Thursday, May 21, 2009

Shared hopes, shared learning – a workshop in Israel on spontaneous prayer

Growing up, I think I thought of prayer itself – certainly offering a spontaneous prayer out loud off the top of your head! -- as something inherently Christian (and not Jewish). I never even imagined I could become comfortable doing it myself. So, it was really exciting for me Wednesday when one of the participants in a workshop I was leading at an Israeli Spiritual Care conference said she had come to the workshop in the hope that I could help her to get over her own discomfort with offering spontaneous prayers!

Offering a custom-made prayer – tailored specifically to the situation and the hopes of the suffering person you are with – can be a powerful source of healing. The greatest pain for an ill person is often not directly from their physical sufferings – it is the loneliness people experience amid their illness. The sense that they are now somehow different than everybody around them and that nobody can (or is willing to) understand what they are going through. The sense, maybe, that they have been forsaken by God.

A unique and beautifully tailored prayer from a visitor of faith coming into their hospital room can help break that loneliness. It can help the person to feel seen, to feel that someone had indeed heard their situation. And that that person is genuinely joining in their hopes and wants their suffering to end. And, finally, by bringing God into the experience, the offering of a spontaneous prayer can help heal a spiritual rift and help the person to feel a renewed relation with (a loving) God, even amid the confusion their sufferings bring.

And, yet, so many Jews – like the participant in my workshop – are reluctant to offer spontaneous prayer, largely because it doesn't “feel” Jewish. That's why it was so important to me to put a Jewish “stamp” on my approach to spontaneous prayer, and to come up with my own framework for composing my prayers. This framework is based on the structure of the Amidah , a central prayer of the traditional Jewish prayer service. My approach – and the Amidah – are divided up into three basic parts:

1) שבח/shevah/Praise (the “approach”) – This is where you address the One to whom you are approaching, and what specific aspect of that Ultimate Reality you want to hear your prayer. By choosing whom you are addressing and what aspect of that “whom” to address, you say something about what your theology is – what you think God (or an Ultimate Reality or Force) is. So, when you're offering a prayer for someone else, you can say something about what his or her spirituality is about in framing this first part of the prayer. If the person has a “Vertical” or “Transcendent” understanding of how God relates to humans – an understanding where God is far above us and directs what's below, you could start by saying something like, “Father above. You are the one who has always directed us and given us strength ...” Or, if the person has a more “Horizontal” or “Immanent” God view, you could start with something like, “Oh, Source of all life. You have nourished the plants and trees around us and we find you everywhere we look . . . “

At the end of this section, I also introduce the person, by name, to God, and say something about what is happening for him or her. Something like, "Dear God, we stand here before you with Sarah. She is frightened about the surgery coming tomorrow."

2) בקשות/bakashot/Requests (the “ask) – This is the heart of the prayer, the expression of what we would like God to grant us. If you're offering a prayer for another person, there are two ways you can approach this. The easiest and most straightforward one is to simply mirror back the hopes the person has expressed to you. A great way to help this process is to ask the person right before the prayer, “is there anything in particular you want me to pray for?”

While I always do ask this question before offering my prayer, I don't think the straightforward approach is quite enough. The experience of doing this workshop – and interacting with the great people who came – helped clarify for me why I want to do something more than simply rephrase the person's hopes. It's because offering a prayer is not just about the words of what I say. I think it's not even just about the feelings expressed along with those words. When you're in a real pastoral conversation with a person – where real pain and real, deep hopes are expressed – something more comes into the room. Something is summoned. Maybe it's called the shekinah. Maybe it's called God. Maybe it's something from all the other people who care. Maybe it's just spirit. But, as intangible as it is, it's real and powerful and a key to true healing. It should not be ignored.

But that “something” can't be truly summoned – or be a part of the prayer – if what is expressed is not something in common, something shared, that was part of the encounter. That's why the number one question I ask myself in composing this part of the prayer is “What do I hope for this person?" Bringing myself into the prayer in this way, allows me to offer a more powerful prayer, one that expresses Shared Hopes, and provides a more complete caring experience.

As you can imagine, however, this kind of a "Use of the Self" in spiritual care is controversial, and the participants in the workshop challenged me about it, expressing shock at the possibility that I might offer a prayer for something that the person I am caring for does not want. My answer to them is that, if you truly take a Shared Hopes approach, that that kind of "contradiction" of the suffering person's hopes is not what happens when you express your hopes for them -- because in a Shared Hopes approach, it's not really my hopes or the person's hopes I express -- it's the shared ones that arose in the "space between us" during our conversation.

There's a theory behind this. It's called intersubjectivity. In short, it holds that communication and the creation of meaning are not things that one person does on his or her own. It's something that is co-constructed by the two or more parties in any interaction. It's an especially influential idea in psychoanalysis, and it provides a theoretical basis for the therapist to use the feelings he or she experiences as a tool for understanding, and caring for, their clients. This theory has freed psychoanalysts from feeling they have to take the kind of cold, detached attitude that Freud did with his patients. Instead, they can become more warm, human and genuine with them. This theory has the potential to free spiritual caregivers in the same way, so that they can bring true emotion, feeling and spiritual depth to things like their spontaneous prayers. [The best expression of this theory in the field of pastoral care is Pamela Cooper-White's book Shared Wisdom .]

3) הודאה/hoda-ah/Thanksgiving (and a wish for peace/shalom) -- This part (along with the first one) is a tremendously important part of my approach to spontaneous prayers that is missing from so many other approaches (which tend to only include "ask" elements). It is a chance to return to a place of humility (after the audacity of asking God for things) and to restate something about what we believe about God and about our wish to be in relationship to God. It is also a chance to take our prayer outside the small, immediate realm of the patient's experience and bring it out into the broader realm of all humanity. And this is a key part of almost all religious practices in the major faith traditions -- to link each individual with the community at large in a way that brings greater power to our effort to elevate our spirits and reach for something higher. Communal experience nurtures faith, as do our acts of caring for others. Thus, I conclude every prayer with a wish for peace, starting with the person before me, but then moving outward. First to wish for peace for the person's immediate family and loved ones, but finally I move on to a wish for peace for all people.

Before I offer this request for shalom, I first, as the Amidah does, offer thanks, and say something like, "Dear, God, we thank you for everything you have given. We thank you for the gift of life, and for all that we have been able to know -- especially the love we have been able to experience -- during our time here on earth."


Another part of a Shared Hopes approach -- one that I borrow from the Jewish prayer tradition -- is to, as much as possible, put the language of my prayer in the language of "we" and to say things like "we pray for you to give her strength, oh gracious God." (Jewish standard forms of prayer -- like the Amidah -- ask for things using the language of "we".)


I was so impressed with the people who attended my workshop. Many of them are already using spontaneous prayer in their work and they shared their experiences with it. One participant shared that sometimes when there is a prayer that appears to have particularly touched a person, he writes it down and shares those written words with the patient.

Another participant shared a four-part framework for composing spontaneous prayer he uses in Hebrew. His approach is very similar to mine, but differs in the last part especially:

ברוך אתה ה' (אלוהנו מלך העולם) ה_____________ ץ
1) This approach begins with the words that start every standard Jewish blessing, "Blessed are You, HaShem our God, King of the Universe, Who ____________." The "Who" part is key here. In the blessing before eating bread, we say "Who brings forth bread from the earth." When we say the havdalah blessing marking the end of Shabbat and the beginning of a new workweek, we say, "the one distinguishes between the holy and the secular." In this approach, the spiritual caregiver works closely with the person to determine which "Who" of God to address here. (This process, I believe, allows the prayer to start, as my introductory section does, by saying something about the person's theology in making that introduction to God.
אתה יודע
2) Literally, "You know". The words following the "You know" are a chance to say something about the situation the person finds his or herself in, and to hold that up to God.
3) This is an "ask" section, just like mine.
אבל אם לא, תן לי כח להתמודד
4) I was fascinated by this final section, because it is not something I have in my framework. It says "but if my requests are not granted, give me the strength to cope."

I think this is a very powerful thing to have in a prayer and it can -- as the participant himself stated -- foster an important humility that can be a key part of a spiritual growth that can lead to better coping. It seems to me to reflect an acceptance that is a key part of a suffering person's coming to a stronger place, one that has room for entering into a positive relationship with God even amid inexplicable suffering.

Here is a copy of the contents of a handout, I created for the workshop. It has some more details about my approach and that of others who have worked in this area before, especially the work of Rabbi Bonita Taylor, a New York chaplaincy educator (Clinical Pastoral Education supervisor) who has long focused on helping her students gain experience with offering spontaneous prayer. The handout, especially, emphasizes the importance of linking a prayer to an assessment. That is, as I said at the beginning, the truly effective spontaneous prayer has to be one that is specifically tailored to the person and the person's situation and hopes. So much of the prayers some clergy and spiritual caregivers offer do not meet this important minimum condition. While they may indeed be said off the top of the caregiver's head -- rather than read from a book -- they are essentially canned words that the caregiver would say for anybody.

It was such a privilege to give a workshop at this pioneering conference and to have some close contact with people doing such exciting work in Israel. I am grateful to have had the opportunity. I pray it will be the will of the Holy Blessed One -- the One who is the author of all knowledge, compassion and spirit -- that I will be able to offer more such workshops in the future and to learn again from students and to continue to grow in my knowledge and mastery in this area. And may it be the Holy One's will that there will be many more such conferences in Israel and that the infant field of spiritual care there will continue to grow and to thrive.

[X-posted to smamitayim ]

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