Whenever I face a long afternoon of work with pressing deadlines, I decide to put off knuckling down and getting on with it.
But this reaction is not one of those inevitable procrastinations that nearly all of us are prone to at various times. I see it rather as an important decision which leads me to undertake a major refuelling, without which my afternoon might just splutter on in an unsatisfactory manner.
The reason I don’t start immediately on the nitty gritty of work, is that it is my time to say the long obligatory prayer as revealed by Baha’u’llah. Yes, that prayer may be said at any time, but for me, when the day is on the verge of waning, I opt for revival.
I find this prayer to be a daily energy source, the equivalent of plugging into the essence of reality for about 15 minutes to obtain the force that comes with it, a power that can mysteriously inspire and direct the rest of the day. Baha’u’llah did say, after all, that through obligatory prayer we may draw “nigh unto God.” That will do me.
It used to be that I would restrict myself to the short obligatory prayer, even if I had the time to say the long one but through the influence of some esteemed Baha’is I changed my practice.
Once, by chance, I saw through an open door one of the greatest Baha’is I have met saying his obligatory prayer. As he raised his arms in supplication while reciting it, the air seemed to pulse electric blue with its power.
On another occasion, I attended a talk at a summer school when a gentleman explained the effect of saying this prayer. He held up a container of dry soil and poured water into it, irrigating it, he said, as the prayer does the soil of the heart. He also explained how, as Shoghi Effendi once said, the various movements prescribed for the prayer are effective in refocussing the mind on the content of the prayer. They also have some mysterious spiritual significance too, alluded to by both the beloved Guardian and the Master.
There are some excellent commentaries on the prayer, but let me just pass on some of my own thoughts on a few of the verses in the hope that they may inspire you to regularly say this wonderful spiritual reviver. Don’t be put off by the word “long”. It isn’t that long. Or by the word “obligatory”. Nature makes breathing obligatory and we don’t reject that.
Before we start the prayer, we wash our hands and face, for me a symbolic separation from the daily doings of life, a cleansing of the detritus of toil and routine.
Like plants towards the sun, we turn towards the Shrine of Baha’u’llah, that zone of great peace, and then glance to the left and right, “as if awaiting the mercy” of God the most merciful. Being human, we all need that mercy to elevate us into the state in which we are ready to address and to supplicate to the Creator.
The prayer starts off with a simple statement overwhelming in its implications. It reminds us that God is the “Maker of the heavens”. This “unknowable essence” is responsible for the giant thunder clouds that sometimes roil overhead, the great ocean that stretches to that bending blue horizon and beyond. It is a kind of a jolt to get an inkling of the majesty of the One to whom we are speaking.
The prayer reminds us that there are veils that can cloud our vision and make us forget this reality, so we invoke the help of the holy Ones anointed to be the revealers of truth (such as the Bab and Baha’u’llah) , to make our prayer to be like a fire that will consume those veils and lead us to the presence of God. Here Baha’u’llah compares the Creator to the biggest thing we know on earth – the ocean.
One of the keys to a spiritual life gets a mention in the next verse as we proclaim we are “rid of all attachment to anyone save Thee…” We could think, “I am not in that condition”. But Baha’i prayers are often aspirational, showing us how we can and should be.
These prayers re-orient us to the needs of our real selves, and are not just the listing of material requests we often resort to such as those for good health, a good career, more money and for our favourite sports team to win. There is nothing wrong with such supplications, and some are automatic such as when your team is down a few points toward the end of a game. But they are at a much more superficial mundane level than those that seek fundamental spiritual blessings.
Soon it is time for us to prostrate ourselves, to acknowledge the fact that God is beyond the comprehension of all, including of those who believe as well as of those who deny. God is, as Baha’u’llah says elsewhere “the most manifest of the manifest and the most hidden of the hidden” but even when manifest He remains above description.
We ask that the prayer be “a fountain of living waters”, a description which perhaps inspired that gentleman at the summer school to illustrate the effect of the prayer by using water falling on to dry soil.
The next section of the prayer says something that surely even the most pious of humans have experienced—that separation from God has melted our hearts and souls. Yet, as Baha’u’llah reminds us, the fire of God’s love sets the whole world aflame and we hasten to our home beneath the canopy of the Creator.
Whenever I reach that part of the prayer that refers directly to our state—“this wretched creature knocking at the door of Thy grace”—I remember a friend who said he thought that this applied especially to him, not an assessment of him shared by me or his other colleagues.
The engendering of humility, that vital attribute of spiritualised humanity, is then brought home to us as we prostrate ourselves and acknowledge that God is “sanctified above all attributes and holy above all names”. Some say God is love, but from this prayer we know that God is far more than that, and that the sum of the list of all the attributes we can think is still just a vague picture of a transcendent being that will forever be unknowable in its essence.
After we have prostrated ourselves, we sit and contemplate that the departed holy souls testify to the unity of the God and to the fact that the Manifestation is the “Hidden Mystery, the Treasured Symbol.”
We again acknowledge that God’s love has enriched us but that separating from Him has destroyed us. However, we ask that that though the words coming from the mouths of the Manifestations and– so beautifully described– “by the breaths of Thy Revelation and the gentle winds of the Dawn of Thy Manifestation” that we may gaze on God’s beauty and observe His commandments.
Soon we are admitting that our preoccupation with things of the world prevents us from paying attention to the reality that is God: “Thou seest , O my God, how my tears prevent me from remembering Thee and from extolling Thy virtues…”
The prayer is coming to a conclusion. It is time to refocus. We prostrate ourselves, asking that we be protected from those things that will separate us from God, “the hosts of idle fancies and vain imaginations”.
The last verse, recited as we are seated, again makes reference to the holy souls of the departed (we trust they include our departed ancestors, family members and friends). We join them in acknowledging that “the kingdoms of earth and heaven” are God’s.
The prayer is complete but there is more to do, because we are enjoined that in time of prayer we should beseech God to bestow mercy and forgiveness upon our mother and father. By extension it is a good time to pray, too, for other family members.
Refuelled with his high octane prayer, I await with confidence the delights that an otherwise dreary afternoon is bound to bring.