As part of our month-long God series, Abby Sher tells us about her relationship with prayer.
I have prayed every day for the past 25 years. Often obsessively, locked in a closet for hours at a sitting. My mother, my therapists, friends, boyfriends, even reporters have asked me to show them what this compulsive ritual entailed. I’ve refused them all. I’ve always felt like if I explained my thoughts or connection to God, I would sound stupid, or worse, irreverent.
I was raised in a reform Jewish household, where matzah balls, Maneshewitz and Oy, what tsuris defined my heritage. I began praying in earnest when I was 11 and my aunt and father died in quick succession. I was sure I’d made them die, and I had to atone before I struck again. After Mom tucked me into bed at night, I recited the Shema five, 10, then 50 times. I soon added a song of thanks and a list of sick people whom I needed to heal. In high school I snuck into dark closets not to kiss boys but to chant psalms. I once ran away from home just to pray behind the synagogue in a pile of soggy leaves. True worship, in my mind, had to be secret in order to be sacred.
After years of therapy and medication, I was able to pare down my daily routine of rituals somewhat. In 2008, I skipped prayers entirely for three days in a row–when my daughter Sonya was born. Yet, as soon as we’d come home from the hospital I put her in in my husband’s arms and grabbed my prayer book from the shelf. As she learned to walk and talk, she mimicked me kissing our mezuzah repeatedly, and made sure to interrupt me whenever I was blessing the Shabbat candles.
When she was 3, Sonya started at a Jewish-Montessori preschool. The teachers were warm and engaged, infinitely more patient than me, and invited the children to ask any questions. I knew it was just a matter of moments before Sonya asked, “Why do you pray?”
“Because I like to say thank you for all the wonderful things we have.”
“Why?” she pressed.
“Our home, our yummy snacks, all your dollies…”
She would wait for as long as it took for me to answer.
“Because it feels really good to say thanks.”
That was the truth. It had taken me 25 years to get here, but I honestly enjoyed, even looked forward to, my time in stillness. I took her into my bedroom; to the makeshift alter in the corner. Nothing fancy–a shelf with some family photos, a book of prayers, a bowl of water, a tea light. This was the once-secret place where I breathed and chanted my hodgepodge of Hebrew, English, and Sanskrit. “This is it,” I told her. “This is where I say thank you to God.” I didn’t explain who or what God could be. My God concept kept on evolving and I wanted Sonya to find her own.
She ran her finger along the white paint and then sniffed the candle wax. “Can I come and pray with you?” she asked with a sneaky grin.
“Yes,” I said. “One day.”
Last week, she was done waiting for me to make good on that promise. In the middle of singing one of my songs of thanks, I heard the bedroom door open and the soft pad of feet. I thought it was my husband grabbing a shirt and didn’t turn around. I was actually pretty proud that after years of hard work I could be okay with him coming in. I didn’t have to start over or burst into tears for fear God would be mad at my stopping abruptly. I kept singing. Took deep breaths and continued mindfully. I listed my wishes for my children to be healthy and happy and ended with Thy will be done.
Then I blew out my candle and found Sonya lying on the bed, just listening.
I’d never felt that naked and empowered at the same time.
“What do you think?” I asked her. She just nodded. “That was it. That was prayers,” I said. The mystery of my existence boiled down to a few made-up tunes. She didn’t ask for any explanation, or request another round of song.
We just headed silently down the stairs together. We had shared something so intimate I didn’t dare touch or dissect it. But I felt us vibrating with unspoken questions as we walked into the new day.
To read all of the post in this series, click here.