Shabbat Shalom Magazine

Written by: A. Hadas

The Mimetic Act of Prayer

We often witness, in our religious circles, attempts to embellish prayer to give it an artistic twist. Prayers are either chanted or sung, and the words are ordered with care and harmony. Yet, prayer is already, in essence, artistic. Prayer and art, as we shall see, operate in similar ways and have similar ends. In fact, they share a common concept: that of “imitation” (mimesis).

This concept plays an important role in Aristotelian esthetics. But the clearest account of the way this “imitation” works is found in his cosmology. In his “Physics,” Aristotle describes nature as “imitating” the divine order. But this imitation is not a carbon copy of the divine. Indeed, the divine is eternal and immutable. Yet, nature’s “imitation” of the divine order takes on the form of movement; it is through movement that nature imitates the immutability of the divine order. Of course, this movement is not a chaotic one, but a movement that has a direction and a purpose. This movement is the closest imitation of the divine that nature can render.

In much the same way, art is an imitation of nature. But again, we are not dealing with copies or reproductions of nature. A great work of art is not one that reproduces every single detail of its model. Indeed, what we imitate in art is the natural beauty of nature, in much the same way that, in dance, the lightness and grace of nature are achieved through technical means.

But art has a second function. Art imitates the divine order by changing chaos into meaning. Art is that which takes the indeterminacy of matter and gives it a form—that is, a meaning, a sense, a direction. Art is the product of matter and the divine breath of harmony, order, and stability, and as such, it is said to “imitate” the divine.

What is then the relation between art and prayer? Like art, prayer has an “imitative” end. We pray to become better people for a better world. Prayer expresses our desire that this world be like the kingdom of God. Indeed, we pray for this world to “imitate” the divine order of things. But again, this imitation is not a copy of the divine reality. Nature imitates the divine not by ceasing all activity so as to become immutable, but through movement. Likewise, we “imitate” the kingdom of God through prayer, not by contemplation but through action. Action is the only means we have to “imitate” the divine order of things. Prayer should be intimately linked to action. Only as such can it hope to achieve the closest “imitation” of the kingdom of God.

In Jewish tradition, prayer merges with action, to the point that action becomes a prayer. This is what Abraham Heschel meant in his message for the youth: build your “life as if it were a work of art,”* that everything you do be like a prayer. That is, everything you do has a given form—a direction, a sense, a goal.

But what is this form that prayer is to achieve? In what direction is prayer to guide action? Like art, prayer aims at giving form to the indeterminacy and fragmentation of matter. Jewish and Christian traditions lie in this indeterminacy like irreconcilable fragments. The New Covenant doesn’t understand the role of the Old. The Old Covenant has no need for the New. Each relies on its own self-sufficiency and cannot make sense of the other. And yet, there is something in their juxtaposition that begs for meaning. Only an artist can make sense of this mess. Likewise, prayer becomes the means by which we bring together these fragments of revelation into a direction, a harmonious whole. And thereby, prayer fulfills its deepest essence as Tikkun, gathering unto itself the wandering sparks of two traditions that have lost sight of each other.

*Abraham J. Heschel, I Asked for Wonder: A Spiritual Anthology (New York: Crossroad, 1983), 63.

Image: "Aristoteles" (1811) by Francesco Hayez (1791–1882). Public Domain

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