My husband’s aunt prayed every day for our son during his heart surgeries. When she told me, I felt such relief that someone with real knowhow was praying for him. This seemed to be one of those life crises that needed really good prayers – the kind of prayers that could “rise above words and letters and transcend the murmur of syllables and sounds”.
I’m not very good at praying. As a child I think the closest I ever came to praying was a fervent heartfelt plea to any entity that would deliver to me a Barbie townhouse – the one with a real elevator.
So, when I first started to step out of my secular mindset and explore the Baha’i Faith, I was a bit tentative as to how I was supposed to conduct these conversations with God. Just the idea that there might be a God, and I might have a soul, was a bit daunting.
My first attempts at prayer were rather self-conscious. I focused on how I should sit or stand. Was I facing the right direction? I would say the words and try to keep errant thoughts from interfering, but I had very few transcendent moments.
It was my father, who could be described as a devout agnostic, who gave me my first inclination about how to pray. He took us hiking when we were kids. I’m not sure how he garnered the strength to hoist a tent and just about everything else onto his own back while we carried perhaps a change of clothes and our sleeping bags, but I’m thankful he did it. We would walk into the woods for a few days and end up standing on top of one of this province’s gorgeous mountains, looking out at even more mountains all covered with trees as far as we could see. So when I first started praying (sitting crosslegged with my hands on my knees, palms raised upwards), I would try to reconnect with that feeling. The feeling of being utterly tiny and relatively insignificant and yet vitally connected to something vast and wonderful. And sometimes, just often enough to encourage me, I could feel that connection when I prayed.
I tried to pray every day, looking through my prayer book for the shortest prayers – many of which are still my favourites. In the Baha’i Faith there is the expectation that every believer will say an obligatory prayer every day. This is, of course, a private matter between the individual and God, but it is considered a basic foundation for spiritual growth. Kindly, for those who didn't grow up praying there is a shorter prayer. It has exactly 50 words – but the catch is that it should be said between noon and sunset. The longer prayer can be said anytime, but it is, as expected, longer.
For years, I subsisted on the shorter prayer. But on the days when the sun had set, I was stuck. The long prayer comes with specific instructions to raise your hands in supplication and then kneel or to bend down and rest your hands on your knees. I was perplexed. How exactly did I supplicate and how should I rest my hands on my knees? I wanted to do it correctly but at the same time I didn't want to ask anyone, because I’d been a Baha’i for a few years and it seemed I’d already passed the “best before date” for asking.
Then, about two years after I had started praying, I travelled to Haifa in Israel to visit the Baha’i Shrines. Inside the Shrine of the Bab – a gloriously beautiful building designed by the Canadian architect William Sutherland Maxwell – I found myself all alone, sitting and praying. A stranger walked in. Being easily distracted I looked over, and there he was with his eyes closed supplicating with his hands, then he kneeled down and put his forehead to the ground and then he stood and he continued to silently proceed through all the steps of the long obligatory prayer right beside me. God had answered my unasked prayer.
I still lean towards the shorter prayer and even have a reminder programmed into my phone – something I consider both ridiculous and yet most helpful. But some days even when I say my prayer before sunset, I take the time to say the long obligatory prayer and enjoy the rhythm of its steps – “how my spirit hath been stirred up…in its longing to worship”.
Cathy Nash grew up in Victoria, came back for law school where she discovered the Baha'i Faith, and returned a few years ago with her family.
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