Tonight I went to another class, with a different teacher than before, about how to lead contemplative services. I didn't agree with all aspects of his approach, but he raised some good questions:
• Does the contemplative aspect of the service lead us into prayer, or is prayer a gateway to deeper exploration of the contemplative? If participants are less "traditional" and more comfortable with meditative practice than sitting through a service, the first focus might be better. But if they (like most people who go to Friday night services) are a little afraid of the whole sitting in silence thing, consider the second approach.
• Are you, the leader, prepared? Can you draw upon your own experiences of contemplative prayer while engaged in your chosen approach (chanting, sitting in silence, movement, etc.)? It's one thing to have a plan, and another to have real kavannah while enacting it. The teacher also suggested that the leader keep some emotional distance during the service to make sure her personal moments of prayer don't isolate her from an awareness of the needs of the congregation. This is where I disagree; the two ideas are not mutually exclusive. I've seen, close-up, how the shaliah tzibur can pray deeply while also remaining completely in charge, sharing energy with the people in the pews, trading focus and strength back and forth. Acting is never required, just honesty, nor must you wring yourself empty of emotion. It seems, from my very limited experience, that you can pace yourself during prayer, be very aware of the room and its inhabitants, and still have some energy left over for yourself. But it takes practice, and a congregation willing to be a partner rather than a passive audience. Because if you, the leader, have to do all the work--yes, you will burn out, or worse, learn to give less and less of yourself.
We reached no conclusions, but now I have even more to think about while preparing to help lead a contemplative havdalah service in a few days.
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