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Who or what is God? How can we attain God’s presence?
Baha’is pray every day to fulfill the measure of their creation—to know and to love or worship God. Ironically, the first Baha’i prayer ever revealed by the founder, Baha’u’llah, refers to the Creator as “the most manifest of the manifest and the most hidden of the hidden!” How can we then know or discern the manifest parts of a hidden God?
The Baha’i Faith teaches a conception of God as an unknowable essence, yet when we pray, we seem to know a little more about that essence. We sense the unconditional love, compassion, and the indescribable creative force beyond the veil of mortal consciousness. When we study the history of religion with an open heart, we may feel waves of the same divine virtues reflected in the continuum of spiritual messengers sent to earth to help define the goals of each age. As we then pray, we humbly sense a powerful connection to this unimaginable source of love, and we feel a desire to expand our own capacity for love and devotion to a cause far greater than self. When prayer does its work effectively, we feel our potential for good works amplify what we could accomplish without prayer.
Have you ever gone through a litany of lackluster requests in prayer? Then suddenly you felt a shift when you asked for something outside your own self-interests – relief for people facing a crisis in another country or help for a stranger on the street who seemed hurt or hungry, or perhaps you prayed for someone who had treated you unkindly. You just expressed an ardent desire to understand your role of service in the world. At that moment, you may have felt a visceral sensation, such as warm hands on your head or a tingling feeling running across your skin, from the nape of your neck downward, or a vibration in your nervous system. Someone looking at you may have seen a shift in your demeanor.
This constitutes the finest value of prayer – its ability to help us get a purchase on that unknowable concept of the divine by sensing what it feels like when our motivations align with those divine attributes. In effect, this feeling may come as close as we get to “knowing” God. What we sense feels like an embrace of love and encouragement.
One of the prayers by the predecessor of Baha’u’llah, called the Bab (the Gate) includes this section:
…Glory be unto Thee. Thou art exalted above the description of anyone save thyself, since it is beyond human conception to befittingly magnify Thy virtues or to comprehend the inmost reality of Thine Essence… – Baha’i Prayers, p. 126.
Even as we offer praise, we humbly acknowledge that God does not exist as an anthropomorphic being we can approach as we would another mortal. Those who supply a visual image do so for their own convenience, not because God has a body, but because the attributes we read about, aspire to and feel while praying help us come to know the non-material essence of Godliness. In fact, most prayers end by listing some of these attributes, as in the following example from Abdu’l-Baha:
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. – Ibid., p. 173.
Prayer uplifts the soul not only with the descriptions of divine attributes and aspirations but through the poetic language of praise that captures our innate wonderment in nature and our sense of a universe too well-ordered to be completely random. One prayer revealed by Baha’u’llah reads:
…I swear by Thy might, O Thou in Whose grasp are the reins of all mankind, and the destinies of the nations! I am so inflamed by my love for Thee, and so inebriated with the wine of Thy oneness, that I can hear from the whisper of the winds the sound of Thy glorification and praise, and can recognize in the murmur of the waters the voice that proclaimeth Thy virtues and Thine attributes, and can apprehend from the rustling of the leaves the mysteries that have been irrevocably ordained by Thee in Thy realm. Glorified art Thou, the God of all names and Creator of the Heavens. – Prayers and Meditations, p. 271.
Whether I sit on a log in a forest, on a rock by a stream, or on my own living room sofa, the Baha’i prayer book brings me one step closer to my own personal reverie – and one breathtaking moment closer to understanding the immortal. When I free my mind enough to focus, I feel the love of God more deeply than in the earlier years when I prayed and meditated without these sacred texts to inspire whatever personal appeal might follow–or to fulfill to goal of better knowing God without any thoughts of my own to add to the day’s reflection.
I hope some of the passages will speak to our readers of the nature of God the way they whispered to me 28 years ago, when I first became immersed in the pages of a Baha’i prayer book.
Create in me a pure heart, O my God, and renew a tranquil conscience within me, O my Hope! Through the spirit of power confirm Thou me in Thy Cause, O my Best-Beloved, and by the light of Thy glory reveal unto me Thy path, O Thou the Goal of my desire! Through the power of Thy transcendent might lift me up unto the heaven of Thy holiness, O Source of my being, and by the breezes of Thine eternity gladden me, O Thou Who art my God! Let Thine everlasting melodies breathe tranquillity on me, O my Companion, and let the riches of Thine ancient countenance deliver me from all except Thee, O my Master, and let the tidings of the revelation of Thine incorruptible Essence bring me joy, O Thou Who art the most manifest of the manifest and the most hidden of the hidden! – Baha’u’llah, Baha’i Prayers, p. 141.