The Power of Prayer: A Conversation between David Gregory and Erica Brown
EB: David, your prayer practice has evolved a lot in the past years. I am not sure if you prayed at all when we started studying together. Now you think about prayer a lot. I was passing by a church and a sign in front of the church said, "Prayer is the practice of drawing on the grace of God." I knew you would like it so I texted it to you. It got me wondering about the prayers that you say that you feel draw out this sense of divine grace.
DG: I like any prayer that invites quiet and reflection and that takes some attention away from my selfish concerns at any particular moment. What I seek is to remove any obstacle in the way of God. Adon Olom [a Hebrew song] is a good example. Here, we praise God, acknowledge God's primacy and speak of surrender in a way that invites us to let go a little bit. "Into His hand, my soul I place when I arise and when I sleep. God is with my, I shall not fear, body and soul from harm will he keep." The Shema [central Jewish prayer] is also important particularly when I say it with my children at bedtime. There is a blanketing effect of God's presence at night. The words always make my children yawn. And that's a good thing. I think the words produce a calm for them that is physical. I'd ask you the same question.
EB: Since I was in high school, I've been praying three times a day. I wish my payers always felt inspired and inspiring but often rote practice has its challenges, and it does center me. When I focus with intentionality, I feel close to God when I say the Amida or standing prayer of 19 benedictions. For me, prayer is not only about praise but also about requests. When I think about what I really need to ask for, it forces me to prioritize on what really matters in life. I'm very taken with the Modeh Ani prayer recited upon waking. It literally means "I give thanks" and I love waking up in a posture of gratitude. It frames the day, unquestionably. I just need reminders to stay in that posture of gratitude. You've spoken often about how prayer grounds you. Please explain.
DG: I pray because I want to feel centered or I would say more grounded in humility. Prayer to God gets me outside of myself. I recognize a higher power. The Divine presence inspires me to be better and provides a sense of enforcement to avoid my flaws and weaknesses. And it's relaxing. It's a redirection of my energies inward.
EB: How have you developed your own prayer practice and what advice do you have for others? Do you ever pray about work or at work?
DG: I have. I have found it to be a great interruption to stop the flow of what I was working on. But as much as I have tried to ritualize midday prayer, I have yet to make the regular commitment.
EB: When did prayer lift you up and help you navigate a difficult time or space?
DG: On the Shabbat evening before my father died, we lit candles and said our blessings. I blessed my father with the priestly blessing. Normally it would be him blessing his child, but he was weak and sick and in the hospital. I was asking God to be with him and protect him and grant him peace. That's all I wanted for my father at that point was peace so that he had the courage to let go of a life that was causing him physical pain. I have found that praying with him elevated our conversation above mere words. In that moment we were sharing something more powerful. That moment comforts me now that he is gone.
EB: Do you pray spontaneously and in your own words or do you find it easier to pray from a prayer book?
DG: My views are evolving on this. I like both. With your guidance I have written my own prayer to use as a morning meditation, but I have also been praying from the siddur (Jewish prayer book) more often to root myself in my Jewish tradition, but also because I find great meaning in the morning blessings. These are a series of blessings thanking God for among other things, "giving me all that I need." I like the prayer urging me to be satisfied with my lot and to remember how much I have that money cannot buy. Erica, why did you urge me to write my own prayer?
EB: I thought a lot about this. I think there is deep beauty is reciting words that connect you vertically to those behind you and those who have yet to come and to connect horizontally with people in houses of worship. Shared holy songs have such an elevating quality, lifting up everyone a little higher. But sometimes the language can feel archaic. I was very taken with the words of a philosopher who shared the distinction between praying and reading prayers, which is what most of us do in our respective houses of worship. I think tradition has to be melded with innovation and creativity to reach deep into the heart, soul and mind. So I find that prayer is sometimes most meaningful alone and at other times in community. What touches you more?
DG: Like you, I recognize the power of both. Silence is what is transformative for me. There are times when I'm alone, and my prayers truly emerge from my heart. There is a fluency to my internal expression to God. It just flows. I love that because there is such honesty to it. I don't censor myself. Being alone there is also the pause I can achieve in my day to consider something I'm wrestling with. In a group, what is powerful is collective silence in prayer. It's so unusual to experience that and it's so powerful. My kids go to Quaker school and meeting for worship in silence is a great experience. Quiet is just too hard to come by these days.
EB: I couldn't agree more. Prayer sometimes feels like the antidote to technology that ironically keeps us very connected and disconnected at the same time. I've always been moved by an image from the great scholar Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: "To pray is to become a ladder on which thoughts mount to God to join the movement towards Him which surges unnoticed throughout the entire universe. We do not step out of the world when we pray; we merely see the world in a different setting."