Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Prayer for the Fast, Part 1

The sun has just risen on this first day of the Fast and I have a couple of hours before I tutor a study circle (Book 4, and not everyone is Baha'i). The food has been eaten, the water drunk and the morning prayers have been said. On my right is a cat staring at me longingly for more food, on the table is a book about rituals in our lives, and on my left is a big window with an ever-brightening sky.

As usual, on this first day of fasting, I turn to one of long prayers for the Fast, the one that begins "I beseech Thee" and try to see how it foreshadows the next nineteen days. The first paragraph, in case you don't have it at hand is:
I beseech Thee, O my God, by Thy mighty Sign, and by the revelation of Thy grace amongst men, to cast me not away from the gate of the city of Thy presence, and to disappoint not the hopes I have set on the manifestations of Thy grace amidst Thy creatures. Thou seest me, O my God, holding to Thy Name, the Most Holy, the Most Luminous, the Most Mighty, the Most Great, the Most Exalted, the Most Glorious, and clinging to the hem of the robe to which have clung all in this world and in the world to come.

This prayer, I believe, must have been written with sunrise in mind, for it reads as if we are approaching the sun itself. But then this only makes sense, since, like the sun, the Messenger of God is the giver of life to this planet.

As you know, the structure of this prayer is like some of the other notable Tablets, such as The Fire Tablet or the Long Healing Prayer, in that it is a series of invocations with a chorus of refrains. This particular Tablet consists of fourteen paragraphs, the first thirteen of which open with the words "I beseech Thee, O my God..." The last one uses the word "Lord" instead of "God". Then each paragraph concludes with the same refrain: "Thou seest me, O my God, holding to Thy Name, the Most Holy, the Most Luminous, the Most Mighty, the Most Great, the Most Exalted, the Most Glorious, and clinging to the hem of the robe to which have clung all in this world and in the world to come."

This morning I want to focus on one particular aspect of this prayer. Just after the opening of each paragraph, He tells us "by" what He is beseeching God, and I would like to look at those objects and see what path they may offer us as we attempt to find our way through this prayer. Some paragraphs offer multiple objects, along with various further descriptions. Meaning no disrespect, of course, I am only going to look at the objects in each phrase for now, and will, of course, go further into detail as I examine each paragraph one at a time during the rest of this Fast. As I haven't studied this prayer before, I have no idea what I will find and hope that my morning meditation, as I write, will sustain your interest.

These objects are, in order:
  1. Thy Sign and the revelation of Thy grace
  2. Thy voice and Thy Word
  3. Thy brow and Thy countenance
  4. Thy hair and Thy pen
  5. Thy Name which Thou hast made the King of Names
  6. the Tabernacle of Thy majesty and the Canopy of Thy Revelation
  7. Thy Beauty
  8. the Manifestation of Thy Name, the Well-Beloved
  9. the rustling of the Divine Lote-Tree and the murmur of the breezes of Thine utterance
  10. that Letter
  11. the fire of Thy love and by (Thy loved one's) remembrance and praise of Thee at the hour of dawn
  12. the light of Thy countenance
  13. Thy Name
  14. Thyself, and by Thy signs, and Thy clear tokens, and the shining light of the Daystar of Thy Beauty, and Thy Branches
As you can see, I am cutting out a lot of rich description, but this serves to make it a bit more approachable by me. Once I have the skeleton, so to speak, then I can begin to look at more of the meat.

Baha'u'llah begins with the signs and revelation of His grace. To me, this seems to call to mind the coming sunrise, as I usually say this prayer before dawn. It also alludes to His own advent. Before the sun rises, the sky begins to grow light and it is through this lightening process that we know the dawn is approaching. Similarly, before the Revelation of a Messenger of God, there are always certain signs that herald His coming: whether it is a new star in the heavens, or a Herald walking the land, or the corruption of an earlier faith leading people to "know not where to turn" to find guidance, it is presaged by signs.

For those who are awake at such a time, once these signs are made manifest then the revelation comes, the sun crests the horizon, and the Messenger appears.

The next phrase is "Thy voice and Thy Word". Imagine living at the time of Baha'u'llah: you probably would have heard of Him before you could have met Him. His voice and His Word would have been the next thing after His signs, for you.

It is only after hearing about Him that you could have made a pilgrimage to visit Him, to behold His face. But as many have said, those who wrote of that precious visit, they could not look Him in the eye. First they saw His brow, that part of His face just below His taj. Only after that could they have taken in His expression, His countenance or appearance.

After you have had that initial joy of gazing upon His face, perhaps the movment of His hair would have caught your attention, as our eyes are always caught by movement. At that moment I can imagine He may have taken up His pen to write a Tablet in answer to your dearest heartfelt questions. After all, is this not the reason you have gone to see Him? To become closer to God? Is this not how He would aid you in your goal?

As I write these few thoughts, I am really struck by how everything up to this point is all about drawing us closer and closer to Baha'u'llah's presence. It is like a continuous movement, never interupted.

But now something changes. As we are in His presence, how can we get even closer? It is no longer a question of physicality, but now of spirituality. Even though we are there, in His midst, our spirit is still quite distant (at least mine would be). It is now through His Words, His Teachings, that we will begin to move our soul a little closer.

At the beginning of virtually every Tablet, as you know, Baha'u'llah opens with an invocation of God, calling upon Him by one of His Names, each of which is, indeed, the King of Names, that next step in this outline provided by the prayer.

But then comes the Tabernacle and the Canopy, in paragraph 6. What are these? What do they signify?

The Tabernacle, as I'm sure you know, dear Reader, is the tent which the Jews carried in the desert. It housed the Ark of the Covenant, the Holy of Holies. The Canopy, I can only guess, is symbolic of the cloth that makes up the tent. A canopy, after all, is defined as "a covering, usually of fabric, supported on poles or suspended above a bed, throne, exalted personage, or sacred object", so it is probably a reasonable guess. Either way, both indicate a sort of cloth shell containing something sacred within.

When we enter, what do we find? "Thy Beauty" and the Manfestation, for it is when we read those sacred Words, and really move into them, or dive into that Ocean, that we can begin to see the majesty, glory and station of the Messenger.

At this point, dear Reader, I find I have to pause and apologize, for now I notice that it is in this paragraph that we enter into the realm of nature analogies, which is not obvious from my outline above. It begins in paragraph 9 with the rustling and murmur of the wind moving through the trees. We can only imagine the beautiful sound of those leaves, on the branches of a majestic tree, rustling, as the tree stands mighty in a beautiful garden, with the tent nearby.

In paragraph 10, the metaphor further speaks of the elements. The Letter cited above causes "the oceans to surge, and the winds to blow, and the fruits to be revealed, and the trees to spring forth..." Is it not the sun, that repeatedly mentioned source of all life, that causes all this? And the references to the water, the air, and the vegetation that springs from the earth really bring it all together.

But then in paragraphs 11 and 12, the prayer moves to fire, and to light. By this point in the recitation dawn is finally upon us, if, like me, you started reading this before sunrise. We cannot help but be struck by the intimate link between the physical sun and Baha'u'llah Himself.

The last two paragraphs conclude this beautiful journey, reminding us, again, of the station of the Messenger, Who brings forth signs, clear tokens and guidance. It even mentions the Branch He reared and left behind for us, 'Abdu'l-Baha.

This truly is a remarkable prayer, worthy of great detailed study.

It puts us in a proper frame of mind for a day of fasting, and reminds us that this is only the beginning. It helps us keep a focus on the spiritual import of the details of the day. It reminds me of a phrase from a song, too. "If you're waiting for a miracle, open up your eyes. There was one this morning just about sunrise."

This is a prayer that, if we pay attention to the world around us, elevates the mudane to the sacred. Although my heart has responded to this prayer for years, and I have long felt its import, I have never studied it before now. I will continue to read it over and over this month, trying to allow its transforming power to begin to seep a bit more into my heart.

And, besides, it is a wonderful way to welcome the day, the Fast and serves as a reminder to us of the promise of the quickly coming New Year.

1 comment:

  1. This is my favorite fasting prayer. I often use it later in the day, when my physical energy is lower. For me it is a good time to focus on my spiritual energy. As I have matured I find that I can stay more focused on this longer prayer, more open to its meanings.

    I think of this prayer, like the Fast itself, as an especially "large" prayer, with great room for growth in understanding as the years go by.