I have always believed, and continue to believe that the essence of prayer is its intentionality. Its importance and efficacy are contained in its “kavanah”-the inner awareness of its meaning, its direction and purpose. Mechanical prayer, rote recitation of words was always a source of challenge and frustration in my own pursuit of prayer’s meaning. I understand the words' meaning; my elusive goal was the focus and concentration necessary for spiritually enriching prayer. This approach to prayer is a religious ideal that many strive for, but is not easily attainable.
Logically and intellectually, I have always appreciated and loved the Hebrew language as the vehicle for Jewish prayer. I have understood the unique importance of praying in Hebrew. Yet, because of my preoccupation with discovering the soul of prayer and its resonance in my own soul, external expression has become less and less important to me. Last night I had an experience that allowed me to profoundly feel the centrality of language in the experience of prayer.
We have the good fortune to own a log house in the Berkshires. Close by, directly across the road from the Tanglewood Music Festival, is a sprawling piece of property devoted to spiritual pursuits-Kripalu, a place of yoga and meditation.
We were informed that three days prior to the New Year, the center conducts an uninterrupted period of chanting as a way to end the year in a spiritually meaningful way. This experience is known as –“Septah”-seven, related to the tradition in India where seven full days are set aside for continuous chanting.
My wife, daughter and I decided to look in on the event. Having some meditative experience, we were not entirely uncomfortable with the surroundings and the practice.
Several women with lovely voices, chanted the mantra in alternating sequences. After each individual recitation, the audience joined in for the next one. The melody was enchanting, accompanied by the haunting and exotic strains of the harmonium. The chanted mantra was in Sanskrit-“Om Namah Shivayah” which means “I surrender to God!”
In spite of the evident strangeness of the environment and the tradition from which this practice originates, I felt that out of personal spiritual interest and from the perspective of the universal quality of the experience,there would be no contradiction or conflict with my personal attachments to Judaism.
We sat, the mantra was recited; its repetitiveness began to create a hypnotic spell. I chanted the words, trying to focus on their meaning. I became restless and dissatisfied. The words were too alien; I couldn’t connect with them in a natural and meaningful way. I began to unconsciously relate the Sanskrit words to similar sounding Hebrew words. OM became the Hebrew for people or nation. NAMAH I defined as pleasant or delightful. SHIVAYAH was more complicated and required more interpretive effort. Yah is God’s name, I thought. SHIVA emerged as seven, or a word related to the Hebrew for “return.” Desperately I tried to transform Sanskrit into Hebrew! It didn’t work.
My mind then led me to Hebrew prayer phrases that could conceivably fit the chant. I tried the Shema. No success. Other attempts also failed. It then occurred to me to return to a mantra which I didn’t chant but rather recited silently during my personal meditations.”MODEH ANI LEFANECHA”- I am grateful in Your Presence. In almost a whisper, I began to chant the Hebrew prayer of awakening each morning against the soaring sounds of Sanskrit that filled the Kirpalu sanctuary.
I realized then the powerful need to pray, to chant and to meditate in the idiom of one’s own deeply emotional connections and attachments. The destination of universal spiritual enlightenment can be arrived at only through the parochial, familiar, and deeply ingrained nuances of one’s immediate history and personal frame of reference.
To quote a further thought on chanting-“The repetition of the Name is found in all religious practice…the names of a friend or child or lover …point to the physical/emotional part of that person. Sacred names are revealed names.”(Krishna Das) For the Name to be of significance there must be a dimension of intimacy and nearness, like a friend, child or lover. Thus, the indispensability of chanting in a language that belongs to you, that is at the core of your personal , familial and communal being.
The next time I chant, it will be in Hebrew, the sacred tongue of the Bible and the Jewish people.
An afterthought. Perhaps another Hebrew phrase, the one recited seven times at the close of the Day of Atonement, does indeed fit the Om Nama Shivaya chant. "HASHEM HU HA' ELOHIM": The NAME( God) is the Lord. Try it at your next meditative chant. It may feel right!