Conversation with God
Posted by Sen on February 28, 2009
We had a potluck for yummy-ha, with pecan pie. It was followed by imaginative and effective musical devotions: first all learning to sing a simple prayer with variants, and then all humming that tune while some short readings were read slooowly, the spoken phrases matching the musical phrases.
Since the potluck took place at the day and home which regularly hosts a Ruhi circle, the devotions flowed straight on to a Ruhi session, Book 1 Chapter 2, on Prayer. The first words of the chapter are “Abdu’l-Baha says that prayer is conversation with God.” No source was given. This part of the Ruhi book raises a lot of questions, and questions are always good.
Naturally when I got home I went in search of that source. I found that the words have been used on several occasions by the Universal House of Justice, but without giving a source. For example:
In His talks ‘Abdu’l-Bahá describes prayer as “conversation with God”, and concerning meditation He says that “while you meditate you are speaking with your own spirit. In that state of mind you put certain questions to your spirit and the spirit answers: the light breaks forth and the reality is revealed.”
(The Universal House of Justice, 1983 Sept 01, On Steps to Spiritual Growth)
The source that the Universal House of Justice is drawing on appears to be Esslemont’s Baha’u’llah and the New Era, page 83 in the first edition, page 88 in the fifth edition (1980 onwards), in which the section on Prayer begins: “Prayer,” says ‘Abdu’l-Baha, “is conversation with God.”
The fifth edition of this section of Esslemont’s book is online, because the Bahai International Community has used it for their “Prayer” section of the public information site Baha’i Topics. If you scroll to the bottom you can see that only two of the nine sources quoted — those from Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah — are authentic Bahai scripture.
Esslemont gives no source for his claim that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá describes prayer as “conversation with God.” It might be something that he heard from Abdu’l-Baha himself, while in Haifa from late 1919 to early 1920. But it seems more likely he has taken it from Mirza Sohrab’s diary, an extract of which was published in Star of the West, Vol. 8, p. 41 April 28, 1917 :
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. The greatest attainment or the sweetest state is none other than conversation with God. It creates spirituality, creates mindfulness and celestial feelings, begets new attractions of the Kingdom and engenders the susceptibilities of the higher intelligence. The highest attribute given to his holiness Moses is the following verse: “God carried along a conversation with Moses.”
What is prayer? It is conversation with God. While man prays he sees himself in the presence of God. If he concentrates his attention he will surely at the time of prayer realize that he is conversing with God. Often at night I do not sleep, and the thoughts of this world weigh heavily on my mind. I toss uneasily in my bed. Then in the darkness of the night I get up and pray – converse with God. It is most sweet and uplifting.
Prayer and supplication are so effective that they inspire one’s’ heart for the whole day with high ideals and supreme sanctity and calmness. One’s heart must be sensitive to the music of prayer. He must feel the effect of prayer. He must not be like an organ from which softest notes stream forth without having consciousness of sensation in itself.
(Words of Abdu’l Baha; from the Diary of Mirza Ahmad Sohrab, March 15, 1914).
This section in Star of the West was part of a compilation by Mary Rabb called “The Divine Art of Living” which was later published as a book in 1926 (but is not the same as the better-known compilation of the same name prepared by Mabel Paine and published in 1944).
Whether Esslemont is citing his own memories or Sohrab’s notes, the passage has the status of a pilgrim’s note: it may be interesting but it is not authoritative
Thou has written concerning the pilgrims and pilgrims’ note. Any narrative that is not authenticated by a Text should not be trusted. Narratives, even if true, cause confusion. For the people of Baha, the Text, and only the Text, is authentic.”
(‘Abdu’l-Baha: from a previously untranslated tablet, cited in Lights of Guidance, p. 438)
And it should not be published in official organs:
9 November 1953
Dear Bahá’í Friends:
In your recent News Letter the beloved Guardian noted some quotations from the pilgrims notes of …, and he wishes me to tell you that he feels it is wiser, in such official organs as our News Letters, not to publish such notes as, unfortunately, they often contain errors.
(Shoghi Effendi, The Unfolding Destiny of the British Baha’i Community, p. 323)
Ironically, the course outline for this Ruhi book, says that the purpose of Chapter 2 is “To understand the importance of daily prayer and to develop the required attitudes of prayer…In order to achieve this objective, it is sometimes necessary to dissipate doubts and carefully examine ideas that may have their roots in erroneous interpretations of the past.” But instead of studying the Writings — a skill which is supposed to be taught in Ruhi book 1 — the authors have drawn on Esslemon’t book, which at this point is based on pilgrim’s notes, and so have themselves perpetuated “erroneous interpretations of the past.”
Conversation with God?
Although the text is not authoritative, is what it says helpful? Is prayer a conversation with God? We had just had what I felt were rich and satisfying devotions, with singing and humming and prayer, but I did not feel I had been having a conversation with God. What had I told God? What had God told me?
What I felt was rather phatic communion. Phatic expression is speech whose purpose is not to convey information but rather to contribute to a relationship. One of the participants explained it very well, from her experience in bringing up small children. She said they are continually calling ‘Mum,’ but there is no need to go to them. Just a ‘yes’ is sufficient, for they do not have anything to say to you, they are just confirming the contact, reminding themselves and you that both of you are living within a relationship.
This also is what Abdu’l-Baha says about prayer:
The wisdom of prayer is this: That it causeth a connection between the servant and the True One … prayer and fasting is the cause of awakening and mindfulness and conducive to protection and preservation from tests.
(Abdu’l-Baha, Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha v3, p. 683)
This explains why we may use someone else’s words – those of scripture or perhaps of a hymn or liturgy – in prayer, and find these as good or even better than summoning our own words; and why we have prayer practices such as reciting a prayer a certain number of times, or in combination with particular actions or postures. It is because prayer is not a conversation with God, in the normal sense of conversation, but rather an act which confirms a relationship, which places us in a certain position and state in relation to God: a state of mindfulness, of knowing our own selves:
The first Taraz and the first effulgence which hath dawned from the horizon of the Mother Book is that man should know his own self and recognize that which leadeth unto loftiness or lowliness, glory or abasement, wealth or poverty.
(The Tablet of Tarazat, in Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 34)
~~ Sen McGlinn
In explaining “Prayer is conversation with God,” Esslemont makes another statement (deleted in later editions of Baha’u’llah and the New Era), that “There is a ‘language of the Spirit,’ which is independent of speech or writing, by which God can commune with and inspire those whose hearts are seeking after truth.” He supports this with another pilgrim’s note:
We should speak in the language of heaven–in the language of the spirit–for there is a language of the spirit and heart. It is as different from our language as our own language is different from that of the animals, who express themselves only by cries and sounds. It is the language of the spirit which speaks to God. […] When, in prayer, we are freed from all outward things and turn to God, then it is as if in our hearts we hear[d] the voice of God. Without words we speak, we communicate, we converse with God and hear the answer…. All of us, when we attain to a truly spiritual condition, can hear the Voice of God. (from a talk reported by Miss Ethel J. Rosenberg).
The source for this is not Ethel Rosenberg’s pilgrim’s notes, but rather some words reported by Laura Barney, and published in Star of the West Vol. 8, No. 4, p. 42, May 17 1917 (the continuation of Rabb’s compilation of pilgrim’s notes). Essslemont’s words are identical to those reported by Laura Barney, except for the two points I have marked with [ ]. The “Bahai Topics” page on prayer repeats Esslemont’s mistake. The misattribution is not important, since none of these texts has any authority: I just note it for the sake of anyone who may go searching for that source.
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