Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Taking It for Granted

There are so many things that we just take for granted in our life.

For all of our existence, we've taken the earth for granted, and are only now beginning to be aware of just how fragile life can be. Many of us take our food, shelter, friends and even family for granted. Of course, throughout history, and even today, many of us don't, but I'm speaking in general here. We've always been reminded to be grateful for what we have, to be aware of the gifts that are bestowed upon us, as they say.

Just the other day, Shoghi, my 6 year-old son, was in a tap dance class, and was goofing off the whole time in front of the mirror. (Well, maybe not the whole time, but you get the idea.) After class, he asked me how he did, and I expressed my disappointment. The following class, I told him that if he tried to pay attention, and did well, I'd give him a handful of legos. (He just loves legos.) Wow. What a difference. He never took his eyes off his teacher, got all the moves really quickly. Even the other parents commented on his good behaviour. When he came out, he asked me how he did. "Papa," he asked, "do I get a handful of legos?" "No," I replied. "You get two handfuls!" His eyes got so wide, and he was practically crying from joy at how much I praised his behaviour. The next class he asked if he would four handfuls, and I had to explain that he wouldn't get a reward of legos every time he did well. The real reward was how he improved in his dance by paying attention, and that he shouldn't only do it in expectation of a gift. In other words, don't take it for granted.

I was reminded of all this just the other day, this concept of what it is that we take for granted. Sometimes it's the good things in life, both other times it's the way that we do things, or perceive things.

There was a group of us sitting around talking about the Faith, and we got to talking about prayers and Baha'i culture. I said that there were many things that we just presume are a part of what we think is Baha'i culture, but are really just part of the layers that we add onto it.

"Like what?"

"The way we say our prayers", was the one example that came to mind. Of course, I'm sure you recall an earlier post in which I talked a bit about the way in which we say the prayers, but that wasn't what I was thinking of the other night.

No. I was thinking, instead, about the fact that we only seem to use the revealed prayers. Oh, not there's anything wrong with them. In fact, we all know that they are far more potent than our own spontaneous prayers. But what got me was that one of the Baha'is said that it was ok for people to use spontaneous prayers, "as long as they're not Baha'i". That made me wonder. Why would spontaneous prayers be acceptable for some to say, but not others?

There are many who like to say their own prayers, and it is even part of their religious tradition. As more and more people come into the Faith, we will need to assist them in recognizing the power of the revealed prayers, but at the same time we will need to be careful not criticize them for saying their own prayers from their heart.

As Shoghi Effendi said so well, "Of course prayer can be purely spontaneous, but many of the sentences and thoughts combined in Bahá'í writings of a devotional nature are easy to grasp, and the revealed Word is endowed with a power of its own."

Now this does not contradict the guidance about specific instances, such as Feast, or the Temples, in which we are only supposed to use the revealed Word. It is, instead, to talk about those other times, in which there are no particular rules. In a letter back in 2001, the Universal House of Justice wrote, "No prohibition has been found in the Bahá'í Writings against the recitation at public gatherings of prayers other than those provided in Bahá'í Scriptures." They go on in that same letter to say, "A letter dated 8 August 1942, written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to a National Spiritual Assembly, indicates that while spontaneous prayer is permitted, the revealed verses are preferred because 'the revealed Word is endowed with a power of its own'. The friends, therefore, must use them in their own supplications with radiant joy. This does not mean, however, that in addition to such prayers, they may not, in private, use their own words whenever they feel the inclination to do so."

The question, of course, is what constitutes "in private". Some have presumed that it means whenever one is alone, but the case can be made that devotional gatherings in one's home may also be private, even though there are others present.

I think the issue here is to allow the friends the freedom to interpret the Writings in their own way, and not to judge. I, for one, have found nothing in the Writings to prohibit the use of spontaneous prayer, although we know that the revealed ones are more potent. But this is not to say that our own prayers have no potency, just that they have less than the Messenger's. No surprise that.

But I do believe that it is important to recognize our own bias in this. There are some who seem to feel that it is just plain wrong to use our own prayers, and they can make this known with a word or a glance. And this can be devastating to another. It's like the times when I say a prayer in a charismatic style. There are those who will look at me in such a manner as to imply that what I am doing is somehow wrong, or not respectful. They don't seem to realize that it is a perfectly acceptable way to pray, and preferable in many places. What they are expressing is nothing more than a cultural bias.

Back to the non-revealed prayers, though. There are many great prayers out there that are not the "revealed Word", and I would be saddened to see us lose track of them. While the prayers of St Francis of Assisi come immediately to mind, there are many others.

In fact, one of my favorite prayers, and a favorite of many of us around the world, is the one that begins, "O Lord, make me a hollow reed from which the pith of self hath been blown." And this is from Hand of the Cause of God, George Townshend.

We are at the very beginning of building a distinctly Baha'i culture, and it seems quite important to not presume that what we are doing today is somehow "it". It isn't. This distinct Baha'i culture doesn't exist yet, and most of what we think it is, is really not much more than our own cultural bias laid over some of the Baha'i teachings. "A distinctively Bahá'í culture", writes the Universal House of Justice, "will welcome an infinite diversity in regard to secondary characteristics..."

I don't think we should just take this for granted. I think we need to carefully examine each part of what we think will go into this culture, ensure that it doesn't go against the spirit of the teachings, and does not leave people out, just because it isn't part of our own personal cultural background.

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