The community devotional gatherings my husband and I began hosting have helped me realize that prayer is a lot like going to the gym—it has to be regular to be effective.
Allow me to explain. My life during the past few months has been, to say the least, quite stressful. Who am I kidding? My life has been that way for much longer than just a few months.
As an artist I typically find that I’m involved in too many things all the time, and when one project ends I always manage to get involved in yet another. Add on being a Baha’i, a wife, and simply, a living, breathing human being, and that’s a pretty full schedule.
As a result, my physical health has not been a top priority on my ‘to-do’ list.
I’d try to attend a class at the gym at least once, maybe twice a week if I was feeling motivated, but something, or a whole bunch of somethings, always seemed more pressing to accomplish. I guess I also felt a bit of shame in going back to the gym, as it had been so long, and I felt so out of shape.
Physically, I realized, I didn’t feel good. My back had been tweaking and aching lots, my legs felt like they’d been quenched of all their strength. I held my friend’s child and after five minutes I had to put him down because my arms just couldn’t carry him anymore. I realized that the longer it took for me to go to the gym, the harder it became to go, and my body really suffered as a result. My physical health was actually becoming a barrier preventing me from accomplishing my daily objectives.
So I went to the gym! I spent almost two hours there. I started my practice with a hatha yoga class and then spent some time lifting weights and doing crunches. I’ll admit, I felt guilty doing all that. I had a lot to accomplish that day, but I did my best to stay focused and present, and all was well and good until the next morning when I tried to get out of bed and couldn’t.
I could feel the blood rush to all these newly aching muscles in my legs once I mustered up the energy to drag myself out of bed, and with every movement of my being I felt a burning sensation everywhere. I couldn’t sit, and once I was able to sit, I couldn’t stand. I needed help getting off my chair. The worst part: this was the night of our weekly Baha’i devotional in our home, and I had so many things to organize and prepare. As I sat there in prayer, in my useless physical state, a stroke of insight finally hit me!
All the tests that we experience in our daily lives, whether they be in our relationships, our service, our career, our studies, they become more challenging to deal with the further removed we are from God. If we don’t carefully tend our soul every day, it atrophies, just like the unused muscles in our bodies. The less we prioritize prayer and worship in our daily lives, the further removed we become calling on Him for assistance. The less we make time to open our hearts to the Creator, the more we become drawn to our lower, material nature:
When man allows the spirit, through his soul, to enlighten his understanding, then does he contain all Creation … But on the other hand, when man does not open his mind and heart to the blessing of the spirit, but turns his soul towards the material side, towards the bodily part of his nature, then is he fallen from his high place and he becomes inferior to the inhabitants of the lower animal kingdom …. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 97.
So I reached the conclusion that the act of prayer is not just something we need to include in our daily routine, but something we must learn to infuse into every aspect of our lives and every choice that we make. We can best achieve this, the Baha’i teachings say, through the attitude and application of altruistic service to others.
The more we pray, the more we’re able to serve, and the more we serve, the more we call on God to aid and assist us. The practice of prayer and devotion in the Baha’i Faith must also always translate into active service, for service is a natural outgrowth of individual and collective worship. Worship and prayer also contribute to our ability to read the reality of our community, and nurture the material and spiritual condition of the people around us:
… Baha’i worship, however exalted in its conception, however passionate in fervor, can never hope to achieve beyond the meagre and often transitory results produced by the contemplations of the ascetic or the communion of the passive worshiper. It cannot afford lasting satisfaction and benefit to the worshiper himself, much less to humanity in general, unless and until translated and transfused into that dynamic and disinterested service to the cause of humanity … – Shoghi Effendi, Baha’i Administration, p. 186.
This attribute of active service to others manifests in every aspect of our lives when nurtured through the development of our devotional character. It’s more than just going to the gym twice a week—it’s about living a healthy, balanced lifestyle, like eating well all the time, getting enough sleep, biking to work no matter what the weather is like outside. We can start to see the implications of our choices, once we consistently routinize them through habit and become a source of joy in our hearts:
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. The more detached and the purer the prayer, the more acceptable is it in the presence of God. – The Bab, Selections from the Writings of the Bab, pp. 77–78.
So I urge you, dear readers, to treat prayer, worship and devotion like going to the gym. However, in this gym, God is your coach and you’ve got a lifetime membership.