Monday, October 21, 2013

The Evening Prayer

A few nights ago, as we were getting ready to say our prayers, Shoghi turned to me and said, "Papa, I'd like to learn a new prayer."

"Which prayer", I wondered aloud, "would you like to learn?"

"How about that night prayer you say a lot?"

I hadn't realized that I said this particular prayer "a lot", but I guess I do. There's something about the "evening" prayer that really touches me somewhere deep inside. I don't know why, but it does. I mean, yeah I know it's sacred text, from Baha'u'llah, and everything, but not all sacred words touch us the same way. There are some that really seem to go deeper, probably depending on us at the time. After all, Shoghi Effendi said that there some that "have been invested by Baha'u'llah with a special potency and significance", so we already know that this seems to be the case.

Anyways, I was wondering to what write about today when I remembered this little thing from the other night, and so I figured it might be a good time for me to look a bit more closely at this prayer that Shoghi is now trying to memorize.

O my God, my Master, the Goal of my desire! This, Thy servant, seeketh to sleep in the shelter of Thy mercy, and to repose beneath the canopy of Thy grace, imploring Thy care and Thy protection.
I beg of Thee, O my Lord, by Thine eye that sleepeth not, to guard mine eyes from beholding aught beside Thee. Strengthen, then, their vision that they may discern Thy signs, and behold the Horizon of Thy Revelation. Thou art He before the revelations of Whose omnipotence the quintessence of power hath trembled.
No God is there but Thee, the Almighty, the All-Subduing, the Unconditioned.

Every time I read this prayer I am always reminded of that story from Memories of Nine years in Akka, in which a group of Pilgrims were awaiting the Master. He was quite late that night in getting home, but the friends still waited for Him. No one knew where He was, or when He would return, but still they waited. Later and later it got, until it really was the middle of the night, past midnight and everything. Finally after many hours of eagerly anticipating His arrival, He came home, worn out from his very busy day. Not wanting to disappoint those stalwart souls who were kept waiting, He said some kind words to them and then asked one of the friends if he would kindly say a prayer. Stifling a yawn, this believer agreed to do so, and began, "This, Thy servant, seeketh to sleep..."

So, what is it about this prayer?

Obviously it begins with an invocation of God, referring to Him as the Master, implying that we are His servants. Then it calls upon Him as the goal of our desire. Personally, I don't think of this as an attribute of God, of which we are some sort of lower case version, but rather a reminder that all of our desires should lead us towards God. This is a good reminder to me as I'm heading off to sleep, for it is too easy to indulge in my sleep, spending far more hours idle in bed than is good for me. I mean, it really is quite remarkable just how comfortable my pillow and blanket can be, but then my jealous alarm clock comes between us. Probably a good thing. But this simple phrase is a good reminder to me that sleep should not be a goal of mine, but rather a tool that I can use to better serve my Lord in a refreshed manner.

(Wow. I didn't think I would be able to say anything about that first line. Well, there you go. That wiley spirit in the Concourse on High who has the unfortunate task of keeping me in check is really on top of things today.) (Gives me something more to think about when Shoghi and I say it tonight.)

The next line is one that I find quite fascinating these days: This, Thy servant, seeketh to sleep in the shelter of Thy mercy, and to repose beneath the canopy of Thy grace, imploring Thy care and Thy protection.

First there is the reminder of being a servant again. There is also the reminder of the goal, through the word "seeketh". In the previous sentence, God is the goal, but now we seek to sleep. And not just sleep but sleep in the shelter of His mercy.

What does that mean? And why would we want to sleep there?

When I just asked that question in my mind, as I was typing it, I sort of imagined all the things that I would want to do in a shelter, and I realized that they all came down to resting. I had pictured myself wanting to listen to Baha'u'llah, or in some other way bask in His presence. But then I realized that nothing else would be done in a shelter. A shelter, as far as I can tell, is a place of rest in a time of peril, a place of protection when danger abounds, generally from the weather, but not exclusively.

Now I realize that it really is the perfect descriptor. Without God's mercy, we are left to His judgement. Without His mercy, we are truly doomed. I can't put it any other way, hard as I am trying. We are not living in a simple world, full of peace and love, all rosy and cushy. "By God," writes Baha'u'llah, "this is the arena of insight and detachment, of vision and upliftment, where none may spur on their chargers save the valiant horsemen of the Merciful, who have severed all attachment to the world of being." And I don't know about you, dear Reader, but just reading about this makes me tired, longing for a rest. And God, through His mercy, allows us a few moments to catch our breath.

Next we seek to repose beneath the canopy of His grace.

My first question is what is the difference between sleep and repose? Well, sleeping is a state of unconsciousness in which our body is refreshed. During this time we are also offered illumination through our dreams, if we are lucky. To repose is to be in a state of tranquility. When we sleep, we are not necessarily tranquil. We can have a restless sleep for many reasons, but to repose implies tranquility.

My next question is why the canopy? Well, that's an interesting question. (I'm glad I asked.) Years ago, we, meaning humanity, didn't have the most weather-tight of housing. Our roofs were often made of thatch, or some other material that likely leaked. It was for this reason that the four-poster bed was created. It didn't just look nice, like something out of a Disney fairy-tale. It was practical. It kept the water from dripping on us in the night. And as anyone who has camped in a leaky tent knows, there is very little more disturbing than a cold drop of water hitting you when you are sound asleep.

When we are resting, spiritually, it doesn't really take a lot to disturb our peace of mind. (Well, it doesn't take a lot to disturb my peace of mind. I don't know about you.) By trying to emulate grace, that courteous good will, we are better able to ignore those things that may disturb our tranquility. The Grace of God is often described as the undeserved favour of God. We can extend that favour to others in our life, too. Bahiyyah Khanum, the Greatest Holy Leaf, was exemplary at this. She once said that the trick of this was to not take offense in the first place. (I would love it if someone can remind me of where that line is.)

Through all this, we implore, we beg of God for His care and protection, further emphasizing the shelter and the canopy.

I beg of Thee, O my Lord, by Thine eye that sleepeth not, to guard mine eyes from beholding aught beside Thee. Strengthen, then, their vision that they may discern Thy signs, and behold the Horizon of Thy Revelation. Thou art He before the revelations of Whose omnipotence the quintessence of power hath trembled.

(I just put it there so that I could see it again and refer to it as I'm typing.)

God sees all. He even sees what we see. And here, we are pleading with God to only see Him, to only see the good. Doesn't that just hearken back to the grace just mentioned?

We are also asking God to be like glasses for us. We not only wish to see the good in everything, we also desire to see God's signs, wherever they may be. Quite often God's signs are hidden, usually right in plain sight. There is so much that is beautiful in the world, if we but take the time to notice it. Whether it is a butterfly flitting past, or a tiny little flower growing by the sidewalk, these are signs of God.

And so often we can easily be overcome by despair with all that is going wrong in the world that we forget to notice the signs of the maturing of humanity, those signs of all that is going right. The Horizon of God's Revelation is lit up with the majestic Sun of Baha'u'llah's World Order if we only take a moment to lift our heads and look. Despite, for example, the oppression of women in so many parts of the world, or the political backlash in some areas striving to take away the rights of women that were fought for years ago, we have still come a long way in the advancement of these same rights. This is not to say that we shouldn't continue to fight for these rights, exposing injustices when we find them, but just that we should not lose sight of how far we have come in only 100 years.

And when we look around and see how far we still have to go, see those great corporate or political or fanatical powers arrayed against us, we can still remember that the very "quintessence of power" trembles before the might of God.

After all, there is no God but God, and He is Almighty. He can subdue all. Nothing can stand against His will.

Finally, He is unconditioned. This doesn't just refer to God not being masculine or feminine, or insert any other descriptors you wish. God is beyond all that, obviously. I think it also refers to God not being subject to our conditions, as in a contract. God loves all, whether or not we do. God supports all, whether we agree with them or not. God is for all, whether they believe as we do or not. God is not subject to any conditions. This is not to say, of course, that we are unconditional. No. We are subject to many conditions. For example, "If thou lovest Me not, My love can in no wise reach thee." This is not a condition upon God, but a statement about us.

God offers the shelter of His mercy. It is up to us to go in.

And you know, it doesn't matter how many times I read this prayer, I still mistakenly end it with the "air conditioned". One of these days that will be purged from my brain.

Ah well. What can you do?

5 comments:

  1. I like your sense of humor, Mead! Is this what you were looking for?

    Bahá’í consultation is not an easy process. It requires love, kindliness, moral courage and humility. Thus no member should ever allow himself to be prevented from expressing frankly his view because it may offend a fellow member; and, realizing this, no member should take offence at another member’s statements. (Universal House of Justice, Lights of Guidance, p. 179-180)

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    1. Thanks Susan. No, that wasn't actually the quote I wanted. The one I was referring to is from the Greatest Holy Leaf herself. And it really does say something like "The trick is not to take offense in the first place."

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  2. Hi Simon, wonderful as always! However, the title has a typo... You can erase or edit this comment. Glen

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    1. Thanks Glen! (But what's wrong with "pryaer"?)

      Mead

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  3. memorized this when i was a kid and did not understand all the meanings... time passes... an old guy and, of course, we still can not understand all the meanings ~ canopy of Thy grace ~ thanks Mead!

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