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The Baha'i Faith is both a religion and a way of life. Baha’u’llah did not make a distinction between the two – what people believe should be reflected in what they do.
In his writings, Baha’u’llah repeatedly reminded his followers that the teachings of God must be manifested in one’s deeds and integrated into one’s life: “Let deeds, not words, be your adorning.” – The Hidden Words.
Many distinctive aspects contribute to the Baha'i way of life. Among these, perhaps the most fundamental is the role of prayer in daily life. In one form or another, prayer forms an integral part of every religion, but in this age Baha’u’llah has expanded its definition – so that it now encompasses feelings, thoughts, words and actions.
The Purpose of Prayer
Why do people pray? This is not something which has always been clear and evident to me. When I was a child I used to say my bedtime prayers kneeling beside my bed with my mother watching over me. I used to say: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, but if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take ...” This would be followed by a long list of people I should not forget in my prayers: “Bless mommy and daddy and grandma and granddad and ...”
After saying my prayers, being tucked in and kissed goodnight, I would lie awake in the darkness and ask myself, Why should people pray? If God was All-Knowing, then wouldn’t He already know what we wanted and needed without our having to ask? What was the point in praying? Did God need me to worship Him?
The more I thought about this, the less I understood about prayer. Finally, I stopped thinking about it because I stopped praying. I was getting too old to be tucked in or stood over. I still believed in God but I regarded prayer as useless. By the time I found the Baha'i Faith, I had begun to suspect that all along I had been asking the wrong questions about prayer. Day-to-day living had taught me that some questions can be so loaded with presuppositions that people do not know where to look for the answers.
In studying the Baha'i Faith, I began to see that the individual, not God, benefits from the experience of prayer.
Prayer was for our sake, not His. With regard to who needed what, I had been looking in the wrong direction, upwards instead of inwards. Now I started to understand the purpose of prayer – seeing the impulse to pray as a natural one. People pray because they love God. The created loves the Creator. The love of God is all around us, and prayer is a means of receiving it. In The Hidden Words, Baha’u’llah explained the nature of this Divine love:
O Son of Being! Love Me, that I may love thee. If thou lovest Me not, My love can in no wise reach thee. Know this, O servant. – Ibid.
Understanding the purpose of prayer was only the beginning. I started praying again, but now they were not the simple bedtime prayers of childhood. On my thirteenth birthday, my mother gave me a Baha'i prayer book, and I had soon memorized many of them from constant use. Now I chose a moment when no one was home, and read the Baha'i prayers in a loving, meditative way. I had my favorites:
O God! O God! This is a broken-winged bird and his flight is very slow – assist him so that he may fly towards the apex of prosperity and salvation, wing his way with the utmost joy and happiness throughout the illimitable space, raise his melody in Thy Supreme Name in all the regions, exhilarate the ears with this call, and brighten the eyes by beholding the signs of guidance. O Lord! I am single, alone and lowly. For me there is no support save Thee, no helper except Thee and no sustainer beside Thee. Confirm me in Thy service, assist me with the cohorts of Thy angels, make me victorious in the promotion of Thy Word and suffer me to speak out Thy wisdom amongst Thy creatures. Verily, Thou art the helper of the weak and the defender of the little ones, and verily Thou art the Powerful, the Mighty and the Unconstrained. – Abdu’l-Baha, Baha'i Prayers
As I continued to study the Baha'i writings, prayer gradually became an important part of my way of life. I found solace, peace and connection to the Creator there. I reserved a portion of each day for prayer and reading from the writings of Baha’u’llah. It was like water to a thirsty soul:
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 ... Indeed, prayer imparteth life. – Abdu’l-Baha, from a tablet to an individual Baha'i.
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The more I prayed, the more I realized that prayer creates a spiritual language unbounded by the limitations of the syllables and sounds of the spoken word – a language of the heart rather than the tongue. Prayer emanates from within in an effort to communicate with God, it is more than words, it is a spiritual attitude.
The sincere feeling of love towards God in one’s heart, the silent remembrance of His bounty, and the thought of thanksgiving for His mercy are all aspects of prayer. Baha’u’llah reveals that all the different levels on which we endeavor to communicate with God are valid, whether the prayer is found on the lips of someone praising his Creator, in the spiritual and mental attitudes we develop in the course of our lives, in our work and in our creative endeavors, or in the love and selfless service we render others. We all have the opportunity and the privilege of using these forms of prayer to connect ourselves to a greater and more beautiful reality.