from The Thirteen Petalled Rose by Adin Steinsaltz

There is another and deeper problem: that of self-delusion. Just as people sometimes delude themselves that they are “in love,” so can they believe that they are praying, that they are having a religious experience, even though it is only a false spirituality. A person may think he is in communion with holiness, in a state of divine love or fear–yet he is experiencing no more than illusions: not an experience coming from a true inner soul connection, but from an almost physiological phenomenon. A person finds himself in a certain atmosphere, in the company of others who enhance that mood; he is exposed to music or scents, and he responds. By way of analogy, sometimes when one person yawns, everyone else follows suit–not because they are tired, but simply as an imitative mechanism.

The same can occur in prayer: a person wraps himself in a prayer shawl and sways back and forth, and he imagines that he is religiously moved; the focus and tension caused by the atmosphere, by the fact that he is standing and reciting words of prayer, appear to him to be a meaningful experience. He may sing as he prays and believe that he has been swept up in the love of God–but in truth this might be merely an external movement–a prayer tune but not a prayer…

A false prayer experience may be compared to the phenomenon known as false pregnancy. A woman shows all the signs of pregnancy, from morning sickness to an extended belly to birth pangs; but in the end there is nothing–only the illusion of pregnancy. The proof of authenticity is whether something has been brought into the world. If there is nothing but air, then there was nothing but air from the very beginning.

If after religious rapture passes, nothing remains, the absence of emotion indicates that all along it was no more than the imitation of true feeling. The value of a person’s prayer lies not in how much he cried out, how much he swayed, nor even how strong his emotions were, but in what remains of his experience after the prayers are over.