growing up baha’i

bahji samovarI have lots of memories of growing up Baha’i—there’s a lot of stuff I didn’t understand back then that seems a lot clearer now (naturally, I suppose). For example, my mother was on the Spiritual Assembly in the town where we lived, so I remember going with Mom to meetings now and then, hanging around in a separate room playing with toys while the adults discussed boring and serious things in the living room. Who knows? They were probably talking about the same kinds of things I did while pioneering and serving on Spiritual Assemblies in the province of Quebec, some 15 years later—correspondence, administrative procedure, the healthy growth and progress of the Baha’i community, planning for upcoming Holy Days and the 19-day Feast.

I always loved attending the 19-day Feast (well, most of the time, I suppose—everyone has their off days too). Back then, our local Baha’i community was fairly small, so Feast was always held in people’s houses, allowing different families to offer hospitality each time. And it was always so beautiful! Pleasant, restful music playing as the friends entered, prayer books in small piles on a coffee table, candles lit and softly flickering throughout. Everything was so big back then, so grand and amazing. High-topped dressers filled with books like God Passes By and Lights of Guidance, with curios and mementoes, and here and there you’d see an engraving with the ringstone symbol on it, or, up on the highest shelf, you’d see a beautifully framed reproduction of the Greatest Name of God. You’d see art from many cultures along the walls, and you’d smell perfume in the air—perhaps rose or jasmine. And then, when it was time to eat, you’d get up and walk (don’t run!) to the table at the back where the hosts would lay out platters of persian rice with tahdig (or “tahdeeg” or whatever), kookoo sabzi, adas polo, baghali polo, chicken drumsticks, and so on. I can smell it all now just writing about it. (On a side note, I’m somewhat glad the Fast is over.) Listening to prayers, either chanted in lilting tones or spoken softly, has left me with fond memories and a great love of Persian chanting. Sometimes I would recite prayers too, along with the other children. Sometimes, I fell asleep (hey, it got late, and the chanting sometimes sounds like a bedtime song).

We’ve learned a lot about the place of children in the community since I was young. “Our children need to be nurtured spiritually and to be integrated into the life of the Cause,” the Universal House of Justice wrote in its message to the Bahá’í world on Ridván, 157 B.E. (April 2000). “Even though children’s activities have been a part of past Plans, these have fallen short of the need. Spiritual education of children and junior youth are of paramount importance to the further progress of the community.” Reading these lines today, I chuckle as memories resurface of how chaotic the children’s programmes at our small community’s Feast could be sometimes. For us, the children, it was all about whose house had the best toys—my favourite had to be Jordan and Josh’s house, where they had a totally oldschool Vectrex gaming console (not to mention a drum kit—but we never got to play with that). Then there was Pedrom and Parham’s place, with all the gym equipment—including a treadmill and (gasp!) a trampoline. I don’t remember us having “programmes” per se, as in organized activities. When I first heard that certain Baha’i communities engaged their children in the 19-day Feast by offering them a “mini-Feast” which would include their own programme, and even a mini-consultative portion for the children to participate in, I was floored. I thought kids just said some prayers and played around at Feast! It just goes to show that kids can handle a lot more than we sometimes think they can, as long as it’s well delivered.

entrancewayTherein lies the challenge. It’s not that easy to provide high-quality children’s education on a volunteer basis every 19 days (much less every seven days), especially if you have no experience and no clue how to proceed! For me, Book 3 of the Ruhi curriculum marked the first time I ever even considered the education of children as a path of service for myself. Something about ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s assurance that the education of children is “the pre-eminent goal of the chosen”—and that it’s equal to “servitude to the Sacred Threshold and waiting upon the Blessed Beauty”—struck a chord with me, I guess. I took my first few steps with much trepidation—especially since I was recovering from a serious bout of depression—and slowly, surely and with lots of outside support, I gained confidence and got the hang of it. I figure Baha’i communities across the world are all in the same kind of learning mode. Imagine the struggle of all these brave souls—striving to raise up a system of moral and spiritual education that treats each and every human being as Bahá’u’lláh recommends, as “a mine rich in gems of inestimable value”, while the world around them struggles to fill their heads with facts and to keep them busy enough that they won’t have the time to get into trouble. it’s hard work. it takes self-discipline, dedication, vision, and the will not to quit. In this day, when a beleaguered humanity faces brand new trials and calamities at every moment, that will to strive and to exert continual effort is essential. If each of us decides and makes the effort to arise, to serve to the utmost of our capacity, and to tirelessly provide for their education, our children may just surpass us in understanding and in awareness. They will start off in life with more tools—basic spiritual and moral tools like rigorous honesty, courage, spotless chastity, and a world-embracing vision, that might help spare them the worst of humanity’s trials. If it’s done right, theirs may just be that generation that witnesses the establishment of universal peace, of world unity—of the raising up of the kingdom of God on Earth as it is in Heaven.

What sort of world will we hand down to our children? Will we bequeath to them a neglected world spinning out of control, full of tortured, wounded souls whose goals in life are to escape their own shadows and demons through addiction, violence, and isolation? Each one who answers “no” will have to take the time to bring him or herself to account, pray and meditate on how he or she can arise with vigour and determination to take control of his or her own destiny and to make that difference in the world—country, city, neighbourhood, family—that surrounds.

I keep having to bring myself back into account, to keep me from succumbing to inertia and channeling that inner couch potato that quietly loafs within me, ready to do nothing at a moment’s notice. So far, not all hope is lost. Our friendly neighbourhood children’s class is still going, not without its struggles (and with a break for Ridván—phew!), and I have plans to help out as a tutor for a study circle or two in the next couple of months. I’ve come a long way since the days of Vectrex and trampolines. I’ve made my own decision to be a Baha’i, I’ve learned to love Bahá’u’lláh and I’ve cultivated a desire to serve His Cause. I’ve left my home to serve the Cause, and had the bounty of serving on two Spiritual Assemblies. I’ve had a couple years’ worth of experience with these core activities of community life, and I’ve certainly made enough mistakes to learn from. I’m in a pretty good spot. Sure, I may not have gotten all the tools I needed when I was a kid. Sure, teaching children’s classes, nurturing and mentoring others don’t come all that naturally to me. Many of us are in the same boat. We’re here now. Perhaps the best thing we can do is to quit yapping, throw our fear of failure overboard and start rowing that boat somewhere.

9 thoughts on “growing up baha’i

  1. Nice post. You were so fortunate to have been raised a Baha’i. I had to go and find it when I was 21 years old! I’m looking forward to (hopefully in the next year) becoming a Baha’i parent and sharing that adventure with my darling spouse who is a strong Baha’i woman raised in a Baha’i family. That inertia things is really something! It’s so easy to sleepwalk through being a Baha’i, going through the motions of this and that meeting and going blah, blah, blah about changing the world. Staying awake is the hard part.

    You rock, man. You rock.

  2. aah so similar to my memories…although we were homefront pioneers in my early childhood, so Feast was often rather small. I am really glad that my parents encouraged me to sit through the Feast and not always run off to play (although sometimes I wanted to!). It taught me a lot about Baha’i Administration (and how to sit through meetings). 🙂

  3. Thanks for the comments everybody.
    Sholeh – we were homefront pioneers as well; my earliest memories were from a tiny hamlet off Lake Huron with only a couple of Baha’is. When I was about six, we moved closer to the big city, and joined a bigger Baha’i community with a bigger Feast. And now that you mention it, I think learning to sit through the meetings does teach you things… while I was writing this post, I came across the following quotation from a letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to the Canadian National Spiritual Assembly in 1982:

    …[C]hildren should be trained to understand the spiritual significance of the gatherings of the followers of the Blessed Beauty, and to appreciate the honour and bounty of being able to take part in them, whatever their outward form may be. It is realized that some Bahá’í observances are lengthy and it is difficult for very small children to remain quiet for so long. In such cases one or other of the parents may have to miss part of the meeting in order to care for the child. The Spiritual Assembly can also perhaps help the parents by providing for a children’s observance, suited to their capacities, in a separate room during part of the community’s observance. Attendance at the whole of the adult celebration thus becomes a sign of growing maturity and a distinction to be earned by good behaviour.

    Sounds like your parents were clued into this—and kudos to them 🙂

  4. I’m sure I am much older than you, but your memories of “growing up Baha’i” echo my own! What a joy to read this post. I feel that my childhood was magical–I had such a safe haven being among the Friends and feeling so loved. I lost my way a bit as a young adult, but realized that I had such a foundation from which I could never truly turn away. Now, as I approach my 50’s, I understand even more what a treasured upbringing I had. Thanks so much for writing so beautifully!

  5. What a great post, thank you. I am not Bahai myself, but my father is, and I can relate.

    I ended up with many personal beliefs that are aligned with Bahai, but I gotta say sitting through meetings was pretty rough 😉

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