I don’t remember finding prayer. I think it was always there.
I started learning how to pray when I was three or four, when I started going to school. At first, it was something that I did only in school when required, and a little on Shabbat, when I went to synagogue with my father. There was some point when I prayed the morning service every day, when at home, but that waned throughout elementary school. At some point in high school, I returned to it. Perhaps it was out of a newfound sense of religious obligation, but it wasn’t religious obligation that drew me to pray seriously while in school, as my peers did their darnedest to avoid, skip, talk-through, or space out during our two-to-three times daily prayers.
I think that prayer may have been the glue that kept me together for some years. At the very least, it kept incipient depression at bay. I think that it did that by giving me a place where I was free to feel and express emotions. There was no other place in my life like that, and there wouldn’t be until I was eighteen and started going to therapy in the middle of my second episode of major depression.
And even that place was inferior to prayer. When I started going to therapy, I could answer the question, “How are you feeling?” only 5% of the time, and the rest of the time, I didn’t know how I was feeling. But God knew! God knew. I am so glad that I had access to a modality for expressing emotions starting at such a young age.
I don’t remember finding prayer, but I can trace how I lost it, step by step, until I could hardly pray at all.
When I started college and was very depressed, I managed to get myself to morning and evening minyan on campus. I moved a little further away from the minyan my sophomore year, and I struggled to get there for morning services and quickly gave up. I made some feeble attempts to continue praying on my own, outside of that communal structure, but couldn’t get myself to do it. I got a little bit into meditation and tried to do that instead, but no dice. I did manage to exercise every morning for a bit during my junior year of college, and that became my “prayer,” but it was fueled by body-hatred and self-loathing, and it was the polar opposite of prayer.
After college, I tried, on and off, to pray. I made commitments to myself. I broke them. I tried to pray just during the annual Selichot season, so that at least I wouldn’t miss out on those holy and wholly confounding liturgical wonders. I made it for a day, a week. I decided to forgo daily prayer but listen to songs from the morning shacharit service during my daily commute. It lasted a week or two, and then I couldn’t stand to listen to them anymore. I started this blog. I couldn’t work on it as I had hoped. I was regularly attending Shabbat services and at least managing to pray weekly that way, but that has waned considerably in the past few years. When I go, and stand in silence before God, whispering the Amida, I cry violent, unending tears.
I don’t think it should feel so hard to pray, so hard to open a siddur and say the words that my mind, at least, believes will bring comfort and/or stability and/or an inner, validating presence to my chaotic inner life. I don’t want to cry in synagogue, so I don’t go. Or, rather, I go for kiddush and skip the davening part entirely.
I really miss the daily comfort of ritual, of routine, of prayer that I started when I was three or four.