Showing posts with label prayer. Show all posts
Showing posts with label prayer. Show all posts

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Increase the Light

“When a person lights one candle from another, neither flame is diminished.” 
(Bemidbar Rabbah 13)
My favorite night of Hanukkah is the last night, when each of us lights our favorite menorah. That’s 45 candles: 8, plus 1 server to light the others, times 5 family members, burning for at least 30 minutes.  My spouse usually remarks that our dining room resembles the nave of a cathedral, which conjures memories of my childhood visit to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.  In the text that I quoted, the early rabbis use the physical properties of a candle’s flame to focus on light as a metaphor for wisdom. This is one message of Hanukkah, the celebration of which involves adding candles each night to increase the light.  Many religions prescribe candle lighting and singing to dispel the darkness of the winter solstice. When we light a flame in our own homes and houses of worship, and we keep one another in our prayers, I have no doubt that we will increase the light in the world and the warmth in our hearts.  

Tziporah, your delightful family tradition on the last night of Hanukkah makes me smile as I imagine all that flame! It also brings to mind these words from a familiar song: “If everyone lit just one little candle, what a bright world this would be!” That same song makes the connection you make between the light of a candle and a prayer that brings light into dark places. How much we need to heed that call to prayer in our world today: Darkness and evil can never be eliminated, I think, but I also believe with people of every faith tradition that darkness cannot prevail where the light of God shines. A favorite verse of mine from Christian scripture affirms, “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (The Gospel of John 1:5) In another account, Jesus speaks words that I see as applying to people of good will everywhere: “You are the light of the world.” (The Gospel of Matthew 5:14, emphasis mine) What an awesome calling to be light for one another!

Although the Islamic tradition does not call for physical lighting of candles, the notion of sharing and increasing the light brings to my mind many positive associations. I recall immediately the beginning of a Hadith that I have memorized. It is a Hadith about charity; the type of charity that is not limited to financial giving, but encompasses any form of voluntarily sharing one’s knowledge, time, advice and emotional support: “Charity does not in any way decrease the wealth.”* Many verses of the Quran and other Hadiths emphasize the superiority of light over darkness and the many forms in which each is manifested. Light is wisdom and blessings, and all that is of benefit to us. Light is also equated with prayer, guidance, knowledge, piety and righteousness; these noble qualities will all take the form of physical light on the Day of Judgment. There is one last, unique depiction of light that is visible to the angels and attracts them to visit its source: it is the light that emanates from houses where the remembrance of God is fundamental.

* Charity does not in any way decrease the wealth; and the servant who forgives, God adds to his respect; and the one who shows humility, God elevates him in the estimation of the people.” (Sahih Muslim, Book 32, Hadith 6264)

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Walking with the Angels

Hajj, or “setting out with purpose,” is the fifth pillar of Islam. Known as the pilgrimage to Mecca, Hajj is a journey that millions of Muslims across the globe dream to take. The essence of Hajj is to be granted forgiveness from God; its meanings are countless and its benefits far reaching. In October, I was blessed with the opportunity to undertake Hajj and learn from this experience. One of the unforgettable lessons is the depth of purpose that was driving these millions of individuals, and the place where I felt it manifested the most was during the tawaf, or “circling the ka’ba,” the first house built for the worship of God. As I joined the thousands of worshippers in the tawaf, I felt a sense of calm, safety, peace and serenity that I had never felt before. While performing this ritual, each was busy with individual, silent prayers: praising God, asking for His forgiveness and guidance, offering supplications to heal the sick and invoking His mercy. Praying among millions, my sense of self was reduced as my soul yearned to connect with The Creator. I could not but think of the planets’ counter-clockwise motion as I walked in this manner; I could not help but remember that the angels are engaged in the same movement around a House of worship in heaven. It was as though we were diving—in silence and total submission—into a state of utter love and awe to The Most High. As we finished the seventh round of the tawaf, I emerged from the depths of that state to recognize Hajj as a quest for knowledge and better understanding of myself, the world around me and, most of all, God, The Truth.

I remember when I first read about the tawaf in a memoir by a British-Muslim physician who was working in Saudi Arabia and decided to journey to Mecca for Hajj. Like you, Yasmina, she wrote about feeling like a small part of a larger whole while walking the seven circuits around the ka’ba: “As I looked up and surveyed the multistranded circle of humanity adorning the Ka’aba, a giant, rich choker of pilgrim pearls, I found myself among them. In this diversity, finally I belonged. Islam was many-faceted and I was simply one.”[1] My own experiences with rituals that involve moving in circles have been similar. As a bride under the wedding canopy circling the groom, I felt a sense of serenity and solitude—despite the presence of many family and friends—and a deep conviction that I was not only joining my life to my spouse’s life but also that we were connecting to God. The physical movement of these rituals, coupled with the “music” emanating from the surrounding souls, transports us to another realm.

How transformative Hajj, Yasmina! While I have not had the privilege of participating in such a major pilgrimage, I do share both your and Tziporah’s regard for ritual that, in solitude and serenity, binds us to God and to one another. For that reason, I take periodic retreats to a Benedictine monastery, where I spend several days in total silence, enveloped, as you describe, in the peace of God’s abiding presence and love. Many Christians are now reclaiming an ancient religious practice of walking a spiritual labyrinth, whose singular, yet maze-like, circular path alternately narrows and expands as one moves slowly to its center. Perhaps in imitation of early Christian pilgrimages, walking the labyrinth reminds us of the recurring patterns in our life’s journey and brings fresh revelation about submission, guidance, trust, and promise. Some place a pebble somewhere along the labyrinth’s path as a symbol of a burden being released to God or as an offering of thanks to God for mercy and forgiveness.  Even this “pilgrimage in microcosm” helps readjust a skewed human compass!

[1] Ahmed, Qanta A., In the Land of Invisible Women: A Female Doctor’s Journey in the Saudi Kingdom, Chapter 14: The Million-Man Wheel, p. 149.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012


“…give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God…” (I Thessalonians 5:18a)

Particularly at Thanksgiving, St. Paul’s admonition to give thanks in all circumstances is readily affirmed by most Christians and persons of other faiths too.  However, the statement that giving thanks in all circumstances is God’s will may strike a particularly discordant note to one whose life is in tangles or to one who struggles with a serious illness or a deep hurt or grief. Once, when I was in a particularly awful situation, I found myself responding with anger to these words. I questioned how I could be expected to give thanks; perhaps I confused giving thanks in all circumstances with giving thanks for such a circumstance. Over time, I have seen how deeply my spiritual life has been shaped by attention to gratitude and thanks to God in every circumstance. In fact, it is in the most bitter of circumstances that my spirit is lifted when I realize just how many blessings abound, even in the midst of suffering. What has your own faith tradition taught you about thanksgiving?

Upon reading your reflections, I remembered how as a child I was taught that the etiquette for replying to someone’s “How are you?” is to say first Alhamdulillah, which means, All praise and thanks are due to God.  In fact, it is sometimes the only thing a Muslim answers, eliminating the need to give further details. As an adult, I have come to appreciate the five daily prayers—or seventeen cycles of prayer—I am commanded to perform every day because my preoccupation with daily life can divert my attention from “giving thanks in all circumstances.” Knowing that I have to plan my day according to the times during which I need to perform those prayers helps me to refocus, reflect, and transcend my worries and pain, as well as remember the bounties I have been blessed with. Muslims, who stop whatever they are doing to engage in the prescribed prayers to recite the opening sentence of each of the seventeen cycles, find themselves in a state of thanksgiving as they say these words: “Praise be to God the Cherisher and Sustainer of the worlds.” (al-Fatihah 1:2)

Grace, I am glad you raised this question and grateful for your emphasis on giving thanks in all circumstances.  I, too, have found myself in difficult circumstances struggling to recognize the blessings in my life.  According to Jewish tradition, a person is supposed to recite a blessing upon hearing bad news, in particular the news that someone has died. The prescribed blessing is “Praised is the True Judge.” I have often choked out these words, against my will, without the proper intention of praising God.  But I believe that it is appropriate to say the words of praise or thanks without truly feeling them and hope that feelings of praise and thanks will eventually follow. The early rabbis taught, “One is obligated to bless upon the bad as he would upon the good….” (Mishnah Berakhot 5:5) Perhaps Paul and the early rabbis were responding to a natural human tendency that they observed: While it is not easy for a person in pain to offer thanks to God, there are always things for which to be thankful; and it is a worthy endeavor to offer thanks even when it is difficult to do so.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012


"Blessed are You, God, the One who spreads peace over us, over all His people of Israel and over Jerusalem." (Arvit, Erev Shabbat - Friday Evening Liturgy)

While Jews recite a blessing for peace in every evening service, this line is specific to the Friday prayers. I love how we welcome the Sabbath by wishing each other "Shabbat shalom," a peaceful Sabbath, and praying for God to shelter us in a peaceful embrace. For me, the phrase "the One who spreads peace" evokes an image of God covering the world with a blanket of peace just as a parent gently tucks a child into bed at night. At the same time, the ancient, three-fold blessing of "us, Israel, and Jerusalem" gives me pause. For the Jew who composed these wordsprobably in the wake of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalemthis prayer was intended to apply solely to Jews. However, after engaging in interfaith conversations and study of our sacred texts with you, I have come to a new interpretation of this prayer: I believe each phrase builds from the personal to the universal. First, I pray for me, my family and friends; then for my synagogue community and Jews everywhere; and, finally, for Jerusalem, the spiritual center for all of us who answer Abraham.

How very special your prayer, Tziporah!  I am moved by blessings for peace in all our faith traditions, yet also troubled by the absence of peace in the actual lives we live.  We proclaim “peace,” but we go to war with our neighbor, whether across the street or across the world. I am troubled that we—righteous men and women of every faith, even men and women who share a faith—can so easily foment battles with one another, whether over land or a political ideology or a religious doctrine or practice. The words of the song “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me” haunt me as I ask myself, “With whom do I need to make peace today, and how do I do so?” Peace-making is rarely sweet and easy; it is very hard work! It occurs to me that, even with dedication and heightened awareness, I cannot be a bringer of peace unless I myself am profoundly rooted in the divine—where “self” is lost because consumed. Paradoxically, I believe that, in losing self, we find the self created in God’s own image, the self that does not need to be right, but only to be.  To be willing to lose one’s self in this way is terrifying, but I am convinced that only in so doing can we ever know fully “that peace that passes understanding.”

Tziporah, I join my voice with yours and turn to As-Salaam, the One Who is the Source of Peace.  Like you, I wish for a peace that starts from the city that symbolizes the convergent point of God’s universal message.  As you know, the Islamic social greeting is “Peace be upon you.” You may also be aware that, in each of the five daily prayers, Muslims send prayers of peace to all the righteous servants of God.  I also join Grace in inviting myself and others to introspection of our most-inner selves: How can we learn to see past our apparent external differences?Indeed, God will not change the condition of a people until they change what is within themselves.” (al-Ra’d 13:11) This invitation to start the process of change and make the “self” better is what will alter the perceptions we have of each other.  Islam literally means to find inner peace by submitting to the will and commands of God. I am thankful I have been able to celebrate Islam with you both, and I pray that by sharing our conversations we can inspire others to choose a similar path.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Traveler's Prayer

"May it be Your guide us in lead us to our desired destination in health and joy and peace....Save us from every enemy and disaster on the way, and from all calamities that threaten the world."

Summer vacation has arrived. As the airplane lifts off the ground, I pull the gently-worn copy of the traveler's prayer from my wallet and begin to recite the words under my breath. I am immediately struck by how relevant this prayer—written many centuries ago—remains in this age of modern travel. The author of this text was most likely anxious about storms at sea, bandits along trade routes or the physical deprivations that were the hallmark of travel in ancient times. Yet his words resonate for me as I drag my suitcase through the security line which snakes through the terminal; I am reminded of the "calamities that threaten the world" as I pass a soldier arriving home on leave. When the TSA officer returned my driver's license to me and told me that I was "free to move about the country" I didn't feel entirely free. But soaring through the sky, I ask God's protection and guidance, and dream of a time when the words of this prayer will no longer be necessary.

Tziporah, as a traveler on life’s journey (alas, not privileged with vacation at the moment), I share your mindfulness of the many “calamities that threaten the world;" in that knowledge, I too find solace in a prayer beseeching God to lead us “to our desired destination in health and joy and peace.” In a prayer for travelers from my own tradition, the invocation “O God…whose presence we find wherever we go” reminds me that all our journeys begin, continue, and end in God. Despite all dangers in our path that rob us of a sense of safety—whether they come from natural disaster, personal illness or threats of violence—I take comfort in the wisdom expressed in the words that “when God is all we have, God is all we really need.”

I agree that we suddenly become aware of our potential lack of physical wellbeing and security as we leave the comfort of our dwellings. But this vulnerability does not go unnoticed in the eyes of our Creator. According to Muslim tradition, various times are considered “special windows of supplication opportunities," and travel is one of them. One Prophetic Hadith states that the supplication of the traveler will not be rejected.* In addition to reciting several prayers for his or her own safety, the conscious Muslim—in a heightened state of spiritual awareness when traveling—is often asked by friends and family members to pray for them during his or her journey. To me, the weakened emotional and physical state of a traveler is mended by the comfort and peace of being in an elevated state of connection with The Preserver and Trustee.

*Three supplications will not be rejected by God, the supplication of the parent for his child, the supplication of the one who is fasting, and the supplication of the traveler. (al-Bayhaqi, at-Tirmidhi - Sahih)

Wednesday, May 23, 2012


Reciter (calls each phrase, except last one, twice)                 Listener
God is Greater                                                                                  [repeats same words]
I bear witness there is no god but God                                         [repeats same words]
I bear witness that Muhammad is the messenger of God         [repeats same words]
Hasten to prayer                             [there is no power, nor strength except with God]
Hasten to prosperity                       [there is no power, nor strength except with God]
God is Greater                                                                                  [repeats same words]
There is no god but God                                                                  [repeats same words]

The call to prayer, or Athan, marks the beginning of each of the five mandatory, daily prayers for Muslims. While we may offers prayers and supplications any time, recitation of mandatory prayers coincides with the movement of the sun.  Athan serves as a public announcement that the appropriate time to perform mandatory prayers has arrived. During this time of mental and spiritual preparation, the listener is invited to shed his or her preoccupations and humbly reflect on the meaning of the words of the call and response.  The reciter, or mu’athin, leads the community in the praise of God and reaffirmation of the Supremacy of God.  By maintaining a high state of awareness every time I hear the Athan, I am able to subdue any worries or challenges I might be facing. The opening phrase of Allahu Akbar, God is greater, unravels the Majestic generosity and Power of the One Who can uplift our hearts and elevate our spirits.

I love the Muslim call to prayer, Yasmina, especially the melodic intoning of the Athan and its universal reach to all who respond to this call five times each day.  As the ringing of church bells often calls Christians to worship, so a “call and response” prayer is familiar in most Christian traditions; however, the when and how of Christian daily prayer is more often a matter of private conscience than public mandate.  With the exception of The Lord’s Prayer, the recitation or repetition of Christian prayers is usually denominationally specific. The Rosary, for example, is a devout supplication for “us sinners,” which Catholics recite quietly and repetitively with prayer beads. Pentecostal and other charismatic Christians pray in spontaneous, melodic utterances, “tongues,” which are sometimes repetitive and are received by an individual as a spiritual gift. Different traditions, different forms, yet all attesting to the greatness and goodness of God.

Jews also include a call to prayer in the morning and evening liturgy, known as Barkhu.  All assembled stand and the leader chants, “Blessed are You, Lord who is blessed.” The congregation responds, “Blessed is the Lord who is blessed forever and ever.” Then the leader repeats the congregational response. Each time the leader or worshiper recites the word “blessed,” he or she bows before God.  Like the Athan, Barkhu marks the official beginning of public prayer. This invitation to join in communal worship can only be recited if a quorum of ten Jews is present. The call and response of Barkhu also comprises the opening lines of the blessing recited during the public reading of the Torah.  This reminds me of the concluding lines of the Athan, as these two lines also serve as an affirmation that we are about to engage in a public act of honoring God. 

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Pray Without Ceasing

Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 
(I Thessalonians 5: 16-18)

Although each phrase in this text is fertile ground for sacred conversation, the admonition to pray without ceasing gives me particular pause.  With the exception of those traditions within Christianity that preserve forms of The Daily Office—including Morning Prayer, Noonday Prayer, Evening Prayer/Vespers, and Compline—fixed times of day for prayer are not prescribed for most Christians. Pray without ceasing, then, is understood by most to mean “be steadfast or constant in prayer.” By observing an ancient Christian practice of a breath prayer, I have found a particularly lovely way to enjoy the fruits of praying without ceasing quite literally.  In meditation, I attach to my inhalation an invocation of God and to my exhalation an affirmation or petition important to my spiritual growth.  The very act of breathing thus becomes an act of prayer, its fruits revealed in subtle changes within me over time.  My current breath prayer: “Light of God, illumine me.”

Grace, I also engage in daily remembrance of God—during my ritual ablutions, while performing my daily prayers, and, of course, when I first wake up and just before going to bed. Part of my daily practice is to recite the phrase “Glory, praise and thanks be to God” 100 times every morning; then I make a conscious effort throughout my day to be aware of God’s presence. There are numerous verses in the Quran which are in tune with your biblical call to pray without ceasing. One of my favorite examples is “The seven heavens and the earth and all beings therein, declare His glory: there is not a thing but celebrates His praise; and yet ye understand not how they declare His Glory!”(17:44) This verse reminds me that when I utter words of thanks and praise to God I am joining all of God’s creatures in celebration. I seek to nourish my soul by praising God when I marvel at the nature around me, prepare a meal for my family, reflect on events and make new discoveries. As I go about my daily activities, I try to maintain a state of constant awareness and remembrance of God which humbles both my soul and intellect.

Friends, your personal reflections inspired by these texts remind me of the inherent tension of Jewish prayer: there is a requirement to recite specific prayers of the liturgy at fixed times and a rabbinic imperative to pray with kavannah, “intention.” As you imply, Grace, to pray without ceasing in a literal sense is not practical, and the rabbis were quite practical when establishing the norms of Jewish prayer nearly 2,000 years ago. At the same time, they suggested two modalities of spiritual expression that could be employed without limitations. First, they recommended the recitation of 100 blessings each day.  Blessings—which have a prescribed formula—serve to elevate our quotidian acts of eating, drinking and even using the bathroom.  Yasmina, I was delighted to learn from you that Muslims also include 100 praises of God in daily practice—our traditions share many common rituals designed to help us reach beyond ourselves. The early rabbis also connected with God through the study of Torah, which they considered to be a form of prayer.  This inspired one twentieth century rabbi to explain his daily practice: “When I pray, I talk to God; when I study, God talks to me.” I, too, strive to pray without ceasing by reciting prayers, blessings and Psalms—and by studying Torah—every day.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

In the Name of…

Theologically speaking, is there any problem for a Christian not to pray in Jesus’ name? In other words, cannot a Christian—like a Jew or a Muslim—pray authentically in the name of God? 

The short answer to that question is “Yes, absolutely!” That is why I have no hesitation when praying in interfaith settings by saying, “In Your Most Holy Name we pray.” Christians, like Jews and Muslims, believe in One God and that God is One.  Trinitarian Christians believe that God is expressed in three “persons”—or in three ways—as Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. We believe that the nature of God is most fully revealed in the person of Jesus Christ—that is, in Jesus, human and divine are completely united.  Because we look to Jesus as “the Way” for humans to know the fullness of God, we often conclude our prayers in Jesus’ name.  The phrasing is not intended to be exclusionary, but how can it sound otherwise to a non-Christian? When I pray publicly in God’s name and omit Jesus’ name, I do so not because I fear offending others, but because I wish to express my belief that we are all children of God and that God’s great love extends to all—without limit, without condition and without exception.

Grace, I thank you for your heartfelt explanation. I appreciate sensitive people like you who are aware of the beliefs of their audience. The reason why Muslims would feel uncomfortable if prayers are concluded in Jesus’ name is not because they do not believe in him, but because they do not consider him as divine. That word is reserved for God alone. It might surprise some Christians to know that Jesus [Peace and Blessings be upon him] is an honored prophet in Islam. Both his birth and the birth of his mother Mary [Peace and Blessings be upon her] are beautifully captured in the Quran. Beloved to Muslims, both are considered examples of righteousness and uprightness.  Having said that, they are considered human, and praying to them is therefore not appropriate in Islam.

While I was eavesdropping on your conversation, my thoughts wandered to a volunteer luncheon I attended some years ago at an interfaith-based charity. We all bent our heads as the Pastor led us in the grace before the meal.  He quoted from psalms and blessed the work of the volunteers’ hands, and then he concluded by saying, “in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.” I felt unable to respond “Amen,” because the word “amen” comes from the Hebrew root “believe,” and Jews do not believe Jesus to be the Christ (messiah). I remember feeling frustrated, since I agreed with the sentiment of his prayer and wished to respond.  I don’t think that he intended to exclude anyone from his prayers—he must have been unaware of the presence of those who do not accept Jesus’ divinity.  I wish I had been in possession then of Grace’s lucid explanation of why Christians pray in this manner.  The Pastor’s words authentically expressed the prayer from his heart. Distracted by my own emotions, I may have missed the depth of emotion he was sharing with us.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Good Posture

We begin the year with a post that reflects what we have learned from our survey: You are interested in the personal conversations we have as we develop our responses to the sacred texts. This conversation began when Tziporah emailed Yasmina to ask about attending Friday prayers at the mosque.  Grace joined in, agreeing that the email exchanges formed the backbone of a blog post.  While we continue to add new texts on Wednesdays, we invite you to join our conversation by commenting below or responding to the survey
* * * * * * *

Whatever beings there are in the heavens and the earth prostrate themselves to God, with good will or in spite of themselves; so do their shadows in the morning and evenings.”
(al-Ra’d 13:15)

When I visit the mosque, I always feel a little awkward during the prostrations because this is not a typical posture of Jewish prayer.  Jews used to prostrate—known in the literature as “falling on one’s face”—as a sign of devotion and humility.  Most notably, when the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, he used to prostrate and ask forgiveness on behalf of the people.  Nowadays, some Jews perform full prostrations on the High Holidays in remembrance of this custom, but usually only the leader of the congregation prostrates.  As I understand the evolution of liturgical practice, we gave up prostration after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (70 C.E.), because the Holy of Holies no longer existed and the rabbis who re-envisioned Judaism pretty much put the Temple functionaries out of work. We still bow at the knee and waist in key sections of the liturgy, but these bows are carefully choreographed NOT to be full prostration or kneeling. The rules against bowing reflect the tendency of the rabbis to forbid “worshiping like our neighbors,” and likely arose as these postures became common in Christian and Muslim prayer.

I understand your feelings about prostration because it is unusual to you—and I am not saying that you should do it—but I wanted to offer some insight as to its meaning in Islam. Muslims are taught that prostration is the position in which they are closest to God because of the humility it represents; it is the physical expression of the submission of the heart. What we say in this position is "Praise be to My Lord, Most-High," three times at minimum. Then we may prolong our prostration to include supplications to God for good health, guidance, etc. The Quran mentions that many prophets prostrated before God. Even the magicians that challenged Moses [Peace and Blessings be upon him] finally relented and bowed low: “So the magicians were thrown down to prostration; they said, ‘We believe in the Lord of Aaron and Moses.’” (Ta Ha 20:70) In fact, the Quran says that all creatures prostrate to God (see above). I included the verses because I knew you would ask me for them! Checking references is a great habit to cultivate, especially in our days when so many things are taken out of context.

I am inspired by your conversation and happy to add some information about physical expressions of prayer in various Christian practices.  Prayer postures vary among Christians of different denominations. However, full prostration is not customary in Christianity except when a monk or nun takes Solemn Vows to lead a monastic life.  Catholics traditionally show reverence at the church altar by bowing or genuflecting, and stand or kneel for prayer.  Protestant Christians are typically more restrained, sitting quietly and reverentially with bowed heads. Pentecostal Christians often raise their arms and hands, sometimes swaying their bodies to welcome God’s Holy Spirit. All of these postures convey the supplicant’s humility and adoration towards God. Some Christians, during and following prayer, make the sign of the Cross over the upper torso, sometimes also signing the Cross three times in miniature on forehead, lips, and heart: “God in my thinking, in my speaking, in my being.”  Because prayer is both corporate and personal, the movements during prayer—like the words of prayer itself—can be highly prescribed or completely spontaneous. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Raising Our "God Consciousness"

“Verily, God orders justice and kindness (Ihsan), and giving [help] to the relatives, and He forbids all shameful deeds, and evil and tyranny. He admonishes you, so that perhaps you may take heed.” 
(al-Nahl 16:90)
This Quranic verse is used to close the sermon each Friday in almost every Mosque around the world; it is a command that serves as guidance in daily affairs. Unfortunately, the words sometimes lose their meaning in translation, especially the word Ihsan, which is often translated as “kindness.”  In a Hadith, the Prophet [Peace and Blessings be upon him] defines Ihsan as “to worship God as if you are seeing Him, and although you do not see Him, He sees you.”[1] Ihsan is the force that helps Muslims strive for excellence in character and moral values, and this verse is a reminder that God looks into our minds and hearts every second of the day.  It leads to my “God consciousness” in thoughts, words and actions, and helps me remember that truthfulness in action is only achieved when an awareness of God permeates all of my senses.

Reading Yasmina’s reflection, I thought about rabbis who end each Sabbath service with a “closing benediction.” This practice is now considered outdated by many, but was fairly standard in the synagogues of my youth.  The closing benediction was often an opportunity for the rabbi to summarize the sermon and to remind the community to live by its message in the coming week. As I grow older, I can better appreciate the appeal of a ritual in which religious leaders offer guidance to the community and establish clear expectations for daily behavior.  In Jewish liturgy, there is an ancient meditation that individuals may add to conclude their personal prayers in the Amidah: “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you, God, my Rock and my Redeemer.”[2]  Perhaps this would be a fitting conclusion to any sermon; a reminder to both listeners and speakers that God is present in our lives and attentive to our words and actions. 

I am stirred by Yasmina’s emphasis on “God consciousness” in the exhortation all Muslims hear weekly.  The sheer variety of Christian denominations means that the experience of a living God is likely to be evoked for Christians in many different ways.  Benedictions that conclude Christian worship are expressed as blessings. Some churches also include a dismissal or sending forth which is reminiscent of al-Nahl 16:90, calling upon worshipers to be “doers of the Word and not hearers only.”[3] Quoting the Hebrew prophet Micah, Christians also affirm the need for hearts that are attuned to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”[4] Interestingly, it is an opening prayer in my own tradition that lifts me most powerfully to God consciousness: “Almighty God…from whom no secrets are hid…cleanse the thoughts of our hearts […that] we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name.”

[1] Riyad-us-Saliheen by Imam an-Nawawi, Hadith 60
[2] Psalms 19:15
[3] James 1:22
[4] Micah 6:8