A Gift from Reb Zalman

Early in my project to put together a book of responses to the question "How do you pray?", I received an answer to my invitation from Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, may the memory of the righteous be a blessing. He said he would like a conversation rather than writing his response. I bought a recording device for my landline. Excited, I pondered what I would say. Then I realized all I had to say was "How do you pray?"

Reb Zalman asked me if I had grown up in a faith tradition. I told him I had gone to a Catholic Church but left it at 14. He went on to share his heart, prayers and inspiration. At the end, he told me not to give up the saints of my youth along with the institution. He said they were still here for me.

I remembered how I loved the saints and Mary and Jesus. I realized they indeed have never left me; it was I who looked away. Now when I walk in the woods, there is St. Francis, and when I'm alone at night, John of the Cross. This was a great gift that Reb Zalman gave me.

How Do You Pray? was released July 8, 2014. On July 3 I did my first interview about the book with Joanna Harcourt Smith on Future Primitive at the Ark Bookstore in Santa Fe, New Mexico. A topic that arose was what it might have been like for people praying in concentration camps. As I was speaking about the prayerfield (which I'll talk more about in my next blogpost), Joanna had a vision of prayers rising in this field, sustaining the past and future. I felt Reb Zalman strongly, as though he was inspiring this conversation. We all sat for awhile in a space beyond words.

When I went to my car and checked email, there it was: the announcement of Reb Zalman's passing. When Joanna came out I told her, and we knew he was with us.

I feel blessed to have these words in the book from Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi:

As a Jew, I have liturgy for three, four times a day, plus many, many blessings each day--of our food, and even going to the bathroom and acknowledging that everything works--and you say a thank you prayer for that. So I have a lot of liturgical texts that some people would see as obligations. And I see them as opportunities. If I can, at the beginning of the day, I allow myself to open a prayer book and begin with a blessing over the use of the bodily functions, and then go on from there to the place of the celebration of the hallelujahs, and then go to the contemplative place of looking at the universe and at the power of the Creator and the universe, and then to the credo, and then come to the very personal requests to be made, and then from that place, slowly come down with thanksgiving for each one of the places where I was, and at the end of the session of prayer I sit down with a pencil and paper and take my orders from the God I spoke to.

People say to me sometimes, "How come my prayer isn't being answered?" and I tell them, "You hang up the phone too soon." It's necessary to sit for a while and to get the action directive, the marching orders for the day.

The best times for prayer are the twilight times, dawn and dusk, because we have the consciousness of day and night. The left brain and right brain are still meeting together in the heart, and that's a very, very good prayer time. Then we have the prayers that are in the middle of the day, that are rushed between one appointment and the other, and those are the quick arrow prayers that say, "Here, God, I'm busy with all these things; please help me."

Find a place where you don't feel that you have to worry about being overheard, and speak so that your ear can hear. If you sit there, and you begin to concentrate on the You, You, You, You, and you begin to speak about what's real--even just to say, "You, I feel so foolish talking to You because I don't see anybody here, and yet I know that I wouldn't be here if You weren't here, so I'm doing the best I can. I want to thank You for every breath that I can take. I want to thank You for my health"--that is beginning to pray.

Begin prayer with gratefulness, because that's the easiest one. We have lots to be grateful for--the fact we can see with our eyes, and we can hear, and so on. After you begin with gratitude, then comes the other stuff, the concerns: "I want to share with you my concerns, dear God. These are the people I'm concerned about. A friend of mine had an operation today. I hope she heals well." To be able to speak about concerns in this way--that will make the difference.

Piety is not just being nice. Piety is real. It's the kind of intimacy that you want to have with someone whom you love.

I so appreciate having heard, once, Terry Gross interviewing the gay bishop of New Hampshire. And she asked him, "What's your prayer life like these days?" And he said to her, "The best thing that I can do is just sit there and let God love me." I was so moved by what he shared, I sent him a fan letter right away. Because that's true--we all say, "God so loved the world, God loves me, Jesus loves me," and so on, but we hardly ever sit down and let ourselves be loved. That's become part of my practice, too.