On Thursday at morning minyan, the rabbi introduced a practice used in the discipline of mussar, a movement emphasizing meditation and ethical teachings that originated in the 10th century and can't really be summed up by a Wikipedia article. He chose a line from Psalm 146--Ahal'la adonai behayai, azam'ra lelohai be'odi, I will praise the Lord with all my life, sing to my God with all my being--and we chanted it over and over again to a simple tune. Despite being a rabbi, he said, he often had no idea what to do while praying. You can say the words perfectly, but what does it really mean to talk to God? Where are the instructions for that part? And is that what you're supposed to do, anyway? For him, this kind of chanting was a means of simply being, of letting words and rhythms translate a message whose nature he didn't always know, but which transmission felt good and necessary.
And this of course is a discovery made by many different religions thousands of years ago, as well, and one reason why I love to chant Torah. I think it's why human beings invented ritual--to take ourselves to a state where conscious thought, decisions about what comes next and why, what foot to put in front of the other, can move to the background and make room for another kind of awareness. It doesn't have to be about God: there's ritual in business so you can work effectively (if you had to think about what words to use when answering the phone, you'd never get anything done); family (knowing you can share the stories of your day at dinnertime); and every other part of life. The repetition of these events is like meditation on a macro scale--the routine of their reappearance becomes mindless and therefore mindful, white noise that drowns out the sounds of traffic and lets you concentrate on something better.
Prayer can work the same way. The meaning and beauty of the words themselves is certainly important, but I think their repetition as part of a spiritual practice is more so. Rhythm and familiarity create a space where God can move about, so to speak, without being interrupted by our need to understand on an intellectual level. Like the rabbi, I also have no idea what to do while praying--but I think I'm learning what not to do, which is think too much as it's happening. Perhaps this is one part of life where we need to be less self-aware.
When I chant Torah, maybe because I don't fully understand what I'm saying, the sounds themselves move me forward and not the other way around. I can't tell myself what it means as I'm doing it. The yad quite literally pushes me from word to word, like flying down a hill on a bicycle and imagining you're in control of the journey, but are in fact compelled by greater forces. Sometimes you can watch the passing scenery and learn about the country you inhabit; other times the wind is too strong. Then you slow down, and suddenly find yourself in a new place.
(Here is another take on the nature of prayer, a wonderful post that got me thinking about this one. Do we need need to use the right words in order to stay honest in the conversation? How can we honor and be true to those words as we're using them? Does it really matter?)