Let me tell you how I pray. At least: how I pray in public, since the cries of the soul to God from the silence of my cell are really none of your business.
When I pray in a group, in my community, it’s like a ballet.
A ballet danced by shlubs.
Every day, three times a day — sometimes four — all (well, most) of the more than ninety Dominicans in this old house flood down wooden staircases and over stone floors to pray in one spot.
Most of the time, our meeting place is the soaring church built right into our house. But in the morning at seven, for the first prayer (before half of us have brushed our teeth), the brethren pile into a “chapter room” — a semi-sacred chapel-cum-town-hall that, in our case, happens to be a brick-ribbed gothic number from about 1400.
Down the walls of that room, facing each other, are benches laid out as in the House of Commons. Each man has an assigned seat, and the brethren divide into two teams. We take the psalms, the heart of prayer, and divide them into stanzas, with one team, then the other, taking turns to recite.
Everything is supposed to be done in unison, in rhythm and in tune. A picture of harmony.
But everything creaks: the wooden stalls under the monastic bottoms. The platform under our feet. The folding chairs that the youngest friars sit on in the “overflow row” of pray-ers. One tries to be silent and recollected nevertheless.
To start the prayer, whoever is leading raps with his knuckles on the wood. And the dance begins.
Rise, pivot frontward toward the cross, make the gesture of blessing. Pivot back to the center, bow deeply at the waist, stand straight again. Chant.
One team stands while the other sits. Then, when a psalm ends, more bowing, and the sitters stand while the standers rest. Rosaries clack as a whole team moves together. Another psalm.
The constant synchronized movement makes novices sweat for fear of being caught out by a wrong move. But after a while, it’s as natural as breathing.
The brethren are over-tall and too short, skinny and fat. Their habits, identical in theory, are really a seamstress’s nightmare of a hundred sorts of frayed dishevelment. The youngest is 20 and has a goofy voice. The oldest, who joined the Order a month before the Nazis invaded Poland, is 95 and only sometimes “here.” Yet the up-down dance makes them elegant.
And makes them one.
Paraphrasing Revelations, the last book in our bible, the brethren chant: “You have purchased us for Yourself, from every tribe and language and people and nation.”
* * *
Praying in a group of men might have been natural to me if I had been born into a certain Jewish milieu. As it is, praying without women — apart from sisters, moms, or grannies — is something I discovered in the Order. I’m glad it’s not our only mode of prayer, but I have to say I like it.
When it’s just men, the atmosphere of prayer is nothing like a Sunday lunch or a family picnic. There’s an urgency to it, like exercises on the training ground. And maybe more honesty.
* * *
In this community, the language of prayer is either Polish or Latin. That means you either sing a heap of consonants or a whole load of vowels. An example: the last line in the Book of Psalms says, “Let every thing that hath breath praise the Lord.“ In Polish, that’s “Wszystko, co żyje, niech chwali Pana” — in Latin, “Omnis spiritus laudet Dominum.”
Whichever way you sing it, it’s a far cry from “Kol haneshama….”
And you can’t beat the original.
* * *
One night in Jerusalem, very late in summer, a new friend told me to meet him at the Kotel. I came in the dark, passed security, and stood there alone waiting for him, feeling dumb. I think I was wearing one of those flimsy freebie kipot.
Finally, around midnight, he showed up. There materialized around us more and more men, almost all young, mostly dark and wiry.
It was time for Selichot.
The tremendous bellowing and intense intent of those men lifted me off the slick plaza with its artificial radiance and up into the sky, which was black and dry and had no limit.
At certain times and places when the spirit takes and the words from the book come strong, men — not the fairer sex; clumsy, gauche and graceless — pray in a way only they can.
“Like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber; like a champion rejoicing to run his course.”
The psalm is speaking of the sun.
Sons, too, may find themselves within it.