Friday, December 2, 2011

The Long Obligatory Prayer, part 2

Well, that just sucks. I spilled tea all over my prayer book again. Why is it that you always get something wet all over your favorite book? I guess it's because you always have that book with you, so you're more likely to damage it, no matter how careful you are.

Ah well.

Would that all of life little tests were so... little.

I was looking in my drafts folder this morning, trying to see what to write about, and I noticed that there are many articles that I've begun, and many that I've said I would continue. Well, maybe I will. I mean, I'll try, but I usually write more about whatever happens to be in my field of vision at the moment, whatever it is that shows up on the radar.

Lately, as you can tell, it's been the long Obligatory Prayer.

The problem, though, as you can tell by the name, is that it's long. How do I break it up into small bite-size chunks? After all, I don't want either of us to get spiritual indigestion. That would be a whole whack of no fun.

This is what I was musing on this morning when my tea took a header into the prayer book.

Then, all of a sudden, the answer came to me in a splash! All right. I'm just joking, but the answer did seem fairly evident to me. Why not use the divisions that Baha'u'llah used? He seems to have conveniently divided the prayer for us into smaller pieces, as evidenced by the instructions for the different actions.

That's what I'll do. Instead of looking at it all at once, which would definitely tax my writing abilities, as well as your attention, I'm sure, dear Reader, I will look at one section at a time, or at least as many as seem reasonable (in other words, until I get tired or have to move on in my day).

So, after we wash, look right and left, all the while standing, we are told to say the following:

"O Thou Who art the Lord of all names and the Maker of the heavens! I beseech Thee by them Who are the Daysprings of Thine invisible Essence, the Most Exalted, the All-Glorious, to make of my prayer a fire that will burn away the veils which have shut me out from Thy beauty, and a light that will lead me unto the ocean of Thy Presence."

Why? As usual, I have to wonder why Baha'u'llah begins with those particular attributes of God. I mean, I don't think it's random. I believe that those are the exact attributes He intended to call to our attention, and I'm curious why.

Oh, and lest I forget, this is only my own personal understanding, and nothing official. Take it or leave it, as you will. And please feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments section. I love reading them.

To start, I think the phrase "the Lord of all names" is a reminder that all our good qualities are lower case versions of God's attributes. If God is the All-knowing, then we have some knowledge. If He is the Wise, then we can show some wisdom. There are some who may think that this is a denial of our role in developing these attributes, and I would say not at all. It is our free will that allows us to develop these attributes. Without the choice, our growth in these areas becomes fairly meaningless. A "yes" without the option to say "no" is devoid of value. Telling the truth is no great virtue when lying is not possible.

It is also a reminder to me that all those negative qualities that we see in the world are really nothing more than the absence of those divine qualities. The shadow is nothing more than the absence of the light. God is the All-knowing, and when we do not partake of that knowledge, then ignorance is the result. Ignorance is the absence of knowledge. When we fail to show forth the mercy of God, then cruelty is the result.

I believe that my role as a human being, my job in the world, is to try and emulate these attributes of God more and more in my every day life.

God is not only the epitome of all these attributes, He is also the One Who made everything we see around us. He is, indeed, "the Maker of the heavens". And we have it within us to make this world, the physical world in which we now live, a bit better, too.

The next sentence begins with a very interesting phrase: "I beseech Thee". We are not just asking, we are almost begging. It is a very urgent appeal. It is urgent because our very spiritual growth depends upon our attitude in seeking these qualities.

And then we acknowledge that we are beseeching God "by them Who are the Daysprings of Thine invisible essence, the Most Exalted, the All-Glorious". Here we are not beseeching God directly, for we cannot know God directly. We can know a little bit about Him, and try to know more and more, but it is through these Messengers that we know the most about Him. As Baha'u'llah says so well, "...Thou hast ever been immeasurably exalted above the vain imaginations which the hearts of men have devised". "Whoso claimeth to have known Thee hath," He says later in that same passage, "by virtue of such a claim, testified to his own ignorance; and whoso believeth himself to have attained unto Thee, all the atoms of the earth would attest his powerlessness and proclaim his failure."

This is not to say, though, that we cannot pray to God directly. Of course we can. It is just that we are beseeching God through His Messenger.  "While praying", says the Guardian a few times in some of his letters, "it would be better to turn one's thoughts to the Manifestation as He continues, in the other world, to be our means of contact with the Almighty. We can, however, pray directly to God Himself."

Here, though, in this passage, there are two more attributes that are mentioned: the Most Exalted and the All-Glorious. These are double reminders to me. We, as noble creations of a Noble Creator, are exalted amidst creation. There is a lot in the Writings that speaks to this, and to that glory that we can attain when we live up to our potential as spiritual beings.

But our exaltation and glory pales in comparison to that of the Messengers, so much more in the light of God. So here, in the opening passage of this prayer, I am reminded of the three levels of creation, in this sense. We are wonderful and amazing creatures, but still only on the bottom rung of this step ladder. (Hey, come on. It only has three steps in this analogy. What do you want me to call it?) Far above us stand the Messengers of God, those divine Manifestations of the Creator. And then, even farther above them is God. (So that analogy breaks down fairly quickly, but I'm sure you get the idea.)

Now, what is it, exactly, that we are asking for? "(T)o make of my prayer a fire that will burn away the veils which have shut me out from Thy beauty, and a light that will lead me unto the ocean of Thy Presence."

Ok. This is getting tough for me. I have these images in my mind, but may have some trouble getting them down, so please bear with me.

In our home, my wife has hung a number of her scarves on a curtain rod. They are not only very beautiful, but they also have the added advantage of blocking some of the light. When I think of veils, this is what I picture. They can be very beautiful, and they can also block the light.

In this instance, the veils referred to here block out the beauty of God, which I don't think is a particularly good thing to do. There are many things that can do this, and many of them are quite alluring: material objects, fame, drugs, just to name a few.

Here we are asking that this prayer be like a flame which will burn all these things away, leaving us fully exposed to, and seeing the beauty of God. Of course, when we see this beauty, we realize that all the other beautiful things in the world are but pale shadows of this beauty. For example, why is it that I love my wife? Because she reflects so many of these attributes of God, like love, wisdom, and compassion. The more she shows these attributes, the more I love her. Prayer helps me not only see the beauty of God, but also helps me to better see the beauty of God in those around me, as well as in everyday situations.

We are also beseeching that this prayer be like a light that will lead us to "the ocean of Thy presence".

Here I am reminded of growing up in Chicago. The sun rose in the east, and it was not uncommon for me to go to the beach to watch the sunrise. (And yes, I know it's a lake and not the ocean, but work with me here.) There were times when I would be heading down and actually see the light glowing on the horizon before I got there. It was as if the dawn's light was leading me down to the water.

Here, within the Faith, the prayer can be like that light. It can help lead us closer to God, or even attract others. It's beautiful, and full of promise.

Baha'u'llah also refers to the Faith, and the teachings, and the Writings, as an ocean over and over. Just type the word "ocean" into any Baha'i search engine, of which the most popular is still Ocean (go figure), and you'll see what I mean. My favorite instance is right at the beginning of the Kitab-i-Iqan, in which we read, "No man shall attain the shores of the ocean of true understanding except he be detached from all that is in heaven and on earth."

The ocean is both broad and deep. It is the source of all life on earth. It is rich beyond measure, and we have only explored a fraction of a percentage of it. It is no wonder that Baha'u'llah compares the teachings to an ocean.

Fortunately, He doesn't compare it to a teacup, which spilleth upon the pages of divine wisdom.

1 comment:

  1. Another interesting note that someone pointed out to me some time ago, is that the Báb was often referred to as "the Most Exalted" and Bahá'u'lláh as "the All-Glorious".