Prayer has many purposes, the chief one being to make God a reality in our Being. The first stage of prayer, Inayat Khan teaches us, is to confirm us in being a follower of the Divine will. In this type of prayer we pray as a flock the formal prayers of our Order. Saum and Salat are both prayers of power and of blessing. These paired prayers are the means of creating and experiencing the underlying unity of all beings; the unity of Creator and creation. We are taught to always say them together for balance. Regular disciplined times for these prayers enable us to trace the different stages of our advancement on the path. In this practice, prayer then becomes an effective exercise for the attainment of the presence of divinity. According to our state of consciousness in prayer our message reaches God. It defines and makes clear our needs. Prayer can develop insight into the different natures we meet in the world. The cause of all things becomes clear and one begins to know the causes of all disharmonies among nations and peoples. This kind of prayer confirms us in the unity through praise of the Divine Being, the divine authority in our lives. It is the witness we make to our Sufi brothers and sisters and all those within hearing. The purpose of prayer confirms our faith. It makes God great and good.
The second stage is belief in the Only Being as dominating our thinking, our speech and the deepest feelings of the heart. It affirms our absolute trust in divine guidance. The urge to pray, to speak to the God within is a necessary step for the beginner in prayer to affirm that although the beginner may not trust him or herself s/he can trust the divine authority. At this stage prayer is the work of the heart, “I am not, Thou art.”
The third stage is reached when one begins to reason internally within oneself; “arguing with God” it is called. In this prayer, as with the child, God is reminded of one’s good intentions and deeds. This prayer bargains with the divine being for favors and grace. It produces self-confidence to talk with God and leads to conviction that one has produced the love of God and by so doing has lost oneself. Ultimately, the lover and the Beloved become one.
The fourth stage is reached with a sense of conviction that God is a reality and that He indeed lives with one, ever present to talk to. Hazrat Inayat Khan says that this shows that one has discovered through faith in the practice of prayer that one has a firm conviction. The one who has this kind of conviction already is on his way as a mystic. “God is seen in you. You can know him.” It comes from the divine element in humankind; love and intelligence, the two aspects of which in reality are one and which impel us to pray. It cultivates and prepares the human heart for the acceptance of divine love.
Prayer expands consciousness. So Inayat Khan describes in the Vadan, “First believe in the God who is all-exclusive and then realize the God who is all inclusive.” In this consciousness of the divine presence in prayer, we lose ourselves and gain our real selves. It progresses from loving God to looking for God and then to finding God in many names and forms. Through prayers one eventually arrives at a dualistic stage where one experiences the true unity.
One cannot force prayer. But if prayer is preceded by a contemplation of the chain of murshids, what Inayat calls “the unity of illuminated souls,” the divine knowledge of prayer is passed from one soul to another. That is why prayer must be in silence at this stage if one is to hear the voice of silence that answers prayers, as in a two-way conversation.
Some prayers that discipline mind may be very short as this one from Inayat Khan in the Vadan; “Expand my heart Lord, to the width of the sky, that the whole cosmos be reflected in my soul.” This enables us to outgrow limitations in life. When short prayers are repeated to the point of being lost in them one finds the body swaying as an expression of the divine rhythm. Prayer then becomes a dance with God. This demands complete concentration and sincerity.
Creating the God-ideal within raises the consciousness and personality through the form of prayer we practice. First, we wrestle with our limited ego in telling God what is happening in the difficulties of life, advancing to the glorifications where thankfulness for the grace of God enters; then wrestling with the sins of omission and commission and forgiving those who hurt and fence us off from communication with the God within. Finally, one reaches the joyous stage where God is no longer in the highest heaven with the angels and archangels but within us and every attribute and name disappears in the presence. Every atom of the body is in our prayer posture and every atom of the mind is centered on the core of the heart. Prayer then is an art.
Prayer demands concentration and is “an act of will in which the mind actually sees, during which the seeing faculty of the mind acts as well as the hearing faculty”, Murshid says. One must be tranquil, at ease, and have the keen desire to talk with God. Doing the purification practices before prayer frees one from the captivity of the day’s events and enables one to contemplate on the divine being, and to open the heart to the light of truth. At this stage, Inayat Khan’s beautiful prayer may be used;
“What I may not see, let me not see;
What I may not hear, let me not hear;
What I may not know, I ask not to know.”
In the end, really great individual prayer becomes meditation.