Thoughts and Prayers
“We send our thoughts and prayers” is an oft-used line these days, especially in the wake of tragedy, whether a mass shooting, a devastating fire, a terrorist bombing or a health crisis.
Equally frequent are the rejoinders that the promise of “thoughts and prayers” is insufficient, even empty, when it is not accompanied by action, hard choices and commitment to change.
I get both. One gropes for words when there are no words. Sometimes the promise of “thoughts and prayers” is the best we can do. And I also get the challenge to a phrase that may be only a platitude.
Into the conversation let me introduce an excerpt from an essay by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “On the Seriousness of Prayer.” Heschel was one of the great Jewish and religious leaders of the 20th century. His book The Sabbath is a profound and moving classic. This quote from the essay on prayer was recently cited at “Crackers and Grape Juice” by Rabbi Joseph Edelheit.
I found this excerpt powerful and a reminder of something we may have, in these latter days, lost. Too often the worship of the church seems unserious, more anxious to entertain than help us enter the awesome presence of God. Here’s Heschel:
“Seriousness is a hallmark of prayer. There is no prayer without seriousness. But what does ‘seriousness’ mean? This concept seems to include four aspects, namely: honesty, commitment, authenticity, and weightiness.
“When we speak seriously, we are honest; a serious word is committed; a serious word is authentic and weighty. In prayer it is impossible to make false claims or pretenses, or to yield consciously to deception. Rather, everything depends on the measure of equality between intention and expression, on the harmony between conviction and awareness.
“Prayer without honesty is like scooping up water with a bottomless cup. A person praying means what he says. Prayer is not an impulse, not something frivolous or private, but a highly committed and consequential action. To pray means to engage directly with God, to expose oneself to Him, to His will and His insight.
“The person who prays intends to change his life: he places his fate in the metaphysical dimension and more or less desists from arrogance. Without that intention, prayer remains a monologue and a private recitation. The recognition of divine rule, yes, His engagement as ruler of the world, and the affirmation of all obligations that entails—these form the daily exoteric mystery of Jewish prayer. Anthems and hymns of praise are not meditations but acts of engagement taken seriously.
“Prayer is a weighty act. The word doesn’t flow by but applies itself with its full weight from out of the deepest layer of personal life. It forms the Spirit; it determines the fate of the person who prays. Again and again, true prayer is an event in a person’s life. Prayer is not a game, not an illusion, not emulation, not the generation of one’s own reflection, but an original act from which all elements spring, an occurrence that is real and true, in which nothing can be deceptive or manufactured.
“The use of slogans is the destruction of prayer. Prayer is not an activity that is in itself restorative or pleasurable. It is demanding and strenuous. It does not spring, like play, from an excess of energy, but rather from suffering and humility. It is not an activity that, free and aimless, finds satisfaction in itself, but rather it is directed to a goal and should have consequences. There is no room for nonchalance.
“A person who prays is aware of his responsibility and concerned about the content of his prayer. A person who prays wants to represent his concerns directly. An ironic stance toward their essential content is unthinkable. The expression of prayer flows forth, as if purely and directly from its intention, without the addition of any thoughts, whether central or ulterior. There is a wariness, a diffidence about praying with words that are not canonized in the fixed prayer texts. Rarely do new prayers arise. For in prayer every word has weight and a mysterious validity, every word is a word of honor before God.”
I wish that I could say my prayers and prayer life measure up to the standard Heschel sets. But I can’t. Sometimes my prayers must be boring to God. But I persist and hope that my prayers are now quickened and deepened by Heschel’s words. I note especially this line, “The person who prays intends to change his life.” The change is wrote not by our own efforts, but by putting ourselves in God’s hands and at God’s mercy.
Whenever we trivialize prayer or worship, we are really taking taking the Lord’s name in vain. So let us be careful about how we invoke God, how we speak to God and what we bring to those moments.