Saturday, March 6, 2010

Prayer for the Fast, Part 4

Thou seest me, O my God, holding to Thy Name, the Most Holy, the Most Luminous, the Most Mighty, the Most Great, the Most Exalted, the Most Glorious, and clinging to the hem of the robe to which have clung all in this world and in the world to come.

This part of the prayer has me stumped: the refrain, or the chorus. Some even refer to it as a mantra, although it seems a bit long for a mantra, but I digress.

I have long wondered at the construct of this part of the prayer, especially as it is repeated so often, and the most familiar way I know to study something like this is to dissect it, if I can use that phrase here.

"Thou seest me, O my God" speaks to the fact that God knows all. This seems to me to be an important reminder during the fast as it is quite easy to sneak off and grab a bite, or a drink, without anyone else seeing. God will see, however. Some may see this is a form of a threat, as in "God will punsih you", but I don't see it that way. To my way of thinking, it is a self-evident fact, and reminds us of the consequences of our actions.

To better explain this, we need to look at the reasons for fasting and what it does for us. On the most basic level, there are simple health benefits. A twelve-hour fast, repeated over so many days, aids our digestive system in becoming more efficient, allowing us to get more nutrition out the food we consume. Some claim that this also has the benefit of helping clean out various toxins from our body, and that can't be bad, can it?

Fasting also gives us those little hunger pangs throughout the day, offering a simple reminder of the spiritual activity in which we are engaged. Too often in the busy rush of day to day life, we forget the spiritual and are focussed on the material. These little pangs are like a tiny bell catching our attention, but are not distracting us too much.

Then there are the multitude of spiritual benefits. For starters, it is "the supreme remedy and the most great healing for the disease of self and passion". It is also one of the "two wings to man's life", obligatory prayer being the other. Fasting is considered, by Baha'u'llah, as both the Sun and as a fortress. "...Inwardly it is bounty and tranquillity". In short, "There are various stages and stations for the Fast and innumerable effects and benefits are concealed therein. Well is it with those who have attained unto them."

All of this is only if we have kept the fast. You can, for example, go to the gym and say that you will exercise. But if you get there and sit in the hot tub all day, even if nobody else sees you, you won't get any of the benefits of exercising. But, at the same time, we should also remember that God is the One Who decides whether or not we have done it.

That simple phrase, "Thou seest me, O my God", implies, in my opinion, that the effects of our actions will always occur, whether or not anyone else sees us.

Now this should not be seen in the sense of guilt, but rather just as a simple consequence. I feel it is important to do what we can to rid ourselves of this unhealthy concept of guilt, as there is nothing in the Baha'i Faith that pushes it. When we read this beautiful prayer, Baha'u'llah is not trying to guilt us into obedience, but rather is trying to help us see the joy of obedience. It is as if He is enticing us to try it, and overcome the difficulties involved. Perhaps that is why there is so much in here about asking for help: He knows it is not easy.

"Holding": what can be containd within so simple a verb? To hold means "to have or keep in the hand; keep fast; grasp", and it implies a firmness in the grasp. When I think of holding, especially "holding to Thy Name", I feel that, again, it is not something that is easy to do. There is a degree of will-power that is involved, along with the temptation to just let go, because the effort required is quite high.

But what is it to which we are holding? "Thy Name"? Not just any name, but "Thy Name, the Most Holy, the Most Luminous, the Most Mighty, the Most Great, the Most Exalted, the Most Glorious".

For me, I always try and keep in mind that any of these attributes of God are contained within us in the "lower case". If God is the Most Holy, then we need to remember that we, too, are holy. By keeping a firm grip on that Name means, I think, that we remember our own holiness and live that in our life. Fasting, as mentioned above, helps us in that regard. It helps heal us of the "disease of self and passion" and offers a wing to our life, allowing us to fly.

But rather than trying to merely look at each individual attribute, my wife suggested looking at the flow of all the attributes together. This flow, she said, is like the sunrise for her, and as that fits in so well with the rest of the prayer, I will use that as my outline.

"The Most Holy" is like that first glimmering of light upon the horizon slowly moving us towards "The Most Luminous", in which the light in the sky is beginning to spread from horizon to horizon.

"Holy" means "recognized as sacred", "spiritually pure", "entitled to worship", and "inspiring fear and awe". These all, to me, indicate something that is a distance from us and speak of something immeasurably higher than we are. God, quite easily, can be seen as "the Most Holy", and I don't think I need to explain why. However, if I were looking for a metaphor in nature, I could easily say that it reminds me of the sun, but as I write those words, I realize that it doesn't. It reminds me of my memory of the sun, describing my inner feelings, and fails to mention any of the actual attributes of the sun itself that inspired those feelings in the first place.

It is only natural that we move from there to "the Most Luminous", as we begin to see the effects of the radiance of the sun as it brightens the early morning sky. We may watch the sky beginning to change appearance and wonder why. We may feel that tremor of excitement as we begin to sense that something radical and transformative is about to occur.

From there, we slowly get an idea of the strength of it as we move into "the Most Mighty". This growing luminesence is not just another twinkling of a star in the night. It is so much more than that. It is, truly, "the Most Great": unusual in its size and intensity, and of a considerably high degree. Both of these attributes speak, to me, of the intensity and power of what it is we are witnessing.

Next comes "the Most Exalted", the highest in rank and quality, the One that is most praised. "Exalt" also means "to intensify" or "to elate". As all this is occurring, as the sky is lightening, we, too, are becoming brighter. While God may be the Most Exalted, we, too, become exalted as we stand in His glory. The sun begins to shine in the morning, and we become brighter as the rays reflect off our skin. It is like the cold piece of iron that is placed near the fire. It loses its attributes of coldness, dullness and hardness and becomes warmer, brighter and may even begin to soften. As we stand in the sunshine, we gain some of the attributes of the sun. Our skin begins to shine, we become warmer, and we just begin to feel better.

This leads us to "the Most Glorious". "Glorious" means delightful; wonderful; completely enjoyable; brilliantly beautiful or magnificent; splendid; and also conferring glory. As the sun is now fully in the sky, and we can parttake of its full splendour, we are now ready to face the day and are just beginning to show forth some of the attributes of our Creator. We also begin to see these attributes in all those around us, which leads us into the next phrase.

"And clinging to the hem of the robe to which have clung all in this world and in the world to come."

This, in the end, is a beautiful expression of unity. We have all drawn together, united in our efforts, singular in our praise.

It is like the Writings, to which we all cling as we try and come together as a unified community. They are what draw us in. They are what keep us together. Those Writings are the pure and unstained centre around which we all revolve. And they are where we draw our inspiration.

Of course, I also get a lot of my inspiration from my wife, who showed me a beautiful way to look at this piece of the prayer.

1 comment:

  1. Mead,
    Thank you for focusing on this. The refrain is, I think, what attracted me to this prayer to begin with. Your wife's sunrise analogy, which you open up so beautifully, is a new way for me to think of this - and something I will share with others.

    More thoughts about the refrain. First, the speed at which we say it. Slower is better. How else can we feel the celestial feelings that are prompted by these names of God?

    Thelma Khelghati brought this to my attention years ago, when I was part of a large teaching initiative in South Carolina. (I was a college youth and she was not yet a Khelgati or a Counsellor). She noted with humor that we Northerners tended to pray faster than friends in the South. Her observaton stayed with me, and I feel the truth of it more now than I did then. It has to do with listening at a deeper level, and responding to the words with one's heart and spirit, as well as mind.

    I would also say that this refrain functions, as I think all the revealed prayers do, as an out-of-time reference to the state at which we will arrive. We begin with budding, but the fruit is potentially there. As in 'Abdu'l-Baha's words on laying the cornerstone of the House of Worship in Wilmette, "The temple is already built."

    It is difficult to capture in words the experience itself. We experience the celestial feelings prompted by the refrain, to whatever degree we are able at any particular time we say it. The experience deepens as we mature, but it is essentially the same experience, only in greater depth - the growing nearer to God that is about the mystical connection with our Creator, and which is, writes Shoghi Effendi, the heart of true religion.

    Ahh, a time for Rumi, who says all these things better.