laws and reality

The Laws of God are not imposition of will, or of power, or pleasure, but the resolutions of truth, reason and justice.

Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 154

I was so glad when I first ‘got’ the Baha’i concept of laws. I’ve always said that I’m a Baha’i because the Baha’i Faith just makes so much intuitive sense, and for me this was further confirmation. Basically, people get all down about laws sometimes because they think THE MAN is laying it down on them, tying them up with his RULES AND REGULATIONS and not allowing them their FREEDOM!!!! Except that laws (or at least the Laws of God) are actually nothing like that. They’re more like statements of the principles underlying all reality. Like, for example, the law of prayer. Baha’is must pray every day; it’s one of Baha’u’llah’s Laws. But that doesn’t mean there is (or indeed should be) a PRAYER POLICE that busts down your door and messes you up good if you don’t say your prayers every day. Prayer is a conversation between oneself and God. Baha’u’llah teaches us that we need to converse with God every day in order to further our own spiritual growth—to allow our souls to grow and be healthy. So, just as going a long time without food will make our bodies weak, going a long time without praying will make our souls weak. That’s a reality of our existence, and it’s enshrined in a Law for our own good. Human beings have free choice, so we can choose to observe or disregard that Law. That doesn’t change the facts, of course; the law will still apply. And so we continue to pray every day—it allows us to remain in harmony with the natural rhythms of the universe, otherwise known as following God’s Will.

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.