canopy: mj cyr in ottawa

marie-jo cyrSo, just a little note about an upcoming event in Ottawa. Ridiculously talented singer-songwriter MJ Cyr is coming to the Ottawa Bahá’í Centre (211 McArthur Ave, near the Vanier Parkway) to perform her latest devotional album, Canopy, a collection of spiritual writings presented in a variety of musical genres that everyone can enjoy. Please don’t hesitate to invite friends, as attendance is free. Don’t miss this rare chance to hear one of Toronto’s hottest new artists performing in Ottawa!

MJ’s thoughts on Canopy: “All the lyrics have been extracted directly from Writings of the Baha’i Faith. My intention with this record is to find concepts, and ideas, that are universally inspirational to everyone no matter the belief or school of thought. Too often, concepts connected to spirituality or Faith seem so out-of-reach, or taboo. I hope to create something that can show a softer, more tangible side.”

To put a bit of a personal spin on this invitation, I remember hearing MJ something like 15 years ago at a series of provincial youth conferences in Kingston. I would always hang out at the coffeehouse events in the evenings just to hear her sing, nay, belt out her original songs with her piercing, passionate voice, which I always found to be well suited to devotional projects such as we now see in Canopy. While her voice may be somewhat tempered compared to her early days, it still clearly conveys her passion, especially in the album’s heartbeat-backed title track. The strength and clarity of her voice and her deft use of vocal harmony, two of her characteristic musical traits, are present even in the album’s more down-tempo tracks. Most of Canopy is light-hearted and upbeat, which may come as a surprise to those whose concept of devotional music revolves around gregorian chants or ragas. Oh My‘s sing-along vibe and Intone‘s boppy rhythm and instrumental variety would fit nicely on a roadtrip mixtape, while I could listen to Innocent in Heart‘s ambient electronic tones and Destine for them Every Good‘s driving synth-centred pop-rock rhythm all day at work. The Watchman, meanwhile, puts the traditional story of a “heart-surrendered lover” driven by seemingly hostile watchmen towards his heart’s desire to a melodious country beat. Overall, Canopy is an enjoyable, accessible album that should please not only those seeking musical enlightenment, but also those looking for a solid collection of songs that offer a little more than just a catchy tune.

toronto regional conference: first reflections

IMG_1783“Wow—just wow.” was my first reflection upon entering the conference hall on Saturday morning at the Toronto Regional Baha’i Conference. Wordless reflection, of course, since I was too busy picking my jaw up off the floor to put together a sentence. Over 4,000 people attended, according to official reports; I’d never seen that many Baha’is in one place before—and I live in Ottawa, where we’re used to getting upwards of 700 people at Naw-Rúz celebrations. With the Toronto and Guadalajara conferences, over 50,000 people have come to the conferences across the world so far. The atmosphere was joyful, exciting, electrifying, full of energy. Imagining all those people gathering together as beloved guests of the Universal House of Justice, conversing together, studying and planning their future together is one thing, but seeing it in action is another.

IMG_1620 Parts of the conference were like an immense reflection meeting; more powerful and flexible, though, as many people workshop-hopped from their own clusters to devote their attentions to neighbouring clusters in need of assistance in meeting their goals before Ridván 2009. In all, eight clusters were identified in Eastern and Central Canada as priority clusters—among them our neighbouring Outaouais cluster, which includes the city of Gatineau—that were in line to establish their first intensive programs of growth in the coming months. I was able to hop over to join the Southeast New Brunswick cluster during a break to share some good conversation with Baha’i friends from the Moncton area. It was very clearly illustrated how closely the Universal House of Justice was monitoring the progress of the Faith in our areas, and how directly our efforts during the weekend would reach them. The support and love from the Institutions of the Faith was evident at all levels.

IMG_1700One of the very inspiring parts of the workshops was seeing how the junior youth stood up and made their voices heard in consultation. Some of them who we may never have heard before raising their voice in great assemblies showed little or no trepidation in offering their ideas and making their points of view known. Their contributions made the experience dynamic and bolstered the confidence of all present. One of the participants commented, “imagine if all reflection meetings were like this conference—we would get all of our planning done in minutes!”

That’s it for now, but you can expect further posts on the regional conference here—I took pages and pages of notes on my trusty Macbook and I’m expecting to take time to synthesize them and share them here with you all. Mad love to those who are gathering in Vancouver this weekend for the second Canadian conference, and to the rest of the friends throughout the world who are engaged in this world-shaping process.

toronto conference: registration evening

my most profuse apologies for the paucity of posts this past while. fear not though, because this weekend is the fabled regional conference in Toronto. I’m sitting here in a hotel room, typing away on my trusty macbook, after getting all registered at the Doubletree Hotel just across from the Congress Centre. I’ve been looking forward to this historic event for months and hope to blog it and post updates to Twitter whenever I have free moments. I’ve already asked the Montreal Baha’i Choir if I could join in on their musical performance Saturday night (which means bang goes my lunch hour tomorrow, for practice).

I was fully expecting to be able to blog profusely during this conference, taking photos and video everywhere, but once I got here and saw the sheer ocean of people—many of whom are friends I haven’t seen in years—I realized that keeping up the task of blogging nonstop will be a very tall order. The urge to hug everyone I see is catastrophically great. All evening I literally wanted to do nothing but greet people. Everyone I see has this huge smile on their face, because they’re like me and can’t believe that they’re actually here, at this conference, as guests of the Universal House of Justice. They’re greeting their friends and grinning widely at strangers, knowing that practically everyone they pass in the hallway is there for exactly the same purpose as them. There are Baha’is here from Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario (north and south), Quebec, Nunavut, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Labrador, Bermuda, and even some American states too. All are here for the same purpose, at the behest of the Universal House of Justice: to share with each other, reflect on each others’ achievements, and plan ahead for the next step in the process of carrying forward an ever-advancing civilization.

For years now we’ve been receiving guidance from the Universal House of Justice in the form of letters each year to the Baha’is of the World, to different conferences and gatherings, explaining how the crying needs of a beleaguered humanity can be met through our efforts (however humble) to build better communities via the grassroots. we’ve always bumbled through and done the best we can. but now, right here at this conference, we get to have friends coming to meet us as representatives of the Universal House of Justice to confirm to us—in living flesh and blood, not just as black letters on white paper—that yes, this is how it’s supposed to work and here’s how to do it better. That’s why I’m here, all things considered. the greater the love and the closer connection we have with the Universal House of Justice, the more energy we have and the more inspired we become.

OK, bedtime now. expect tweets from me tomorrow, and watch this space for blog posts, photos and sundry.

baha’i fasting season and spiritual life

lunar eclipsethe Baha’i month of fasting began on Sunday; from March 2nd to March 20th inclusive, Baha’is refrain from eating or drinking from sunup to sundown. This physical Fast is symbolic of a spiritual Fast—just as fasting helps cleanse our bodies from physical impurities, the Baha’i Fast is a time to cleanse the spirit of selfishness, earthly desires and vain imaginations. I’ll give an example of what I’ve been doing—maybe not the perfect schedule; I’m open to suggestions! I’ve set my alarm for 5:00 AM to give me enough time to wake up and prepare myself for sunrise, which is happening at around 6:30 AM right now (you can follow the 2008 sunrise times in the calendar on the upper right hand corner of this blog’s home page). I’ll plod downstairs somewhat groggily and get some food into me: usually a combination of granola or oatmeal with soy milk, fruits and fruit juice, vitamins, and some form of protein such as eggs or a breakfast burrito. Oh, and lots of water – usually the equivalent of 4 to 6 cups of it before sunrise. The remaining time before sunrise is dedicated to reading from the Sacred Writings of the Baha’i Faith, particularly those of the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh. I’ve also been reading from the book The Path Toward Spirituality: Sacred Duties and Practices of the Bahá’í Life, published by Palabra Publications (publishers of the Ruhi Institute course materials). It’s a simple, straightforward book that offers a clear outline of all the facets of Bahá’í life; its contents roughly mirror the requisites to spiritual growth outlined by the Universal House of Justice.

I have to confess something (ok, well not really “confess”—just mentioning it for the sake of context): I tend to get distracted easily. Big time. In my everyday tasks, at work, during prayer, while reading, while writing, while enjoying myself—all the time. So, as long-time readers of this blog will attest to, consistency in my own daily spiritual practice is often a challenge for me. When I blogged about my Baha’i pilgrimage to Haifa and ‘Akká, I drew a lot of inspiration from the long obligatory prayer—partly because of the impact of visiting the qiblih, but also as a way of reminding myself of how vital, how refreshing and how fundamentally life-giving the long obligatory prayer is. The truth is, I struggle with the obligatory prayers sometimes, and with all the basic building blocks of spirituality, like daily readings and study, meditation, teaching the Cause, service to humanity, and so on. I think the root of the struggle, for me at least, is attachment to material comfort. Sometimes I feel it’s just easier, or more comfortable, for me to give in to the distraction and go to bed without thinking of anything—turn off my brain, as it were—instead of taking the time every evening to remember God and bring myself into a peaceful, centered state, renewing my connection with a Power greater than myself. Of course, without hitting that “centered” state, I just start the next day feeling unbalanced, off base. And so it continues until I finally snap out of it and say to myself, “Enough is enough, I’m going to say the long obligatory prayer even if it keeps me up past midnight!”

Instead of making the generalization “I’m not following Bahá’í teachings, I must be a bad Bahá’í”, and becoming discouraged or (God forbid!) estranged from the Bahá’í community, we can remember that we are commanded to strive to observe Bahá’í teachings. We’re always striving—that is, until we give up. Apart from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, who was known as the Perfect Exemplar of Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings, and who reminded us to take our struggles “kam kam, ruz bih ruz” (little by little, day by day), nobody can claim to be perfect. As long as we keep trying day by day to bring our behaviour more in accordance with the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh—whether it means writing a note for ourselves so that we don’t forget that day’s obligatory prayer, or leaving a book of daily readings on our pillow so we’ll remember to read them before going to bed—we are not “bad Bahá’ís”, just normal human beings trying to transform ourselves from beings of earth and water into beings of spirit and light.

welcome to 2008

santa's in the hoodthe Gregorian calendar year came and went without much of a fuss this year—much like last year, when I was holed up in Winnipeg watching movies, I spent the fateful moment with friends (Tassnim, Basim and Rhetta) watching DVDs and eating pie and ice cream.

After a short visit with brother Gabriel and his family to bring them soup and good cheer, my parents dropped me off at Catherine’s place to feed her cat while she’s away in Vancouver. No sooner had I broken out the kibble than the windows began to rattle, resounding with the clatter of an early-evening fireworks show. I dashed downstairs, across a church courtyard and into the streets of downtown, following the noise and the lights into the back lot of the Supreme Court building, which offers a most beautiful view of the Ottawa River and was the perfect place to see the entire display of fire and light. It was a very impressive display, put together to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Ottawa’s designation as the capital city of Canada back in 1857. Several people remarked—to my agreement—that the fireworks display was more impressive than most Canada Day fireworks, what with the entire span of the Alexandra Bridge outfitted with fireworks shooting left, right and centre, reminiscent of the millennial fireworks in Sydney, Australia I remember seeing on television back on New Year’s Eve 1999.

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