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Huh, I thought. I must be doing it wrong.
My life was hectic and stressful. I was homeschooling twins, one of them with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and working to build community and take care of the million details keeping our family life afloat. I said my short Baha’i obligatory prayer each day, and a couple of quick prayers in the morning and evening, but I often felt dry and unmoved as I said them. It felt like I was checking another item off my list.
Certainly the experience was nowhere near as sweet as my morning tea or my nightly dark chocolate. I wasn’t savoring prayer, inhaling its fragrance, and sinking into that pleasure.
It has taken years – those twins are now 20 – and a sort of one-step-forward, two-steps-back progression, like a cha-cha, but my prayer practice is sweeter than it used to be. Thankfully, the Baha’i writings supply so much insight into what we can do to make the practice deeper and more transformative. I’d like to share some of those suggestions here. Perhaps they will be helpful to you, too.
RELATED: Does God Listen to Our Prayers?
Remember Where You Are
I have at times felt alone when I pray. I wonder if God hears my prayers; sometimes I feel self-conscious. But the Baha’i writings tell me I am in the presence of God, that in prayer I have a direct connection with the Divine, and can enter that sublime state of wonder and profound humility when I consider in Whose Presence I stand when I pray.
Baha’u’llah, speaking as the mouthpiece of God, says, “Forget all save Me, and commune with My spirit. This is of the essence of My command, therefore, turn unto it.”
Chanting Your Prayers
For the more adventurous, here is a suggestion. Baha’u’llah wrote:
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.
To intone means to utter in musical or prolonged tones. Baha’u’llah explained: “We, verily, have made music as a ladder for your souls, a means whereby they may be lifted up unto the realm on high.”
The idea that singing a prayer has a different effect than speaking intrigued me. From personal experience, I know now that when I chant the prayers or hear others chant them, I find I can focus more fully, and the vibrations of the sound delight my heart. Perhaps the sweetness of my melody is kindling my own soul!
Set the Atmosphere
In 2019 our family went on Baha’i pilgrimage to Haifa, Israel. The center of this experience is the opportunity to pray in the burial places of Baha’u’llah, his forerunner the Bab, and Abdu’l-Baha. These special places are exquisitely beautiful, quiet, fragrant with roses, and surrounded by gorgeous gardens. I easily slipped into a state of reverence and longing to pray when I was there, and I wanted to do what I could to recreate this environment when I came home. Perhaps my immediate surroundings could be made more conducive to praying, I thought.
So on returning I set up a space specifically for prayer in our home. I repainted the room a restful sage green. I bought a small rug in a deep coral color, found a cushion to sit on, removed all the distracting knick-knacks and clutter, cleaned the space thoroughly, hung a couple of large prints of the Baha’i gardens and holy places we had visited on our pilgrimage, and brought a bright green plant, candles, and incense into the space. I could close the door, remove my shoes, sit down with my prayer book, and know why I was there.
Pick the Time
But I was still having trouble coming to that space to pray! The intention was not enough; I needed to schedule my prayer time, even as I would schedule anything else I valued. Otherwise I wouldn’t fit it in. It is clear that focus is important, but more prayers are not necessarily better. The Bab explained: “The most acceptable prayer is the one offered with the utmost spirituality and radiance; its prolongation hath not been and is not beloved by God.”
So clearly I did not need to set aside hours at a time for prayer. I wanted to bring myself fully, with spirituality and radiance, to prayer for a short period of time each day. Abdu’l-Baha advised:
The prayerful condition is the best of all conditions, for man in such a state communeth with God, especially when prayer is offered in private and at times when one’s mind is free, such as at midnight.
Well, I am rarely awake at midnight. I’m a morning person, up and alert before the rest of the family. My mind is free and I have privacy and uninterrupted time for prayer at 6:00 am. We might all consider scheduling our best and most effective prayer-time.
Allow Time After Prayer to Receive Inspiration
I tend to rush. I want to finish tasks and move on. I’ve been known to walk away in the middle of a conversation, already thinking of the next item to tackle. Abdu’l-Baha tells us that “Prayer is conversation with God.” I realized that I wasn’t having a conversation.
In addition to expressing gratitude and awe in my prayers, I was asking for assistance for myself, my family and friends, those who needed healing, peace for the world, and then rushing on to my day! This one I’m still working on; I am trying to allow more time during and after prayer to sit, meditate, and reflect – so I can see what intimations and guidance might arise, then act on them as I go about my life.
RELATED: When We Pray, What Happens?
Gather with Others
Baha’is around the world work every day to develop united communities and durable bonds between individuals based on spiritual connection. Prayer with others is an indispensable part of this development. When we pray together, the atmosphere changes and relationships deepen. We feel more receptive to others and recognize our unity with each other. Abdu’l-Baha said:
Man may say, ‘I can pray to God whenever I wish, when the feelings of my heart are drawn to God … Why should I go where others are gathered upon a special day, at a certain hour, to unite my prayers with theirs when I may not be in a frame of mind for praying?’ To think in this way is useless imagination for where many are gathered together their force is greater … their united spiritual feelings help each other and their prayers become more acceptable.
When our relationships with family members and friends and neighbors gain a spiritual component through shared prayer, it exponentially increases the strength of our connections. It is simple and powerful to say a prayer together when friends meet for coffee, or before the family heads to bed.
Prayer can become a nourishing part of our time with others, as we turn together in praise or for personal guidance or healing. When we use all of our senses – listening to and singing sacred music, employing visual arts like videos and pictures of holy places, decorating the communal space with fragrant flowers or burning candles – we participate in a sublime and uplifting worship.
What Progress Did I Make?
I don’t want to suggest that I have this prayer thing figured out. My days and weeks bump up and down; some months I want to pray, others I do not. Often, when I am struggling and suffering with the realities of this life, I am resistant to prayer, as if I don’t want to ask for or offer anything. I close myself off. God has no need of my prayers, I think; He is Self-Subsisting and All-Powerful!
But then I remember that I need God, and that prayer can help us understand this reality much better, and make us right-sized in relation to our Creator and each other.
I try to remind myself that I pray out of my love for God. I yearn to express the love that rises from the core of my being as a noble soul. I pray because I dearly need God’s constant presence, and I pray as a service to my own soul, for my own development and for the support and growth of others. As with physical exercise or learning to play the guitar, I’ve recognized prayer as a discipline that I must consciously cultivate. I gain capacity and make progress through sincere, consistent effort – and now and then, by God’s grace, I do have moments in prayer of true sweetness.