Inside the Prayer: Bearing Witness, Baring Our Hearts

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(This essay originally published on Bahaiteachings.org)

Golden threads—I see them everywhere. In glints of spider-silk hanging from tree branches. In the tremble of atoms, the shimmer of heat on the horizon. In the electric flow of true conversation. The world blazes with connection, kindled by these tensile, invisible threads.

The slenderest of threads connects us humans to physical reality. Some of us are more rooted; others might drift away at any moment. Some hover between worlds, at the boundary of nations, cultures, ways of being. Many people enlarge the bounds of community to embrace those once considered “marginal” or excluded.

While the world becomes ever more entangled with wires and electronic messaging, we have an urgent duty to strengthen our spiritual infrastructure – the channels, bridges, and aqueducts that carry those living waters of prayerful communion into a parched society.

We are alone in the Baha’i House of Worship, in Wilmette, Illinois. There are two of us, a woman and a young man. We take turns reciting morning prayers.

We pray for men and women, youth and the deceased. We pray for the gasping earth, for her citizens asking for breath, for room to be free.

breathe

Our voices resound under the high white dome, spiraling through the open space where a thousand empty chairs wait. Many times in the past, those chairs have been filled. I can almost see the echo of a thousand bodies shimmering with remembrance, with strength. We are here, even if we are absent. How many times have our loved ones said this to us? We are with you, we will always be with you… And yet, in this life, how we struggle to understand these invisible, unbreakable threads of love.

As the young man approaches the lectern, he closes his eyes and a look of pain crosses his face. What is in his mind? Like water, the human face is so expressive, yet often unreadable in its depths. The Book of Genesis says: In the beginning, God breathed on the face of the water. When that divine Breath stirs us, our whole bodies, our whole being quivers with its force.

Here am I with my body between Thy hands, and my spirit before Thy face. Do with them as it may please Thee… – Baha’u’llah, Prayers and Meditations, p. 243.

I have thought a lot about the relationship between two words: to bear and to bare. The first means to hold up, to support. The second means without covering, unconcealed, naked. The opening line of one Baha’i obligatory prayer reads:

I bear witness, O my God, that Thou hast created me to know Thee and to worship Thee. –  Baha’u’llah, Baha’i Prayers, p. 3.

I bear witness.

I bare witness.

We need both of these words today. For to hold up and support ourselves and each other in bearing witness to God-in-the-world, we must uncover, lay bare our souls, our deepest hurts, fears, loves.

That is why we must strengthen and reconnect all the frail, floating threads of the universe, of our physical and spiritual existence. Until that fabric – that inter- and intra-net of life – is made whole and unified, beautiful people, endangered species, and vast stores of wisdom and wonder will slip through the holes and be lost. Perhaps, in the great Mystery, they are recovered somewhere. But they will be lost to this life, and to us, and we will be bereft.

This is the grief we must bear and bare today – that so many have already lived and died without adequate support, kindness, community. Yet within this grief is hope, if acted upon – that we have the power to mend the relationships that sustain and liberate us.

When I see young men and women so quickened and moved by prayer and poetry, study and service, I envision these golden threads tingling and weaving and awakening us.

During morning devotions in the Baha’i Temple, a poem nests inside me, and late one night, I write it down:

The pressure lessens

as he stands under the dome.

Narrowed to a thread of fire

tethered, oh so tentative

to his tired human frame,

he steps inside the prayer

he’s burning to become

and as I watch the sacred chrysalis

devour him – I am afraid –

will he emerge again? will he fade?

I forge a hundred thousand

amulets of protection

out of thin air,

and place them, silently,

around the load –

the pure light –

he’s had to bear.

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