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The core of religious faith, the Baha’i writings say, is “that mystic feeling which unites Man with God.” Many of us yearn to experience this mystic feeling, but how do we get there?
The answer offered to that question in 1935 by Shoghi Effendi, Guardian of the Baha’I Faith, is just as relevant today:
… How to attain spirituality is indeed a question to which every young man and woman must sooner or later try to find a satisfactory answer. It is precisely because no such satisfactory answer has been given or found, that the modern youth finds itself bewildered, and is being consequently, carried away by the materialistic forces that are so powerfully undermining the foundations of man’s moral and spiritual life … It is this condition so sadly morbid, into which society has fallen, that religion seeks to improve and transform. For the core of religious faith is that mystic feeling which unites man with God. This state of spiritual communion can be brought about and maintained by means of meditation and prayer. And this is the reason why Baha’u’llah has so much stressed the importance of worship.
It is not sufficient for a believer merely to accept and observe the teachings. He should, in addition, cultivate the sense of spirituality which he can acquire chiefly by means of prayer …
The believers, particularly the young ones, should therefore fully realize the necessity of praying. For prayer is absolutely indispensable to their inner spiritual development, and this, as already stated, is the very foundation and purpose of the religion of God.
So how should we pray? Is there a specific way to offer our meditative devotions that will evoke that inexplicable sense, that otherworldly mystical experience? There are probably as many different ways as there are people who pray, and not all will succeed initially.
But the first step, just about every Faith and all spiritual guidance advise, involves praying every day. Like any communication, prayer gains in quality, depth, and effectiveness when it happens regularly. If you only use prayer when in dire need, you’ll no doubt feel rusty. But if you make your devotional activity a daily practice, it will gradually grow in its familiarity, its clarity of expression, and ultimately its effectiveness.
My first experience of the mystic feeling Shoghi Effendi wrote about came through my daily recitation of the Baha’i long obligatory prayer, one of three options from which Baha’is can opt to recite each day. Baha’is have many prayers to choose from in the Baha’i writings, but one of these three is used every day as the foundation of that regular spiritual practice of prayer and meditation.
Baha’is are free to choose to say Baha’u’llah’s short obligatory prayer, recited at noonday: the medium-length one, which is invoked three times each day; or the long one, recited once every 24 hours. The short obligatory prayer is the simplest:
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.
The long obligatory prayer has various movements prescribed at different points during the prayer. Initially these seemed very strange to me. In my Jewish upbringing, the only movement familiar to me was davening, the rocking back and forth common during Jewish prayers.
At first, when I said the Baha’i long obligatory prayer I felt self-conscious, even though I was reciting it in private with no one there to see me. Initially, it also seemed somehow hypocritical to go through the motions that seemed so foreign to me. But I recognized that if they were prescribed, there must be an inner meaning that would eventually become manifest.
It didn’t take long until I felt one with the words of the prayer and its positions, my arms upraised in supplication to God, followed by a humbling posture of bending down with hands on knees, then prostrating myself before the majesty of the Lord. Soon it all became familiar, natural, welcome. Sometimes tears welled up, and occasionally they flowed. Not tears of sadness and not tears of joy, they came from the passion of reunion. The attendant positions served as an assistance to the comprehension of the profound words of the prayer.
As I pondered the magic of this experience I recalled this line from a prayer by Abdu’l-Baha:
Reveal then Thyself, O Lord, by Thy merciful utterance and the mystery of Thy divine being, that the holy ecstasy of prayer may fill our souls …
The long obligatory prayer revealed the Lord to me in a way I’d never contemplated before. The word ecstasy represented a perfect choice for the mystical sensations that resulted. I was learning firsthand what Baha’u’llah explains about how prayer works:
Though he may, at first, remain unaware of its effect, yet the virtue of the grace vouchsafed unto him must needs sooner or later exercise its influence upon his soul.
Not only in private prayer, but also in communal prayer, I have experienced a sense of ecstasy. While serving on the U.S. National Baha’i Arts Task Force, we hosted a series of artists retreats across the United States. Each session began with a truly open prayer gathering. If someone offered a prayer and someone else (or several people) felt like humming or drumming or playing an instrument, they just followed their instincts. Sometimes when a prayer had a repeated refrain, other members joined in the recitation of that portion. During one session, a woman stood up, maraca in hand, and began to move rhythmically, in what could be described as a Native American dance movement, while purposely shaking the maraca in concert with her steps and the rhythm of the voice of the person uttering the prayer. Slowly others, me included, stood up and joined her, creating a circle of souls with hands on the shoulder of the person preceding them. Suddenly I felt like I was floating; it was as though my feet weren’t touching the ground and I was held aloft by the arms of God.
Words can’t explain what happened; one cannot fully express mystic feelings; one can only experience and treasure them. They serve to bring a sense of union with the Beloved and give a renewed purpose to life on this earthly plane: that of preparing for and being ready to welcome the transition that will come to all of us when we die to this transient life and are born into the next stage in the life of our soul.
I do believe that in order to open yourself up to the experience of mystic feelings during prayer, they should be vocalized, preferably sung or chanted, even when you are alone. Baha’u’llah doesn’t tell us to think our prayers, or even to recite them, rather he says to intone them. To intone means to speak or recite in a singing voice, especially in monotone; to chant:
Intone, O My servants, the verses of God that have been received by thee, as intoned by them who have drawn nigh unto Him, that the sweetness of thy melody may kindle thine own soul, and attract the hearts of all men. Whoso reciteth, in the privacy of his chamber, the verses revealed by God, the scattering angels of the Almighty shall scatter abroad the fragrance of the words uttered by his mouth, and shall cause the heart of every righteous man to throb. Though he may, at first, remain unaware of its effect, yet the virtue of the grace vouchsafed unto him must needs sooner or later exercise its influence upon his soul. Thus have the mysteries of the Revelation of God been decreed by virtue of the Will of Him Who is the Source of power and wisdom.
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