By Tasha Friedman
“I say nothing to Him, I love Him.”
-St. Therese of Liseux
Prayer is the Heart speaking to itself. It is what the human heart naturally does when it is open. Like music is always present in the strings of a violin, whether or not they are sounded, prayer is always present in your heart. Like music, prayer is already present in the flight of a bird, the leaves of a tree, the wind in its constant motion, and a stone in its silent contemplation.
You cannot learn to pray any more than you can learn to live. What kind of fish doesn’t know how to swim? You can learn words and movements, but these are to prayer what a good pair of slippers is to a dancer.
When you were a child, maybe your parents took you to a church, synagogue, temple, or mosque, and people there tried to teach you to pray. Stand up, sit down, stand up, rise up on your toes; Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh, you’re supposed to say—Holy, Holy, Holy—and you don’t know what it means.
You had to repeat the words again and again until you could do it in your sleep. Our Father Who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy Name. Baruch atah Adonai, Elohenu Melech ha’olam.
Is it prayer? Is it fire in your heart or just air moving through your mouth?
Later in life, maybe, these words have a different echo in you because beyond any words, you know what they are trying to say. All of them, the same: Beloved, oh Beloved. A wordless cry of longing.
Recently I watched a video of the great cellist Yo-Yo Ma answering questions about the cello. Someone asked, “How do musicians perform Bach’s 6th Cello Suite without crying out for joy?” Yo-Yo Ma responded without a pause, “Because the cellist is crying out for joy through the cello.” Then he demonstrated, and he was absolutely right.
The human heart is a musical instrument in the hands of God, an instrument through which the Universe can call out its own indescribable joy, as well as its sorrow, longing, anger—all the movements that we experience as emotions when we take them in a limited personal form. The cello speaks the joy of God better than any of us could with words, because the instrument itself is completely silent.
So you can pray with words, out loud or in your mind, or without any words, but either way, when the prayer is real, you are silent.
Prayer and meditation are essentially the same. Meditation might sound nicer to us as modern Western people because it doesn’t sound so religious, and it somehow seems to give more credit to the one who’s doing it. Someone who meditates must really be making progress, becoming a more conscious person. Doesn’t prayer mean you’ve given up?
Yes, if the prayer is real: you’ve given up on your ego, on making things happen your way. Formal prayer or meditation, either takes you to a point where there’s nothing to do but let yourself fall, to be shattered into a thousand pieces, and if you pray for anything, it’s to be shattered even more. This absolute helplessness in the face of Truth becomes a prayer in itself.
Many teachers speak about prayer, but they never really speak about it because it is alive.
When you love someone, really love them from the depths of your being, you can’t say why and you can’t even tell them how much you love them. Still, you can’t help but try with as many different words and small gestures as you have to offer.
In prayer, you try again and again to tell the Beloved how much you love Him, in as many different words and small gestures of the soul as you can, until eventually, you stop trying and only love Him.