Monday, October 20, 2014

Personal Prayer

"But you should", she said. "You really are only allowed to read prayers from the Writings."

I had been talking about prayer, our habitual ways of saying prayers within the Baha'i community in North America, and how some people find this either boring, annoying or in any other way off-putting. I had described our monotonous manner in which many of us say our prayers in English, thinking, for some reason, that a monotone shows some sort of reverence, which it may, for some, but definitely does not for others. I spoke about how there are a few who come into our community, or join us for devotions in some setting, and proceed to say their prayers in a charismatic sort of way, only to receive a quick, unconscious glance of judgement. I explained that the judgement was not intentional, nor was the individual doing it aware of it, but that the effect was clear if you watched. I talked about how we, as a community, must really learn to be as open as possible to all styles of prayer, including those that arise naturally from the heart. All of this was not meant as any sort of criticism, for I often say my prayers in a monotone, too, but rather to help shed a bit of light on why some of our devotional gatherings may not have been as effective as we would have wished. I said that we really needed to examine this from an unbiased perspective, re-thinking what it is that we do, especially unconsciously.

"I have never", I confessed, "found anything in the Writings that says we should only use the prayers from the Baha'i Writings. Well, except for the devotional portion of the Feast, but that is the exception, not the rule, as far as I can tell."

That was when this woman said, "You really are only allowed to read prayers from the Writings."

I asked her where that was in the Writings, really wanting to know, but was told that we all just know it. It was obvious.

And so my quest continued. For years I've been looking for a quote that says we must either only read prayers from the Bab, Baha'u'llah, or 'Abdu'l-Baha, or one that clearly states that we can say prayers from our heart.

And for just as many years, I had never found anything, except circumstantial evidence.

Some of the Hands of the Cause, those eminent souls who "speak not without His leave", were known to have written some beautiful prayers. One of the most famous, the one that begins with the line "Make of me a hallow reed from which the pith of self hath been blown", inappropriately attributed to 'Abdu'l-Baha, was written by Hand of the Cause of God, George Townshend. Ruhiyyih Khanum wrote some beautiful prayers, in the form of poems, most notably after the Guardian's passing. And I say this because if prayer is "conversation with God", then those poems sure seem to count, in my opinion.

Baha'u'llah and the Bab both quoted prayers by some of the Imams.

Really, I could go on and on, but suffice it to say that I never found any direct quote.

Until yesterday.

At the end of section 31 in Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Baha, we read the following: "The brief prayer which thou didst write at the close of thy letter was indeed original, touching and beautiful. Recite thou this prayer at all times."

This is a very interesting selection, for in it the Master writes about the expansion of the Faith in England, and by extension the world. And at the very end, after some beautiful ideas, He mentions that this person beheld Baha'u'llah in Haifa, but did not recognize Him at the time. How incredible is that? Here we have the Master's own testimony that someone else from Europe beheld the Blessed Beauty!

Then, at the very end, the very last lines, is that quote I've been seeking for years. You wrote your own prayer, said the Master, and it is beautiful. "Recite thou this prayer at all times."

Now, why is this so important to me? Simple, really. I am always leery of how we may inadvertently set up conditions, rules, or rituals within our community that are not actually part of the Faith itself. What we take for granted, such as only reading prayers from the Writings, is actually cultural, not integral to the Faith itself. It's not bad, mind you, but just cultural.

If we are in the middle of prayers, and someone new comes into the room, should they wait by the door, either within the room or without? Should they sit down quietly? Should the reader stop reading the prayer and greet them, warmly welcoming them to the group? It doesn't matter. All those responses are both personal and cultural. I have seen each of these responses, and they are all beautiful. There is no right or wrong response.

The only problem is when we try to impose our cultural values upon others, and do so in the name of the Faith.

So it is with children. If we teach our children that we should only say prayers from the Writings, then we are inadvertently imposing a cultural bias on their Faith. If they only see us adults praying with prayers from the Writings, and never explain that it is ok to do otherwise, then we are, through omission, limiting their potential.

But when we say our prayers, consciously choosing to read and pray from the Writings, occasionally saying some from our heart, and carefully explain to our children that all prayer, all conversation with God, is totally acceptable, then we give them broader wings upon which their spirits can soar.

1 comment:

  1. You raise some important points, as usual Mead!

    On the one hand, we see quotes such as:

    "Recite ye the verses of God every morn and eventide. Whoso faileth to recite them hath not been faithful to the Covenant of God and His Testament, and whoso turneth away from these holy verses in this Day is of those who throughout eternity have turned away from God. Fear ye God, O My servants, one and all." (Bahá’u’lláh, The Kitáb-i-Aqdas, p. 73)


    "The Guardian feels that it would be better for either the mothers of Bahá’í children—or some Committee your Assembly might delegate the task to—to choose excerpts from the Sacred Words to be used by the child rather than just something made up. 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." (Shoghi Effendi, Bahá’í Education: A Compilation, p. 68)


    "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." (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 462)


    "Use the prayers of the Manifestations as they have the greatest power" (Shoghi Effendi, Principles of Baha'i Administration, p. 91)


    Bahá’ís are generally encouraged to use the Creative Word, including those prayers and Tablets revealed by Bahá’u’lláh, the Báb and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá which are authenticated and published in our Bahá’í literature. 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 Universal House of Justice, 2001 Sep 19, Definition and Scope of ‘Devotional Meetings‘)

    And on the other hand we learn in Ruhi Book 1 that prayer is conversation with God - and 'Abdu'l-Baha shows us what this looks like:

    "In His talks ‘Abdu’l-Bahá describes prayer as ‘Conversation with God‘, and concerning meditation He says that ‘while you meditate you are speaking with your own spirit. In that state of mind you put certain questions to your spirit and the spirit answers: the light breaks forth and the reality is revealed." (Universal House of Justice, Lights of Guidance, p. 540)