By Janet Ruth Falon (Elkins Park, PA)
For several decades I’ve written what I call liturgical readings – sometimes called “additional readings” in a service — but I never penned a “real” prayer until recently when I was asked to lead a personal-prayer-writing workshop for a few hundred people at a local synagogue (Beth Sholom in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, the only synagogue designed by Frank Lloyd Wright), helping people write prayers for big and little personal events that don’t occur in the synagogue; sort of the next step after using the prayers that already exist for things like seeing a rainbow, wearing new clothes, etc.
With a quick deadline for teaching the class, I talked with one of Beth Sholom’s rabbis about the basics of writing a prayer, and read through Talking to God, Naomi Levy’s wonderful collection of personal prayers, the type I intended to teach. In creating my class and writing my sample prayers, I followed a few guidelines, only enough to ground myself: I could mention God by “name” or not, and I could use any of the varieties such as “Compassionate One,” “Rock,” etc. Additionally, it was okay for me to pray for or about something “un-synagogue-like,” such as the already canonized prayers for wearing new clothes or using the bathroom. In general, I felt the prayer should end with an “amen.” I also believe that God doesn’t have supernatural powers, so while I couldn’t ask God to cure my friend’s cancer, I could pray for the strength and love to be a good friend for her.
Throughout it all, I kept reminding myself that writing a prayer is an active and personal way for me to talk with God. It’s the opportunity to verbalize my core values. Prayer is the voice of my heart and soul. That was the bottom line.
I always experiment with creating a genre of writing before teaching it, so I tapped into what was on my mind; what came up was my 88-year-old mother, who had made a tremendous effort to come from another city to attend the first seder at my house. So I wrote A Prayer for my Elderly Mother:
Fortify me, Compassionate One, as I help my elderly mother make life-altering changes. Teach me patience as I support her in keeping true to herself. Help me make my contact with her loving and clear in spite of complications we’ve had in the past. Be there with me as I hold her hand as she moves forward, and given her age, support me in trying to make each communication with her end with loving words. And please, help me balance the needs of my mother with the needs of my daughter, and nourish me with a bottomless well of courage and stamina. Amen.
A few days later, I had breakfast for a former boyfriend who I hadn’t had a real conversation in more than 25 years. It was great to catch up, and it reminded me of what I had loved about him. Simultaneously, I was reminded of what would have been the downfall of our relationship. As we chatted I found myself thinking “Thank God I didn’t marry this man” – and I realized that I could take that thought a step further and actually thank God, directly, that I hadn’t married him. I realized that anytime I thought or said “thank God,” or “oh my God,” or “God forbid” – or any phrase including a mention of God — there was an opportunity for me to actually connect with God.
So when I got home I wrote my Prayer About Meeting With an Old Boyfriend:
Thank you, God, for giving me the foresight to know that marriage to this man would not have been a happy one in the long run. I am grateful to you for supporting me with enough self-awareness, and strength, to make a difficult choice in spite of all my longing to find my life partner. Remind me of the important lessons I learned in my relationship with him. Finally, please underscore my hope that he has a joyful, loving life with his partner of choice, as I have with mine. Amen.
And a few days after that, my financial planner was asking my husband and me about medical conditions that might make it more difficult for us to qualify for long-term-care insurance. He went through a long list of diseases and disabilities which, thankfully, we don’t have. At the end, I thought, “I should write a prayer thanking God for our good middle-aged health” – which became the first in a growing list of personal prayers for me to write. Frankly, even just recognizing the possibility of a prayer, even if I never write it, is a new way for me to enhance my spiritual life.
Tuning into “If I just ‘thanked God’ then I should go ahead and actually thank God” as the source of possible prayer-writing is a wonderful new mindset. I’ve tuned into my own experiences with the awareness that many dimensions of my life, however seemingly trivial or mundane, could be appropriate sources of prayer.
I’ve also begun to play with with other formats for writing prayers, such as a haiku (a poem in which the first line has five syllables, the second has seven syllables, and the third has five syllables):
Lord, fill me up with courage
That doesn’t run out
To face what has to be done
I’ve also experimented with an acrostic (a poem in which you write a meaningful word vertically, and then each line of the poem opens with a word whose first letter is determined by the word you wrote vertically; in mine, I used “gratitude” as the key word.)
God, I never
Realized how important it is for
A person like myself
To grapple with the Torah
In search of meaning
Thank you for
Doing all you do, which
Enables me to stretch and grow
And I wrote a more traditional poem, too, which I called “Thank you for Fruit”:
We ate your apples at the seder, Adonai,
Their flesh off-white, like day-old ice
as if they’d never seen the sun
all covered by a blanket of thick skin
Stuff to keep the doctor away
softened by wine and walnuts
But now it’s time for your strawberries
the color of sunburn on a green-eyed girl
Heart-shaped, wearing green collars
that remind us where they came from
and as sweet as the honeysuckle smells.
Another gift from you, summer, is just beyond the bend.
You don’t have to be a “good writer” – however you define that term– to write a prayer. You don’t have to be an observant Jew, or someone with great knowledge about Judaism. All you need is to tune into yourself and be receptive to your own thoughts. All you need is the desire to be in some sort of relationship, and to share yourself, with God.
Janet Ruth Falon is a Philadelphia-based award-winning writer and writing teacher. She is eager to teach workshops about how to write personal prayers; please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. She is also the author of The Jewish Journaling Book, and is writing liturgy for all the Jewish holidays, hoping to compile it into a book entitled In the Spirit of the Holidays.