Prayer And Study


We conclude our series with the sixth paradox of story: Prayer is offered through study.

Most of us tend to make a distinction between the scholar and the saint, to separate the intellectual and the spiritual life. As Tertullian in the third century remarked with disdain, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” Our equivalent today would be, “What does the Monastery have to do with Harvard?” This spiritual life and the academic life do not mix. And so we have kept them apart. We have fostered a strain of anti-intellectualism in spite of a sterling tradition of many systems of thought in our church. The result is that some intellectuals have a positive horror of the emotional and pious in religion, and ordinary people have a suspicion of the theologian who does not pray. And both sides conclude that there is no connection between prayer and study. But in Judaism the scholar and the saint are one. Mind and heart are both pleasing to God. The academic and the spiritual can never be separated, which is why there is a Jewish saying that “No table is blessed if there is not a scholar to eat at it.” For them an ignorant man cannot be pious. And that is why Teyve in the play/film Fiddler on the Roof really wants to be a rich man so he can spend seven hours a day discussing the Holy Books with the Wise Men!

One day the Rabbi Hersh had displeased God and was transported with his faithful scribe to a distant, uncharted island where they were promptly taken prisoners by a band of pirates. Never had the master been so stunned and so resigned.

“Master” the scribe pleaded, “do something, say something!”

“I can’t,” Rabbi Hersh said, “my powers are gone.”

“What about your secret knowledge, your divine gifts. What happened to them?”

“Gone, forgotten,” said the master, “disappeared, vanished. All my knowledge has been taken away; I remember nothing.”

But when he saw his scribe’s despair, he was moved to pity. “But,” he said, “don’t give up. We still have one chance. You are here and that is good. For you can save us. There must be one thing I taught that you can remember. Anything – a parable, a prayer – anything will do.”

Unfortunately, the scribe too had forgotten everything. Like his master, he was a man without a memory.

“You really remember nothing?” the master asked again, “nothing at all?”

“Nothing, master, nothing at all. . . except. . .”

“Except what?”

“Except the first letters of the alphabet.”

“Then what are you waiting for, man?” shouted the master excitedly, “start reciting. Start reciting – Right now!”

Obedient as always, the scribe proceeded to recite slowly, painfully, the first of the sacred letters which together contain all the mysteries of the universe. “Aleph, beth, gimel, daleth. . .”

Then they started all over again, from the beginning, and their voices became stronger and clearer: aleph, beth, gimel, daleth. . . until the rabbi became so excited, so entranced, that he forgot who and where he was. And when the rabbi was in such ecstasy, nothing could resist him; that is well known.

Oblivious to the world, he transcended the laws of time and geography. He broke the chains and revoked the punishment, and master and scribe found themselves back home, unharmed, richer, wiser, and more nostalgic than ever before.

Learning had saved them.

Such are the six paradoxes of story we have shared: catching us off guard, sneaking by our defenses, and opening us up to unexpected mystery, we adults who tend to disdain the story somewhat and who extol only logic and “good sense” are currently being invited into narrative theology. We are being solicited to learn of God as the Bible wants us to, by way of the heart and imagination. We are being asked to learn a language again that resonates with rich metaphor and image. Too long we have been trapped in the perfect square of a stylized laboratory where all things are subject to our measurements. We are being called back to the enticing and foreboding mansion of our Father’s house where, becoming like little children (a stated condition), we are more vulnerable, more subjected to his cunning love. Like this:

It once happened that a certain woman in Sidon lived with her husband for ten years without giving birth to a child. Following the law that in those days governed such matters, they went to Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai to arrange for a divorce.

The rabbi said to them: “By your life! Just as you had a festive banquet when you got married, so you should not separate now without first having a festive banquet.”

They followed the rabbi’s advice and prepared a great banquet. During the banquet the woman gave her husband more to drink than usual. When he was in high spirits, he said to his wife: “Little daughter, you may take with you out of my house whatever you like best; and then return to the house of your father.”

What did she do?

After he had fallen asleep, she ordered her manservants and her maidservants to take him and the bed upon which he was sleeping to her father’s house. About midnight the man awoke. When his intoxication had worn off, he looked around in astonishment. “Little daughter,” he said, “Where am I?” “You are,” she replied, “in my father’s house.” But what business do I have in your father’s house?” She replied, “Don’t you remember your telling me last night that I may take with me whatever I like best when I return to my father’s house? Nothing in the whole world do I like better than you!”

They then went again to Rabbi ben Yohai. The Rabbi prayed for her and the woman became pregnant.

There is nothing in the whole world that God likes better than us. He is calling us back to our childhood (not childish) openness of mystery and love. Stories carry us back to the richness of our Father’s house.