Getting together to share prayers and writings from the Baha’i faith, other scriptures and enlightened souls, is a staple of Baha’i life. These devotional gatherings are one of our core activities and all Baha’is are encouraged to not only attend, but to host them.
There is no set format or formula for running a devotional, and they run the gamut from organized public events through to informal sharing of prayers and readings around a coffee table. And since there is no particular way that a devotional should be held, it’s open for creativity and inventiveness!
So in this post I thought I would explore some ideas for devotional gatherings. If you have more ideas, please do share them in the comments!
1. Add a Visual Slideshow for Accompaniment
Beautiful images can be a magical addition to a devotional gathering. Software such as PowerPoint can be used to create a slow running slideshow of images which you can project on to a nearby wall to slowly fade in the background during readings and prayer. You’ll need a dim room so the projection really shines and you should make sure it’s all set up beforehand so you don’t have to flail about with any unplanned technical difficulties.
Selection of images is absolutely key as you want images that are visually beautiful, interesting and consistent with the gathering. Expect to spend a lot of time finding, choosing and cropping images for your slideshow. And be prepared to cull images that don’t feel appropriate. The last thing you want is everyone getting pulled out of their thoughts to wonder “what the heck is that picture doing there?”
Don’t feel you need to create a slideshow of images of Baha’i buildings or gardens. Think outside the box and look for creative, artful images that convey an idea, or abstract enough to just give a visual ambience to the room.
2. Give Attendees a Memento
Party favours work a treat at a variety of other get togethers, so why not something small from your devotional gathering? A common take-away is a copy of the programme so that attendees can continue to reflect on the readings later, or perhaps use them in their own devotions.
Years ago I attended a series of devotional gatherings where every month attendees were given a bookmark with a different virtue written on them. After a few months of attendance I had a little set of virtuous bookmarks to remind me not just the page I was up to, but what virtue I was supposed to be practicing that month.
3. Live Music Performances
Abdu’l-Baha says that “We, verily, have made music as a ladder for your souls”. So what more fitting accompaniment to a devotional than music? And when it comes to music, nothing beats a live performance. It can be a bit tricky finding performers, especially if you are organizing just a little get together, but if you can manage it you’ll be glad you did! Of course if you can play an instrument or sing, you need never worry about where to find a performer.
4. Find a Special Venue
The photo at the beginning of this post is from a devotional that one of my old communities once organized at dawn on the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. We had a photographer along as we needed photos for the Bahai.org.au site, so you will notice that along with the beautiful morning light we all look slightly awkward! Still, it was a gorgeous devotional once the photographs were over, and afterwards we all had breakfast by the sea.
You don’t need to live somewhere as picturesque as by Sydney’s beaches to have a special venue for your next gathering. Going outdoors generally works well in any sort of natural surrounding when the sun is out and the skies are blue. Alternatively you can make an indoor spot special with the use of some decorative ingenuity.
I also once attended a candlelit late night devotional which was pretty special and very atmospheric. If you go for that sort of thing, just remember to make provisions for the readers to, you know, read! A little torch or reading light does the trick.
On the subject of night-time gatherings, every year my family attends a winter-solstice bonfire put on by another community group. I’ve never been to a Baha’i version of that, but wouldn’t it be cool? Marshmallows and prayers? I’d be there!
5. Run a Guided Meditation
The Guardian Shoghi Effendi has said that “…the core of religious faith is that mystic feeling that unites man with God. This state of spiritual communion can be brought about and maintained by means of meditation and prayer.”
A guided meditation before you begin your devotional is a really lovely way to get participants into a deep prayerful and relaxed state. If you are comfortable leading such a meditation you certainly could do it yourself, otherwise guided meditation CDs and audio tracks can be purchased from most music stores.
One of the first times I ever tried meditation was at a little devotional gathering and it was pretty serene. It was about 10 minutes long and played off a CD which the host had. There were only five of us attending and we were seated amongst a whole load of cushions that you could sink into. By the time we began praying I recall feeling very calm and focused. It was lovely!
6. Explore Art and Devotions
I have never seen or heard of this being done, but when brainstorming ideas for this post my wife suggested that one might organize a devotional that mixed some sort of art activity with prayer. This certainly seems consistent with what the Baha’i Writings say about art. Abdu’l-Baha once said that:
All Art is a gift of the Holy Spirit. When this light shines through the mind of a musician, it manifests itself in beautiful harmonies. Again, shining through the mind of a poet, it is seen in fine poetry and poetic prose. When the Light of the Sun of Truth inspires the mind of a painter, he produces marvellous pictures. These gifts are fulfilling their highest purpose, when showing forth the praise of God. Abdu’l-Baha quoted in The Chosen Highway by Lady Blomfield
You might for, instance, ask participants to meditate on a handful of readings and then work to reflect on them through painting or drawing. You may find some resistance if you have not pre-warned your participants of the plan for your devotional. But assuming you have a group of willing and enthusiastic attendees, this could go down well!
If you’ve ever been to, or organized, a devotional that incorporated art, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!
7. Create an Experience
Beauty spas are the masters of creating a relaxing experience. Through the use of location, environment, ambient music, beverages, scents and lighting, they put their customers into a tranquil state of being, even before the spa treatments begin. There’s a lot we can learn from this!
If you consider the whole devotional experience you can better help your attendees to elevate their minds and spirits by bringing them to the right space to begin prayer and reading.
Earlier I mentioned a devotional I attended that incorporated guided meditation. I remember that as soon as we arrived the whole room was setup to feel calming. The lighting was warm, there were rose petals on the doorstep, the room had a light floral scent coming from two candles burning, the room was small and cozy with soft cushions liberally placed, and upon seating we were given a glass of sparkling water with mint and slices of fresh strawberries. Coupled with the guided meditation, it was quite the experience!
8. Theme the Gathering
Themes make parties more awesome, so why not devotionals? When you have a theme, you can make the devotional experience that much more memorable by incorporating elements of the theme into everything.
Imagine a devotional gathering reflecting on the life of Baha’u'llah where everything is set up to evoke images of Iran. You could have a slideshow of historical imagery, beautiful Persian music playing ambiently when guests arrive, a special Persian sweet for each guest as they sit, readings could be printed on paper with a Persian design embellishing it, and so on.
There are lots of themes you could run with too! The theme ‘Refreshed’ could be a devotional where everything is cool, refreshing and invigorating. The theme ‘Nature’ should be an easy one, as would be ‘Light’. You could do a devotional on the theme of ‘America’ or ‘Paris’ with readings from Abdu’l-Baha’s trips there. Or you could tackle themes like ‘Oneness’ or ‘Woman’ which might be a little trickier but all the more rewarding for it!
Theming your gathering is definitely taking your devotional gathering to the next level, and really combines many of the earlier ideas of creating an experience around your gathering. It’s not for the faint-hearted, but the results will be worth it!
A devotional can be very simple, but for me I like to experiment and try out different ideas. It makes things more interesting! These were just a few ideas I’ve seen in action, tried out myself or hope to try out one day in the future. I hope you find them useful, and if you have any ideas to share, please do add them in the comments!