Making Prayer Real Course
by Rabbi Mike Comins
The following is a description of the pedagogic strategies employed in the MPR Course curriculum.
God-moments Before God-ideas, Skills Before Beliefs
In my experience, when people speak about prayer, the conversation usually turns to theology. When Jewish liturgy is taught, the curriculum usually centers on the history of the Siddur, or an analysis of the theological ideas expressed.
Theology and liturgy are covered extensively in the MPR curriculum. However, the MPR Course approach is substantially different. We begin by asking: When prayer works for us, why does it work? What goes into a God-moment?
A Spiritual Dynamics Approach
We focus on the spiritual dynamics of transcendent moments. This functional approach allows us to begin with a set of practical questions. Instead of a theological question such as, “Is there a God Who responds to prayer?”, we ask:
Prayer is often presented on the unspoken assumption that if one shows up at services and reads the proper words at the proper time, praying will be meaningful. For many Jews across the spectrum, this is simply not the case. The MPR Course explicitly recognizes that praying a liturgy and accessing the depths of one’s heart takes a set of attitudes and skills beyond decoding, translating, and reciting. It then takes up the challenge of teaching these skills.
I believe that many Jews refrain from studying and practicing prayer because they do not believe the results are worth the effort. In the numerous classes on prayer that I attended as part of my Jewish education, how prayer actually changes the world and how one can see the effects of prayer were too often left a mystery. In a spiritual dynamics approach, students acquire a clear understanding of why and how prayer “works” in changing the pray-er and the pray-er’s world, and what needs to be studied in order to get better at it. This empowers and motivates students to take ownership of their prayer lives, as they see a set of beneficial, achievable goals and a realistic path to reach them.
And when theology inevitably arises, when we ask how prayer might engage God or influence God’s effect in the world, the discussion is grounded in experience rather than abstract speculation. (On a side note, in my experience of studying prayer, the subject of God’s agency was often danced around. In the MPR Course, a full session us devoted to the topic of discerning a response from God.)
For an in depth treatment of the MPR approach to teaching and learning prayer, please see my article, “A Spiritual Dynamics Approach to Spiritual Education.”
Prayer as a Practice
In the MPR curriculum, developing and deepening one’s prayer life is treated as a practice. A practice is understood here as participating in a cultural tradition—a blend of history, norms, knowledge, attitudes and skills. Most any important, human activity can be viewed in the context of a practice, whether it’s playing a musical instrument or learning chess, owning a business or becoming a member of the clergy, or even taking on a role such as friend, spouse or parent.
A practice becomes a conscious path when we set a goal. This is obvious from the beginning in some practices, such as learning a musical instrument. It is just as important in the ongoing activities that people often take for granted, such as parenting, or improving at our jobs, or getting more out of prayer. By studying the tradition, cultivating attitudes, developing skills, and increasing awareness, one can improve their practice.
Presenting the Practice of Prayer
If I decide to take on yoga, it is not because my ancestors have been practicing yoga for hundreds of years or because it is the main communal activity of my ethnic group. Rather, it is because I’ve heard of the positive benefits of engaging in this practice. I have a general understanding of how the practice works and the benefits that I might receive. When I decide that I am willing to spend my money and devote my time to learn yoga, I apply myself, knowing that I won’t get anywhere if I don’t make an effort. And as I learn, I constantly evaluate the practice to gauge if it is working, tweaking it as I go along to get the most out of it.
We take a similar approach in teaching prayer. We encourage students by presenting the benefits of a prayer life and identifying the skills and techniques that lead to heartfelt prayer.
It all starts with setting goals.
Mochin d’Gadlut – Spacious Consciousness
Early in the MPR Course, we introduce Mochin d’Gadlut, the state of spacious or expanded consciousness mentioned in the teachings of Hasidic rabbis. We then bring students through a process where they discover/create their own definition of Mochin d’Gadlut, by asking:
In answering these questions, students begin to identify the skills they need to learn, the knowledge they need to acquire, and the attitudes they need to cultivate in order to make prayer effective on a regular basis.
Many Jews are reluctant to engage the practice of prayer because they don’t believe they can get much out of it. The Making Prayer Real Course challenges that assumption. Treating prayer as a practice enables practitioners to access the transformative power of prayer.
Artist Rather than Consumer
In my experience, many pray-ers arrive at services with the same expectations they bring to a concert at the philharmonic. While the knowledge of music is helpful, the “audience” experience mostly depends on the quality of the orchestra, or in our case, the performance of the rabbi, cantor and others on the bima.
The MPR curriculum seeks to inculcate a different attitude, first, by asking students: Who is responsible for your inner life? Can the rabbi or cantor ever do as much for your prayer life as you can? Second, we propose a participatory metaphor. We view davenners as members of the orchestra—artists in their own right who come together to create a richer experience than individuals can create on their own. While the analogy is not perfect, it gets the idea across.
Just as musicians hone their skills and develop their art outside of orchestra rehearsals and performances, so too, a skilled practitioner prays, studies and hones their prayer skills outside of synagogue services. Taking a course on prayer is natural for those who wish to develop their prayer lives.
Motivation from Within
When people have a clear path to the benefits of prayer, when they become skilled at prayer and pray with clear expectations, when they understand that they are the main factor in a satisfying prayer experience— as opposed to the sermon, the music or the new reading introduced this week—their prayer experience improves. And as in any similar practice, the better one gets at prayer and the more one gets out of it, the more one falls in love with it and the more one wants to pray.
In summary, the MPR Course takes a spiritual dynamics approach and presents prayer as a practice. Below are other, complimentary features of the curriculum.
A Pluralistic, Mature Conversation on Spirituality
A major obstacle facing many students is their lack of experience in discussing spiritual topics. Words such as heart-opening, energy or yearning, or even soul and God, may be associated with claims by fundamentalists or New Agers that provoke discomfort or disdain. The videos counteract this in two ways. First, the MPR contributors model the responsible, intelligent use of spiritual vocabulary. Our teachers report that the conversation on the screen gives permission for people to speak in ways they might not have spoken previously. Second, they present a variety of opinions in a respectful atmosphere. Each student finds teachers they agree with and disagree with. They easily enter the conversation started in the videos.
Pluralistic, Experiential Learning
The MPR Course cultivates a workshop atmosphere. Participants sample a variety of traditional and alternative prayer modalities in order to learn skills, widen their perspective on prayer, and explore their own talents and preferences. A pluralistic milieu is established where students may safely discover their abilities and proclivities, supported by those who agree and disagree with them on theology or their preferred ways of praying. There is no expectation that everyone will be drawn to every modality of prayer. Some resonate more to liturgy, some to personal prayer; some to music, some to reflection; etc. Participants are challenged to leave their comfort zones and experience forms that did not resonate previously. As they develop in skills and experience, students craft their own relationship to Jewish prayer as individuals and as members of the community.
Unscripted Prayer from the Heart
All things being equal, what is more likely to capture the yearnings of my heart at any given moment, my words or another’s words? For most people most of the time, one’s own words are better suited to express one’s hopes and feelings. Yet most of us learned to pray through the far more difficult paradigm of putting heart into someone else’s words, into the liturgy.
Studying the liturgy, of course, is crucial, and not only to join the chain of tradition. We must have prayer modeled for us to develop our own prayer vocabulary and to understand our own possibilities. And sometimes a great artist can express what is happening in my heart better than I can.
But learning personal, unscripted prayer is an important step in becoming an artist of prayer. Usually, it is easier to learn how to put heart into words through personal prayer. The Making Prayer Real Course devotes several sessions to the topic. We have found that as one experiences the challenge of composing their own prayers, one gains new appreciation for the beauty and artistry of the traditional prayers.
Engaging the Body
It is not a coincidence that music plays an important role in synagogue services. When we open a book and read, more neurons are firing on the analytic, conceptual, left side of the brain. But if we want prayer to be emotional, intuitive, and artistic, we must create the conditions for the right brain to thrive as well.
Music activates the right side of the brain, helping us to read words poetically and pray with heart, because it is a bodily pursuit. Unless we are extremely repressed, our emotions find expression in the body. Engaging the senses is a way of affecting the heart. The MPR Course helps students to explore the role of the body in prayer, and offers additional modalities beyond music to bring the body into prayer.
Approaching the Liturgy
In the book, I was so concerned with developing a non-liturgical approach to learning prayer that I put the Siddur aside until the last section. In the MPR Course, I take the next step and integrate Jewish liturgy into the learning process from the beginning. Each module teaches a key element of the MPR approach to learning prayer together with a part of the liturgy. The emotional foundations of prayer, yearning and gratitude, are presented with the Psalms; the art of blessing with Bircot HaShachar; mindfulness and listening with the Shema.
A Flexible, Pluralistic Curriculum
Each student is different, and so is every teacher and every class. Some classes want more subject matter; others more practice. Some need large doses of non-traditional activities; others want to emphasize the Siddur. The abundance of resources in the MPR Course allows teachers to choose the best activities for his or her community.
The MPR contributors represent the spectrum of Jewish life, and often the spectrum within a given stream or denomination. Some videos, such as Rabbi Elliot Dorff on the halachic obligations of prayer, are helpful for traditional communities. Other videos, such as “Personal Prayer to an Impersonal God,” open doorways for those who struggle with traditional beliefs.
The video montages can be screened in their entirety, but often there is more material than time allows in a class session. Each segment is labeled with topic and number so that teachers can easily fast forward to their favorite teachers, and in choosing which segments to screen, they customize the videos for the interests and needs of their students and their community. (Teachers use the transcripts of the videos to efficiently plan their sessions.)
Embracing Spiritual Paradox
When I speak of what one “gets out of prayer,” I often hear objections to the language of “benefits” that are “acquired.” For good reason. To say that the benefits of spiritual practice are measurable seems counter-intuitive, as we are usually speaking about attitudes, values or emotional states like love, gratitude or yearning. Over-defining the process might diminish the magic and mystery of prayer.
This tension is inherent and necessary in any serious, spiritual practice, and requires skill at when to think linearly, and when to think poetically. We cannot define love, but we can tell if we are getting better at it, often by focusing on the components of a loving relationship. I can identify areas to work on, such as becoming a better listener or consciously dropping judgment towards my spouse. I can tell if I’m bringing more awareness to my relationship, and I can evaluate if the relationship is getting better over time.
There is a paradox in encouraging strong expectations of spiritual practice. To benefit from meditation, for example, I must foresee enough benefit to motivate my engagement of the practice with rigor and discipline. But meditation itself is a constant letting go of expectations and attending to what is actually happening now. Only when the session is over do I evaluate it.
In treating prayer as a practice, I look at davening in the same way. I lower my expectations toward any given session. Unlike the concert-goer, I am in a life-long learning and growth process, and I don’t expect progress or a spiritual high every single time I pray. But by increasing awareness of what happens when I pray, and evaluating my experience, I can improve over time. I can learn what I need to do to continue to improve. In the context of a practice, “bad” prayer sessions are not a waste of time; they are a learning opportunity.
As I hope this document demonstrates, engaging prayer through practice, writing and teaching has been a great adventure for me. I find myself energized, closer to God, and gleaning more joy from my work. I am grateful to be part of a growing community of clergy/educators who are changing the way we approach prayer and other mitzvot.
Thank you for considering the MPR Course.