“We are losing the power for self-expression, because genuine self-expression is an answer to an ultimate question, but we do not hear the ultimate question any more,” remarks Abraham Joshua Heschel. The rabbi, in his book Man’s Quest for God, explores the ways perpetual self-concern displaces the divine:
It is hard to define religion; but surely one thing may be said negatively: religion is not expediency. If all our actions are guided by one consideration—how best to serve our personal interests—it is not God whom we serve but the self.
True, the self has its legitimate claims and interests; the persistent denial of the self, the defiance of one’s own desire for happiness is not what God demands. But to remember that the love of God is for all men, for all creatures; to remember His love and His claim to love in making a decision—this is the way He wants us to live.
In many ways the season of Lent is an invitation to retune our hearts to this reality—which Heschel summarizes: “God is of no importance unless He is of supreme importance.” This binary doesn’t answer our need for self-fulfillment as much as it displaces the importance of the desire entirely.
True prayer expands our hopes, desires, and joys beyond the limits of our own lives. Feelings are, by nature, self-centered—true prayer is God-seeking and kingdom-focused. Rabbi Heschel explains:
Prayer takes the mind out of the narrowness of self-interest, and enables us to see the world in the mirror of the holy. For when we betake ourselves to the extreme opposite of the ego, we can behold a situation from the aspect of God.
The focus of prayer is not the self. A man may spend hours meditating about himself, or be stirred by the deepest sympathy for his fellow man, and no prayer will come to pass. Prayer comes to pass in a complete turning of the heart toward God, toward His goodness and power. It is the momentary disregard of our personal concerns, the absence of self-centered thoughts, which constitute the art of prayer.
Feeling becomes prayer in the moment in which we forget ourselves and become aware of God. Thus, in beseeching Him for bread, there is one instant, at least, in which our mind is directed neither to our hunger nor to food, but to His mercy. This instant is prayer.