Thursday, September 30, 2010

Respectful Prayer

So there I was, sitting with my son while eating dinner this evening, and we got to talking about prayer. Specifically, he asked me what it means to be respectful when praying. Now these sorts of questions don't really bother me, but guessing from the looks we got from the people near us in the restaurant, it is not the type of question a five year-old normally asks a parent.

No matter.

His question was a wonderful one, and really got me thinking. In fact, it got me thinking so much that I don't think I took a bite for a couple of minutes (and the food was really good, so that's saying something). Now, I may not have learned a lot in my life, but I do know when not to answer a question, and this seemed like the right time.

Rather than answer, I decided to question him about it instead. And this is what we came up with.

According to Shoghi, and I quite agree with him (especially since he got the answer from 'Abdu'l-Baha), prayer is when you talk to God. You show someone respect when you pay attention to them in conversation, talking directly to them when it's your turn, and listening to them when it is theirs.

I like that. Simple and to the point.

I asked him how you sit when you show respect, and he put down his fork to think about it. "Well, Papa," he said, "I think it means sitting still and comfortable." I asked him if it meant crossing your feet. "If you want." "How about kicking your legs?" "No, I don't think so."

Then I asked him how your arms should be. "I don't know. Whatever feels right, as long as you don't move them too much."

Aside, which I haven't done for far too long: At this point I was reminded of my pilgrimage, lo those many years ago. I had often wondered how Baha'is are supposed to sit when praying, and nobody had ever been able to tell me. I was always told to be respectful, but no one could say what that meant. There I was, in the Seat of the Universal House of Justice, listening to prayers, sitting in one of those beautiful chairs they use for when the pilgrims meet with the members of that institution, when a thought crossed my mind. The seven members who were present were sitting up on a small stage area while prayers were being said, and the thought was, "Hey, maybe now I can find out." After all, who would show respect better than the members of that institution? And so I peeked. (Shhh. Please don't tell anyone, especially a Counsellor. I'm sure I'll get in trouble, or something.) One of them had his legs crossed, arms folded in his lap, staring at the ceiling, while another was sitting ramrod straight, arms by his side, looking at the floor. Some were looking straight ahead, one to the left, another to the right, eyes open, eyes closed, arms folded, legs straight, every possible manner you can imagine. I would almost have sworn that one of them was even asleep, but I know that is not the case. And yet all of them showed the utmost respect and attention for the prayers (even the one who was so at peace that I almost thought he was unconscious).

And so Shoghi and I explored what it means to be respectful when praying.

We talked about the legs, the arms, where our eyes should be looking, if they're even open at all, and whether or not we should be talking ("no, unless we are the one saying the prayer"). (Oh, and if we're not, Shoghi said we should be listening very carefully to what the other person is saying.)

We asked each other about what we should focus on. I was reminded of one of the Hands of the Cause who asked another Hand if he ever, when saying the Long Obligatory  Prayer, thought about the dust bunnies under the couch. The second Hand looked shocked and replied, "You mean there are times you don't?" Shoghi agreed that we should try to stay focussed, but that it is ok if we slip. "We should just try better the next time."

Then he asked me about the prayers themselves. Do we have to say a prayer from one of the Central Figures of the Faith, or can we say our own? Well, here the Guardian said that we can say our own prayers, if we wish, but to recognize that "the revealed Word is endowed with a power of its own".

Aside number two: (Oh, two asides in one article. I must be back in form.) A number of years ago I was talking with some youth in the community (I won't say which one) about the different manners in which we, as a community, say our prayers. I said that in "our" community, where we lived, most either said them in a monotone English which put us all to sleep (and I gave an example), or chanted in Arabic or Persian, which few of us understood (and I gave an example). I pointed out that there were many other styles of prayer, such as the one favoured by the Southern Baptists. "ALLLLLLL praise, O my God, be to THEE!" And I really got into the style. Wow, they just about jumped out of their chairs. It was hilarious, and very effective. At their request I did that at the next Feast (and nearly gave this one poor woman a heart attack), and while I was saying it (quite loudly, I must admit), one of the youth jumped up and shouted "Ya! Baha'u'l'abha!" in a good ol' Southern manner. I still get tears in my eyes when I think of it.
In short, we can do whatever makes us comfortable. (Oh, with the singular exception that if we are saying a revealed prayer, we should stick to it. No adding of phrases, like "I say" or other little add-ins that happen elsewhere. I mean, Baha'u'llah did not write, "All praise, I say ALL praise, O my God be to Thee".) It is, after all, our conversation.
Shoghi and I seemed to cover most bases about what makes a prayer respectful, and what doesn't. We asked each other many questions about body posture, tone of voice, our focus, the words themselves, and anything else we could think of.

At the end of our conversation, Shoghi thought about it and said something that I think is just wonderful: "Papa, I think respect is on the inside, not the outside."
And judging by the reaction of those who were listening in, they thought it was wonderful, too.

1 comment:

  1. I love it. Thanks for sharing. I do a weekly radio talk show called Kore Issues, where I do something very similiar to your blog. on Saturday from 5-6pm CST. Check it out and please share your thoughts if you want to. is my website if you would like to check me out as well. Ya'Baha'ul'Abha!