a light to the world

Talking to the four-year-old about blogging.

Papa: I’m going to be doing some writing soon.
Dude: Writing?
Papa: Yeah, writing. What do you think I should write about?
Dude: Write about Bahá’u’lláh’s birthday.
Papa: That’s a good idea. What should I write about Bahá’u’lláh’s birthday?
Dude: Write about how Bahá’u’lláh was always worried about the poor, and how He took care of them.
Papa: OK.
Dude: And how He loved roses.
Papa: That’s good too. Any other special things I should write about?
Dude: Write how He wrote a lot of things, all of His teachings.
Papa: That’s a great idea. What kinds of teachings?
Dude: He taught us that we have to be kind and love each other.

On the weekend of October 21st–22nd, Bahá’ís around the world celebrated the Festival of the Twin Holy Birthdays, which commemorate the “twin birthdays” of the Twin Manifestations of the Bahá’í Faith: The Báb and Bahá’u’lláh. That would be awesome on its own, but this year also happens to be the 200th anniversary of the birth of Bahá’u’lláh. During this bicentenary year, officials and public figures around the world have paid tribute to Bahá’u’lláh and to His teachings, which have inspired a growing worldwide community, characterized by its unity and inclusivity, to arise and dedicate themselves to lives of service to their fellow human beings, becoming like a light to the world.

Bahá’u’lláh was born to a noble Persian family. His father was a minister in the court of the Sháh, and it was expected that He would follow in His father’s footsteps. Instead, however, He dedicated himself to caring for those who were less fortunate than He was, becoming known as the “Father of the Poor” for His great generosity. Even while very young, He showed signs of greatness that led others to believe that He was destined for something much greater than a life of ease in the court of the Sháh.

In time, Bahá’u’lláh became a follower of the Báb, who had proclaimed that the time had come for a renewal of religion, and that a great figure would soon be made manifest to bring humanity into a new era of justice and peace. Bahá’u’lláh quickly became a respected and influential member of the Báb’s religion. But because many of the clergy of Persia felt threatened by the Báb’s message, Bahá’u’lláh also became a target for those who wished ill will to the new religion. In 1853, Bahá’u’lláh and many others were imprisoned in a notorious, stench-filled dungeon in Tehran known as the “Black Pit”, or Siyáh-Chál. Although this was one of the darkest moments of Bahá’u’lláh’s life, it was also the moment at which a new light dawned upon Him; it was in this dungeon that He received a Divine revelation that He was that great figure whose advent was foretold by the Báb.

Released from the dungeon after four months, Bahá’u’lláh was banished from Persia to Baghdád, in the Ottoman Empire. He spent many years in the area, including two years living in solitude in the mountains of Kurdistan. With every year, His fame continued to grow. Fearing His growing influence, the Persian authorities petitioned the Ottoman authorities to remove Bahá’u’lláh to a place farther from Persian borders. The people of Baghdád wept when they learned He was to leave the city, but their sorrow would turn into joy when, in a rose-filled garden known as the Garden of Ridván (Paradise), Bahá’u’lláh declared Himself to be the One whom the Báb had foretold. During the twelve days He spent in that garden—days which are now celebrated as the Festival of Ridván—He welcomed countless citizens: rich and poor, men and women, Jews, Christians and Muslims, beggars and dignitaries, offering them each a rose picked from the garden as a token of His loving-kindness.

Throughout His life, Bahá’u’lláh revealed many teachings and laws meant to help His followers work together to carry forward an ever-advancing, global civilization: “It is not for him to pride himself who loveth his own country, but rather for him who loveth the whole world. The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.” “Consort with the followers of all religions in a spirit of friendliness and fellowship.” “Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch. Deal ye one with another with the utmost love and harmony, with friendliness and fellowship.” “So powerful is the light of unity that it can illuminate the whole earth.” With these words, and many more, He laid the foundation for a world that will eventually rise above petty differences and firmly establish a great peace based on principles of justice, equality, unity, and love.

“i am not of the lost”

Still reeling from the shock of hearing of the tragedy in the small town of Newtown, Connecticut, on December 14, 2012, Bahá’í artist Munirih Sparrow was inspired to share a video of herself performing “I am not of the lost”, an original song based on words written by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to a mother whose son had passed onwards into the spiritual worlds.

The song was originally written for her new album Nightsong, which was released in November 2012. I had the chance to catch up with her recently during a break from touring the USA and asked her about the song and its significance.

Originally I went searching for a prayer for mothers, in my search I came upon this prayer. It was beautiful and comforting and had a feeling of “otherworldliness”.

A few years ago a close family member of mine lost her baby girl Ocean and around the time of writing that song it would have been Ocean’s 12th birthday. As I tried to put the writing to music, I literally asked Ocean to help me. Now, I know that sounds pretty “fuu-fuu” but spirits in the next world are always inspiring us and few artists create by themselves. My family continues to grieve Ocean’s death and I just had this feeling that she was there with a message of love and comfort for her parents.

On Friday, she dedicated the song as a prayer for the mothers and fathers of Newtown who lost their children, describing the importance of prayers and music in bringing about healing and peace in the face of grief and loss.

In the wake of such sad events as we saw in Newtown I feel confirmed in my belief in the power of prayer and music. Not only is that prayer important to the families who are personally devastated by these events but also for people like you and me who do not know these families but are still so saddened and upset.

It is prayers like these that assist us all in grieving and processing our anger and sadness about this event and others going on around the world. Through prayer we make peace in our hearts and our communities.

Munirih’s words largely reflect my experience helping Quynh’s family to grieve after her father’s sudden passing in August 2010. As many have said before, there are no words for the pain felt when a loved one passes away; particularly the pain of losing a child, which ‘Abdu’l-Bahá calls “heart-breaking and beyond the limits of human endurance”. Two things helped us recover from our grief: the power of prayer—of spiritual conversation with God and intercession on behalf of those who have passed onwards—and the power of community. I suppose these are common to all humanity; we all tend to lean on each other, and on a Higher Power, when we feel overwhelmed by suffering.

Learn a little more about Munirih Sparrow, and listen to her music on her Bandcamp site.

See also: the prayer vigil offered in Newtown; a few of my reflections on the tragedy.

a prayer for newtown

prayer vigil was held recently in the town of Newtown, Connecticut, the scene of a tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14th. Faith leaders gathered from the Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Bahá’í religions. President Obama addressed those gathered, and the entire world through a live broadcast, offering not only words of comfort and sympathy, but also words that cried out longingly for transformation: “We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change.”

John Woodall, member of the Newtown Bahá’í community* who was present at the vigil, shared the following on Facebook over the weekend, perhaps echoing President Obama’s call for transformational change:

We are all quite overwhelmed and exhausted today and wonder how we can move forward. This is the time for grief as the grief is a proof of our love. So, we grieve openly in honor of the love of those lost. We have come in contact with our powerlessness over events. We had no control over this event. But, we have decisive control over our response which can be as life-affirming and noble as our heart can dare to reach. We all have this choice in life with the trials we face.

Mr. Woodall and his wife, Margo, offered a profoundly moving reading from the Bahá’í Writings at the vigil, sharing a letter written by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to a mother who had lost her son.

The Woodalls have been asked, through their organization The Unity Project, to be a part of the response to the shootings by helping train youth mentors to help counsel younger kids, strengthen family and community bonds, and to help the town heal through large numbers of student inspired service projects. If you’re interested in helping the people of Newtown recover, you can check out The Unity Project on indiegogo—and check them out on Facebook if you’d like to know more.

See also: a few of my reflections on the Newtown tragedy.

* Although various reports have referred to Mr. Woodall as a “minister” or a “leader” of the Bahá’ís, the Bahá’í community has no clergy and its members do not act as priests.

three headed hill

Can you hear the echoing ring
A century of bells sing to their steeples
We will, on this three-headed hill,
Soon see the gnat become the eagle.

Crowning the city of Montreal is a hill, Mount Royal, with three peaks: Westmount, Colline d’Outremont (or Mount Murray), and Colline de la Croix (also called Mount Royal proper). ‘Abdu’l-Bahá himself gazed out onto to Montreal from atop the highest of these a hundred years ago, having taken the now-defunct Mount Royal Funicular from Fletcher’s Field (Parc Jeanne-Mance) to the East-End Lookout.

Commemorating the centenary of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s visit, The Brothers Farr composed an original song, “Three-Headed Hill”. They performed it with Jacques Proulx on violin in St. James Church, where ‘Abdu’l-Bahá gave one of His talks, on September 5, 2012—one hundred years to the day He gave it. Watch above, or check it out on Youtube. If you like what you hear, give their band a like on Facebook.

For here, one hundred years ago,
A mystery none can fathom
Came and uttered the Name
That can create life from a mound of atoms.

travelling between life and death

This post is the first in a series on Vietnamese customs relating to death, from a personal and a Baha’i perspective.

Arriving in Da Nang on September 6th, i was just about two weeks too late to say goodbye to my father-in-law. I had only a vague idea of what had happened, pieced together from brief phone calls as the nightmare unfolded. Upon arriving, the family had me offer incense at his shrine—a traditional gesture that would become very familiar to me in the following six weeks. This gesture is performed at every funeral in Vietnam—and during the six weeks I was there following Ba’s passing, no fewer than three close friends and family members also passed away. You bet I got a lot of practice. (More about offering incense later—lots more, I promise.)

Vietnamese funeral customs are based on a mix of Buddhism and indigenous spirit beliefs that date back several millennia. An extensive set of rites and customs govern every aspect of death, before and after it takes place, even extending years into the future. The process of grieving itself involves not only whole families, but whole communities, with entire neighbourhoods gathering to help mourn a loss.
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