The Value of Prayer
by John Robartspublished in Bahá'í News
From my earliest days in the Faith [Mr. Robarts and his wife Audrey have been Bahá'ís since 1937] it has seemed that we have had too few speakers. Anybody who was willing to give a talk would receive many invitations. In that long-ago period when I was first a believer, I went to many places in Canada and the United States to speak. I must tell you about one place because it often comes to my mind when I consider the subject of prayer. It was on April 17. I had been invited to address a community where there were eight believers and they needed a ninth to form their Local Spiritual Assembly a few days hence. My plane was delayed and I arrived late while prayers were being said. I was ushered to a seat beside the chairman. When the prayers were finished, he whispered to me (there were about 45 people in the room), "John, do you see that tall man in the third row, center? He is the only non-Baha’i in the room. We need him for our Assembly on Thursday!"
I stood up and looked at my opponent. He was a nice person. I noticed he had very large eyes. I began to speak but soon felt that I wasn't doing very well. I didn't seem to be inspired and suddenly I realized that my friend's eyes were opening and closing very slowly, and then to my horror, they closed and clicked shut. I had lost my man. He was sound asleep! In my despair I turned to Baha’u'llah and said, "Dear Baha’u'llah, please come to my aid. We need that man for our Assembly on Thursday." I went on with my talk and what seemed like a bright idea struck me, which I felt must have been the answer to my cry for help. In quite a loud voice, I said, "Baha’u'llah said, 'The people are wrapped in a strange sleep!'" And I banged the table with my fist. The man woke up as though he had been shot and he stayed awake. He became a Bahá'í that evening, and helped to form the Assembly on Thursday!
I think this is a good illustration of renewal of faith through prayer. It certainly renewed my faith when I saw those beautiful eyes open again and it renewed his when he really turned his heart to Bahá'u'lláh. We were all very happy.
That incident reminds me that when we call for help from God, we know that it will come. Never has man more desperately needed faith than he does now. I hope to show there is no way to find it other than through fervent prayer and service to His Cause.
There is one prayer many Bahá'ís say every day. Throughout the world Bahá'ís are saying it constantly and the planet is being bathed in its beauty. It is,
"I bear witness, O my God, that Thou has created me to know Thee and to worship Thee. I testify, at this moment, to my powerlessness and to Thy might, to my poverty and to Thy wealth. There is none other God but Thee, the Help in Peril, the Self-Subsisting."
I should like to comment on the first of the three sentences of that prayer, ''I bear witness, O my God, that Thou has created me to know Thee and to worship Thee." This means that our purpose in life, the one purpose for which we were created, is to know God, to love Him, to worship Him, to serve Him, to obey Him and to come close to Him. This is our one purpose in having been born. And yet it is a purpose which mankind is not fulfilling.
"Is it not astonishing that although man has been created for the knowledge and love of God, for the virtues of the human world, for spirituality, heavenly illumination and life eternal, nevertheless he continues ignorant and negligent of all this? Consider how he seeks knowledge of everything except knowledge of God." [Foundations of World Unity, p. 64]
This is one subject man does not seem to be interested in. Yet there is one hope: that we should come to know, to love and to serve Him. It is the one thing that we all should do, and Bahá'u'lláh has come to tell us how to do it, and that is one reason we were given that one beautiful prayer quoted above.
The essence of the message of every religion the world has known is the love of God. To this end, Baha’u'llah has given us many beautiful writings. In one particularly apt Hidden Word, He said, ''O Son of Being! Love Me, that I may love thee. If thou lovest Me not, My love can in no wise reach thee. Know this, O servant." I remember when I first read those words I thought it was a threat, that God was saying, "If you don't love Me, I won't love you." That didn't tally with my feelings about God. But one time a Baha’i explained this Hidden Word through the analogy of a little fruit tree. If we put the tree out into the sunshine and the rain, he said, it would grow to become a beautiful tree and bring forth luscious fruit. But if we put it in a cold, dark cellar, it would die. The point: that the sun shines, the rain falls, whether that little plant is outside or not. All that little plant has to do is to get out into the sunshine and the rain and it will have all of the life-giving things that it needs to grow to be a robust, healthy tree.
We are like that. Mankind is surrounded by the love of God always. It is there for us, and like the sun and the rain which continue pouring out their life-giving qualities whether the little tree is outside or not, the love of God surrounds us always. However, we have to do something about it. We have to get into the love of God. Jesus said, "Knock, and it shall be opened unto thee” We must knock. We must get into the sunshine of the love of God if we are to receive its benefit and we need it desperately. We need it now as we have never needed it before.
“There is nothing sweeter in the world of existence than prayer. Man must live in a state of prayer. The most blessed condition is the condition of prayer and supplication. Prayer is conversation with God. . . . While man prays, he sees himself in the presence of God . . . . However, verbal repetition of prayer does not suffice. One must live in a continual attitude of prayer. . . . Man becomes like a stone unless he continually supplicates to God.”
I spend much of my time travelling, visiting many countries and meeting Baha’is and their friends. Very often we will sit and talk about the teachings and about prayer. It is often a surprise to me how some of the friends say they don't pray. One devoted believer told me that Bahá'u'lláh had said work is worship, that he works so many hours in a week for the Faith he has no time left to pray. Others say they don't understand prayer, they don't see why they should pursue it. It seems to me these friends are missing a priceless pearl.
A few weeks ago, while I was on a tour, a fine young man asked me if I could give him some comfort, which he said he needed badly, and he explained that he had been living the kind of life that he was sure God could never forgive him for. He asked me, "How can I possibly square myself with God?'' My heart ached for him, he was so sincere, and yet I was so glad to be able to assure him that he had already been forgiven, that God is the All-Knowing, the All- Wise, the Ever-Forgiving, the Ever- Loving, the Most-Merciful. Me said, "How I wish I could believe that." I happened to have a quotation from the Qur'an in my hand where Muhammad had said, "Prayer is a ladder by which everyone can ascend to heaven." He seemed to be comforted by that assurance that everyone can ascend to haven.
“Supplication to God at morn and eve is conducive to the joy of hearts and prayer causes spirituality and fragrance. Thou shouldst necessarily continue therein." And He said, "Know that nothing will benefit thee in this life save supplication and invocation unto God, service in His vineyard, and, with a heart full of love, to be in constant servitude unto Him."
On another occasion He said that saints become saints through prayer, supplications, purification of the heart and good wishes.
I have a friend in Toronto who was invited to be the best-man at a wedding in Chicago one Christmas. He was very anxious to go, but Christmas was the busiest season of his business year. He didn't think he should take the time off but finally he did. He booked his passage and closed his office early, but not quite early enough, and he raced all the way to the airport, praying and calling upon Bahá'u'lláh from the very depths of his being. He just had to get to that wedding. He arrived at the airport in time to see his plane depart. Despite all his prayers, and his great need to be on that plane, it was gone. He told me later, "John, I sat down and I cried." Can you imagine his despair? As he was sitting there in his agony of soul he heard an announcement of the departure of another flight for Chicago. He inquired and was told that his plane had been routed through Detroit, but this one was going through Buffalo, and if he hurried he might be able to get a seat on it. He hurried and he arrived at the wedding on time. The first flight had mechanical trouble and was grounded in Detroit. I ask you, were his prayers answered? We all know of many similar instances where fervent prayer is answered. 'Abdu'l-Bahá assured us,
"God will answer the prayer of every servant if that prayer is urgent. His mercy is vast, illimitable. He answers the prayers of all His servants.”
Bahá'u'lláh affirmed, "The heavens of Thy mercy and the oceans of Thy bounty are so vast that Thou hast never disappointed those who willed to come to Thee." 'Abdu'l-Bahá said that, in all the worlds of existence there is nothing more important than prayer. "Prayer is the key by which the doors of the Kingdom are opened."
In a letter to a young woman who asked how to attain spirituality, Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian, said in part,
"Indeed, the chief reason for the evils now rampant in society is the lack of spirituality. The materialistic civilization of our age has so much absorbed the energy and interest of mankind that people in general do no longer feel the necessity of raising themselves above the forces and conditions of their daily material existence. There is not sufficient demand for things that we should call spiritual to differentiate them from the needs and requirements of our physical existence. The universal crisis affecting mankind is, therefore, essentially spiritual in its causes. The spirit of the age, taken on the whole, is irreligious. Man's outlook on life is too crude and materialistic to enable him to elevate himself into the higher realms of the spirit.
"It is this condition, so sadly morbid, into which society has fallen, that religion seeks to improve and transform. For the core of religious faith is that mystic feeling that unites man with God. This state of spiritual communion can be brought about and maintained by means of meditation and prayer. And this is the reason why Bahá'u'lláh has so much stressed the importance of worship. It is not sufficient for a believer to merely accept and observe the teachings. He should, in addition, cultivate the sense of spirituality, which he can acquire chiefly by the means of prayer. The Bahá'í Faith, like all other Divine religions, is thus fundamentally mystic in character. Its chief goal is the development of the individual and society, through the acquisition of spiritual virtues and powers. It is the soul of man that has first to be fed. And this spiritual nourishment prayer can best provide. Laws and institutions, as viewed by Bahá'u'lláh, can become really effective only when our inner spiritual life has been perfected and transformed. Otherwise religion will degenerate into a mere organization, and become a dead thing.
"The believers, particularly the young ones, should therefore fully realize the necessity of praying. For prayer is absolutely indispensable to their inner spiritual development, and this, already stated, is the very foundation and purpose of the Religion of God.” [From a letter dated 8 December 1935 written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer, published in ‘Bahá'í News’ 102, August 1936; The Compilation of Compilations vol. II, p. 238]
Once there was a young man who met a great divine, One day as they walked by the sea, he asked him to explain why prayer was so important. The divine beckoned the man to the water's edge where he told him to kneel, whereupon the divine gently but firmly pushed his head under the water and held it there. When he, in his wisdom, released his hold, the man with relief again drew air into his lungs. The divine said to him, "You see, it is indeed important! Praying is as important to you as breathing." I don't know how many of us will have to have our heads held under water to teach us to pray, but perhaps it will help to renew our faith.
I want to say a few words about the Long Obligatory Prayer. It is most beautiful and powerful. During a time some years ago when a group of communities I know well were lagging badly in the winning of their goals in the Ten Year Plan, they felt an overwhelming need to develop a greater intensity of devotion to God. They decided that for a specified period of time each would say that long prayer daily. The results were miraculous. I happened to be on a tour at that time and very often I would sit in a room with Bahá'ís and we would talk about this wonderful prayer. I could never forget the joy it was to be talking about it with these dear friends, many of whom loved it, and with others who initially had complained that it was too long, they didn't like the postures, they didn't understand the meanings, and some seemed to have been rushing through the words in order to fulfill their obligation as quickly as possible. 'Abdu'l-Bahá said that repetition of words does not suffice. We should do our best to have some understanding of the meaning of what we are saying.
The second paragraph of this prayer has a part which, to me, is very significant. As we stand, having turned to God, we supplicate Him and beseech Him in these words:
“Whatsoever is revealed by Thee is the desire of my heart and the beloved of my soul. O God, my God! Look not upon my hopes and my doings, nay rather look upon Thy will that hath encompassed the heavens and the earth. By Thy Most Great Name, O Thou, Lord of all nations! I have desired only what Thou didst desire, and love only what Thou dost love.”
It seems to me we are saying to God that whatever He sends to us will be accepted with radiant acquiescence. If we say that often enough we will believe it. I feel one of the great bounties of this part of that prayer is that when something does happen to us, if our house buns down, if we lose our job, become ill, lose a loved one, we have already assured God that His Will is our desire. We should become strong and able to accept adversity when it comes. We know a large proportion of the things we worry about don't happen anyway, but we should have confidence, assurance and faith from a repeated reciting of this part of that prayer.
One thing I haven't mentioned but which is very important in relation to prayer is the fact that we are assured that God will assist all those who arise to serve Him. This assistance is ever-present. I might illustrate this in a somewhat lighter vein with a little story.
There is a situation which we sometimes have in Bahá'í communities where the wife is a Baha’i and her husband is not, or vice versa. Would any of you be interested in knowing about a technique for overcoming this very sad situation?
In Africa, I met a young African, a beautiful soul who was a very active Bahá'í but his wife was not only not a Baha’i, she was very antagonistic to the Faith. One time he gave an address at a Baha’i conference. I listened and was surprised to hear him speak very lovingly of his wife. After the meeting I asked him, "George, is your wife a Baha’i?" "Yes," he said, "she is." I said, "That is wonderful. How did you bring her into the Faith?' He said, "Oh, it was one of those natural kinds of things. She got to the point where she loved to be with the Baha’is." He said, "You know, I do a lot of teaching; four or five evenings a week we have meetings, and of course when my wife was so opposed to the Faith, I couldn't have her there, could I? The difficulty was that our house is so small. There is only one room. During those meetings, there was no place for her to go. We have no neighbours. So she would go out to the back and sit or stand under the banana tree.” “Well” he said, “ she became a Baha’i during the last rainy season!”
Beloved friends, I wish you all a very happy Naw-Ruz.