This paper attempts to describe Bahá'í prayer practices in a way that will help both Bahá'ís and scholars of religion better understand and interpret these practices. I begin by borrowing from the Bahá'í scriptures what appears to be an important way of talking about Bahá'í prayer: that is, prayer is a process of "remembering." I then move on to an extended reflection on prayer as "remembrance," examining several ways that understanding Bahá'í prayer as remembrance might help interpreters of Bahá'í worship practices better understand Bahá'í conceptions of God, human nature and the divine-human relationship. I suggest that prayer in the Bahá'í tradition is a process of first understanding and then overcoming the problematic gap between the human and divine worlds. In the final part of the paper I point out that the obligatory prayers can be understood as a particularly efficacious practice of (literally) "re-membering" self, God and the divine-human relationship. Obligatory prayers are, in Bahá'í language, of "special potency and significance" because they enlist both mind and body in a discipline of remembering.
Bahá'ís pray every day because they believe prayer brings them closer to the source of all life. Like adherents of most other religions, Bahá'ís pray in order to overcome if only temporarily the gap between the divine and human worlds, between Creator and created. In the Bahá'í scriptures this problematic gap often is glossed simply as a "separation" from God; themes of separation and reunion, of estrangement and reconciliation with God, are conspicuous in Bahá'u'lláh's prayers and in his more mystical writings. At first glance, the separation between us and God does not seem too great: God is closer to the human reality, Bahá'u'lláh writes in a well-known passage, than the jugular vein.(4) In another passage Bahá'u'lláh confirms that God is closer than we might think: "Turn thy sight unto thyself," he says, "and you will find Me standing within thee, mighty, powerful and self-subsisting."(5) Moreover, while spiritual seekers may not find belief easy or instantaneous, Bahá'u'lláh assures us that the sincere will be aided in their search for God by that God-given "trust" which instinctively yearns for its creator, the human heart.(6) Human beings, we might say, are hardwired for God.(7)
This is not, unfortunately, the whole story. God is not simply resident within us, easy to perceive, know and love. The immanent God of the Bahá'í scriptures has a transcendent side to be sure: God is "immeasurably exalted," Bahá'u'lláh repeatedly stresses, "above all created things" so much so in fact that in the final analysis God's reality can never be known by human beings. Bahá'u'lláh describes God's remoteness concisely: "Every way" to the adequate comprehension of God and his creative word, he writes simply, "is barred."(8) At this point, the gap between creator and created suddenly appears more problematic. How is it that God can be both immanent in the human heart and hidden, distant and unknown? Why is it that, in Bahá'u'lláh's words, "At all times I am near unto thee, but thou art ever far from Me"?(9)
The paradox of a God who is both astonishingly near and frustratingly hidden is expressed in Bahá'í prayers in language that returns our attention to what it means to be human. As it turns out, the human heart, that "seat of the All-Merciful," also has one quite grievous shortcoming: it has a short memory. All too often it is, Bahá'u'lláh confirms with apparent regret, "forgetful of its Creator."(10) Here then is the reason that the God who has his home within us seems so far away: we have forgotten he is there. We have forgotten our closeness to him. Overcoming this forgetfulness, I will argue, is the main task of Bahá'í prayer.(11) Stated more positively, the purpose of Bahá'í prayer is to "remember."
While there are several reasons to think about Bahá'í prayer as remembrance or remembering, the best reason to do so is simply that Bahá'í prayers themselves describe worship in this way. Bahá'u'lláh's prayers are loaded with words like "remembrance" and "forgetfulness." To take one suggestive example, in Prayers and Meditations by Bahá'u'lláh, "remember" and "forget" and their variants appear 110 times in the prayers translated there by Shoghi Effendi.(12) Reading from this collection, worshippers can affirm that God's "remembrance" is their companion in times of loneliness, their healer in times of sickness, their succour in times of anxiety or sadness.(13) It comes as no surprise then that believers might also ask God to help them "remember him" "at all times and under all conditions," hoping, in the words of another prayer, that their hearts might be totally remade into "a receptacle of Thy love and of remembrance of Thee."(14) Of course, remaking one's heart into a place that contains "naught except the treasures of [God's] remembrance and praise" requires hard work and, possibly, some good role models.(15) Fortunately, the prayers in this same collection speak of spiritual heroes worthy of imitation faithful believers whose hearts "were so carried away by the sweet savours of Thine inspiration that every single member of their bodies intoned Thy praise and vibrated to Thy remembrance" and villains who, despite God's lamentations, had "forgotten the wonders of [his] mercy."(16) Bahá'ís really moved by the spirit of these prayers might also promise that "nothing whatsoever" would withhold them from "remembering" God, "though all the tribulations of the earth were to assault [them] from every direction."(17) In general, this collection of prayers leaves little doubt about the importance of "remembering."
The word translated as "remember" or alternately "mention" of God is the Persian (and Arabic) term dhikr, a word well known to scholars of Islamic mysticism. For Muslim mystics or Sufis, dhikr stands for a range of spiritual practices intended to put believers in a constant state of divine awareness. Dhikr practices vary considerably, depending on the particular beliefs and practices of each Sufi order. In some orders, novices learn and repeat different formulae of divine names, until, in Annemarie Schimmel's words, the dhikr so permeates the student's being that he or she forgets the recollection of everything other than God.(18) Dhikr can be performed silently (dhikr of the heart) or out loud (dhikr of the tongue), in public and in private. God should be remembered at all times and in all places, for the believer who "remembers God permanently is the true companion of God."(19) Dhikr can also involve chanting, singing, dancing and yes even getting drunk. While it is safe to say that Bahá'u'lláh rejected this latter method of "remembrance," recent commentators have debated the extent to which Bábís and early Bahá'ís followed other Sufi dhikr practices like repetitive chanting.(20) My sense is that while many, if not most, of the specific Sufi dhikr practices were rejected or simplified in Bahá'u'lláh's writings, Bahá'u'lláh does retain the word dhikr to describe the process (perhaps it is better to say the discipline) of worship. The question is why? Why is prayer a discipline of remembering? Who or what are we remembering in prayer?
There are no doubt several meanings of "remember" as it is used in Bahá'í prayers, many of which I cannot explore here. My brief review of Sufi dhikr reminds us of one of them: that remembrance of God is about repeatedly calling God to mind, praying to him, mentioning his names. We remember God in this sense when, as is the case in the short obligatory prayer, we speak of him as mighty, wealthy, helpful and self-subsisting. In the medium and long obligatory prayers we call to mind and also physically enact God's sovereignty, his mercy and his greatness through coordinated verses and postures. By the end of any of the obligatory prayers, worshippers know their God and have called him to mind several times. They have also remembered their own place in the universe; God is mighty and humans are by comparison powerless, God is wealthy and humans are impoverished, God is helpful and forgiving, and humans are the recipients of that assistance, forgiveness and love. So remembrance of God on one level is simply calling God to mind and trying to live with an awareness of that knowledge.
There may be other, less apparent meanings of "remembrance" however. What if prayer actually is about remembering a kinship to God that we once knew but have since forgotten? In a passage reminiscent of the Platonic tradition, Bahá'u'lláh asks all of us: "Have you forgotten that true and radiant morn when in these hallowed and blessed surroundings ye were all gathered in My presence beneath the shade of the tree of life, which is planted in the all-glorious paradise?" As if anticipating our response yes, we did indeed forget he continues to recall a very distant past that few of us could claim to remember:
Awestruck ye listened as I gave utterance to these three most holy words: O friends! Prefer not your will to Mine, never desire that which I have not desired for you, and approach Me not with lifeless hearts, defiled with worldly desires and cravings. Would ye but sanctify your souls, ye would at this present hour recall that place and those surroundings, and the truth of My utterance should be made evident unto all of you.(21)
Whether we interpret this passage as a literal account of our beginnings or merely a metaphor of our kinship to God, the language of remembering and forgetting is striking. We are asked to remember that time before time (in illo tempore) when, upon gathering us together in "paradise," God whispered to us the secrets of life. Is this passage, and indeed all scripture, intended as a kind of mnemonic device? Is it intended to jog our memories, encouraging us to "sanctify our souls" in order to recall our "true and radiant" origins and our kinship with God? Other scriptures make it clear that the passage of time and our own absorption in the "changes and chances" of the contingent world have indeed left us forgetful of the deepest truths about self and God. "The True One possesseth invisible worlds," 'Abdu'l-Bahá explains, worlds which can be sensed only if we "purify and clarify" our "spiritual nostrils from every worldly moisture."(22) This is not the only time the Bahá'í scriptures instruct believers to purify their hearts and minds in order to remember a long-forgotten meeting with God.(23)
This passage also reminds us that while "the world" is not bad per se (only undue attention to it is considered blameworthy), it does force upon us one thing that unfailingly separates us from our creator: time. Time makes forgetfulness possible. "In the sight of God the past, the present and the future are all one and the same," 'Abdu'l-Bahá explains, "whereas, relative to man, the past is gone and forgotten, the present is fleeting, and the future is within the realm of hope."(24) While for God all contacts, contracts and covenants made with human beings in the contingent world exist simultaneously, for human beings these same events drift out of consciousness into that "gone and forgotten" past, that wastebasket of experiences that are never repeated, called to mind or otherwise strengthened in memory. Except in moments of sanctification and prayerful remembrance we are unable to escape a consciousness of time. The daily practice of prayer, however, reminds us of spiritual truths forgotten in a lifetime (or, for that matter, in a day) by strengthening our memory of God and his teachings through practice and repetition. In this way, remembering collapses time, remembering closes the "gap of createdness" and makes us, as a result, more God-like (for, is God not in a constant state of remembrance?). "Remembrance of Thee is eternal" Bahá'u'lláh proclaims;(25) remembrance overcomes our embeddedness in time by returning us to a consciousness of events, ideas and values that endures.
Searching for God and self in memory is, of course, nothing new. For Plato and other classical thinkers, the search for truth involved "recollecting the world of primordial forms which the soul had contemplated in between this and its previous earthly existence." "Contemplative knowledge was pure and perfect, but the reincarnated soul drank from the spring of Lethe and forgot the knowledge it had obtained from direct contemplation of the Ideas." Here, learning rather than worship is recollection of "the real, the archaic forms, the transpersonal and eternal truths."(26) Much later, a young Christian bishop struggling to find himself turned inward and in the process made famous the connections between memory, identity and God. "Ascending by steps to him who made me," Augustine writes in his autobiographical Confessions, "I come into the fields and spacious palaces of my memory." In memory this fourth century thinker found his true self and his God, both of them "various," "manifold" and "immense."(27) For their part, Muslim thinkers have exfoliated the connections between memory and divine knowledge in countless theological and mystical works so much so that one recent commentator has claimed that the duty of human beings in Islam "is simply to 'remember' (dhikr)."(28)
Taking their cue from mystics and theologians, a number of contemporary scholars of religion have begun examining exactly how memory functions for individuals and societies. Lawrence Sullivan has recently pointed out that forgetfulness usually leads to negative consequences: forgetfulness can cause disorientation, a fractured sense of identity and broken relationships. We can see how this might be the case, e.g., with someone afflicted with memory loss or Alzheimer's disease in old age. Without memories sustaining the web of relationships that bind us to others and to our community, our sense of identity unravels. On a communal level, societies recognize the importance of memory by institutionalizing or memorializing historical events in ritual, art and culture. Paul Connerton points out for this reason that religion and society are themselves forms of memory.(29) Examples are legion. Societies memorialize personalities in statues and art, commemorate defining battles or conflicts by reenacting them, and remember founding principles by institutionalizing them in their legal and judicial systems. Religions memorialize key events and personalities in similar ways. The Christian Eucharist is a good example of this, though there are many others. At communion, each Christian remembers Jesus's archetypal sacrifice by actually partaking of that sacrifice that is, by eating Jesus's body and drinking his blood. Through this act, each Christian not only remembers Christ's sacrifice but comes to understand its relation to their lives: Christ died so we could live. This ritual places the individual Christian life into a wider context of meaning and in the process the life in the present takes on the meanings of the past. Like the Christian Eucharist, Bahá'í worship practices connect believers with the wider meanings of their tradition. Performing Bahá'í prayers gives believers a basic map of the world and reveals how they fit into it.
Probably no other Bahá'í prayer sets up this basic "map" of the world better than the obligatory prayers, prayers which, according to Bahá'í scriptures, are "by their very nature of greater effectiveness" and "endowed with a greater power than the non-obligatory ones."(30) Unlike all other Bahá'í prayers, these prayers of "special potency and significance" coordinate bodily postures and prescribed verses in a discipline of attentiveness that involves both mind and body. These are the only prayers that come with specific instructions about how and when to perform them (in other words, these are the only prayers with what we could call ritual requirements). They typically are recited by individual Bahá'ís on a daily basis; they must be preceded by ablutions, or ritual washings of hands and face; they must be said at prescribed times; and they must be said while facing Bahjí, the place in Israel where Bahá'u'lláh is interred. Unlike other Bahá'í prayers, the obligatory prayers also incorporate bodily postures and gestures. Believers wash their hands and face while asking God to purify their bodies and minds, believers bow to the ground while affirming God's sovereignty, believers stand with raised arms and entreat God to see and hear their prayers. This carefully prescribed prayer environment is, as I have said, unusually efficacious: "Through such prayer," 'Abdu'l-Bahá explains, "man holdeth communion with God...converseth with the true Beloved of one's heart, and attaineth spiritual stations."(31) Unfortunately, other than this short explanation of the power of the obligatory prayers and 'Abdu'l-Bahá's mysterious comment that "in every word and movement of the obligatory prayer there are allusions, mysteries and a wisdom that man is unable to comprehend,"(32) we know little about the obligatory prayers. Why are they "by their very nature of greater effectiveness"? What are the "allusions" and "mysteries" that are enshrined in their "every word and movement"?
Though I may be rushing in where angels fear to tread, I would like to spend the last few pages trying to unpack the meanings and significance of these singular prayers. I would to propose first that when prayers are practised instead of merely spoken they are more easily understood and reflected upon. Then I will propose, returning to my theme of remembrance, that the obligatory prayers are more efficacious than other Bahá'í prayers because unlike other prayers they enlist both body and mind in a discipline of remembrance.
In the obligatory prayers, bodily postures and gestures express and reinforce inner attitudes. For example, a believer's sense of humility in the face of the mystery of God is symbolized in a bow to the floor; a desire to purify oneself spiritually is translated into ritual washings of hands and face; an anticipation of God's help is transformed into expectant gazes and raised hands. To be sure, enacting our beliefs somehow makes them more real: humility, submission, love, praise all are observed visually, experienced bodily and processed cognitively in the obligatory prayers. In a way, all inner dispositions are iconographically displayed in the postures of the obligatory prayers in such a way that they can be critically reflected upon. Observing themselves with hands raised in supplication believers might question the depth of their dependence on God. Do I need God enough to raise my hands to him and ask for his help? Do I feel inside the love I am expressing outwardly? There is a certain complementarity to thought and action in these prayers: bodily postures can express, reinforce and even challenge inner attitudes, and vice-versa. Perhaps this is what Shoghi Effendi meant when he pointed out that the movements of the obligatory prayers help believers "fully concentrate when praying and meditating."(33) In these prayers, attitudes and actions, words and deeds harmonize to become, in 'Abdu'l-Bahá's words, a "beautiful prayer."
The body is not passive in this process. On the contrary, I would argue that the body can actually determine what is learned, felt or remembered while praying the obligatory prayers. Evidence for this claim comes from several quadrants. First of all, Bahá'í scriptures themselves repeatedly point out the connections between outer behaviours and inner dispositions. 'Abdu'l-Bahá points out in several passages that the body (or more generally, the material world) can dramatically influence the life of the spirit. "The eye sees; the heart is affected. The ear hears; the spirit is influenced. The heart is at rest; the thoughts become serene, and for all the members of man's body a pleasant condition is realized." In short, the sensations of the body affect the spirit.(34) In another passage that seems to corroborate this point, Shoghi Effendi points out that the "mystic feeling which unites man with God" is principally "brought about and maintained by means of meditation and prayer."(35) In other words, outer acts of worship do not just express inner attitudes of devotion they cultivate these attitudes. Applying this argument to the obligatory prayers, I would argue that the act of bowing one's forehead to the ground actually creates a sense of humility; that the act of washing one's face and hands actually creates a feeling of inner purity; that raising one's hands to God actually creates a sense of expectation. This may seem an odd or counter-intuitive conclusion, especially for those of us living in cultures that distinguish sharply between mind and matter and identify spirituality only with the former. Nevertheless, it seems to be the conclusion suggested by the Bahá'í scriptures and, for that matter, by a great deal of corroborating literature in the social sciences beginning with the James-Lange theory of emotions.(36) An important implication of my conclusion here is that people who would like to believe people who would like to feel a love for God but do not can pray with the hope that the act of praying itself will bring about belief. Those interested in exploring the question of God or belief in him might experiment with prayer.
In addition to expressing, creating and sustaining inner dispositions, the body is accomplishing something else in the obligatory prayers it is remembering. Remembering the words and meanings of the obligatory prayers takes place on a bodily level as physical postures and gestures are associated with certain attitudes and dispositions towards God. As the body sits, as it stands, as it drops to the ground or raises its hands, it calls to mind the verses and inner dispositions associated with these postures. The body, in other words, becomes a mnemonic device. In the long obligatory prayer for example, the believer stands, gazes to the right and the left "as if awaiting the mercy of his Lord" and invokes God by saying "O Thou Who art the Lord of all names and the Maker of the heavens!" After several more verses the believer raises his or her hands and supplicates God with several more prescribed verses. Then the believer kneels, bows his or her head to the ground and recites: "Exalted art Thou above the description of anyone save Thyself...."(37) The series continues a different verse is associated with each posture. When the prayer is repeated, the body and its postures and gestures help cue in memory the appropriate verses and their meanings. In several cultures around the world, novices memorize their own traditions and scriptures in a similar way that is, by associating them with head or body positions.(38)
Scholars who have studied how peoples and cultures remember their traditions have argued recently that the body itself has an ability to remember and know. Paul Connerton and Tom Kasulis have observed that habitual bodily activities, like typing for instance, remain a kind of knowledge and memory in the body. We remember how to type when we sit at the keypad not because we think about "the place of each letter among the keys" but because our bodies have a "knowledge bred of familiarity in our lived space."(39) In other words, our fingers know where the letters are without us having to "think" about where they are. Many examples could be chosen to illustrate how the body learns and remembers through habitual activity. Playing tennis, playing a musical instrument, driving a car all involve the body in a kind of embodied knowing and remembering that is made possible by habitual activity. This is also a type of memory that is particularly robust. Every culture, Connerton writes, "will entrust to bodily automatisms the values and categories which they are most anxious to conserve. They will know how well the past can be kept in mind by a habitual memory sedimented in the body."(40) Borrowing Connerton's language, we might say that the "bodily automatisms," or the coordinated postures and verses of the obligatory prayers, are "sedimenting" some of the most important values of the Bahá'í religion in each worshipper's body. This is, to be sure, a powerful type of "remembering."(41)
The "bodily automatisms" of prayer can be just that mindless rituals. And they can be seen as such by scholars. But they can also be read as those actions that incarnate Bahá'í principles, translating ideas into actions in ways that protect them from the forgetting that invariably comes with the passage of time. Human absorption in the "changes and chances" of the world, as I have suggested, can leave us forgetful of our true origins in, and with, God. Once recalled in prayer and scripture however, knowledge of our kinship to God has the potential to remake us in the present: Bahá'í prayer places a picture of the world as it really is before believers and re-places them in that world as sons or daughters of God, as humble believers, as servants of God and others. In the end, then, prayer is not about remaking God but remaking (literally, "re-membering") one's self. Put another way, prayer reconstitutes the self as a self-in-God. In the obligatory prayers, as we have seen, this discipline finds its most powerful form, for here body and mind together remember and are in turn "re-membered": rehearsed in the mind and enacted in the body, the words of the obligatory prayers recreate the whole person, body and mind, in their image.