Invoking the Divine

We don’t often question the familiar. Common, ordinary things, things that have been with us since childhood, don’t usually seem worth much scrutiny. Yet nothing springs out of nowhere. Everything has a history, and sometimes it can be interesting or fun to dig into the meaning of something very ordinary. Occasionally, deep insights may even result.

Take, for instance, the word “God.” What does it mean? Not what is God, not what is God like, but what does the word mean? What is its etymology?

Modern English speakers inherit the word from Old English. “God” is derived from the Proto-Germanic gudan, which in turn derives from the Proto-Indo-European gutom. The meaning is not entirely clear, but is generally thought to be one of two things: to pour or libate, or to call or invoke. The meaning of the word “God” is thus either “one to whom sacrifices are made” or “one who is invoked.” Perhaps both.

Note that the word is Indo-European. It is not Semitic. The earliest Semitic writings use “il” or “el,” specifically the latter in the Old Testament. From this is derived the Arabic al-Ilah (“the deity” or “the God”), which probably became Allah. Muslims and Arab Christians alike use the word “Allah.” “Allah” and “God” mean one and the same thing. Likewise, in English translations of Baha’i literature, “Allah” is rendered as “God.”

Baha’is, though, use a few terms untranslated, including what is called “the Greatest Name.” These are all are references to Baha’u’llah, the Manifestation of God for our age. In one sense, Baha’u’llah Himself is the Greatest Name. In another, the name “Baha’u’llah” (“the Glory of God”) is the Greatest Name. Other forms include “Allah-u-Abha” (“God is the Most Glorious”) and “Ya Baha’u’l-Abha” (“O Thou Glory of the All-Glorious”). A well-known calligraphic form of the “Allah-u-Abha” is often found in Baha’i homes, and “Allah-u-Abha” is often used as a greeting. Also, Baha’u’llah instructs His followers to repeat it 95 times each day as a meditation. “Ya Baha’u’l-Abha” is used as an invocation, often as an expression of joy but at other times as well.

One further invocation used without translation is a prayer revealed by the Bab, Baha’u’llah’s forerunner: “Ya Allahu’l-Mustaghath”, which means, “O Thou God Who art invoked.” The Bab instructed His followers to recite this in times of trouble or difficulty, and it is generally considered by Baha’is to be among the most potent of prayers.

All of these short phrases have a single thing in common: they call upon God through His Manifestation. Put another way, they invoke “the One who is invoked.” There is great value in such invocation. The world is often a confused, confusing place. It can be hard to navigate and very easy to become distracted. Invocations have a focusing effect, turning our thoughts and feelings toward God and centering us in Him. I’ve recently discovered that using them in combination can have a powerful effect, particularly when seeking to overcome some personal failing. From time to time, I repeat “Allah-u-Abha” nine times, then “Ya Baha’u’l-Abha” nine times, then “Ya Allahu’l-Mustaghath” nine times. This is the work of less than a minute, yet during that time all but God sublimates like ice vanishing in the warmth of the springtime sun. Moreover, whatever issue is plaguing me is kept at bay through occasional invocations.

Naturally I can speak only for myself; the above practice is merely something I’ve found useful in my own life. You may choose to try it or not, or may adapt it in various ways. Regardless, the principle is that found in Qur’an 17:110 and cited by Baha’u’llah in The Seven Valleys:  “…by whichsoever (name) ye will, invoke Him: He hath most excellent names.”

Embracing Tribulations

My family and I have lived through a lot of misfortune in the past few years. Among other things, my wife was hospitalized with a very serious condition, my son suffered a severe infection in one of his feet, one of my daughters is dealing with an as-yet undiagnosed medical issue, my father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and I lost my job due to funding issues and went through a period of unemployment. Sometimes it seems we go from one disaster to the next with very little time to draw a breath.

All Baha’is are familiar with passages in their Holy Writings that speak about how tests and difficulties are blessings in disguise. They can help us to develop our spiritual nature and refine our character. Even if only grudgingly, I think most of us can see the point.

But in numerous passages, Baha’u’llah and ‘Abdu’l-Baha speak of the trials they faced as causes of exaltation and joy. That point is harder to grasp for most of us. At least it generally has been for me. I can see how, for example, financial hardship can lead one to greater detachment from the material and increased reliance upon God, but I can also grumble about how I just don’t know where the money will come from for some necessary expenditure.

Recently, though, something I read–I think it was in Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, but I can’t find the exact passage now–led to one of those “aha!” moments we sometimes have. Whatever the passage said, it caused me to realize that the hardships in our lives are not merely chances to develop spiritual qualities but chances to demonstrate our love for and faith in God.

Think of it this way.  It’s easy to be thankful when things are going well. It’s easy to speak of love and faith when nothing puts us to the test. But how true are those qualities? When things get rough, they may prove a mirage. Then there is no doubt: we either show true thankfulness, true love, true faith, or we don’t. ‘Abdu’l-Baha, speaking of a time when His trials abated, wrote this:

And yet, from one point of view, this wanderer was saddened and despondent. For what pain, in the time to come, could I seek comfort? At the news of what granted wish could I rejoice? There was no more tyranny, no more affliction, no tragical events, no tribulations. My only joy in this swiftly-passing world was to tread the stony path of God and to endure hard tests and all material griefs. For otherwise, this earthly life would prove barren and vain, and better would be death. The tree of being would produce no fruit; the sown field of this existence would yield no harvest. Thus it is my hope that once again some circumstance will make my cup of anguish to brim over, and that beauteous Love, that Slayer of souls, will dazzle the beholders again. Then will this heart be blissful, this soul be blessed.
— ‘Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, #190, p. 278)

Although I’m certainly no master at it, I think that peace, contentment, and even happiness during times of trial springs from love of God, faithfulness to God, being open to His will regardless of how hard it may be. The joy of which ‘Abdu’l-Baha spoke is the joy of demonstrating to our Creator that we don’t merely pay lip service to Him, that we truly love Him, hold faith with Him, and rely upon Him.