Pray for the World
The first prayers I ever recited were taught me me by rabbis at the Providence Hebrew Day School, where I was a third grader.
My father had sent me to this yeshiva after his own father died. Saying the Kaddish – or Jewish memorial prayer – every day for an entire year had comforted my dad. So perhaps he thought that teaching me how to say Jewish prayers at a young age might be comforting to me.
The rabbis at the Hebrew Day School taught us to memorize the twenty minute prayer that Orthodox Jews sing after every meal. I also studied Jewish history, learned how to speak Hebrew and read the Torah (whose stories felt very vivid back then.)
At home, I recited prayers by rote, to a God I presumed was strong, male and somewhat punitive, and I remember watching Providence College basketball games on tv and deciding that if I prayed hard enough (in Hebrew) my God could magically make the Jesuit school triumph in a buzzer beater.
It wasn’t until decades later that I saw the irony in that practice.
My parents were unconventional in almost every way. So when my father decided to switch me to a Quaker Girls School in seventh grade, I didn’t ask any questions. I think he knew I’d absorbed everything I could learn from the stern rabbis in their black suits. My father’s been gone for more than thirty years, so I can’t ask him what he was thinking back then.
But here’s what I was thinking:
I was worried about fitting in. I was worried about making friends. I was worried about getting good grades, and I felt the seeds of the anxiety I would battle all my life making their presence known in my hormonally challenged body.
I was not worried about developing a spiritual practice.
Still, the Quaker silent meetings that were held every Friday morning soothed my soul in ways I didn’t appreciate until decades later.
Every time the entire student body gathered in our auditorium and sat still, something in me eased up a bit. One by one, anyone who wanted to say a few words would stand and do so, with every student listening respectfully. We sang hymns that were reassuring; a teacher played the piano in accompaniment. I don’t remember speaking much about God. I do remember thinking that there was a little candle somewhere deep inside of me that had been lit, and would be there whenever I needed a little extra light.
And in the coming years, that little light was comforting to think about as I stumbled my way through the dark – confused, frightened, and full of anxiety.
I suffered my first panic attack when I was fifteen years old, before they even had a name for what I was experiencing. Before #panic was a hashtag.
In my twenties, I saw a psychiatrist who prescribed Valium. I drank alcohol to self medicate, careful to never mix the two because I’d heard that was dangerous. And I didn’t do dangerous things. I was still a good girl.
In the years to come, I prayed to God at night fairly often, reciting the Shema, an important Jewish prayer that I’d memorized back in elementary school. I’d pray for my growing family to be safe – my beloved husband and eventually our two sons.
But my prayer was more of a superstition. A bargaining with a God I’d been told preferred a traditional supplication.
It wasn’t until I met two other women – one Christian and one Muslim – that I began opening my heart and mind up to a different kind of prayer. More open, less familiar, and ultimately more humble.
In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, when my husband was working just blocks away from the World Trade Center, I got together with these two women to talk about Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Eventually we wrote a book featuring our heated, honest, and soul-searching conversations about everything from suicide bombers to religious celebrations, our mortality, our fears, and our doubts about the existence of God.
Our book became a NYT bestseller and we traveled to more than forty cities around the country, speaking in churches, mosques, synagogues, colleges, and unusual venues like a tiny holocaust museum in El Paso, Texas.
And I did all that while battling anxiety.
But I also developed my own spiritual practice during that time, which began in an airplane 30,000 miles above the state of Michigan.
We were flying out to California and into a spectacular sunset. The sky had turned pink and orange when I looked out the window and saw the Great Lakes below me, glistening in the sun. Tiny waves lapped silently against the shore of Michigan, and I felt so small. So insignificant. So relieved.
I’d learned that Islam means “to submit.” .And in the skies above Michigan, I did just that. I became a tiny speck in the universe. And I breathed just a little bit easier. My problems were reduced in scale. But the ways in which I could pray expanded dramatically.
Inspired by our experience writing The Faith Club, and by the extraordinary people we met all across the country on our book tour, I did what Ralph Waldo Emerson suggested when he wrote:
Make your own Bible. Select and collect all the words and sentences that in your reading have been like the blast of triumph out of Shakespeare, Seneca, Moses, John and Paul.
I wrote a new edition of that bible after my next book – Learning to Breathe – was published. I’d studied with wise Buddhist teachers and a mystical Hassidic rabbi, learning how to meditate and build a sacred space inside myself. An inner cathedral. Or temple. Or mosque.
My spiritual practice did not always work perfectly. I struggled and forgot the lessons I learned.
But I never forgot the lesson of humility.
And there were nights – especially during a period where I experienced the loss of four loved ones in a short period of time – when I sank to my knees by the side of my bed and prayed, submitting in an Islamic fashion as I’d done in that airplane thousands of miles above the earth. I prayed to the God I’d met decades earlier at the Hebrew Day School, to Jesus, whose teachings I’d come to admire thanks to The Faith Club, channeling the commitment and dedication of my first meditation teacher – a young Tibetan monk who’d almost died on a recent four year retreat in the Himalayas.
That humble practice of falling to my knees came in handy when the world was turned upside down by the coronavirus pandemic. We lived just two miles away from the initial, largest cluster of cases discovered, just outside of New York City. People we knew became sick; a cousin of my husband’s died. We donned masks and stayed at home. We donated to food banks and practiced gratitude for our safety and well being. And I found solace in an ancient practice I’d been studying with a teacher in Manhattan, as I played the set of Tibetan singing bowls I’d purchased from her day and night in my living room.
On my saddest days I played a protocol she’d taught me called Dukkha Dana. Dukkha is Sanskrit for suffering or sorrow. Dana is Sanskrit for generosity or giving, So the sequence I continue to play promotes the gift of alleviation of suffering caused by sorrow.
I am hoping to become a sound healer someday. I love the non-verbal, somatic nature of my new spiritual practice, which feels like a hymn or a prayer. I shed tears sometimes and feel revived at others – sometimes all at once.
And since I love the sound of the bowls so much, I now love to pray. Joyfully. With no demands. Just for the sake of praying.
I’ve been happily humbled by life – by mother’s confused brain (she had no idea who I was for the last two years of her life) and subsequent death. By the deaths of my father-in-law and sister-in-law. By dear friends’ battles with cancer, by the death of a spiritual teacher and friend, the sudden death of my psychiatrist..
And now I’m praying for a world that is hurting, for Tikkun Olam, the Hebrew expression for Repairing the World.
I once sat on a skilled therapist’s couch, doing EMDR Therapy for all the trauma I’d experienced in my ife. When I was finally able to take a deep, long breath and exhale gratefully, this woman smiled at me. “Do you know what SIGH stands for?” she asked. I shook my head, no.
“Sitting in God’s hands,” she told me.
And so every time I take a good, deep long breath these days – in between being terrified and feeling overwhelmed by grief for the suffering all around me – I feel enormous gratitude.
I feel that I am sitting in God’s hands – a tiny, insignificant human being still learning how to pray.
For all of us.