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Have you ever been to a Baha’i devotional? If so, you’ve probably seen someone worship by reading from a book, singing, or reciting from memory one of the many prayers of the Baha’i Faith.
Many people are immediately attracted to this way of praying—but others struggle with it, especially at their first encounter.
It’s worth asking then: why should someone pray using someone else’s words? In particular, what can be gained by using the prayers of Baha’u’llah, the Bab, and Abdu’l-Baha, the three central figures of the Baha’i Faith from its formative, opening decades?
When you first read through a Baha’i prayer, you’ll likely notice the lofty and ornate language, which depict the desires of a soul at an elevated level of spiritual consciousness. The following supplication of Baha’u’llah is a noteworthy example of this elevated style:
Make me ready, in all circumstances, O my Lord, to serve Thee and to set myself towards the adored sanctuary of Thy Revelation and of Thy Beauty. If it be Thy pleasure, make me to grow as a tender herb in the meadows of Thy grace, that the gentle winds of Thy will may stir me up and bend me into conformity with Thy pleasure, in such wise that my movement and my stillness may be wholly directed by Thee. – Baha’u’llah, Prayers and Meditations by Baha’u’llah, p. 240.
Many people are struck by the pure beauty of passages like these, but don’t quite know what to do with them in their own spiritual life. They’re not the kind of words we use in everyday life. The requests in Baha’i prayers often seem more pious and devout than the mundane things that tend to weigh on our hearts.
At a more basic level, the words aren’t chosen by the person doing the praying. To many, it might seem somehow artificial or even insincere to utter prayers that have sprung from someone else’s heart and not from one’s own.
This can be especially challenging for people who have been spiritually nurtured by spontaneously speaking to God about what’s on their minds. For many Christians this is the only kind of prayer they’ve ever known.
Growing up Catholic, I’ve always been familiar with reciting standardized prayers. From a young age I was taught to pray the Rosary, which is highly structured and does not explicitly leave a space for free-form conversation with God. But even with that formal background, when I became a Baha’i I was initially tested by the exaltedness of lines like: “By Thy might, O my God! My soul is wedded to none beside Thee, and my heart seeketh none except Thine own Self.” – Ibid., p. 142.
Although reading the Baha’i prayers sometimes felt strange at first, my soul gradually became attuned to their movement and flow. With experience I’ve been able to see this method’s benefits and advantages, even though it is not the only way for Baha’is to pray, and even though I would never downplay the value and power of other forms of prayer. So fourteen years after praying with Baha’is for the first time, I have a few observations and reflections on what can be gained spiritually by worshipping using prayers written by the central Baha’i figures.
One thing I’ve come to believe is that the text of Baha’i prayers has an educational role in a person’s spiritual life. They teach us how to desire what God wants us to desire; nearness to Him, illumination with divine attributes, detachment from earthly affections, etc. When we open our hearts to inner transformation, the holy words of a prophet of God can draw us into the mindset of the worshipper portrayed in those prayers who spontaneously speaks to God that way.
Secondly, by sharing these prayers communally—even on a global scale—we enunciate a shared vision of spiritual excellence and a common roadmap for the progress of our souls. To the extent that we learn the same aspirations from the same prayers, we come to see each other not as strangers but as fellow travellers and allies in the quest for God.
Thirdly, the reading of Baha’i prayers is a means to an end, and not the goal itself. By praying we carry forward our own spiritual development.
You may have heard it said that prayer is like a fire that burns within one’s soul. One similarity between fire and prayer is that both are strengthened by the energy they release. When a fire is new and small, the person tending it needs to be very careful about what wood to put on it. If the wood is too large or too moist, then it will fail to ignite, and may even smother what little flame exists. However, if the fire has grown large and strong it can easily consume any flammable material thrown onto it. Prayers written by the central Baha’i figures—just like any other kind of sincere worship—can serve the function of building up that small flame within our souls. As the practice of prayer becomes stronger the worshipper can more easily derive spiritual benefit from different methods of praying, thereby diminishing any reason to emphasize one method to the exclusion of others.
For those of us who believe in the sacred mission of Baha’u’llah, the Bab, and Abdu’l-Baha, we will always have a special appreciation for any words of devotion that those luminous and divinely-guided souls have uttered and set down in writing.