Tuesday, December 10, 2013

How to Study a Prayer

Over the past few years, I feel like I have posted on a number of topics and looked at a variety of excerpts from the Baha'i Writings. And while I began with a list of things that I wanted to accomplish with this blog, such as emphasize the importance of the Administrative Order, I quickly exhausted my list. The request was put out for your favorite quotes or prayers and I looked at each and every one, and tried to write a bit on all of them, but I may have missed one or two in the backlog.

It was only recently that I received a short comment saying, "Now I know why to study a prayer, but my question is how?" (I'm paraphrasing, but it's fairly close.)

What a great question. "How do I study a prayer?" And as with any great question out there, I can answer it both truthfully and honestly: "I don't know."

You see, to me that question implies that there is a particular method that we need to uncover and then we will know all that we need to know about studying the prayers of this great faith of ours. Of course, I'm sure that is not what was meant by the one asking the question, but that is what I read in it.

And so, to begin an exploration of studying a prayer, I feel that we must begin by recognizing that there is no one way in which to do it. Remember, Baha'u'llah said that His Writings were like an ocean. How do we study an ocean? We can look at single drop of the water under a microscope, or we can map out the currents that move over many thousands of miles. We can examine the various fish that swim along the surface waters, or we can dive deep within it and explore the mysterious and sometimes monstrous creatures that lie hid in its depths. We can find a warm sandy beach on one of its shores and lie down in the hot sun with our eyes closed and listen to the meditative sound of the waves, or we can make the trek along its icy polar shores studying the manner in which the glaciers form, fracture or reflect the light.

The possibilities open to us for this exploration are so numerous as to nearly defy description.

In some ways it reminds me of attempting to know God.

As we are aware, we can never truly know God. He is so far beyond our understanding that even Baha'u'llah seems to balk at attempting to describe Him. We only need to look through Prayers and Meditations to get a glimpse of that. And yet there are still things that we can know about God. For example, we know that He loves us, which is why we have been sent so many Messengers to help guide and educate us. We also know that God is not a "He", for the would imply a duality that cannot be ascribed to God.

So while it may not be possible to know everything there is to know about the Ocean that is Baha'u'llah's Writings, there are certain things that we can begin to understand about them. And the more that we learn about one aspect of them, the more we begin to understand about the whole.

Also, while there may not be a single answer to "How do we study a prayer", it is a great injustice to the one asking to merely brush it off by saying something as useless as "Any way you want".

So let's take a look at a few ways in which we can study a prayer, keeping in mind that this list will not be exhaustive, although it may become exhausting.

One of the ways in which I study a prayer is a method I learned in English classes in both high school and university. I look at the opening words and see how they foreshadow the entire prayer. In the case of Baha'u'llah's Writings, the opening words tend to be an invocation of God through one or more of His attributes. And these attributes, in my own personal (non-authoritative) opinion are a reflection of those very attributes within us. In other words, if God is the All-Knowing, it means that we have a bit of knowledge. If God is the All-Merciful, then we can show some mercy. Whatever God is in the capital, we are in the lower case. Given this, I believe that the very attributes Baha'u'llah uses in any of His prayers are the very same attributes that we need to cultivate in order to help in the fulfillment of that prayer. For more on this, you can click here and see how it is applied in a study of the Long Obligatory Prayer. Of course, this is not limited to those attributes mentioned in the very beginning of a prayer, but can be used whenever we run across an attribute of God in the Writings.

Another method of study would be to look at themes, such as the development of verbs used in a prayer. For example, in the Tablet of Ahmad, the first paragraph contains the verbs "proclaiming", "calling", "informing", and "guiding". Proclaiming is done over a great distance. You call to someone across the room. You can inform someone standing next to you. And guidance is from within. With each of these verbs, Baha'u'llah is bringing us closer and closer. You can click here to see a little more about that in the Tablet of Ahmad, or here in a glance at the prayer that begins "Create in me a pure heart..." In the second example, I noticed that there was a repetition of style within the prayer itself and merely pulled out the pieces to look at them in order.

Of course, another example of themes would be to look at how a theme, say of nature, is developed within a piece of the Writings. In a piece on consultation, the Master uses some aspects of nature to help make His point. My wife and I explored this in our initial studies of the Faith together, and you can read about that here. In essence, the section we looked at was, "they are the waves of one sea, the drops of one river, the stars of one heaven, the rays of one sun, the trees of one orchard, the flowers of one garden". Marielle noticed that they could be divided into couplets, the first being references to water, the second two referring to light, and the third pair to plants. Each couplet also moves from micro to macro.

Another method is to look at a single phrase at a time, as I did when looking at the prayer that includes "Unite the hearts of Thy servants..." (click here for that one). What really stood out for me with this prayer was the realization that it began and ended with the heart.

I could go on and on about the various ways in which we can study a prayer, but really the point is that it is endless. No matter how many ways we may find to study a prayer, there are always more ways to do it.

And you know what? I would love to hear about some your explorations in the Writings.


  1. Wow, Mead! These are ideas I've never thought of before! Thanks for sharing these ideas!

    The concept of sharing a prayer with someone comes up as a practice in Ruhi Book 1. During that book, tutors help participants develop the ability to ask first level questions; where the answer to the question is embedded in the quote itself. So this is how I encourage people to study a prayer.

    For example, in the short obligatory prayer:

    I bear witness, O my God, that Thou hast created me to know Thee and to worship Thee. I testify, at this moment, to my powerlessness and to Thy might, to my poverty and to Thy wealth. There is none other God but Thee, the Help in Peril, the Self-Subsisting. (Baha'u'llah, Baha'i Prayers, p. 3)

    I might ask:

    To what do we bear witness? (to the purpose of our creation)

    What is the purpose of our creation? (to know and worship God)

    What are we testifying to? (our powerlessness and God's might; my poverty and God's wealth)

    I might then venture off into second and third level questions such as:

    What does it mean that we are powerless?
    What are we powerless over in our own lives?
    How can God's power help us through areas over which we are powerless?
    What might God mean about our poverty?
    What are the ways in which our lives are impoverished?
    How can God's wealth overcome our poverty?
    What evidence do you see in your life over God's intervention?

    Etc . . .

  2. This post really helped me reflect on how I approach prayer.
    I don't study* prayer but try to "sense" prayer.
    Every day I read out loud many prayers concentrating on the "felt sense" (for lack of a better word).
    If my mind wanders I bring it back to the sound of the words. Listening changes and deepens the meaning for me over time.

    *Full disclosure: As a "recovered" English literature" major I start twitching if there is any remote suggestion of STUDY for meaning, theme etc.!!

    I enjoy all your posts!