I've been thinking a lot about prayer, encouraged in part by these wonderful posts by Mata H as well as the fact that I've been doing so much of it publicly--and am more confused, as a result, than ever before.
I didn't know how to pray until I came to my synagogue. There are many kinds of prayer; for most of my life I ignored them all. Prayer, on the one hand, can be instinctive, happening even when we don't know it. God hears us before we make a sound. Pretty sure, although unwilling to proclaim with certainty, that God was a crock, for many years I banished the idea that my unvoiced entreaties had any point except indulging a comforting fantasy. I was too smart for that. The other kind of prayer is planned, purposeful, and with honest intent (kavannah). This I dismissed as theater of the absurd. Talking to something that doesn't exist--completely nuts.
Then community and music combined to unlock a part of me I never knew before, and suddenly I could pray. It forced me to redefine myself, become more accepting of my own vulnerability as I allowed the words in the siddur to voice wishes and pleas that I was once certain could not be expressed. Just as I was thinking, OK, I have a handle on this, I get the drill, I was asked to sit up front and do it on behalf of of everyone--with a voice I had always kept partially hidden, even while singing as loudly as possible in dozens of groups. The rabbis didn't know this; they had only heard me chant Torah, my first, tentative steps out of hiding. The best sounds I could make, before then, always felt too intimate to allow the rest of the world to hear. I blended perfectly, shielding my identity. I never, ever sang solos. But I couldn't hide while praying; dishonesty at that moment seemed as wrong as murder. I also think I was, and still am, too inexperienced at the art to know how to fake it, like a doctor who hasn't figured out how to keep emotional distance from her patients.
So I continue to learn, which I know will never lead to mastery. I learn not only how to put the drama of my discoveries in perspective--I'm human, I'm a volunteer, perfection is never possible when trying to talk to God, relax--but also in context with the other 98% of my life. Do I trust in my abilities? How much of myself can I reveal to the world? How naked and honest, confident and self-reliant, can I be? What other cliffs can I jump off, knowing my community will always be around to catch me? Prayer, this intensely personal, private thing, has unexpectedly become my model for real life.