Archives for posts with tag: prayer

I’ve been dealing with a fair bit of upheaval in my life in the last week or so. Honestly, people are surprised that I’m taking it as well as I am, especially when I regularly crumble when faced with less serious crises. The thing is, I’m ornery by nature. If people around me are comfortable, I have this unbearable itch to point out the flaws in our precious plans. When they’re sad, I’m inexplicably cheery. And when disaster strikes, I’m at my best: calm, collected, and organized. I should work in an emergency room. (Except that needles make me woozy and I can’t stand up for longer than an hour without my hip giving out or function without consistent sleep. Okay, I should definitely not work in an emergency room.)

So I don’t have a ton to share right now, except that this song by Luke Slott has kept me going through a lot of trials over the last several months. Something about the combination of the words, the voices, the contemplatively shifting time signature that gives space to hold it all … it just works for me, whether I’m sitting alone or walking outside. It’ll get stuck in your head in the best way, reminding you that struggles and sadness aren’t unique, they’re necessary.

The lyrics are from The Hidden Words, a brief book of aphorisms written by Baha’u’llah. Half of them were written in Arabic, while the other were written in Persian. This is Arabic Hidden Word #48:

O SON OF MAN! For everything there is a sign. The sign of love is fortitude under My decree and patience under My trials.
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Let me tell you a story.

I started playing the cello in elementary school orchestra. I was lucky to go to school in a district that took the arts very seriously (more so than the sciences even, somewhat to the detriment of STEM-inclined students like my sister), and so orchestra was an option beginning in fourth grade. Every year my teacher would recommend I take private lessons, but dance and gymnastics were more important to me at that point, so there was never time for one more thing. Still, I had a decent theoretical and intuitive understanding of music thanks to my pianist father, so I did fine.

In middle school, I started developing joint pain. Gymnastics fell victim first, followed by ballet. I managed to keep up enough for theater, but by my junior year I wasn’t even engaged in that the same way. So at 16, I started private cello lessons.

My teacher, who had his pick of brilliant students, agreed to take me on because I was “interesting.” I could read music fluently, in multiple clefs. I could handle complex rhythms. I was keeping up with the other members of my high school orchestra. And as long as I did, my technique had never been dealt with. I was going to have to start over.

From scratch.

My first lesson, I wasn’t allowed to play a single note. After bow-hold exercises, I held the bow in my right hand, with both hands resting on my knees. I picked them up, and placed them correctly on the instrument, drawing two wide loops in the air. I put them back on my knees. I put them back on the cello. I put them back on my knees.

The next lesson I played open strings.

The lesson after that I played four-note scales. Then eight notes.

Then I finally had music placed in front of me. Suzuki Book 1. The first song? “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”

I started to cry, just looking at it. I had been playing the cello for seven years. It was so humiliating. My friends were playing Bach, and here I was, playing baby music. My teacher, bless him, didn’t seem phased by this. He explained that we’d move through relatively quickly, but that my technique needed to be addressed at a foundational level before we moved on to more complex things. And that it would require hard work and practice, and a huge dose of humility, but never humiliation. There was nothing to be ashamed of in striving to be better, no matter what it looked like to someone on the outside.

I stayed after school every day and practiced by myself. Twinkle Twinkle. French Folk Song. The Song of the Wind. The Happy Farmer. Minuet in C. My orchestra teacher commented that it was so nice to hear the old songs again. I did move quickly, practicing every day. And I improved.

The next year, I found myself a section leader. My teacher moved to another country. But I’ve never forgotten the lesson in humility he taught me when he watched me cry to see a book of children’s songs.

Now.

I serve as a tutor of study circles, which are intended to raise capacity in individuals and communities to serve their communities. Each of the courses these study circles goes through includes three related units of study, and at least one practice. Both of these elements is essential for capacity to be built, and neither is particularly effective without the other.

The thing is, we all live in communities. We think we must know how to live together. After all, haven’t we been doing it as individuals for twenty, thirty, seventy years? Haven’t our families been doing it for thousands? Who doesn’t know how to be a community, anyway? A hermit, maybe. Certainly not us.

But the truth is that, while we’ve often been getting by, our technique is, frankly, terrible. And we need to start learning at the beginning.

From scratch.

This is why people who feel at the height of their influence struggle with the Ruhi sequence of courses. Book 1, called Reflections on the Life of the Spirit, includes three units, two of which have a practice component. The first is to read the Writings, carefully and with intent, every morning and evening. The second is to visit two Baha’is and study a prayer with them. Not even to pray, but to study the prayer itself, the same way the first unit teaches us to study on our own.

I have literally had people refuse to study with me, insisting that it is a waste of their time. As though looking at a few words together with fresh eyes were somehow a demeaning task when they were capable of so much more.

I’ve had people agonize over whether visiting someone in their home, even invited, were an appropriate avenue of service. Whether it was patronizing to study a prayer with someone else. Whether there was any use in it. Whether they shouldn’t just skip it and get on to the real acts of service, the exciting ones for books down the line.

But of course, if you can’t study fifty words with a friend, you can’t facilitate the study of hundreds in a group. If you can’t will yourself to talk about spiritual reality, you won’t be able to teach an entire class of children to pray. If you aren’t willing to visit a friend in their home, you will never work up the courage to build bonds of friendship with someone previously regarded as a stranger.

You won’t build community in your neighborhood.

You won’t build unity in your world.

It takes so much humility to understand that how we’ve learned to be in the world may have helped us cope, but it’s on some level fundamentally broken. That we need to re-learn something as basic as friendship, or neighborliness, or meaningful conversation.

It’s a real struggle to overcome the sense that we’re meant for something better than this, that we’re not children, after all, that we already have so much capacity already if people could just see it …

But if we can set it aside and practice the basics until we’ve really mastered them, the resulting music is so much stronger. And I know because I’m still here, trying my best, playing away.

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“All effort and exertion put forth by man from the fullness of his heart is worship, if it is prompted by the highest motives and the will to do service to humanity.

-‘Abdu’l-Baha

I’m not the best at prayer.

It comes most easily through song, but it’s difficult out in the world, humming under my breath, half of the mind remembering common courtesy and the other half on God.

In words, prayer takes me a long time. I’m sluggish to wake up, spiritually, and the first half hour just feels like practice. After thirty minutes of prayer, I finally start to feel like I’m praying. Sometimes. Sometimes I just feel tired, or thirsty, or anxious, or all three.

(I’m very good at anxious. It’s a bit of a specialty of mine)

Sometimes, when I begin to fall into the beauty of prayer, that’s just when people around me are wrapping up. It’s hard.

Sometimes I think and I speak and I listen and I wonder, where all the love is that I’m supposed to feel? The deep, abiding spiritual joy? I think of the words of Baha’u’llah I memorized so many years ago:

“And He hath risen up in faithfulness at the place of sacrifice, looking toward Thy pleasure, O Ordainer of the worlds.” 

And I tell God, “It seems I’m all out of love today. But you can have my service, if you want it.”

Then I get up and send another email. I call the people I need to call. I walk out of my home and visit the families that are expecting me, and sometimes those that aren’t.

I do the dishes. I fold the laundry.

And sometimes, as I serve, I feel a twinge of something; maybe it’s a bit of love. For my family, my neighbors, the people who rely on me, the people on whom I rely.

It’s easier to pray for them than for myself. That’s true in both deeds and words.

So I walk a path of service.

And with each step, I pray.

After I drop Jef off at work in the afternoon, I drive straight to the beach. Yeah, I know it’s late November and that the wind whipping over Lake Erie is cold at best and occasionally brutal. But I love the way the wind makes shifting ridges in the sand. On a calm day, I can see my footprints from the day before. On a stormy one, I can’t.

I walk all the way down the beach, past the “guarded area” (not that there are lifeguards this time of year) into the less-maintained stretch covered in all kinds of debris pitched up by the lake and visiting human beings over the seasons. I walk until the beach turns into rocks. I put my hands in the cold lake water and look out at the horizon and I say my afternoon prayer.

Then I walk back. Some patches are firm, and in some places me feet sink unexpectedly. I haven’t found a pattern yet, because the color or pattern of the sand doesn’t seem to be any indication. Some parts are white and crunchy with shells. I don’t really know why that is, either. I walk all the way back, get in my car, and drive home.

When I get home, I put my shoes and scarf and coat away in the closet.

Four goals: go outside, exercise, pray, and tidy. None of these habits totally meets these goals. I still need to do the dishes. I still need to exercise for strength. But it’s a habit I haven’t broken once, not in two weeks. A perfect record! And that’s something, if a very little something, to be proud of.

photo credit: tehusagent via photopin cc

Sometimes, it’s hard to reach out. You feel like you have no good excuse to ask someone to join you for tea or service or prayers.

But if you ever needed an excuse to ask, you’ve got it now.

  • Pray for healing after the hurricane.
  • Pray for love and unity to prevail during (and following) the election season.
  • Pray for peace in an unstable world.
  • Pray for students who are preparing for midterm exams.
  • Pray for the souls of those who’ve left us this year.
  • Pray in thanksgiving for all that we have.

It’s not a gimmick. It’s not a “theme.” (God, I can’t stand gathering with themes.) It’s a need.

Prayer engenders clarity, compassion, and a spirit of sacrifice. And from these things a path of service emerges from the fog.

So if you’re a person who prays, find an excuse to pray with others this week or this month. Then take those prayers, walk out your door, and work to make them come true.

“Therefore strive that your actions day by day may be beautiful prayers. Turn towards God, and seek always to do that which is right and noble. Enrich the poor, raise the fallen, comfort the sorrowful, bring healing to the sick, reassure the fearful, rescue the oppressed, bring hope to the hopeless, shelter the destitute!”