finding love and wonder on pluto

When I was in elementary school, I was fascinated by science, especially astronomy. I was the nerdier kind of kid who preferred reading books to kicking a ball in the playground, and so, I would hole up in the library and gather up all the books I could find about stars, planets, the universe, and more. At that time, exploration of the solar system was still just beginning. Humanity had walked on the moon and come back. Probes had been launched even further, landing on the surfaces of Mars and Venus, sending back the very first images of other planets. More probes had been launched at the other planets, sending back to Earth the very first snapshots of these other worlds: the sun-hugging Mercury, and the gas giants, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Reading about these newly explored worlds sent my mind on journeys of its own, journeys of awe and wonderment.

And yet, there was still more to this journey. In the pages of every book that chronicled the sums of our knowledge of the planets, one section still remained a mere footnote, a tantalizing mystery. Pluto, the last and farthest planet (as far as anyone was sure at the time), was a mere speck on a photographic plate, twinkling in the night sky as would any star—except that it moved. We knew it was there, but its great distance from Earth meant that it would surely remain unknown for a very long time. Who, after all, would ever travel that far, through all that nothingness, far above the ecliptic—the plane of the solar system—to snap a picture of this, the tiniest planet?

The New Horizons mission, then, is somewhat of a dream come true—the fulfillment of a long-cherished hope, and the continuation of that long journey of awe, of wonder and discovery. It allows us to fill in a blank in our knowledge of the universe. For those of my generation—who were taught that Pluto was a planet (although there’s nothing particularly wrong with being considered a dwarf planet, either)—this mystery cried out especially loud for resolution. The beautiful thing, of course, is that now that we have pictures, now that we have all this knowledge and data, we become acutely aware of how much more there is to discover. The wonder doesn’t disappear—instead, it builds. Our thirst for learning kicks in, and we want to know more. And in time, we will.

as I pick myself back up

It’s been a while since I’ve spent much time looking after this blog. No doubt there are still people out there reading, whether they’re subscribed by email or RSS, or follow on Facebook, or simply check back every now and then out of curiosity or nostalgia.

It’s been a tumultuous time for the owner of the world’s longest-running Bahá’í blog (if it hasn’t been stripped of that title due to the succession of hiatus after prolonged hiatus). Things started getting busy around the end of 2010. Life started getting in the way of writing, you know, in the way it does. Successive tests descended. Things which were once clear became muddied and murky, as the hand of providence stirred up the water of the ocean of life. They say that in that kind of muddy water, the beautiful lotus will bloom, resting calmly upon the water, opening up its petals and offering itself to the sky.

I can’t really say that the tests have ended yet—nor can I say that I’ve reached that perfect state of calm—but what I can say is that there is something of a growing sense of clarity budding somewhere deep within. Things are clearer, while still being unclear. I am—and we are—slowly learning how to draw from that sacred quiet space within our hearts the living water of certitude.

There is so much to fear in the world today, so much anger, hatred, instability and chaos. And yet, there is also the evidence of a growing, collective movement of humanity towards something much, much greater and more beautiful. Something that looks like kindness, and courage, and justice, and love, and patience, and perseverance, and generosity, and sacrifice, and service. Every day, we pick our side: Shall we advance towards a day of despair, or one of hope? O Great Spirit, give me the strength to choose hope today, to love and to serve Thy creatures.

So, yes, it’s been a tumultuous time, and most of the time I’ve simply felt too confused and exhausted to spend time sharing quips and queries or telling the little stories of my life. I dare to cherish the hope that this time of crisis is coming to a close, and that victories lie ahead. But I must be humble, and remember my place: A mere gnat that only aspires to become an eagle. Sorry. I know this sounds cryptic, and I hate to be one of those cryptic bloggers. The gist of it is that I’m feeling a little better nowadays, now that things have become a little less chaotic. But big things are in store in the coming years. Big changes, big growth, big challenges, and hopefully big adventures worth telling stories about. Maybe I’ll be blogging those too in a little while. For now, I’m off to rest and meditate a little. Greetings and glad-tidings to you and yours, dear friends.

understanding baha’i symbols and the “greatest name”

Nine pointed starIf you know any Baha’is, chances are you’ve seen them using one of three common symbols to indicate their faith. One is the nine-pointed star, which appears in all sorts of places from posters to tombstones. The number nine is significant to Bahá’ís for a few reasons. As the highest single-digit number, it’s seen as a symbol of completeness. It also ties into the ancient art of Arabic numerology, which assigns number values to letters. In this system, the letters of the word Bahá—referring to Bahá’u’lláh, the founder of the Bahá’í Faith—add up to the number nine.

The Ringstone SymbolAnother important symbol is a calligraphic symbol designed by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, which is based on a stylized representation of the word Bahá. The symbol—dubbed the “ringstone symbol” because of its approved use on rings and other kinds of jewelry—consists of the Arabic letter Ba (ب) repeated three times and stacked vertically, with another Ba rotated to form a vertical line connecting three, horizontal lines; the lines at top and bottom sport the letter (ه‍) at both ends. At either side of this symbol are two five-pointed stars.

This symbol is also known as the “teaching symbol”, because its layout illustrates one of the most important teachings of the Bahá’í Faith, namely, the relationship of God to humanity. Throughout history, it is said, God has sent His Manifestations—among them Krishna, Buddha, Zoroaster, Moses, Jesus Christ, Muhammad, the Báb, Bahá’u’lláh—to guide humanity and to make His purpose known to us. It is through these Manifestations that human beings have been, and are able to know God; without them, we would not know God, and would not progress, materially or spiritually. Thus, the three horizontal lines in the ringstone symbol represent three “worlds”: the top line, the world of God; the bottom, the world of humanity; and the middle, the world of the Manifestations, which is also rotated ninety degrees to link all three worlds together. Finally, the two five-pointed stars on either side represent the Twin Manifestations of God for this Day, the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh.

wilmette temple detail (CC-BY)Finally, there’s the Greatest Name, a calligraphic symbol designed by noted Persian calligrapher Mishkín-Qalam. It is a rendering of the phrase Yá Bahá’u’l-Abhá (O Glory of the All-Glorious), an invocation derived from the word Bahá, which is regarded as the “Greatest Name of God” that completes a major tradition of the Qur’an. Its design is meant to resemble a bird. Since it refers more directly to Bahá’u’lláh (the “Glory of God”), it is regarded as a particularly sacred symbol for Bahá’ís, and is generally only displayed in a dignified, respectful and limited manner, for example, being given a place of honour on the wall of a Bahá’í home.

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youth and “the western way of life”

Thanks to /u/Rinky-Dink on Reddit for sharing a recent, and still relatively unknown, letter from the Universal House of Justice about the challenges faced by Bahá’í youth in upholding a Bahá’í standard and way of life in the context of Western culture and sexual mores. There is a lot of meditate on in this meaty, hard-hitting letter, which touches on God’s purpose for humanity, the forces shaping human society, the role of religion in promoting human well-being, and our own capacity as individuals to rise above our faults and shortcomings to become champions of a new, spiritual civilization. The entire letter, which you can find online at bahai-library.com, deserves a thorough reading and plenty of thoughtful study. I’ve excerpted one paragraph below that especially jumped out at me on my first reading. Read it, and feel free to contribute your own insights in the comments below!

Throughout the world, in diverse cultures, Bahá’ís encounter values and practices that stand in sharp contrast to the teachings of the Faith. Some are embedded in social structures, for instance, racial prejudice and gender discrimination, economic exploitation and political corruption. Others pertain to personal conduct, especially with respect to the use of alcohol and drugs, to sexual behaviour, and to self-indulgence in general. If Bahá’ís simply surrender to the mores of society, how will conditions change? How will the people of the world distinguish today’s moribund order from the civilization to which Bahá’u’lláh is summoning humanity? “Humanity”, the Riḍván 2012 message of the House of Justice explained, “is weary for want of a pattern of life to which to aspire.” “A single soul can uphold a standard far above the low threshold by which the world measures itself,” the message noted. Young Bahá’ís especially need to take care, lest they imagine they can live according to the norms of contemporary society while adhering to Bahá’í ideals at some minimum level to assuage their conscience or to satisfy the community, for they will soon find themselves consumed in a struggle to obey even the most basic of the Faith’s moral teachings and powerless to take up the challenges of their generation. “Wings that are besmirched with mire can never soar,” Bahá’u’lláh warns. The inner joy that every individual seeks, unlike a passing emotion, is not contingent on outside influences; it is a condition, born of certitude and conscious knowledge, fostered by a pure heart, which is able to distinguish between that which has permanence and that which is superficial. “Wert thou to speed through the immensity of space and traverse the expanse of heaven,” are Bahá’u’lláh’s words, “yet thou wouldst find no rest save in submission to Our command and humbleness before Our Face.”

ayyam-i-ha and the fasting season

It’s a busy time of year for Bahá’ís, no matter where they are. The joyous festival of Ayyam-i-Há is taking place, a festival of fellowship, generosity, and hospitality. The Bahá’ís in Da Nang have been busy with a campaign of home visits to elderly members of the community. Tonight, Quynh, Kiên and I gathered together with them at a fun musical celebration, and tomorrow we’ll be doing some visits of our own in our neighbourhood, and cutting out some Ayyam-i-Há decorations with some of the local kids.

dawn of a new dayTomorrow evening comes the Feast of Loftiness, which kicks off the 19-day-long Bahá’í Fast, during which Bahá’ís from the ages of 15 to 70 years abstain from eating or drinking from sunrise ’til sunset. The Fast comes to an end with the celebration of Naw-Rúz on March 21st. Falling on the spring equinox, Naw-rúz is a celebration of revival, renewal, and springtime, in both the physical and spiritual senses. Fasting is a period of preparation for this springtime, during which we not only fast physically, but pay special attention to our spiritual life as well, in order to come into a new year with our souls refreshed and strengthened.

Interested in finding sunrise and sunset times for the Bahá’í Fast? Check out the list of Bahá’í Fasting Times for 2014, complete with links to Fasting calendars for major Canadian cities and selected cities worldwide, and a ready-made chart for Ottawa (for the folks back home).

rear this little babe

Quote

Please help us welcome baby Kiên to the physical world!
A wonderful journey awaits…
kiên

O God! Rear this little babe in the bosom of Thy love, and give it milk from the breast of Thy Providence. Cultivate this fresh plant in the rose garden of Thy love and aid it to grow through the showers of Thy bounty. Make it a child of the kingdom, and lead it to Thy heavenly realm. Thou art powerful and kind, and Thou art the Bestower, the Generous, the Lord of surpassing bounty.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá