The Prayer Habit That [Sort Of] Stuck

Backstory: The Three Spiritual “Goals”

When I moved out of my parents’ house, I had three spiritual “goals” for myself.

  1. Starting some form of daily prayer
  2. Saying a blessing before and after eating
  3. Keep a fully kosher kitchen

I use the term “goals” pretty loosely because they were really “things I thought I would like to do” vs. “things I am actively making a plan and taking measurable steps towards achieving” – I have never set a true “actively making a plan and taking measurable steps towards achieving” goal in my life.

The only goal that actually got achieved is #3 largely because my mother did pretty much all of the work because she is the nicest person in the world and also because I am useless and incompetent. I did wind up keeping Shabbat, although that actually wasn’t one of those original spiritual goals. That happened because I got into a stupid argument with my mother (the aforementioned nicest person in the world) and in the midst of argument, I told her I wasn’t breaking Shabbat anymore.

But that is besides the point. The point is that even though #1 & #2 were the low-hanging fruit with no requirements other than will and discipline, (unlike #3, which required learning about the laws of kashrut, purchasing new cookware and utensils and/or re-kashering existing ones for meat, dairy, pareve, and just generally not screwing the whole kitchen up) they didn’t happen.

Anyway, this post will focus on #1, the daily prayer (although #2 deserves its own blog post at some point).

I feel weird representing myself with this stock photo of an Orthodox man davening (praying), because that’s not really what I was envisioning for myself, but most of the other search results for “prayer” didn’t feel representative either.
Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

Why Daily Prayer?

I flirted with Orthodoxy in high school and college and even a bit after college. I mean flirting in the literal sense; the “Eitan” character in this poem is based on a real person. I also found myself romanticizing the idea of becoming Orthodox. I didn’t necessarily see myself praying daily (or multiple times daily) with the synagogue community. Especially because in Orthodox Judaism, women don’t count towards a minyan (quorum needed for key prayers), so although the local Orthodox synagogue would have welcomed me (which isn’t always a given….), my presence at daily minyan would not actually have benefitted them.

Still, I liked the idea of some form of daily individual prayer by myself in my room. I felt that I had been richly blessed and that it was appropriate to thank G-d for the blessings in my life. I didn’t feel a need to necessarily recite the full Shacharit (morning) service, but certainly an abbreviated version would be appropriate, right?

This was the goal. Photo by Ashkan Forouzani on Unsplash

I also had romanticized the idea that taking on the observances of Orthodox Judaism would turn me from a person who was hopeless at time management and maintaining any kind of routine to a person who excelled at good habits. Like going from useless duckling to functional adult swan.

I picture this swan thinking “WTF, JYP!” Photo by Jasmin on Unsplash

I’ve written before about how I learned that if you suck at time management and then attempt to become Orthodox, you remain bad at time management. Unsurprisingly, if I wasn’t a creature of routine, Orthodoxy wasn’t going to make me one. And in fact, I am not a creature of routine or habit. I don’t wake up, got to bed, drink coffee, eat breakfast, leave for work, or do anything else at the same time day to day. I’ve tried many times, but I’ve never managed to make any habit, be it a gym habit or a skin care regimen, last for more than a day or two at best at a time. So daily prayer, even the minimal amount I was shooting for, also failed to last.

The Habit That Oddly Stuck

A few years after graduation, a former college classmate of mine was killed in a freak car accident. We weren’t close, but we’d had a few classes together and were friendly.

The next morning, I got in my car to go to work, and I found myself saying the Modeh Ani, which is traditionally said immediately upon waking up to thank G-d for restoring one’s soul. I did the same thing the next morning, and the next and so on and so on. This went on for years of commuting weekdays. Impressive given my track record.

You’re really not supposed to recite normal daily prayers in your car. You’re supposed to pray with the appropriate props – siddur (prayer book), tallit (prayer shawl), etc. You’re supposed to create a sacred space and say them with intention. Even during the pandemic, congregations and communities put out tips on how to create sacred space at home for virtual services.

But in a way, reciting Modeh Ani in the car made sense to me. I saw the Modeh Ani prayer as essentially about thanking G-d for giving me another day. Statistically speaking, driving is the most dangerous thing we do every day. But maybe I’m just trying to make myself feel better.

Self-portrait of me seeking spirituality (or trying to rationalize failure to meet my spiritual goal). Image by Pexels from Pixabay

Then there was coronavirus and I stopped doing any form of regular commuting, which ended my Modeh Ani habit. Not to say I didn’t attempt daily prayer again, but really never managed anything more than a two-day consecutive streak.

37 comments

  1. Habits are best formed slowly, a little at a time. Don’t try to suddenly start doing all three full prayer services a day, it will overwhelm you. You already know Modeh Ani. Try doing it in the morning whenever you remember. Don’t worry about getting it perfect. In time you will remember to do it when you wake up and you won’t even think about it.
    You could also try reciting some of the blessings over food before you eat, they are short and easy to remember.

    Liked by 1 person

    • True, though I have learned at this point that I am simply the kind of person for whom habit does not come naturally. You sound like you speak from experience. What habit(s), spiritual or otherwise, have you taken on?

      I’ll have to write a whole other about the blessings before and after meals!

      Like

  2. The path to returning to Judaism was very slow for my husband and me. We took small steps over a period of several years. I always say that, thankfully, G-d is patient, cuz it takes us forever to do anything. Sincerely talking to G-d in your own words is praying. And the fact that you’re looking for Him is truly meaningful.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. I don’t love everything about the “it’s a marathon, not a sprint” because there’s an implication that we’re all traveling the same distance to the same destination, and marathons are still competitive, but I do think there’s truth to the idea that a spiritual journey in particular isn’t a race or a sprint. Your journey sounds beautiful and meaningful as well.

      Like

    • Thank you, and I probably should have given some context. There are things that I’m pretty good / competent at [leyning, my job, basic math literacy, writing poetry, singing, etc.]. There are other things in which I have much less competency [building and maintaining an organizational system that works for a given space, time management, interior design, writing fiction, etc.] Yes, skills can always be learned and no one should be complacent with incompetence. But without question, some things come easier than others.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. You’re spot-on as usual. I’ve barely met any of the few goals I’ve set. Sometimes I write down something I just did and then cross it off so I feel like I accomplished what I had set out to do all along. I set religious goals and fail them all the time. I see people at church who keep up these strenuous daily prayer routines while still holding down jobs and volunteering, while I hardly do anything. I think I romanticize the idea of a strict religious life, too. There’s some sort of appeal in regulating your life in that way. It’s hard to explain to people who think it’s nonsense. I think I sort of understand what you’re doing.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I have the same issue, in that my life is so wildly unscheduled that it’s hard to work in something time-sensitive like daily prayer. I feel like if it were the sort of thing I could pick up at whatever point in the day suited me on whichever day, I’d be able to do it, but as it is I haven’t had much success. I know a lot of people trying to get into daily prayer start with Modeh Ani, and that seems like a nice idea, but first thing in the morning is generally not a time when I am at my best. For a while I was doing well with the bedtime Shema, but I broke my streak and haven’t been so consistent about it lately.

    I will say that at one point I lived in a very Orthodox neighborhood in New York and commuted on the subway, and every day there’d be many, many women davening. Praying while commuting is definitely a thing.

    Liked by 3 people

    • The point re: morning vs. other times of day is interesting. I wasn’t dead set on abbreviated Shacharit vs. Mincha (already fairly abbreviated) or Ma’ariv, but I felt morning was more likely to successful vs. trying to start a prayer habit during other parts of the day. Turns out that wasn’t really the case, but I’m not sure afternoon or evening would be any more successful

      Liked by 1 person

  5. This is not at all the point of your post, but I think it’s cute how you describe your Mom in this post and your Dad in a previous post… you write of them with such genuine love and affection. Super sweet.


    David

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Even if you’re not one to pray daily, getting on the roads out here you find yourself taking G-d’s name in vain, asking forgiveness, and thanking G-d for his mercy many times between point A and point B as you steer clear of accidents, and as you try especially hard to not piss off other drivers as much as they are pissing you off, because they might start shooting at you. But seriously, commuting is a great time to pray. Although, I’ve been listening to a lot of lectures of religion, theology and history while commuting lately.

    Liked by 3 people

    • There is a lot of meaningful prayer to be said during a daily commute, that is for sure! Imagine if everyone (myself included) whose first reaction is road rage defaulted to prayers of gratitude instead. Driving from point A to point B might actually become a pleasant, safe, and even enjoyable.
      That’s fascinating re: lectures on religion, theology, etc. Do you have any recommendations?

      Liked by 2 people

      • Are you familiar with The Great Courses Series: https://www.thegreatcourses.com? We have a lot of their courses on religion, history, mathematics, language, history, science, English, philosophy, psychology and I’m probably forgetting a few. I have not purchased any in the last ten years or so, so the ones I listen to are a little older courses.

        Right now I’m listening to Science and Religion taught by Lawrance M. Principe, John Hopkins University. It’s a fantastic course. If you have any interest in Christian Theology, the History of Christian Theology is excellent also. That course is taught by Professor Philip Carry of Eastern University. There are courses for about any interest. I never pay full price for a course. I always get them when they are on sale. I also get the audio courses because the only time I listen to them is in the car. I don’t have the time or patience to watch the courses on video.

        Liked by 2 people

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