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On March 11th, 2020, while setting up my instruments and looking forward to teaching my first class as a guest artist at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, I realized something wasn’t right.
As I prepared to teach, I could see all of the students staring at their phones in disbelief. They had just received a message from the university stating that classes would be shutting down due the coronavirus pandemic. That night, I received a similar message from my own university.
As schools throughout the country moved classes online and businesses suspended operations, our entire nation – no, the whole planet – turned upside down.
In that moment, as our world lurched to a standstill and seemed to be hanging on the edge of a cliff, I sat down for lunch with two dear friends, one a former teacher. Six months later, that lunch meeting feels suspended in time, as the three of us discussed the uncharted waters we were about to navigate. During our meeting I had told them, “I need to stop at the Baha’i Temple on my way back to Michigan.” I had no concept of the challenges we would all face together. All I knew was that I needed to pray!
On my way to the temple I called my mentor, Marvin “Doc” Holladay. I joked with Doc, now in his 90’s, that given the fact that he was born after the 1918 Flu Pandemic, I would not be able to seek his counsel on the current situation. He replied, “You’re gonna need to go straight to the Creator for this one.”
When I reached Wilmette, Illinois that Friday, I entered the sanctuary of the Baha’i House of Worship and prayed in a way that I had never prayed before. My first time ever being alone in that massive and powerful sacred space, tears streamed down my cheeks as I recited several Baha’i prayers from memory. Then I began to read all of Baha’u’llah’s Hidden Words. Each of the many short aphorisms in that beautiful book resonated within me with a newfound depth and gave me both solace and strength:
O Son of Utterance! Thou art My stronghold; enter therein that thou mayest abide in safety. My love is in thee, know it, that thou mayest find Me near unto thee.
O Son of Being! Thou art My lamp and My light is in thee. Get thou from it thy radiance and seek none other than Me. For I have created thee rich and have bountifully shed My favor upon thee.
O Son of Spirit! I created thee rich, why dost thou bring thyself down to poverty? Noble I made thee, wherewith dost thou abase thyself? Out of the essence of knowledge I gave thee being, why seekest thou enlightenment from anyone beside Me? Out of the clay of love I molded thee, how dost thou busy thyself with another? Turn thy sight unto thyself, that thou mayest find Me standing within thee, mighty, powerful and self-subsisting.
I didn’t want to leave the temple, and at times over the last six months, I’ve wished I was still meditating there. However, I knew that I needed to take the calm I felt in that sacred space back out into the world. As I prepared to leave, I thought I heard a voice telling me, “You know, you can do this anywhere!”
When I made it home, I again called Doc. “We need to start having dawn prayers together each morning,” I told him. I then created a Zoom account and sent out an email to a few fellow Baha’is, along with interfaith family and friends, inviting them all to share daily dawn prayers together.
I have continued these dawn prayers every morning for the past six months. Throughout this time, many friends have joined us as we start the day together in prayer and reflection. These prayers have transformed my life and have sustained me over what has been an incredibly turbulent period. They have also had a profound effect on my participating family and friends. Through the harsh blue glow of our computers, tablets and phones, we have laughed together, cried together, and prayed together. Words of guidance and comfort from many different faiths have carried us forward, and strengthened us as we also confront the centuries-old pandemic of racism. As we have faced illness, upheaval, and other challenges, our prayers have given us hope and courage. This passage from Baha’u’llah, the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith, explains how the power of prayer can work:
Intone, O My servant, 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.
Recently Oakland University, where I teach, resumed limited face-to-face instruction. As the new semester began and I returned to work, I had planned on discontinuing our daily dawn prayers. However, I quickly realized that I could not stop and didn’t want to, either. Just as I nourish my physical self with nutrition, exercise, and sleep, I must also continue to nourish my spiritual self with prayer and meditation each morning.
In fact, our continued dawn prayers have helped me with the transition back to the classroom.
I was even able to incorporate many prayers into an outdoor concert I presented last week at the university. Before each of the musical selections that I shared, I also read one of my favorite dawn prayers. These prayers gave our gathering, which was the first public event at my school in six months, greater depth and meaning, while also elevating my musical performance.
This week, Doc is moving his home from the mountains of Ecuador, where he lives near Quito, to the coastal city of Manta. He called me yesterday to tell me that unfortunately, he needs to take a week away from our prayer group while he moves. Hearing the regret in his voice, I suddenly realized that, although he is already a veteran Baha’i in his 90s, our daily prayers have had an equally powerful impact on his life.
I told Doc not to worry, to take his time and settle in to his new place. We will still be there every morning on Zoom, waiting for him to return and begin our day in prayer together.