Rabbi Akiva was a great first-century Jewish teacher and spiritual leader. He spent a lot of time in prayer - both in community and in private.
The Talmud in Berachot 31a (the central text of Rabbinic Judaism) says, “When Rabbi was with the congregation, he would pray quickly so as not to be a burden on those praying with him [who would respectfully wait for him to finish.] But when he prayed alone, one could leave him in one corner and afterwards find him in another corner, due to his many bows and prostrations.”
Two levels of prayer
From this account, we see that Rabbi Akiva prayed in two very different ways.
In public he aligned himself with the level of prayer of the congregation – focussing on the meaning of the words.
But, when he was alone, he allowed himself to pray at a higher level – really letting himself go, in body, mind and spirit, as he sought to come into the presence of God. Often this meant he started praying in one part of a room and, quite obliviously, would find himself somewhere else by the end of his prayer. You could say that he allowed the Holy Spirit to pray within him.
The Shulchan AruchI (a legal code in Judaism) describes this state, saying ‘Devout and pious individuals would seclude themselves. They would direct their thoughts in prayer until they succeeded in divesting themselves from their physicality and expanding their state of consciousness. Then they would attain a level close to that of prophecy.’
All prayer has value
I believe that God hears every prayer – whether we simply focus on the words or allow the Holy Spirit to pray within us.
We couldn’t all pray in the Spirit – at this ‘higher’ level - in a church service without creating disorder and probably discomfort in some members of the congregation. So, out of respect and courtesy to others, we constrain our prayers.
But when we are in private we can allow the Holy Spirit to pray within us. And, when we do this, we might find ourselves kneeling or prostrating ourselves, lifting up our hands, maybe dancing, maybe speaking in tongues. If no one is watching (except God) then who cares?
When Rabbi Akiva prayed by himself, his prayer was not the reserved, dignified prayer of the community. It was an intense and ecstatic service of God.
So this Lent, try drawing closer to God through prayer. In prayer at church and with others. But also in the privacy of your room, as Rabbi Akivah did, and see how uplifting and exciting prayer can be.