The friend who asked me about prayer had a two-part question: she wanted to know why Baha’is pray; but more importantly, she wanted to know how, so she could try it herself.
As an agnostic, she wasn’t sure what to believe in, but she knew she sensed something mystical and transcendent from time to time, especially when she immersed herself in the beauty of the natural world. Despite her lack of knowledge about a Supreme Being, she felt herself drawn more and more to that mystical experience, and wanted to find a way to make it more present and permanent in her life.
“I would truly love it if I could sustain that feeling,” she said. “That’s when I’m really happy and at peace.”
The Baha’i teachings, I told her, have a clear recommendation—the gradual awakening and nourishment of the soul through a regular practice of mindfulness and prayer. The systematic, daily nature of that sort of consistent spiritual practice, I told my friend, has the same kind of effect on the soul that daily exercise has on the body. Working out at the gym or taking a brisk walk or lifting weights doesn’t do much good if you do it once in a great while; but as a regular program of fitness and health those things can make a significant difference in your health. In the same way, a regular commitment to mindful meditation and prayer could help give her the mystical experience she wanted to sustain:
I pray to God that daily ye may advance in spirituality, that God’s love may be more and more manifested in you, that the thoughts of your hearts may be purified, and that your faces may be ever turned towards Him. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 75.
I pray in your behalf that your hearts may be enlightened with the light of the love of God; that your minds may develop daily; that your spirits may become aglow with the fire and illumination of His glad tidings, until these divine foundations may become established throughout the human world. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 66.
The development of such sustained mindfulness, the Baha’i teachings say, opens the door to a connection between our souls and their Creator:
The wisdom of prayer is this: That it causeth a connection between the servant and the True One, because in that state man with all heart and soul turneth his face towards His Highness the Almighty, seeking His association and desiring His love and compassion. The greatest happiness for a lover is to converse with his beloved, and the greatest gift for a seeker is to become familiar with the object of his longing; that is why with every soul who is attracted to the Kingdom of God, his greatest hope is to find an opportunity to entreat and supplicate before his Beloved, appeal for His mercy and grace and be immersed in the ocean of His utterance, goodness and generosity.
So my friend decided to give it a try.
She asked about how to pray, and I suggested something that had worked for me—setting aside a regular time for reflection, meditation and prayer each day.
“I’m so busy,” she told me, looking stressed. “I don’t know if I can fit it in.”
“Just start with ten minutes a day,” I offered. The Baha’i writings say that prayer should never be too lengthy, burdensome or oppressive—that instead it should lighten and enlighten the soul:
The highest and most elevating state is the state of prayer. Prayer is communion with God. … Its efficacy is conditional upon the freedom of the heart from extraneous suggestions and mundane thoughts. The worshipper must pray with a detached spirit, unconditional surrender of the will, concentrated attention and a magnetic spiritual passion. His innermost being must be stirred with the ethereal breeze of holiness. If the mirror of his life is polished from the dross of all desires the heavenly pictures and star-like images of the kingdom of God will become fully reflected therein. Then he will be given power to translate these celestial forms into his own daily life and the lives of many thousands. – Abdu’l-Baha, Star of the West, Volume 5, p. 433.
She seemed unsure about her ability to regularly polish the mirror of her life with a disciplined spiritual practice of prayer and meditation, but told me she would attempt to make it work. She asked if I had a prayer I’d recommend starting with, so I showed her this one in the Baha’i prayer book I’d given her:
O God, my God! Aid Thou Thy trusted servants to have loving and tender hearts. Help them to spread, amongst all the nations of the earth, the light of guidance that cometh from the Company on high. Verily, Thou art the Strong, the Powerful, the Mighty, the All-Subduing, the Ever-Giving. Verily, Thou art the Generous, the Gentle, the Tender, the Most Bountiful. – Abdu’l-Baha, Baha’i Prayers, p. 173.
“Wow,” she said, reading it over twice. “Loving and tender hearts. I’ve never seen a prayer like this. Are all the Baha’i prayers this lyrical and beautiful?”
“Yes,” I said. “If you let them, they can have an enormous spiritual influence on your heart and soul.”
Two months later my friend called me to apologize. “For what?” I said, puzzled.
“For thinking I couldn’t fit ten minutes of prayer and reflection into my life,” she said, laughing. “Now that I’ve tried it for a couple of months, it’s become a part of me, it’s indispensable. I get so much out of it, I can’t imagine not doing it.”