I remember reading a scholarly discussion of the "sermon on the mount" back in the mid-seventies, which made reference to the words in Aramaic that Jesus would have used. The New Testament people read today has been so—to put it mildly—drastically altered, that most of his original meaning and intent have been lost. Even the word "prayer," which would seem pretty fundamental, is no longer used as Jesus used it (according to that scholar of Aramaic, whose name, sadly, I have forgotten).
He explained that the Aramaic word Jesus used for prayer, "zlotha," meant "to cast one's net." The intent there had nothing in common with the pleading associated with religious notions of prayer. Rather, it indicated setting an intention of openness, an inner stillness, in order to commune with the divine. It was not about asking for something—least of all the outcome of an illness, war, or sporting event—but about becoming receptive to what is already present.
I’m not religious, so why is any of this important, let alone interesting to me? There is something universal that drives all human beings, a profound and powerful thirst.
Religion—in its purest form—is an external effort to give that thirst expression. I see an underlying flaw with the religious approach, however: what we thirst for is not external, but internal. We can talk about the object of that thirst, imagine a little about what it might be, perhaps agree on an abritrary definition of it, even sign hymns in praise of it, but unless the thirst itself is addressed, unvarnished and unmitigated, none of these activities bring us even close to quenching it.
Belief is at best unhelpful, because it is, in effect, a patch that covers the gap of ignorance, an artificial replacement for actual knowing. It's like a wall that separates a person from the discomfort of not knowing—an anesthetic whose sole function is to dull the craving we have to finally know the “Truth.” The one that sets you free. Ultimately, belief is the cruelest kind of thief, because it makes us think we have found what we’ve been looking for. It lets us assume we can relax and call off the search. But it doesn’t really work, because belief is not the authentic peace of knowing; it’s only a pacifier that temporarily deafens us to the cry of the heart. And we have so little time to find what we genuinely yearn for.
Thirst is my best friend. It's far too real to be institutionalized, made into a slogan, or reduced to a belief system. I’ve come to understand that I must never ignore it, cover it up, or misplace it. I need to fully acknowledge it and admire it as the wonderful ally it is. Most of all, I need to implicitly trust and follow it, wherever it wants me to go. It’s not foreign; it’s the longing of my own heart. It's beautiful, a sublime emptiness that absolutely must be fulfilled. Without it, I would be truly lost. Again and again, it has taken me to that stillness within where peace reveals itself to be both still and dynamic, pulsing with pure joy.