By Hazrat Inayat Khan
The first aspect of prayer is giving thanks to God for all the numberless blessings that are bestowed upon us at every moment of the day and night, and of which we are mostly unconscious. The second aspect of prayer is laying our shortcomings before the unlimited perfection of the divine Being, and asking His forgiveness. This makes man conscious of his smallness, of his limitation, and therefore makes him humble before his God. And, by humbling himself before God man does not lose any virtue. God alone has the right to demand complete humility.
There is another side to this question: although humility is painful to the pride of man, the joy of humility is never known by the proud. The effect produced upon a man's own feeling is as if, by his very humility, he had opened the doors of the shrine of God which is in the heart of man. He who asks forgiveness of his friend, feels a joy that the friend does not know. And it must not be forgotten that it is not pride that gives joy, but humility, which gives a special joy. It is told that a Maharana of Udaipur was mourning for the death of his mother, and for a long time his grief was so great that he could not overcome it. His ministers and friends tried to console him, telling him how fortunate he was, how great was his influence and power. He answered, 'Yes it is true. But one thing grieves me. I have everyone to bow before me, to give way to me, to salute me, to obey; but there was one, when I came into the palace before whom I could be humble. My mother was the one before whom I could humble myself, and I cannot tell you the joy that was to me!'
Humility has several forms, and these are observed according to the customs of different peoples. There exist all kinds of forms of respect, towards parents, teachers or masters; but after examining and studying life keenly, one finds that it is to God alone that all forms of respect are addressed. It is this lesson that the various religions have taught to different peoples according to their needs.
The third aspect of prayer is to tell God one's difficulties and troubles, and to ask Him for what one needs and wants. And who else deserves this trust but God? It is true that we have relations and friends who love us and wish to help us; but they are only human beings, travelling in the same boat on the same sea, subject to all the same difficulties and limitations. Man can only be helped by man to a certain extent. The more one studies human nature, the more one feels inclined to bring one's troubles, difficulties, and sorrows, before God alone, and this is a part of what is taught in the form of prayer.
The fourth aspect of prayer is like the call of the lover to the beloved. No doubt this is a higher form; and to be able to pray in this manner man must rise above the ordinary level of life. Just as it is difficult for a human being to love man, whom he sees, so it is more difficult to love God, whom one has never seen. Loving one's fellow man, yes; but not everyone is capable of loving the formless, the God-ideal, and of evolving by the lesson of love. For in this love there is no disappointment, and only the love of God can fulfill the desire of the human soul, and all other forms of love are only steps that lead to the love of God. But who can explain the love of God to one who has never felt it? God is the perfect ideal. His love is the perfect love. There is love of the mate, of parents of friends, of children, but in the love of God all is found combined. Therefore its joy is perfect. The love of God is living and everlasting and is the love of the true Beloved.
The fifth aspect of prayer is to know God, and in this way to draw nearer to God. This is the real meaning of the expression atonement, which means complete union. It cannot be learned; it is a natural tendency; it is the attraction of the soul to God. It is like the negative pole of the electric wire, which is attracted, to the positive. It means that the happiness of man depends on his nearness to God, and this too has been taught in the form of prayer.
It is these five aspects of prayer which constitute the form of religious worship. Every religion, at whatever time and in whatever country, has given prayer as its method. But man has always shown his childish nature. He has always fought with his neighbour because he does not pray in the same way. Man has taken the outer form of prayer. He has used the outer form to satisfy his vanity and the consequence has been that, revolted by this state of things, he has given up prayer. For instance Protestantism is among other things a sort of protest against the Catholic form of prayer. Many people, between the two, have given up prayer; and giving it up is not satisfactory, for nothing can take its place.
The chaotic conditions at the present time are caused by the lack of religion. Man's soul needs religion but the mind fights against it. We find that most wars in history have been caused by disputes about religion. In the East, no one dares to say that he does not believe in God, whereas in the West, there are people who are proud of not believing in God. They say that a force, or forces are the origin of life. It is the greatest tragedy if man deprives himself of God, because there cannot be any other means of rising to a higher consciousness.
But an inquiring mind will ask, 'If God is within man, then all our troubles and difficulties, our feelings and our attitudes towards Him and also our faults, are known to Him. So what need is there to express them in prayer?' It is like saying, 'Because I love a certain person, why should I show it?' Expression is the nature of life. When every part of man's mind and body expresses his feeling, his thought, his aspiration, then it produces its full effect. And there is no doubt that the fact of meeting together for prayer makes the effect still greater. The blessing that one can receive through prayer is multiplied a thousand fold when received by a few united in the same thought and praying together. […]
[…] Prayer has been taught by all religions in different forms: by bowing, by prostrations, by recitation or chant. As soon as man begins to feel the immanence of God in nature, he begins to prostrate himself before that Being, calling his limited self helpless before Him, bowing before Him, worshipping Him.
Although in the Christian religion man kneels before God and in Czarist Russia one could still see both rich and poor prostrating themselves even before the Czar, today men's pride has grown so much that many think, 'Why should I pray, why should I prostrate myself before anybody?'
Worship is a resignation, an acknowledgement, a recognition. Worship has many meanings. By worshipping we acquaint ourselves with a certain power. Acquaintance is understanding; and understanding is a great thing. We often suffer because we do not understand. Many conditions and many people are difficult to tolerate because we do not understand them, but once we understand we can tolerate almost anything.
When Brahmins worship by putting rice at the feet of the deity, this means that they would like to spread in the world all the love and light that they receive from the deity as the seed is sown on the farm.
One might ask what effect prayers can have upon the soul, which is pure and aloof from everything. The soul, when it sees the external self bowing before God, rejoices and is glad. Prayer gives nobility to whoever prays, be he rich or poor. The attitude of a prayerful person towards God is that of a lover towards his beloved, of a child towards its parents, of a servant towards his master, of a pupil towards his teacher, of a soldier towards his commander.
If one asks why God should create beings in order that they should sing His own praise, the answer is that God does not wish to receive praise. The praise of God is a prescription for man, in order that by this prescription man can come to that understanding which brings him nearer to God. In other words, by praising God man completes the action in which lies the fulfillment of the soul's purpose in coming on earth.
The meaning of the word Nirvah is the repetition of thankfulness and bringing one's own vision to one's soul; and the voice echoes again before God who is within ourselves. That is why the singing of a prayer is more powerful than only reciting the prayer in thought. It is the same difference as there is between thinking a song and singing it. By singing a song one obtains a satisfaction which one does not get by only thinking of it.
After this comes the prayer of realization. This is the prayer of the dervishes and the saints. They are ashamed of asking God for anything; they are contented with whatever comes. If they have food, whatever it is, it is all right. If they have no food it is all right too. If they have nothing to cover themselves with it is all right. By this contentment they become greater than kings. Sitting under a tree in rags they are greater than the richest who own all the Earth and yet are needy, for they have the kingdom of God. But about what they see their lips are closed. They do not speak of it. They never tell.
At the present time people say, 'I see such and such things, this colour and that light; I hear that sound,' in order to excite curiosity and wonder, and to gain notoriety. They make a trade out of spirituality. It is a very great misfortune, and if this goes on, even spirituality, the knowledge of God, which is the purest knowledge there is, will be debased and lost.
There are many virtues, but there is one principal virtue. Every moment passed outside the presence of God is sin, and every moment in His presence is virtue. The whole object of the Sufi, after learning this way of communicating is to arrive at a stage where every moment of our life passes in communion with God, and where our every action is done as if God were before us. Is that within everyone's reach? We are meant to be so. Just think of a person who is in love: when he eats or drinks, whatever he does, the image of the beloved is there. In the same way, when the love of God has come, it is natural to think of God in everything we do.
There are three kinds of people among those who offer prayer. One person in praying feels he is fulfilling a certain duty, which he considers to be one among the other duties of life. He does not know to whom he is praying; he thinks it is to some God. If he is in a congregation he feels obliged to do as the others do. He is like one of a flock of sheep which goes on not knowing where and why. Praying, to him, is something that he must do because he is in a situation where he cannot help it. In order to fall in with the custom of the family or community, and in order to respect those around him, he does it like everybody else. His prayer is mechanical and if it has any effect it is very little.
The second kind of person who offers prayers is the one who prays because he has been taught to do so, and yet is uncertain as to whether there is any God and whether his prayers are really heard. He may be praying, and yet at the same time his mind may be full of uncertainty, so that he wonders whether he is doing right or wrong. If he is a busy man, he may think, 'Am I giving my time to something really profitable, or am I wasting it? I see no one before me. I hear no answer to my prayer.' He does it because he was taught by someone to do it, or because it might perhaps benefit him in some way. His prayer is a prayer in the dark. The heart, which should be opened to God, is closed in by his own doubt, and if he prayed in this way for a thousand years, it would never be heard. It is this kind of soul who loses his faith, in the end, especially when he meets with a disappointment. He prays, and if his prayer is not answered, that puts an end to his belief.
Then there is a third person who has imagination, which is strengthened by faith. He not only prays to God, but he prays before God, in the presence of God. Once imagination has helped a man to bring the presence of God before him, God is awakened in his own heart. Then before he utters a word, it is heard by God. When he is praying in a room, he is not alone. He is there with God. Then to him God is not in the highest heaven but close to him, before him, in him. Then to him heaven is on earth and earth is heaven. No one is then so living, so intelligible as God; and all names and forms disappear before Him. Then every word of prayer he utters is a living word. It not only brings blessing to him, but to all those around him. This manner of prayer is the only right way of praying and in this way the object that is to be fulfilled by prayer is accomplished.
Not only belief, but faith too is necessary. Belief is a thing, but faith is a living being. We rise by treading the path of faith. Some day we shall realize what God is, but that only comes after the first lesson has been learned. Faith is the ABC of the revelation of God, and the way to faith is begun by prayer.
[Extracted from the section titled “Prayer” in Hazrat Inayat Khan, The Unity of Religious Ideals (The Sufi Message Vol IX)]
URL of Part 5: http://newageislam.com/books-and-documents/hazrat-inayat-khan/the-sufi-message--excerpts-from-hazrat-inayat-khan’s-discourses-on-the-unity-of-religious-ideals--the-coming-world-religion-–-5/d/11587