When I first became a Baha’i, the concept of obligatory prayer was new to me. I went from only saying prayers when I needed divine intervention to rescue me from impending academic doom (i.e. every semester, during exam period) to trying to fulfil the various spiritual obligations for a Baha’i life. Obligatory prayer, 95 Allah’u'Abhas, reading from the scriptures at morning and night, remembering to bring myself to account each day – talk about a spiritual regime! For an undisciplined soul like mine, it felt like spiritual boot camp!
Nearly two years later, I still find myself struggling – particularly with obligatory prayer.
My prayer book is truly one of my most prized possessions. I carry it around with me, because there’s nothing like being able to delve into the profound wisdom and beauty of the revealed prayers, when you feel moved to pray. But obligatory prayer isn’t always quite as easy.
Too often, I treat obligatory prayer like, well… an obligation. It’s one thing to sit down with a prayer book for hours in a visit to one of the Temples when you’re feeling relaxed and contemplative, but what about on most days, when you’re rushing from one thing to another and dealing with a range of emotions that are not at all conducive to prayerfulness?
On days like that, I find myself struggling to decide which is better: rushing to find some time between noon and sunset to say the short obligatory prayer; or facing the prospect of saying the long obligatory prayer later in the evening with the added challenge of concentrating while saying it, instead of just mumbling through the words in a desperate attempt to get it out of the way and go to bed. Reading what ‘Abdu’l Baha has said about prayer can make this all the more confronting!
For a lover, there is no greater pleasure than to converse with his beloved, and for a seeker, there is no greater bounty than intimacy with the object of his desire. It is the greatest longing of every soul who is attracted to the Kingdom of God to find time to turn with entire devotion to his Beloved, so as to seek His bounty and blessing and immerse himself in the ocean of communion, entreaty and supplication.
As I read this, I think back to the number of times I’ve crawled into bed at 11:54 pm after a long, hard day only to realise – just as I begin to drift into sleep – that I’ve forgotten to say my prayers! Inevitably, I lie there, pained at the thought of having to get out of bed to say the long obligatory prayer when my body is two minutes away from a coma-like sleep. And then my mind flits guiltily to the number of times I have – with not even the slightest consternation – taken a call from a close friend at 3 am, sleepy but disregarding the thought of sleep simply because the pleasure of conversing with a loved friend is far greater.
So why is obligatory prayer so difficult? The prospect of a daily conversation with my Creator should fill me with nothing but joy, shouldn’t it? How do I say my prayer with wholehearted longing and joyfulness, instead of treating it like a visit to the dentist? (Apologies to all my dentist friends – who, I must clarify, are delightful people to visit -for the use of the expression!)
The Habit of Prayer
Recently, I had a conversation with my friend about the spiritual practices that we, as Baha’is, are meant to incorporate into our daily lives. We talked about how easy it is to feel like a “bad Baha’i” on days where saying the obligatory prayer and reading the Writings isn’t something that we do gladly, and how feelings of guilt can just send you in a downward spiral. But then, we also talked about habits and how difficult they are not just to break, but also to create. Prayer is just one of the numerous spiritual habits that we, as Baha’is, try to cultivate.
Deciding that I never again want to feel the guilt that comes with treating the obligatory prayer like an obligation, I spent some time thinking about how I could become more prayerful – not just when sitting down to say my prayers, but throughout the day, so that when I pause at lunchtime to say my prayers, it doesn’t feel like an abrupt jolt from one mental state to another simply because I’m trying to cross something off a list, but like a natural part of my day.
The more I thought about it, the more I realised that the various practices prescribed as part of our spiritual life – the obligatory prayer, the 95 Allah’u'Abahas, reading the scripture in the morning and at night, and bringing ourselves to account each day – are all meant to do exactly that: cultivate prayerfulness.
I don’t think God ever prescribed these practices to make us feel lowly, inadequate or guilty. Like all other spiritual laws, they are meant to show us how to achieve spiritual health. Instead of seeing it as a list of obligations that I need to fulfil, I’m starting to see that it is all part of the “spiritual diet” which will help me to cultivate the habit of prayer in a manner that will bring me closer into communion with God.
More broadly speaking, there are 4 resolutions I’ve made to incorporate habits into my life which I think will help me to become more prayerful and connected to my spiritual reality.
Finding Pockets of Quiet Time
I’ve never really been one for meditation. Saying my 95 Allah’u'Abhas is the closest I’ve come to regular meditation, and more often than not, my attempts to meditate have left me more twitchy and nervous than when I first started.
Why? Because meditation, like all other practices is a habit that needs to be formed. The concept of quiet and inner stillness is so alien to me that when I do try to meditate, I find myself feeling more anxious at my complete inability to really quieten my mind!
The solution? I need to practise being meditative more often. If I can find more opportunities during the day to disconnect from the chaos of my daily routine for even just a minute, it will eventually become easier to truly be in a state of prayer – reflective, contemplative and focused – when I say my obligatory prayer.
#1: Meditation and The Greatest Name
The 95 Allah’u'Abhas that we are taught to recite daily is probably one of the best ways of practising this. The Greatest Name, which ‘Abdu’l Baha says is the “name of comfort, protection, happiness, illumination, love and unity”, has a special potency which allows us to enter into closer communion with God.
In a letter to a believer dated 19 October 1925, Shoghi Effendi explains the significance of repeating the Greatest Name 95 times:
You ask for an explanation of the passage: “The mention of the Name of Bahá’u’lláh is the cause of the happiness of the hearts and whosoever utters that Word creates spiritual Beatitude, but it cannot be given as a name to any soul.” … When we turn to God with our whole heart and invoke His Name, a spiritual connection is established through which we become a channel of divine influence.
Rather than seeing the repetition of the Greatest Name 95 times as yet another thing I have to get out of the way, I’m trying to make sure that the first thing I do each morning – as far as practicably possible – before I throw myself into the insane activity of each day, is to use the recitation of the Greatest Name as an opportunity to find that beautiful stillness and quietness that I know will completely evade me as soon as I leave my front door.
#2: Music: Ascending the Ladder for the Soul
‘Abdu’l-Baha said of music that it acts as a means whereby our souls may be lifted up unto the realm on high. One thing I’m trying to do to improve my ability to practice inner quietness is to give myself at least a few minutes each day to listen to music that calms rather than excites me – difficult to do in a world where there is so much fascinating new music to discover!
I’d love to hear recommendations you have for good music that I can purchase in the comments, but this track, by The Album Leaf, is one that I’ve been listening to lots for the past few months (yes, it’s that good) and which never fails to calm me down. The other members of my community may recognise this as the track I play at every. single. 19-Day Feast I host at my place. (It’s that good!)
Reflecting on the Mysteries of Life
The Writings tell us of the importance of bringing ourselves to account each day. I think that this is a fantastic way of making sure that we become individuals who are conscious, self-aware, considerate and actively engaged with the communities that we live in. Beyond that, however, I think it develops another equally important capacity in us: the capacity to be reflective and more attuned to the spiritual realities which are so often hidden by the physical appearances of our worlds.
Reflecting on our actions, the way events play out in our lives and the world we live in gives us the opportunity to pause and reflect on the mysteries of God. It allows us to sit in wonder and amazement – asking questions and not necessarily seeking immediate answers – and to be continually humbled by the vastness of creation and our inability to ever understand everything there is to understand.
#3: Reflecting on the Glories of God
I’m finding that reciting the Greatest Name, which means, “God the Most Glorious” helps me to reflect on the wonder and awe of our spiritual realities – something that helps me to approach prayer with the attitude of gratitude and longing that ‘Abdu’l-Baha spoke of. I don’t claim to understand the spiritual mysteries of the Greatest Name, and I’m not even going to attempt to discuss it here, but even reflecting on the word “Glory” and thinking about the beauty of life and the manifold ways in which God has manifested His glory just in the everyday occurrences in my own life has been a great way of making my experience of prayer more powerful and meaningful. There’s so much to reflect on! It can be as grand as the profundity of Baha’u'llah’s Revelation or as simple as the little things in life that open your eyes to life’s beauty.
Which brings me to…
#4: Doing Things You Truly Love
Another thing that helps me to reflect on the glory and mystery of God is to make sure that I have enough time, even if just for a short time once a week, to engage in an activity that moves my soul – something that inspires and excites me and leaves my heart singing in joy. Very often, it’s the simple pleasures in life that are so essential, I think, to being reminded of how immensely blessed we are. For me, it’s: spending quality time with just one friend, alone, over an amazing meal; hearing a cellist perform; rediscovering the wisdom of the words of Khalil Gibran; going salsa dancing with a group of friends; learning a language I love; having a Skype conversation with my 20-month old nephew – the list goes on and on.
It could be anything, really – but I’m convinced that activities that uplift the heart are essential to attaining a state of prayerfulness and worship!
These are 4 habits I’m trying to practise to develop my capacity for prayerfulness. What about you? Do you have any tips on how to remain calmer and more focused during prayer? Please share your thoughts in the comments!