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    Prayer Is Being Known by God

    There is something which is far greater than my desire to pray, namely, God’s desire that I pray.

    By Abraham Joshua Heschel

    October 11, 2023

    This article is an excerpt from Thunder in the Soul: To Be Known by God.

    Prayer is not thinking. To the thinker, God is an object; to the man who prays, He is the subject. Awaking in the presence of God, we strive not to acquire an objective knowledge, but to deepen the mutual allegiance of man and God. What we want is not to know Him, but to be known to Him; not to form judgments about Him, but to be judged by Him; not to make the world an object of our mind, but to let the world come to His attention, to augment His, rather than our, knowledge. We endeavor to disclose ourselves to the Sustainer of all, rather than to enclose the world in ourselves.

    For neither the lips nor the brain are the limits of the scene in which prayer takes place. Speech and devotion are functions auxiliary to a metaphysical process. Common to all men who pray is the certainty that prayer is an act which makes the heart audible to God. Who would pour his most precious hopes into an abyss? Essential is the metaphysical rather than the physical dimension of prayer. Prayer is not a thought that rambles alone in the world, but an event that starts in man and ends in God. What goes on in our heart is a humble preliminary to an event in God.

    Ultimately, the goal of prayer is not to translate a word but to translate the self; not to render an ancient vocabulary in modern terminology, but to transform our thoughts into thoughts of prayer. Prayer is the soul’s imitation of the spirit, of the spirit that is contained in the liturgical words.

    painting of a man seated at a table with a book and candle

    Samuel Hirszenberg, The Last Prayer (1897)

    What, as a rule, makes it possible for us to pray is our ability to affiliate our own minds with the pattern of fixed texts, to unlock our hearts to the words, and to surrender to their meanings. The words stand before us as living entities full of spiritual power, of a power which often surpasses the grasp of our minds. The words are often the givers, and we the recipients. They inspire our minds and awaken our hearts.

    Most of us do not know the answer to one of the most important questions, namely, What is our ultimate concern? We do not know what to pray for. It is the liturgy that teaches us what to pray for. It is through the words of the liturgy that we discover what moves us unawares, what is urgent in our lives, what in us is related to the ultimate.

    We do not realize how much we acquire by dwelling upon the treasures of the liturgy until we learn how to commune with the spirit of Israel’s prophets and saints. It is more inspiring to let the heart echo the music of the ages than to play upon the broken flutes of our own hearts….

    It is good that there are words sanctified by ages of worship, by the honesty and love of generations. If it were left to ourselves, who would know what word is right to be offered as praise in the sight of God or which of our perishable thoughts is worthy of entering eternity?

    Prayer is the microcosm of the soul. It is the whole soul in one moment; the quintessence of all our acts; the climax of all our thoughts. It rises as high as our thoughts. Now, if the Torah is nothing but the national literature of the Jewish people, if the mystery of revelation is discarded as superstition, then prayer is hardly more than a soliloquy. If God does not have power to speak to us, how should we possess the power to speak to Him? Thus, prayer is a part of a greater issue. It depends upon the total spiritual situation of man and upon a mind within which God is at home. Of course, if our lives are too barren to bring forth the spirit of worship; if all our thoughts and anxieties do not contain enough spiritual substance to be distilled into prayer, an inner transformation is a matter of emergency. And such an emergency we face today. The issue of prayer is not prayer; the issue of prayer is God. One cannot pray unless one has faith in one’s own ability to accost the infinite, merciful, eternal God.

    Moreover, we must not overlook one of the profound principles of Judaism. There is something which is far greater than my desire to pray, namely, God’s desire that I pray. There is something which is far greater than my will to believe, namely, God’s will that I believe. How insignificant is the outpouring of my soul in the midst of this great universe! Unless it is the will of God that I pray, unless God desires our prayer, how ludicrous is all my praying.

    We cannot reach heaven by building a Tower of Babel. The biblical way to God is a way of God. God’s waiting for our prayers is that which lends meaning to them.

    Source: Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man’s Quest for God: Studies in Prayer and Symbolism (Santa Fe, NM: Aurora Press, 1954), 12, 13, 17, 32–33, 58–59. Copyright ©️ 1954 by Abraham Joshua Heschel. Copyright renewed 1982 by Susannah Heschel and Sylvia Heschel. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux on behalf of the Heschel Estate.

    Contributed By AbrahamJoshuaHeschel Abraham Joshua Heschel

    Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907–1972) was one of the most prominent Jewish theologians and philosophers of the twentieth century.

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