Baha’is believe in the power of prayer and you’ll find Baha’is and their friends, throughout the world, getting together to pray. This is often referred to as a ‘devotional gathering’ or ‘devotional meeting’, and they happen in diverse settings, whether in cities or villages. These gatherings are open to all and are intended to embrace that attitude of prayer and practice of devotion that is universal to all religions.
One of the first Baha’is I ever met exalted in his faith, claiming enthusiastically: “It’s the complete package!”
I now know what he means.
At the centre is a towering spiritual figure, Baha’u’llah. Then there are inspiring teachings that seem so clearly the remedy for this age and blueprint for the future. And don’t let me forget– there are astoundingly beautiful holy places.
Then there are the prayers. Oh, the prayers. They are like the bow that ties together the complete package.
Here are some excerpts to illustrate what I mean.
They can be poetic, full of imagery:
From the sweet-scented streams of Thine eternity give me to drink, O my God, and of the fruits of the tree of Thy being enable me to taste, O my Hope!
They can be practical, asking for protection while travelling:
O God, my God! I have set out from my home, holding fast unto the cord of Thy love… Enable me, then, to return to my home by Thy power and Thy might…
They can be mystical, as is this one for the dead:
…Perpetuate his existence in Thine exalted rose garden, that he may plunge into the sea of light in the world of mysteries.
I admit that when I first encountered these marvels of spirituality and literature, I was somewhat critical, petulantly demanding to know why they contained the ancient forms of the English language: “Thee”, “Thou”, “art”…
But soon I came to see that this elevated form of English is well suited to the elevated thoughts and injunctions contained in these utterly beautiful supplications to the Almighty.
I understand that there are those, and you might be one of them, who don’t believe in, or are doubtful about, the existence of God. They think, or wonder if, people saying prayers are just mumbling into thin air and to the image of their own fantasy. Sure, they accept meditation because it seems somehow scientific, but prayer?
To those who are sceptical or plain disbelieving, my suggestion is this: just give them a go. Try them out. Experiment for a few days. It will take a while to get used to the style of language and imagery, but with some persistence and patience you will take off.
Over the millennia, millions upon millions of people have found inspiration, comfort, guidance and certitude in prayer. Perhaps they did get a genuine benefit – perhaps it was not just self-delusion. Just as it required a bit of humility to accept that Einstein’s theories might be correct (they seem so whacky on first encountering them), it does require a similar preparedness to accept that there might just be something in this prayer thing.
In the standard Baha’i prayer books, and on web sites and phone apps, there are superb translations of prayers by Baha’u’llah, His forerunner, The Bab, and His son, Abdu’l-Baha. These prayers are different in style but also have similar characteristics.
One of the main similarities for me is that the prayers are not the kind that are focussed on begging for material gifts in this material world (money, good weather and so on).
Sure, they do supplicate for assistance in this physical world but they are really about calling upon assistance to develop spiritual qualities, which often help us to progress in this world and the next , to put our life on the right track and take us into a spiritual realm that has to be experienced to be believed.
They help centre me. My experience is that prayers work in a similar way to a dial on a radio. We are often off channel and our perceptions are full of static. By praying we return to the channel, and clear away the static.
For example, if I want “aid and assistance” and look up prayers under that heading, I find sentences like this:
Grant us that which is good and seemly that we may be able to dispense with everything but Thee…
So it helps me recognise that my desire for a bigger income or a particular outcome may not be the best for me. What is the best is something “good and seemly”. It might be a boost in the finances because one prayer says, “Supply me, then with the good of this world and of the next” but that “good” may not necessarily be a bigger bank balance.
If you are a person who can’t abide poetry, it could well be that you haven’t heard the great poems read by a professional reader.
If you find prayers unattractive, it could be for a similar reason.
Prayers can appeal more to those listening when read by somebody who really knows where to put the emphasis, make the dramatic pause, adopt the correct tone. Baha’u’llah says that prayer said aloud can have a special effect.
Equally, though, they can be potent for many people when said in privacy, silently or aloud.
Here are a few more excerpts.
This is from a glorious prayer by Baha’u’llah.
Create in me a pure heart. O my God, and renew a tranquil conscience within Me, O my Hope!
And this is from a prayer by The Bab for detachment from the material world—the ultimate reality being spiritual.
Grant me then Thy sufficing help so as to make me independent of all things, O Thou Who art unsurpassed in Thy mercy!
Abdu’l-Baha, though not a prophet like Baha’u’llah or The Bab, had an inspired felicity with words possessed only by the greatest poets of all time:
In the darksome night of despair, my eye turneth expectant and full of hope to the morn of Thy boundless favour and at the hour of dawn my drooping soul is refreshed and strengthened in remembrance of Thy beauty and perfection.
And here is an excerpt from a prayer by Him which is offered by the supplicant for those who are present at the time the prayer is being said.
Make them to grow as beauteous plants in the garden of heaven, and from the full and brimming clouds of Thy bestowals and out of the deep pools of Thine abounding grace make Thou this garden to flower, and keep it ever green and lustrous, ever fresh and shimmering and fair.
If you look in a standard prayer book, you’ll notice there are headings. These are a guide so that we can find them more easily—they are not part of the original scriptures. Such headings include, for example: Assistance with tests; Children and youth; Detachment; Families; Healing; Marriage; Morning; Protection; Spiritual Qualities; Unity.
There are particularly powerful prayers such as The Long Healing Prayer, The Tablet of Ahmad, the Tablets of Visitation, the Obligatory Prayers, and this short prayer, by the Bab –it packs a powerful spiritual punch (try it when you have problems and see for yourself):
Is there any Remover of difficulties save God? Say: Praised by God! He is God! All are His servants, and all abide by His bidding!
One last thing: even if you are not finding immediate comfort, enlightenment and inspiration from these formal prayers, my suggestion is that your recite them anyway.
A learned Baha’i friend once described prayers as a ladder by which you can climb to that spiritual platform where you find your own words to supplicate to the Creator.
In one of his prayers, Abdu’l-Baha, describes this stage, surely one all of us would want to reach.
Reveal then Thyself, O Lord, by Thy merciful utterance and the mystery of Thy divine being, that the holy ecstasy of prayer may fill our souls—a prayer that shall rise above words and letters and transcend the murmur of syllables and sounds—that all things may be merged into nothingness before the revelation of Thy splendour.
Michael Day is the author of a new book, “Point of Adoration. The story of the Shrine of Baha’u’llah 1873-1892.” He is also the author of "Journey to a Mountain", "Coronation on Carmel" and "Sacred Stairway", a trilogy that tells the story of the Shrine of the Bab. His photo book "Fragrance of Glory" is an account of the Ascension of Abdu’l-Baha. A former member of the New Zealand Baha’i community, Michael now lives in Australia. He was editor of the Baha’i World News Service in Haifa 2003-2006.