Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Obligatory and Congregational Prayer

Why Say the Obligatory Prayers? Plus, A note on Congregational Prayer

By John Taylor; 2008 Dec 23, 12 Masa'il 165 BE

"One who performeth neither good deeds nor acts of worship is like unto a tree which beareth no fruit, and an action which leaveth no trace. Whosoever experienceth the holy ecstasy of worship will refuse to barter such an act or any praise of God for all that existeth in the world. Fasting and obligatory prayer are as two wings to man's life. Blessed be the one who soareth with their aid in the heaven of the love of God, the Lord of all worlds." (IOPF, Section 1, no. 3)

I have been writing about debt and Comenius's meta-reform plan. While researching these I came across Plato's description of the nature of justice in the fourth book of the Republic:

"But in reality justice was ... concerned however, not with the outward man, but with the inward, which is the true self and concernment of man: for the just man does not permit the several elements within him to interfere with one another, or any of them to do the work of others,  -- he sets in order his own inner life, and is his own master and his own law, and at peace with himself; and when he has bound together the three principles within him, which may be compared to the higher, lower, and middle notes of the scale, and the intermediate intervals..."

After performing the Long Obligatory prayer this morning I thought of this passage. It seems to explain why God ordained this prayer as obligatory. This is the only prayer that puts us through all three of the processes Plato mentions, knowing (the inner life), willing (being your own master) and acting (being at peace with oneself). All three are part of a harmony of inner with outer that we call justice.

The justice that comes out of the obligatory prayers is like a tuning fork. This sets them apart from other prayers. Even the verb we use to describe the Long and Medium Obligatory Prayers is different, we "say" other prayers, but these we do not just say, we "perform" them. In that sense, words combined with bodily motions, they set the tone for all parts of the soul, its faculty of reason, the will and the body.

When I perform the obligatory prayer in the morning, as I just did, my thoughts and emotions in that time act as a sort of tuning fork, not unlike the mixed up sound of the warm-up that an orchestra must go through before the symphony. My day is marked by an ineffable commingling of the three inner faculties, reason, will and deed. The day's events seem at times like a direct means of approach to my Creator, as Baha'u'llah promised that they would,

"And We have ordained obligatory prayer and fasting so that all may by these means draw nigh unto God, the Most Powerful, the Well-Beloved." (Importance of Obligatory Prayer and Fasting (IOPF) Compilation, Section 1, no. 1)

Abdu'l-Baha, in talking about the longer obligatory prayers, emphasizes their effect on emotion and sensibility. He holds that this prayer gives a pleasure of an entirely higher order than anything else available to the human palate. "Every joy is earthly save this one, the sweetness of which is divine." (Sec. 2, No. 8) (`Abdu'l-Baha, IOPF Compilation, Sec. 2, No. 8) Say the prayer long enough, I guess, and spirituality starts to infuse your entire being.

"Through worship man becometh spiritual, his heart is attracted, and his soul and inner being attain such tenderness and exhilaration that the Obligatory Prayer instilleth new life in him." (Sec. 2, No. 7) (`Abdu'l-Baha, IOPF Compilation, Sec. 2, No. 7)

Read that enticing promise and you are reminded of a speaker at a TED conference (see: http://badiblog.blogspot.com/2008/12/sampling-luxuries.html), a journalist who wondered if the most expensive and sought after pleasures are worth the money you have to shell out in return for the refined experience that they supposedly offer. He got a magazine to sponsor him and he tried a ride in the world's most expensive sports car, he slept in a $60,000 bed, sampled truffles, the most legendary wine, and so forth. Most of these luxuries he judged unworthy of the money spent. Mostly, they rely upon snob appeal, the feeling that I am experiencing what only a few in the world can get their hands on.

It would have been interesting if after all that sampling of rare luxuries he had tried out what the Master proposes is the most exquisite pleasure of them all, the ecstasy of prayer. Imagine him getting down on his knees before God, raising his hands, putting hands on knees, making the moves and reciting the very words that God says to say... Would that have moved him more than Chateau l'Effite had (that is, not much) or the perfect control of the three million dollar roadster?

This act of devotion has many advantages over the priciest luxuries. Unlike them, it costs nothing. And it is hardly a sought-after commodity. The poorest shlub in the world in the ugliest slum of Mumbai or Haiti can perform it all he wants. In fact the Long Oblig has the reverse of snob appeal, if you are a Baha'i you have to do it, not once but every day.

Sure, you probably have to believe in order for the Long Oblig to work its full magic, and even if you do believe -- for me at least -- there is often no noticeable effect at all -- which is one reason they put at the front of most prayer books Baha'u'llah's "warning label," "though he may at first remain unaware of its effect..." But when the prayer does connect right away, you feel in your bones what the Psalm declares:

"The law of Yahweh is perfect, restoring the soul. The testimony of Yahweh is sure, making wise the simple. The precepts of Yahweh are right, rejoicing the heart. The commandment of Yahweh is pure, enlightening the eyes." (Psalm 19:7-8, WEB)

Note on Congregational Prayer

There is a great deal of interesting discussion about all things Baha'i at the Baha'i Library discussion group. Somebody asked the following question about congregational prayer:

Dear Baha'i Friends, I was wondering why we do not pray in congregation? Why was it abolished?

Several responses were given, none of which in my opinion came near the mark in answering this question. The following by one Loren, however, stood out. It is the best answer that I have seen.


This is a good question, one for which there is probably not one correct answer. However, I have thought about this before, and can share with you some of my thoughts on the abolition of congregational prayer based on some of my experiences of them. I spent some time living in the Middle East, as well as many years studying Islam, and at one time, as part of my self-initiated Arabic and Islamic studies, I studied at an Islamic Invitation school, which was for general education of Muslims, as well as enrolling people in the faith through offering a systematic study of Islam, and Arabic (to read the Quran and pray properly). I learned and participated in the Islamic Salat on the occasions that I was at the school, when the afternoon prayer time came. I learned the proper manner of washing, what to do, what to say, and when. Other than the transitional Allah-u-Akbar that the Imam would say between the different positions, the only thing which could be heard was the nearly silent sound of lips mouthing word in Arabic.

I do not wish to suggest for a moment that those believers were not sincerely reciting their prayers. But it did make me realize at least one good reason why Baha'u'llah should abolish it. With the system of Imam lead prayer, it seems all too easy for the outward forms of the prayer (ablutions, positions, extra prayers, reverent appearances, etc.) to receive undo emphasis while the more important matters of intentions, inward attitudes, the actual words of the prayers, etc., can get lost altogether. In contrast, in my experiences as a Baha'i saying my obligatory prayers, I have never experienced even the potential for those distractions I experienced praying with Muslims. Don't get me wrong, praying with the Muslims was a precious experience for me, but I think Bahaullah has made our obligatory prayers much more personal and intimate.

On another note, I wanted to clear a common misconception that I often hear about the Baha'i obligatory prayers. I have heard it said by many Baha'is that we must be alone when we prayer our obligatory prayers. In fact, we do not have to be alone, but we have to say our prayers alone:

"As to the obligatory prayer: Each one must say his prayer alone by himself, and this is not conditional on a private place; that is, both at home and in the worshipping-place, which is a gathering-place, it is allowable for one to say his prayer; but each person must say his prayer by himself. But if they chant supplications together, in a good and effective voice, that is very good" (Lights of Guidance, 465).

In some ways I think this passage even sheds some light on your question. It seems God wants us to pray from our own hearts and lips and not merely shadow someone praying on our behalf. I think its important to understand that we not be alone to find a suitable place to pray. Im sure many of us prefer to be alone, but I can think of too many occasions where I may have missed a prayer on the excuse that I made to myself: there is no place to be alone before I knew any better. Being alone might be ideal, or, depending on your personality, essential, but it is nice to know it is not required. It makes it a little easier for us to comply in certain times and circumstances.

I hope you will not think I was just confessing my sins about missing some prayers! ;-)






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