personal effort

Personal effort is indeed a vital prerequisite to the recognition and acceptance of the Cause of God. No matter how strong the measure of Divine grace, unless supplemented by personal, sustained and intelligent effort it cannot become fully effective and be of any real and abiding advantage.

From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer, Feb. 27, 1938

This struck me when I read it tonight, because of what it’s saying—personal effort will make at least two things happen: 1. Recognition and acceptance of the Cause of God, and 2. Divine grace will become fully effective. Interesting, because my own understanding of those concepts—those of recognition and acceptance of the Baha’i Faith, and that of Divine grace—never really included a lot of thought about the effort needed to make them happen. I guess #1 could be somewhat understandable for someone who was brought up in a Baha’i family; to me, the Baha’i Faith made sense as a matter of familiarity before it ever became a conscious spiritual decision. As in, “of course I accept the Baha’i Faith, I’m so familiar with it.” (There’s more to acceptance than that, of course, but I won’t get into that right now.) My reaction to #2 probably shows that I don’t understand the concept of grace—and, perhaps, the concept of God Himself and of His relation to the individual—well enough. It’s as if I always figured God’s grace would pop up and fix things as long as I prayed enough, without me having to make a whole lot of effort. You know, like nine doves would suddenly settle onto my balcony, each bearing an olive branch. Heh. We sometimes end up believing strange things if we don’t bring ourselves to account properly each day…

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.

quiet day with god’s creation

thanks 030after a morning devotional and brunch in Blackburn with some of our newfound friends (newfound after this summer’s outreach projects, that is), I called up my Dad to get a ride home to Cumberland village this afternoon, where Mom’s been cooking jars of preserves, pies and even a turkey! it’s nice to go home. I haven’t been in a while because it’s not so convenient to get all the way out to the country all the time, but today just happened to work out quite well. things are quiet here; the air is a little colder—we thought we saw a few snowflakes falling—and it seems a little cleaner. the leaves are covering the lawn right now in a thick, bright carpet of many colours. I spent part of the afternoon cutting up pumpkins for freezing, eventually to go into pies later on in the winter.

I’ve noticed that my life has been lacking artistry lately—beauty surrounds me on all sides and I feel like the natural impulse is to sing in praise of God’s creation, but my voice has been weak—my pen longs to write, but the inkwell seems to have gone dry. I’ve been pushing my own limits in many ways of late, and that uses up a lot of free energy. I guess I’ve been feeling stressed out. Man needs to praise God, not only for his own sanity, but for the simple fact that God must be praised—part of our eternal covenant with God is that we, His creation, must strive to know Him and worship Him; and what higher form of worship is the expression of His name, the Creator? I want to sing, to paint, to write, to draw, to create. create art, create relationships, create beauty in this all-too-ugly world. read this and comment back with your feelings.

change in culture

change in cultureIn May 2006, the Universal House of Justice wrote to the Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Canada regarding the goals and plans of the Canadian Baha’i community. The latter had set some ambitious goals for the growth and development of the community, promising to firmly establish intensive programs of growth in no less than 46 areas of the country (Ottawa, of course, being one of them). The Universal House of Justice pointed out in its letter that “[s]uch a bold objective cannot be achieved merely by adopting the outer form of the activities of the Five Year Plan [i.e. the ‘core activities’]”, and that “a true change in culture is required”.

So what’s this whole “intensive growth” thing? Is it freaky or evil? Not really. The Baha’i community, just like any religious community, can either stagnate or grow. A healthy community grows; an unhealthy one stagnates (or worse, God forbid—disunity sets in and it dies out). Bahá’ís naturally want their community to grow, to become more united, and to attract receptive souls who are willing to throw their lot in to build a divine civilization. “Intensive growth” is simply what’s needed at this time because of the lamentable, perilous and frightening state of the world. If the world were in better shape, we might be able to just go along at our regular (slow) pace, getting more and more united as the years went by, gradually learning how better to serve humanity and follow the teachings sent by Baha’u’llah; but because the world around us is losing it so quickly, we have to learn quicker—put some Miracle-Gro on our garden—so that if and when things start spinning out of control—which seems to be real soon now—the Bahá’ís will be able to offer your average Jack and Jill somewhere to turn to for a respite from all the confusion.

That “change in culture” has been happening gradually within the Baha’i community over the past year. Taking on a new way of acting and living our lives is challenging, and like any change, it begins with friction and discomfort. Let me give an example…
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post-pilgrimage five

divine revelationPraise be unto Thee, O our God, that Thou hast sent down unto us that which draweth us nigh unto Thee, and supplieth us with every good thing sent down by Thee in Thy Books and Thy Scriptures. (Bahá’u’lláh)

It’s been over two months since we returned from pilgrimage. Life, as life does, has once again returned to a regular, somewhat insistent rhythm. I can’t rightly say that it’s “returned to normal” or that it’s achieved any sort of equilibrium; after all, has not the whole world’s equilibrium “been upset through the vibrating influence of this most great, this new World Order”?[1]

Still, out of sight, out of mind, as the saying goes. I’ve been finding it harder and harder to nurture that conscious connection with God that seemed to come so naturally when I found myself kneeling in the Shrines. Some days are pretty good; I feel focused, conscious, resolute, and my prayers feel like loving conversations with God. Other days, I feel hazy, distracted, and weak, and my prayers feel just like words. stairway On those days, I just find it difficult to pray because I feel so distracted by random worries—like the hosts of idle fancies and vain imaginings are launching an assault on my head.

I gather similar things happen to everyone; that’s why we always have to work at it. There’s no magic bullet to become more spiritual or to improve the quality and depth of your prayer, it seems. Instead, in His unerring wisdom as the Divine Physician for this age, Bahá’u’lláh has prescribed a number of spiritual habits for us to adopt to help our spirits grow and flourish. For those of us who worry so much that we find ourselves unable to pray, it would seem that the solution is to bite the bullet and pray anyway. In writing to a physician about health, Bahá’u’lláh said: “Verily, the most necessary thing is contentment under all circumstances; by this one is preserved from morbid conditions and lassitude. Yield not to grief and sorrow: they cause the greatest misery.”[2] Letting go of one’s anxiety and being content with the will of God, as suggested in the famous prayer, will “refresh and gladden” one’s spirit.

O God! Refresh and gladden my spirit. Purify my heart. Illumine my powers. I lay all my affairs in Thy hand. Thou art my Guide and my Refuge. I will no longer be sorrowful and grieved; I will be a happy and joyful being. O God! I will no longer be full of anxiety, nor will I let trouble harass me. I will not dwell on the unpleasant things of life. O God! Thou art more friend to me than I am to myself. I dedicate myself to Thee, O Lord. (‘Abdu’l-Bahá)

[1]: Bahá’u’lláh, Proclamation of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 118.
[2]: Bahá’u’lláh, quoted in Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era, p. 108.

thoughts about pilgrimage

nine pointed starMy family’s pilgrimage to the Baha’i World Centre is over, but the journey of others has only just begun. Several friends and acquaintances—Sham, Sahba and Melody are among those leaving for pilgrimage this season; the Moradipours (you may know Tassnim, Basim or Salim) just returned from their pilgrimage last week, and their photos are already up on flickr—good time, considering mine weren’t up for an entire month.

Maruška from Slovenije, er, I mean Slovenia—took time away from writing her thesis to write up her pilgrimage experiences for everyone to read. Go check them out, it’s definitely worth the read. Maruška is one of the Baha’is who stayed with us at the well-recommended hostel, the Port Inn, in Haifa. She taught me that cmrlj means “bumblebee” in Slovenian. We have fond memories of the good times shared with our fellow “Port Inners”. We miss Rachel too 🙁

A few more friends we met on pilgrimage have made their presence known on the Internet. Seth from Georgia, Nina from NZ and Farideh from Saskatoon were all part of our 250-strong set of pilgrims. See Farideh’s photos, Nina’s photos and Seth’s photos on flickr. Juliette was part of our group—the French group—and has posted her photos to flickr as well.

A few folks have asked me questions about pilgrimage tips—what to do, what not to do, where to go, etc. Here are a few tips that might be helpful to those visiting the Baha’i World Centre in Haifa and ‘Akká:

  • Spend as much time in the shrines as possible, and attend the evening talks. You’ll probably find that they help you understand the nature of pilgrimage and your role as a pilgrim.
  • Make effort to say the long obligatory prayer as much as you can. Make a special effort to say it within the Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh at Bahji if you can.
  • Use your time in the shrines to say the Tablets of Visitation. That’s what they were revealed for and you will find that they will really come alive when you say them in the Shrines.
  • Crying is not mandatory, so don’t feel bad if you don’t.
  • When visiting, try and stick with a group of six to ten people; that way, it’ll be easier for you to fill up a sherut (communal taxi). Travel by sherut as much as you can, whether within the city or outside; it’s the cheapest way to get around and is reasonably comfortable. Taxi drivers (driving normal-sized taxis) will stop whenever they see you to ask if you need a taxi; tell them that you’re waiting for a sherut. Taxis are ridiculously expensive, sheruts are not. Sheruts usually look like minibuses, and can hold ten people.
  • Spend a day in the Old City of ‘Akká if you have the time. We did it and enjoyed it a lot. You should be able to get a map of a walking tour of ‘Akká that you can follow on your own; if you know someone who lives in Haifa who can show you around, that’s even better.
  • Use the time spent visiting the Holy Places to call to mind the sufferings of Bahá’u’lláh and the Holy Family.
  • Read the pamphlets you received from the Department of Pilgrimage; read them carefully and all the way through. They include a lot of really useful information that you will really be glad you knew.

That’s it for now. I’ve been pretty busy lately, but you should be able to look forward to a continuation of the “post-pilgrimage” series in the next few weeks, sharing more of my impressions of pilgrimage as they relate to my understanding of the Baha’i Writings.