Prayer for people who don’t usually pray

Book review: A new guide to prayer

A synagogue in Prague (photo credit: REUTERS/DAVID W CERNY)
A synagogue in Prague
(photo credit: REUTERS/DAVID W CERNY)
In our library, we have many books about Jewish prayer. Some are about the history of prayers – who wrote them and when they became part of the Jewish prayer book. Some are meant to reveal the deeper meanings of Jewish prayers and what secrets are encoded in the Hebrew words. Some focus on what Jewish law says about prayer – under what circumstances this or that prayer is recited and why.
Rabbi Aryeh Ben David, author, founder and director of Ayeka: Center for Soulful Education, recently published a different kind of book about prayer. Rather than focus on specific prayers, in Prayers of the Lost & Found: 10 Reflections on Becoming a Prayerful Human Being, Ben David asks his readers to consider the activity of prayer itself in a fresh way.
“When was the last time you had a prayer checkup?” Ben David asks, comparing it to the more common activities of medical or dental exams.
The book is comprised of 10 questions about prayer. Its title comes from the second question, “How did I lose my prayer?” While the author offers his own reflections on each of the 10 questions, the book is clearly an invitation to readers to consider the questions for themselves, either privately or in conversation with others.
Ben David did some preliminary homework in preparing to write Prayers of the Lost & Found. “Over the last number of years I have asked hundreds of people, of all ages, about their spiritual lives and their relationship with God. Almost every person remarked that they had never spoken with others about this part of their life.”
He explains that many people feel awkward and self-conscious about having such conversations, lest people judge them and conclude they are odd. In Western culture, which speaks more easily about alternative gender identities than about God, his aim is to make it more accepted and comfortable for people to talk openly about their spiritual lives.
Prayers of the Lost & Found is meant to be a book readers engage with, not just passively read. Each chapter is structured similarly. It includes a leading question about prayer, a reflection, often poetic, in response to the question, a commentary on that reflection, and questions for readers to consider privately or to discuss with others.
Early in the book, Ben David makes the point that prayer is not just words recited from a prayer book. Rather, he writes, “God sends each of us our own personal prayer, every day, all the time.... God is always whispering to us, conveying our particular role in the world.”
How does a person locate God’s prayer for themselves? Ben David advises that they need to learn to listen. “Prayer is the inner voice of the universe that beckons us to grow, to soulfully respond to the present needs of the world. It is always calling.”
If you’re not used to paying attention to your spiritual life, Prayers of the Lost & Found may strike you as a little kooky at best and, at least initially, inaccessible. Some of Ben David’s language may not fall comfortably on your ear. For example, he writes, “Prayer is not something we wish for. Prayer is something that wishes for us.” That sounds like it would make a great meme, but what does it actually mean?
To be fair, it’s clear Ben David is trying hard to make this small book speak exactly to the kind of people who are not used to thinking about prayer, let alone actually engaging in it.
One of the most successful ways he accomplishes this is to use incidents in his own life to illustrate points he’s trying to make, and to let the reader know that he was once just like them.
“I had never had a reflective or mindful practice. We did not talk about God or spirituality in my family. I had never tried to connect with anything holy or imagined I had a spiritual calling,” he wrote about his background.
Prayers of the Lost & Found is a deeply personal book that bravely opens up one man’s prayer life so that others may learn and grow in their own relationship with God, regardless of whether they think of themselves as “spiritual.”