows, hopes that have never been voiced, confessions that are too terrible to speak of, yearnings that are too deep to share with even those who are closest to us. And so we pray in the hope that God will listen and accept us in all our frailty, in all our need, in all our failings.
Each of us has a prayer in our hearts. A prayer of singular importance. Chances are we will only find it by opening our hearts and speaking directly to God. When the moment is right, close your eyes. Take a deep breath, and as you breathe out, relax. Without censoring or editing, look inside yourself. Look deep down inside. Find the prayer of your soul. Find it and speak it to God. Tell God your pain, your hope, your rage. Tell God your secret. Tell God what you need to say and listen for a reply.
God, I need to know that you are with me; that you hear my cry. I long to feel Your presence not just this day but every day.
When I am weak and in pain, I need to know You are beside me. That in itself is often comfort enough. I do not pretend to know Your ways, to know why this world You have created can be so beautiful, so magnificent, and yet so harsh, so ugly, and so full of hate.
The lot You have bestowed upon me is a heavy one. I am angry. I want to know why: why the innocent must suffer, why life is so full of grief. There are times when I want to have nothing to do with You. When to think of You brings nothing but confusion and ambivalence. And there are times, like this time, when I seek to return to You, when I feel the emptiness that comes when I am far from You.
Watch over me and my loved ones. Forgive me for all that I have not been. Help me to appreciate all that I have, and to realize all that I have to offer. Help me to find my way back to You, so that I may never be alone. Amen.
Excerpted with permission from "To Begin Again: The Journey Toward Comfort, Strength, and Faith in Difficult Times" by Naomi Levy (hardcover: Knopf, 1998; paperback: Ballantine, 1999).