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Take a moment to consider this question: does spirituality only happen privately, or can it happen together in a group?
The answer seems pretty obvious—spirituality can happen anywhere, alone or with others. If we occasionally practiced our spirituality in groups, couldn’t we harness it to strengthen our friendships even more?
Connecting with others in a spirit of prayer and meditation, regardless of what we call our religion, can strengthen and deepen our relationships. Speaking about spiritual topics and praying and meditating together helps us connect the spiritual values at the center of our lives. The power of prayer, and its benefits of perspective, tranquillity and a closer relationship with God, is only intensified when it takes place in a group that helps us focus on the reality of our souls and how spiritual concepts can be applied to our daily lives.
The Baha'i teachings offer very clear guidance about the power of meditating on holy verses as a group:
Gather ye together with the utmost joy and fellowship and recite the verses revealed by the merciful Lord. By so doing the doors to true knowledge will be opened to your inner beings, and ye will then feel your souls endowed with steadfastness and your hearts filled with radiant joy. – Baha’u’llah, from a tablet to an individual Baha'i.
Baha’is love to pray and meditate together with others—and those Baha'i devotional gatherings are a wonderful way to connect with friends or strangers in an open, flexible, spiritual environment. Whether you live in a mansion or an apartment, have a large family or live alone, live in a metropolitan or rural area, there are no limitations on how to organize a devotional gathering: it can happen in any context, with any group of people:
Man may say: “I can pray to God whenever I wish, when the feelings of my heart are drawn to God; when I am in the wilderness, when I am in the city, or wherever I may be. 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. …
If all … gather together then their united spiritual feelings help each other and their prayers become more acceptable. – Abdu’l-Baha, Star of the West, Volume 5, p. 46.
These devotional gatherings, organized by Baha'i communities around the world, simply involve getting together with friends from any religion, race or social class. Regardless of belief, we all recognize the spiritual nature of our lives, and the positive effect feeding that spirituality can have—and we can all connect and bond in that space.
If a devotional gathering sounds appealing to you, here’s how you can start one with the people in your life, and create a space meant especially for friendship and spirituality in your community.
Define an Objective
As with any activity, it’s crucial to understand why we do what we do. In the case of a devotional gathering, it can be helpful to learn more about the power of prayer and meditation, and the importance the space you’ll be creating will have in your life:
Just as a man who is going to deliver a lecture prepares therefore and his preparation consists of certain meditations and notations, so the preparation for the prayerful attitude is detaching one's mind from all other thoughts save the thought of God at the time of prayer and then praying when the prayerful attitude shall be attained. - Abdu'l-Baha, A Heavenly Feast, p. 19.
Abdu’l-Baha spoke of the reason behind buildings created specifically for worship—and said that we can also create this kind of space wherever we want, through devotional gatherings:
The wisdom in raising up such buildings is that at a given hour, the people should know it is time to meet, and all should gather together, and, harmoniously attuned one to another, engage in prayer; with the result that out of this coming together, unity and affection shall grow and flourish in the human heart. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, pp. 94–95.
Next, consider your personal objectives. Is there a specific goal behind your desire to start a devotional gathering? Are you looking to strengthen unity in your family or friendships, success in school, or health? Your devotional gathering will adjust to those goals and the people you invite. Maybe it will happen in the evenings, once everyone is done with work … or in the early morning, before the work day starts. Or maybe it’ll be a weekend event.
How do you envision this event, and what will you do to create this kind of environment?
Find What Fills Your Soul with Joy
Prayer and meditation have many mediums. Exploring spirituality is about exposing ourselves to the holy writings of all Faiths in many different forms, be they music, stories, or even art.
Devotional gatherings can be wonderfully flexible. Maybe sitting in a circle and taking turns to read seems too monotone to you—so what about including a song or two, or an inspirational story? What about learning a prayer and singing it together?
Maybe candles help you feel inspired, or maybe you prefer to sit on the floor. Perhaps you’d like to play music in the background, or have everyone bring their own writings to read. In the end, pray in the way that fills your heart with joy and truly connects you to God:
The prime requisite is the eagerness and love of sanctified souls to read the Word of God. To read one verse, or even one word, in a spirit of joy and radiance, is preferable to the perusal of many Books. - Baha'u'llah, The Most Holy Book, p. 127.
Reach Out to Others
Inviting people to a devotional gathering, like trying out any new activity, might feel a bit awkward at first. But we all have a spiritual side to our lives, and your friends are the most likely to understand the spirit behind the event, because they know you and want to connect with you.
Invitations can be sent out in all sorts of ways, and the event itself can have many names. I know people who have simply called gatherings “Prayers with the community”, while others have called it “Soul Café” or “food for the soul.”
But at the end of the day, devotional gatherings focus on personal connections—between people, and with God. It isn’t just another hobby or club; it’s a way of rooting our friendships in something much bigger than us through the powerful medium of prayer and reflection.
Let it Grow
A devotional gathering is like a seed that you and your friends can carefully water and watch grow, perhaps for years to come. It’s very important to let it be what it will be: like any activity, it will evolve according to your needs, and also improve as you learn more about what works for all of you as a group. If the first gatherings don’t have quite as many people as you hoped, or don’t manage to be as inspiring as you intended, keep trying—sooner or later, your spirit will shine through, because this is a gathering of love. It’s about souls connected by their love and awe of something bigger than themselves; a love that unites us, and lasts long after the prayers have ended—and inspires us to action:
… all effort and exertion put forth by man from the fullness of his heart is worship, if it is prompted by the highest motives and the will to do service to humanity. This is worship: to serve mankind and to minister to the needs of the people. Service is prayer. - Abdu'l-Baha, Paris Talks, pp. 176-177.