I want to describe a way of worship that I am familiar with. Perhaps you will recognize it.
A small group of Baha’is and their friends will gather in some informal location to pray, such as in a home or a park. Everyone faces towards the open space between them, keeping a radiant and reverent state of mind. There is no front. There is no back. The shape they form is not always a circle. But it is mostly likely some sort of ring. Participants will take turns reading, reciting, chanting, or singing prayers of their own choosing. Nobody is in charge. Nobody leads the others in worship.
When worshipers are in this space, the impulse to pray arises from within the heart and comes to fruition in voluntary acts of devotion. This period of prayer may carry on for a minute. Or it may continue for over an hour. But the duration of worship is left to the discretion and inspiration of those who are present. The atmosphere might be energetic and lively. Or it might be quiet and introspective, depending on the local culture, the nature of the occasion, and the characteristics of its individual participants. There is no official way for Baha’is to pray as a group. And I’m sure this is not the only way that Baha’is pray as a group. But it is a form of worship that I have partaken in and these are a few of my thoughts as to the social influence of these gatherings.
I think it’s useful to understand that a gathering for prayer is a social occasion. This isn’t just because before and after prayers attendees will often chat with each other, share refreshments, laugh, tell stories, jokes, etc. Praying together is itself a way of socializing. In addition to each person’s inward experience, there is the group’s shared encounter with the Divine. It deepens and spiritualizes the connections that join each person to the other. Its effects carry over after prayers are no longer said. Group prayer can be a method for the spiritual transformation of both individuals and communities.
So how can the form of worship described above change our relations with other people? How does it work upon us and make us into new individuals and new communities?
In short, I think it helps us interact as equals. It encourages us to express what’s in our heads and hearts and enkindles a loving curiosity about what others have to share. It gathers each person’s contribution into a harmonious group experience. It affirms the value of each individual and the preciousness of their togetherness. When we pray and listen to others pray, we participate in a shared quest for the Divine, which fosters an ethos of collective truth seeking and unified action.
To understand what happens during these moments of worship, it helps to also look at what often follows. Among Baha’is, meetings for study, discussion, consultation, or decision-making usually begin with a period of prayer. What I find really interesting is that many of the patterns of interaction during the devotional period carry over into the main activities that come after it.
Let’s imagine a group of people that has gathered to consult on an important community issue. At the start, they take turns praying spontaneously. And they listen attentively to the words others speak while in prayer. After that, during the group discussion there usually isn’t an order in which people speak. They are all equals. So when one person is done speaking, any person is free to contribute to what is said. What’s important here is that this pattern is already established during the devotional portion. Before they even begin to discuss anything, the gathering is already taking on the characteristics of a conversation. First, it is the interchange and alternation of prayers. Afterwards it becomes an exchange of ideas and experiences.
The shared ethos between prayer and group discussion is also evidenced in the physical organization of the space. Participants typically face towards each other and try to avoid having their back to anyone, especially if that person is speaking. This is in stark contrast to sitting or standing passively in rows, facing towards the front of the room, where a leader faces towards the group and does all the speaking. In the approach I am most familiar with, the group is physically oriented towards itself. Everybody has an immediate physical connection with the open space that unites the group.
These are some material aspects of their similarity. But of course there is a spiritual dimension too. After all, spirituality and the life of the mind go hand in hand. Just look at how Abdu’l-Baha talks about consultation in this quotation:
[W]hen a problem ariseth, or a difficulty occureth, the wise should gather, consult, and devise a solution. They should then rely upon the one true God, and surrender to His Providence, in whatever way it may be revealed, for divine confirmations will undoubtedly assist. Consultation, therefore, is one of the explicit ordinances of the Lord of mankind.1
For Abdu’l-Baha consultation isn’t just a technical format for discussion and decision-making. It is a spiritual practice for making us more attuned to God’s guidance. Praying with others is a method for drawing our minds and hearts into a space where that can happen.
Group prayer is a way of stretching our spiritual muscles before a big exertion. It affirms the worthiness of each person to participate on an equal footing and asserts the spiritual character of our relations with one another. Turning our hearts to God refreshes the personal qualities of joy, compassion, truthfulness, and generosity that are so needed in our social interactions. Then, with divine assistance and a little help from our friends, what happens in society can become a reflection of what happens in deep prayer.
- Abdu’l-Baha, quoted in Compilation of Compilations: Consultation, from an otherwise untranslated tablet [↩]