Friday, February 26, 2010

Movies

I recently asked you, dear Reader, for your thoughts on ideas for topics I could try and address. Many wonderful suggestions came in, but one, in particular, was one that I could immediately write: Movies.

The idea was presented in the context of writing a review of a movie in light of the Baha'i teachings, but I'm not sure I want to do it quite like that. Instead I will talk a bit about my own approach to movies, in light of the Baha'i teachings.

My guidance comes mainly from two quotes, one by Baha'u'llah and another from Shoghi Effendi. The first, found in the Epistle to the Son of the Wolf ,refers to arts and sciences, saying that they should be "productive of good results, and bring forth their fruit...conducive to the well-being and tranquility of men". This quote alone radically changed the way that I approached my own work as an artist.

The second quote is found in The Advent of Divine Justice. In that text, Shoghi Effendi speaks of the three spiritual weapons we have at our disposal in our fight "to regenerate the inward life of their own community, and... to assail the long-standing evils that have entrenched themselves in the life of their nation." The three weapons, as I'm sure you know, are "a high sense of moral rectitude in their social and administrative activities, absolute chastity in their individual lives, and complete freedom from prejudice in their dealings with peoples of a different race, class, creed, or color."


The second of these three is further defined by the Guardian in the following quote: "Such a chaste and holy life, with its implications of modesty, purity, temperance, decency, and clean-mindedness, involves no less than the exercise of moderation in all that pertains to dress, language, amusements, and all artistic and literary avocations."

It was this second quote that got me to re-examine those arts to which I subjected myself, as he particularly mentions "all artistic and literary avocations". Now, don't get me wrong. I do not believe that he is telling us to avoid movies, or anything like that, but just to be more selective, recognizing the influence that they can have upon us. I love a good fantasy novel, or a fine science fiction movie. In fact, I even enjoy a fun shoot-em-up action adventure movie, too. (Shocking, I know, but true.)

The key word in that second quote is, to me, "moderation".

The question now is, "How does this effect my movie-going?" Easy. It makes me examine each movie after I see it, explore the motives and morals within it, and see how it effects me as a person. Now, I believe that I get far more out of every movie I watch, and every book I read, than I did before.

This also gets passed on to those I work with.

For years now, whenever I take a group of youth to a movie, I willingly take them to see whatever movie they want, on condition that we can talk about it afterwards. A two-hour movie? I want at least thirty minutes of conversation. And during that time we explore the story and motives of the characters, framing the whole thing in the context of virtuous development, and the Baha'i teachings.

Conclusions? Well, I have to admit that I used to love horror movies, but now have absolutely no desire to see them any more. I have not found anything worth the time invested in seeing them. Although I don't criticize anyone for watching them, they are just not for me. My time can be better spent elsewhere.

I have also come to love some of the action movies even more. Why? Because it gives a lot more room for discussion of motives, and allows a great deal of exploration in how we would react to similar circumstances. Now I don't expect to ever find myself hiding in a building that is being taken over by terrorists intent on robbing a bank, or having to jump on a moving train to try and save someone from being blown to bits by a bomb, but I have found myself reacting instantly to seeing people getting beaten to death by gang members on the street. This little exercise of asking myself what I would do in such a situation allowed me the ability to draw the attackers away long enough for the victim to survive (without getting killed myself).

Some of the most enjoyable movies I have seen are ones that I was "dragged" to by a group of teens who thought I would never want to see them. They figured that those movies just weren't my type, whatever my type may be. But I enjoyed them, and we had a very fruitful discussion afterwards.

The teens also told me later that these discussions have changed the way they watch movies, television, and on and on. They are far more selective, and always ecplore it afterwards, no longer content to view them as mere entertainment.

Going back to the first quote, in which Baha'u'llah tells us the purpose of the arts, I began asking myself if a particular work was conducive to my well-being and tranquility. I didn't expect to only enjoy works that put me in a drug stupor, but looked at that in a broader context. Did they lead me to tranquility? Did they improve my well-being? If not, why was I subjecting myself to it?

By looking at the overall purpose of the arts, I found myself in a better position to decide whether or not I wanted to take the time to view a particular work. Now that said nothing of the merit of the work itself, just whether or not I wanted to take the time to find out.

The second quote, about absolute chastity being related to artistic endeavours, made me further examine what I watched, read or listened to.

These two quotes also helped me better refine how I wanted to spend my time on my own artwork, but that's probably better suited for another article.

Instead, I'd like to just take a moment to look at an example, Lord of the Rings. While I could go into the artistic merits of the film, or how they used so many different artisans to create the world, I, instead, want to look at one part of the story. Or actually, one part not of the story: the bad guy.

This is a story that does not focus on the bad guy. It focuses almost completely on the good guys, and their epic struggle. You never really see the bad guy; he's always just this big eye in the distance.

Too often in artistic works, the artist focuses almost exclusively on the bad guys, or at least spends a considerable time on them. They get into the minds of these people, and really, do you want to get in there?

But Tolkien focuses on the good guys. He gets into their headspace, and brings us with him. You feel their fears, their concerns, and their courage. And that is a space I want to get into. Don't you?

So next time you read a book, or watch a movie, look at these two quotes again and see how they apply. It's a wonderful experiment that I will explore more and more in the future.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A Singular Moment

I was recently asked to complete the following sentence: I will never forget the time I...

What do you say to a question like that? How many are the moments in our life that we will "never forget"?

Well, as I thought about that, a story came unbidden to mind and I thought I would share it with you, dear Reader.

It was a few years ago, and I was at a youth conference in Vancouver. After the conference, I had been asked to go north with a group of youth, as their chaperone. We were to drive up to Fort Smith in the Northwest Territories. It was quite a long drive; something like 30 hours. We did it pretty much straight through by switching off drivers and having people sleep in the back. Oh, and I think there were 5 of us in the car, so it was pretty tight.

Anyways, on the way there we stopped at Alexandra Falls, and that is the when the moment occurred that I will never forget.

We all got out of the car and walked down the path. As we aproached the falls, I walked fairly close to the edge. There was no railing or anything around there, which is unusual to someone like me, who is used to tourist areas like Niagara Falls, where it is practically impossible to get close to the water. (Something about the fear of lawsuits from idiots who go out of their way to try and disprove Darwinism, as they have already had children.)

I walked along the edge of the river at the top of the falls, and then saw a rock slide leading down to the bottom.

Quite naturally I wanted to see the falls from the bottom, so I sat on my right heel and extended my left leg out in front of me, as a brake, and proceeded to slide down the rocks on my right foot. At the bottom, it was very lush and beautiful. That was something that had stuck me about the whole area: the beauty of the plants.

I walked around the edge of the water, enjoying the mist that was tossed up into the air. The sound of the rushing water provided a meditative background of noise that was at once both pleasantly relaxing and exciting.

I knelt over the water and washed my hands and face, taking the opportunity to say my obligatory prayers in that wonderful setting. When I was finished, it seemed that was not enough, and so I continued to say prayers, meditating on the service to the Faith that brought me to such a pristine place, grateful for this wonderful opportunity. I closed my eyes, allowing my other senses to really draw in the surroundings, and imprint them on my soul. After what seemed like an eternity, I opened my eyes again, ready to try and move back to the world from that wonderful spiritual state I had been allowed to glimpse.

Then I noticed it: a blueberry bush. Right where the falls hit, at their base on the shore, was a blueberry bush. There was something about that bush that caught my attention, besides the wonderful berries growing ripe on its branches. It seemed to me that it was there as a gift.

That was when I realized that that is exactly what it was. Those blueberries had been offered as a gift of thanks to the river, and to the waterfall. And they took root and grew, for all of us to enjoy.

After taking a handful, and enjoying a few at the moment, I said another prayer of thanks, carefully offering a few of the berries back to the land that had provided such beauty, both visually, audibly and in taste.

I carefully made my way back up to the top and offered one of my friends a few of those little treasures, explaining to her the significance of them.

That is a moment I shall never forget: that gift of nature, so precious, so rare, and so carefully given back.

"Thus have the showers of My bounty been poured down from the heaven of My loving-kindness, as a token of My grace; that ye may be of the thankful...."

Bi-Polar Bears

A number of years ago, a friend of mine pointed out this quote to me and said that it was, to her, a description of bi-polar disorder:
But for the burning of their souls and the sighing of their hearts, they would be drowned in the midst of their tears, and but for the flood of their tears they would be burnt up by the fire of their hearts and the heat of their souls. Methinks, they are like the angels which Thou hast created of snow and of fire.

We had been talking about mental disorders and how they can affect our service to the Faith.

Before I continue, I should mention that I seem to have a degree of bi-polarism (is that a word?) within me. But then again, I think any mental disorder is contained within each of us. It only becomes a "disorder" if it dis-orders our life. And although I have never been diagnosed with it by a profesional, it has greatly helped me live my life to recognize that tendancy within me.

How, you ask? Once again, dear Reader, I am gratified by your ability to pick up on such questions.

A number of years ago, when I went overseas, a friend requested that I keep an "emotional diary", to track my daily moods. After a few months, a very strong, and clear, pattern began to emerge. I had chosen to assign a completely objective number to each day, ranging from 10, very happy, to -10, very sad. When I graphed them out, they formed a perfect sine wave.

Shortly after discovering this about myself, I also noticed that if I drank alcohol (it was before I was Baha'i), or caffeine, my sine wave became more extreme. This may have been fun when I recorded my moods as a 12 or 15, but if I gave in to that temptation, then the lows were far worse. I think I bottomed out one day when I put down -100. Not a good thing.

It was shortly after this observation that I became a Baha'i. That took care of the alcohol, but I still have to be sure to not drink coffee when I'm in a manic high or a depressed low.

Aside from those two simple dietary changes, this observation of my moods has had another effect on my life: I can plan more effectively in advance. I can pretty much predict when my mood extremes will hit, and be ready for them.

This has been, quite probably, one of the greatest assets in my life. I would not change it for anything.

When I am going to be in my low, I try to make sure that I pray even more than usual, stay at home when I can and study the Writings. Quite often I try and study the history of the Faith, as this makes my lows seem trivial in comparison. While I may not be able to read with as much swift comprehension as when I am in a high, I can still get quite a bit out of it. I also use that time to research paticular themes within the Writings and see what gems I can uncover.

When I am in my high, or know that I will be, I try and schedule public talks. It is at those times that I can give my all, and exude enthusiasm on stage, so to speak.

I am also willing to bet that you, dear Reader, can see which part of my cycle I am in, now that I have confided in you. It is often very amusing to me to look at all the draft articles I have started when I am in my high phase. A few of them are actually fairly useful, but most of them just ramble. If they survive the draft folder for a few cycles, and I still feel I can do something with them, they I will try and finish them, but mostly they get ditched after a few weeks. Sometimes I keep them around just for amusement sake.

When I am speaking with people who suffer from bi-polar tendancies, they often ask me how I cope. My answer is that I don't. I do not see it as a struggle, but rather as a tool. I use this tendancy to the best effect that I can.

The other aspect of it is that I do not give in to the tendancy to dwell on the odd things that come into my mind when I'm in a low. It is sort of the extreme version of "When a thought of war comes, oppose it by a stronger thought of peace. A thought of hatred must be destroyed by a more powerful thought of love." If bizarre and unpleasant thoughts begin to creep in, I just think of something pleasant, instead.

"But how", I am often asked, "do you do that?"

It is like getting up in the morning. When the alarm goes off, you just get out of bed. You don't think about it, or question it: you just do it. There may be other ways, but I haven't found them yet.

The flip side of this is that I also do not give in to the tendencies to try and do incredible things when I am in my high. Most of what I would want to try and accomplish is unreasonable and can only lead to a great depression when I fail, which would also coincide with the start of my low.

But in the end, this is just another example of how I live my life. While I try and take each day as it comes, I also look for trends that stand out that will help me in my life.

The quote that I used at the beginning, the one about the angels of snow and fire, also seems to describe a manner of dealing with bi-polar. When our souls are burdened with our tears, and when we feel the world is going to crumble around us, then we boost ourselves back up with the fire of our love of God. And when we are going to be consumed with our burning of our love of God, and we want to jump for joy and shout out our enthusiasm to the world, we can temper that with the flood of our tears. The flood is like the low and the fire is like the high, and they can balance each other out, to the beneft of both ourselves and those around us.

It is a call to moderation. 'Abdu'l-Baha calls moderation "a natural way of life".  Baha'u'llah reminds us that "Whatsoever passeth beyond the limits of moderation will cease to exert a beneficial influence." He also tells us that everything in the world is "subject to this same principle of moderation."


So why not our emotional state?

Besides, the image of these angels of snow and fire is quite beautiful. Wouldn't you like to be an angel like that?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Oh, Thee and Thou

Old King James
Had a castle on the Thames
And a master of the English was he

But he wasn't very tall
He had a lisp and a drawl
And a very funny sound made he

When King James decided he wanted to translate the Bible into English, he realized that as a reigning monarch, he would need some help. So he called together some people he thought could do the job, but really, they weren't all that good. In fact, one time when they were trying to piece together his notes, they misconjugated a present tense verb. They incorrectly wrote it as "He say", as in "He say unto his followers". King James, being the master of English that he was, looked it over and said, "It needth an eth on the end. Say-eth" And thus was born the King James style of English, with all the "eth"s all over the place.

OK, maybe not. But that style of English does raise a lot of questions.

"Why are the Writings written in an old English style?"

I have been asked this question so many times in the past week. And my answer? Well, my answer is my favorite one when asked a question like this: I don't know.

As usual, I have a few ideas and theories, but the truth of the matter is that I really don't know. I've read various things in the Writings of both the Guardian and the Universal House of Justice that address this issue, but that doesn't mean that I can really explain it to others. So, as usual, dear Reader, what you are getting is my own understanding, for what it is worth.

It seems to me, when looking at the question of translation, there are a number of different issues to address. The first, when discussing translation, is obviously to convey the meaning of the Text itself. The second is to try and convey the beauty of the Writings. The third point is consideration of the audience. While there may be other points to consider, these are the ones I want to look at.

When trying to convey the meaning of the Text, there are different schools of thought about it. One says that you should translate, word for word, the literal meaning of each word or phrase. This obviously has some problems with it, especially with rich, poetic languages like Persian and Arabic. In the original Writings, there are evidently many words or phrases that are obscure in literal meaning, but rich in context or allegory.

My favourite example is from the Hidden Words. In the first of the Persian Hidden Words, we read, "O Messenger of the Solomon of Love". An early translation, before Shoghi Effendi's, uses the name Hoopoe, which is a bird referenced in the Qur'an with the story of Solomon. This bird was missing from the ranks of Solomon's army, so the story goes, and he asked why the Hoopoe bird was absent. The bird showed up and said that he had been to Sheba and seen their queen. So, rather than literally translating "Hoopoe of the Solomon of Love", the Guardian, well-knowing that we in the West would have no clue about the story of the Hoopoe Bird in the Qur'an, used the word "Messenger", better conveying to us the important reference of the story.

There are evidently many similar instances in the Writings where a literal translation would not have sufficed, especially in Texts like the Kitab-i-Aqdas and the Kitab-i-Iqan, but I do not know enough of the languages involved to give more examples.

In relation to the second point, that of conveying the beauty of the Writings, 'Abdu'l-Baha said that the English writers of a translation team should "mould the significance into profound, musical and perfect cast of style in English, and in such wise that the musical sweetness of the original Persian may not be lost".

He placed great importance on the beauty of the sound of the language itself. Compare, for example, an early translation of the seventh Arabic Hidden Word with the Guardian's translation.

The Guardian's translation of the last part of it is: ...that thou mayest die in Me and I may eternally live in thee. The earlier translation finishes: Thus thou wilt be transient in Me, but in thee I will be everlasting.

The Guardian's translation not only conveys the meaning, but it does so in a manner that is both musical and sweet. It is almost lilting as it rolls off the tongue. The second one sounds like something stumbling off a subway system.

I find this to be true with all of the Guardian's translations. He conveys a beauty within them that goes beyond the words and their meaning, and leaps into the realm of poetry, evoking the nature of the spirit by their very sounds. He reminds us that what we are reading is not an ordinary speech: the Words of the Messenger of God are beyond the ordinary. And the translations he made convey this.

In the introduction to the Kitab-i-Aqdas, the Universal House of Justice writes, "the style employed is of an exalted and emotive character, immensely compelling, particularly to those familiar with the great literary tradition out of which it arose. In taking up his task of translation, Shoghi Effendi faced the challenge of finding an English style which would not only faithfully convey the exactness of the text's meaning, but would also evoke in the reader the spirit of meditative reverence which is a distinguishing feature of response to the original. The form of expression he selected, reminiscent of the style used by the seventeenth-century translators of the Bible, captures the elevated mode of Bahá'u'lláh's Arabic, while remaining accessible to the contemporary reader."

Finally, in relation to the capacity of the audience, we need to remember that statement of Baha'u'llah's: It is unjust for the speaker to utter that which is beyond the capacity of the listeners to comprehend. (This quote is found in Mr Furutan's book "Baha'i Education of Children and Junior Youth", published in India)

You see, many people complain that they have to work at it to understand this style of English, to which I reply, "Good". It never hurt us to stretch ourselves a little. In fact, I think that is the basis of exercise: stretching just a bit beyond what is currently comfortable. I know that it took me years to learn to read the Writings with any degree of fluency, but now it is almost second-nature. I mean, I still have a long way to go to comprehending the spiritual import of them, but at least I can now read the English itself and get a basic understanding. And then I look at my own writings over the last number of years and I can see a manifold increase in my own command of the language (like this sentence, for example).

There is a great story about this need of raising our standard, rather than lowering it, as told by Ruhiyyih Khanum:
...Once when a pilgrim, sincerely and modestly remonstrated with the Guardian about the difficulty ordinary people in America had in understanding his writings and suggested he make them a little bit easier. The Guardian pointed out, firmly, that this was not the answer; the answer was for people to raise their standard of English, adding, in his beautiful voice with its beautiful pronunciation -- and a slight twinkle in his eye -- that he himself wrote in English. The implication that a great deal of the writing on the other side of the Atlantic did not always fall in this category was quite clear! He urged Bahá'í magazines to use an "elevated and impressive style" and certainly set the example himself at all times.
So you see, dear Reader, although I enjoy writing in a conversational style, I see the need for the elevated language of the Writings. And I appreciate it. It is, as I said, a reminder that what I am reading is not ordinary, while what I am writing is.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Hope

I once read something to the effect that no one should leave our presence without hope. It was from 'Abdu'l-Baha. He said, "Show ye an endeavor that all the nations and communities of the world, even the enemies, put their trust, assurance and hope in you; that if a person falls into errors for a hundred-thousand times he may yet turn his face to you, hopeful that you will forgive his sins; for he must not become hopeless, neither grieved nor despondent."

For some reason, this notion that no one should be hopeless stuck with me. Although the actual statement is that they should be hopeful that we will forgive them, I have often recalled it as being that we should ensure people have hope, in general.

This misunderstanding came in very useful one day, when I was asked to give a talk at a Passover Seder.

Passover, in case you are not aware, is a time of celebration for the Jewish people. It is a celebration of the miracle when the Spirit of Death passed over the homes of the Jewish peoples in Egypt, that last plague before the Pharaoh said the Jews could leave.

So there I was, on Passover, and I had completely forgotten about the talk. I had not prepared a thing. I was even driving somewhere else when, all of a sudden, I remembered I have to give this talk. I think the Concourse on High nudged me, or else none of this would have happened.

I looked at the clock and realized I had about an hour to prepare a talk, so I drove the library with Shoghi, age 3 at the time. He loved going there, because he could take the glass elevator to the top and run down the long staircase.

We went in, and I grabbed some of those little pieces of paper, along with one of those tiny golf pencils, that they have out for you to write down the Dewey decimal number of the book you want. While Shoghi was enjoying himself riding up and running down, I followed and wrote down some words on those pieces of paper whenever I got the chance. Finally we had to go.

When we got to the Seder, we had the opportunity to enjoy some wonderful food before I was to speak.  Then, much to my delight, we took part in one of the traditional rituals of a Seder. There was a white plate in the centre of the table, and while each of the plagues was called out, we each dipped our little finger in the grape juice (as you know, I can't have wine as a Baha'i) and flicked a drop onto the plate, symbolizing the blood that was spilled. At the end of the ten plagues, we were asked to call out something plaguing us in our life, as we flicked another drop onto the plate, symbolizing the flicking away of our troubles.

It was after this that I was asked to speak on finding positive-based solutions.

The timing struck me as ironic, and I pointed this out.

"You know, I find it amusing, being asked to speak at this time in the program on this topic. After all, you can't just flick your troubles away." Someone had shouted out school as plaguing them, and another called out their boss. It was fairly easy to say that the one person still had to go to school and the other still had to deal with their boss.

While I was saying all this, Shoghi was helping me by passing out the now-folded pieces of paper that I had written, a few to each table. I explained a basic principal of problem-solving, namely that you have to build positives instead of trying to remove negatives. As we all know, if you walk into a dark room and want to read a book, you have to turn on the light; you can't remove the darkness. On a cold winter's day, you can't fight the cold: you have to warm up. From there, I paraphrased 'Abdu'l-Baha, explaining how cold is merely the absence of heat, and poverty is the absence of wealth, and so on.

I then told them about an experience I had working with a number of communities in the States that were dealing with the race issue. Every community that was "fighting racism" got stuck. All measurable statistics were getting worse, despite what people were saying. However, those communities that were promoting "race unity" saw miracles occurring. All measurable stats were getting better. The reason, I proposed, was that if you look for incidences of racism to fight, you will always find them and become disappointed. If you are searching for incidences of unity to celebrate, you will find those, instead, and become enheartened, thereby able to accomplish more. All the communities, by the way, were doing the same activities, such as marches and picnics, and the like.

When all the tables had 3 or 4 pieces of paper, I asked the friends sitting at them to do the following exercise. They were to open the papers and find a solution to problem on them by discussing the virtues that were missing, those that were needed to make the situation better. They had 10 minutes.

The papers each had a single word or phrase on them. One had "war", while another had "drug abuse". "Gang violence", "rape", "global warming", "AIDS": all the pieces had some sort of major social or global crisis on them.

The first minute was filled with silence. The next couple of minutes saw some hesitant talking. And the last seven minutes were filled with excited conversation.

At the end of this, I called everyone back to attention, and said, "I don't care what answers you found, because I already know that they are good and will work. I want to know what you felt."

Summarizing the responses, there was a general consensus. At first, people felt oppressed trying to think of a solution to what was on the paper in so short a time. Then they remembered the exercise and hesitantly took baby steps, offering an idea, even though they were unsure of what they were doing. Finally, they realized that they were on to something, and even excited by the end. They all felt that they had a solution that was workable. In ten minutes.

What brought tears to my eyes was an old man, who had been in a concentration camp during the Holocaust, who said, "Up to this time in my life, I never saw these problems as having solutions. Now I feel there is hope." The nods of agreement all over the room gave me hope.

And so, dear Reader, I offer this to you and pray it gives hope to others.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

It's a Virtue

Patience: that's what I need to develop these days.

Back in the day, when I was still making chain-mail for a living, I was told that I was one of the most patient people around. Well, that's definitely not the case any more. I wish I could say it was, but I'd only be deluding myself, and possibly you, dear Reader, and I don`t think it fair to try and pull a fast one on either of us.

It seems that my patience lessens when I write and increases when I work with my hands. This doesn't make sense to me, but it is what I have observed. Perhaps I should try to make more time for my artwork, but that's not too feasible yet.

My question for today is how can we develop our patience? There is certainly a lot within the Writings about patience, as there is about all the various virtues, but mostly it has to do with praising those who have shown patience. There is, also, a marvelous comment about the rewards of patience: He, verily, shall increase the reward of them that endure with patience.

But that still doesn't help me in my current dilemma: how do I increase my patience?

The reason, dear Reader, why this has come up is based on a few recent events in my life. First is the increasing impatience I am showing to my dear son. I have asked him to help remind me that I need to show patience toward him, and he is doing a marvelous job. I have a long way to go, but he has helped me make a start.

It also has to with a recent talk I gave. Two of us were asked to present an introduction to the Baha'i Faith to a group of people. I opened with a simple introdcution, based largely on the presentation in Ruhi Book 6, and then my friend gave a talk about the life of Baha'u'llah.

When she was talking, I was praying. I barely heard anything she said, as the prayers were being recited over and over in my mind for her to give a talk that would touch the hearts of the listeners. Every time she glanced over at me, I could see a bit of her nervousness melt away, as if she knew of the prayers I was saying. Of course, I'm sure she did, for I am certain that she was saying prayers for me when I was speaking. After all, that is just what we do, right? We pray for the one teaching and hope that they may become even more effective.

But then came the questions. Normally I do all right with the questions in that sort of a setting, but this time was different. Someone asked a fairly basic and simple question, and when I went to answer, there were a few Baha'is in the audience who seemed to want to jump up and answer. Their facial expressions, as I was responding, were conveying, "No, no. That's not right at all."

That was when I started to become impatient with them. That was when I became nervous and stumbled.

In fact, one of the questions was about how women and men are treated differently in the Baha'i Faith, and I completely forgot to mention that girls are given preferential treatment to boys in education. Isn't that the most obvious and beautiful example of how progressive the Faith is? If you have a boy and a girl, and can only afford to educate one of them, you must, by Baha'i Law, educate the girl.

I was so nervous, I completely missed that.

Now I'm confiding in you, dear Reader. I haven't expressed this to anyone else. I'm a bit ashamed at having been so nervous, and am really striving to show patience to those dear friends who really only wanted what they thought was best for the Faith.

And so I feel I need to develop my patience again.

It is interesting how important patience is. In the book, 'Abdu'l-Baha in London, we find the following testimony: "one of the Persians explained to me that it was on account of 'Abdu'l-Bahá's wonderful patience, helpfulness, and endurance that he was always called 'The Master'."

Three qualities are mentioned there: patience, helpfulness and endurance. Although I can always further develop my helpfulness and endurance, I think I do fairly well at those two. But patience, the first of the three, needs work. In fact, if you are helpful and have endurance, but don't show patience, you will really hurt those around you.

Baha'u'llah, in the Hidden Words, says, "The sign of love is fortitude under My decree and patience under My trials." When we show strength and courage in our obedience to the Law, despite all the myriad temptations, we are showing a sign of our love for God. And when we show patience during all the tests we may face, that is another sign of our love for God. That second only seems obvious, though. After all, how can you show patience if there isn't a trial or a test?

Does that mean that when I am not showing patience, I am not loving God? I don't think so. It means that I'm not showing my love for God, that's for sure. But I feel that I do still love God. It is sort of like if the sign for a shop falls down, the store is still there. It's just harder to find it.

There are a couple of other places in the Writings in which we find references to patience. In The Seven Valleys, we find that the steed in the Valley of Search "is patience; without patience the wayfarer on this journey will reach nowhere and attain no goal."

How does this apply to me, with my son or with those friends in the audience? If I wish to help my son grow in his virtues, develop to be the best person he can, then patience is essential. It is my example of patience that will help nurture him in his development. Impatience will only create a barrier between him and me, and probably turn him off to anything I may wish to say. I believe the same is true with those friends in the audience. If I wish to help them become better people, I need to acknowledge their desire for what they feel is the best for the Faith. I need to thank them for their concern and ask for their prayers next time. If I show impatience with them, all I will succeed in doing is alientaing them. This would do nothing but create anger and upset feelings. But if I admit my own shortcomings, perhaps they will pray for me next time. (Then again, they just might not ask me to speak again, which would also be ok. There are plenty of other ways to serve.)

The other times I often feel impatience is when I am faced with greed, or a perspective that completely denies the spiritual. Once again, the Master comes to my rescue: Especially to those whose thoughts are material and retrograde show the utmost love and patience, thereby winning them into the unity of fellowship by the radiance of your kindness. It is in situations such as these that we can use patience as a tool to help draw people closer to their Creator. Patience really is such a wonderful and marvelous tool.

But really, the main question for me is still how can I further develop my patience. In the following quote from the Kitab-i-Iqan, we read: Know verily that Knowledge is of two kinds: Divine and Satanic...The former bringeth forth the fruit of patience, of longing desire, of true understanding, and love; whilst the latter can yield naught but arrogance, vainglory and conceit.
Divine knowledge brings "forth the fruit of patience".

And doesn't that just make sense? When you know what the inevitable outcome must be, you are content to wait for it. It is only when you are unsure that you are impatient to see what the results will be.

It is like a seed. When you know that it will grow, you are content to give it the water and light it needs and just wait for it to develop. You know that you cannot rush it. If you dig it up to check on its growth, that will only kill it. Not a good thing to do.

I know that the Faith will grow. It is inevitable. The tree of faith always grows, blossoms, and gives its fruit. This is an immutable Law.

Some of the friends in the audience were afraid that my awkward, and possibly inapproriate, answer to a question was going to retard the growth of the Faith. All I can say to such a thought is that surely I am not that important as to have that kind of an effect.

I may not have spoken about the life of Baha'u'llah the way my friend did, but she did an admirable job. Could I have done better? Possibly, but why even go there. She was speaking and I gave her all the support I could.

Could someone have answered those questions better than I did? Of course. But I was the one on stage, and I did the best I could at the moment. In the future I hope the friends will pray for me as I speak, instead of judging.

It really made me realize how important it is to pray for those other speakers. It has also made me realize how important it is that I pray for the spiritual growth of those other friends. I should not have been made nervous by them. Really, there was no reason for it. I know what their concern was, but I should have had faith in my own intentions. I must show patience toward myself for becoming nervous, and try to do better in the future.

And so, dear Reader, I ask for your prayers, as usual. Could someone else write this blog better than I can? Of course. But I happen to be the one doing it, and so I may make mistakes (as you have been kind enough to point out), and you have shown great patience in me.

Now I need to help show patience toward others, as well as myself.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Collections

I was looking on Ebay the other day for something, but now I can't even remember what it was. One of my favorite silly pasttimes is to bounce around a site like that and just see what is available. This time, while there, I found a number of coins and stamps and comic books all for sale at outrageous prices.  At least they seemed outrageous to me. A copper penny in "poor" condition was selling for over $300,000, while a used postage stamp was selling for $25,000. Some of the comic books were selling in the $50,000 range.
It makes me wonder why people would spend so much money on such objects. Of course, if someone has "purified" their wealth (as a Baha'i, we do that through the Right of God), and what they purchase does not come between them and God, fine and well. But then I think of all the other things that can be done with that money.

So even though I won't spend my money that way, if someone else wants to, I guess that is their business.

Looking at these auctions, and the money that is being spent on these objects, I began thinking about detachment from material possessions, and how far I have to go in that area (just check out my book collection).

Say: Rejoice not in the things ye possess; tonight they are yours, tomorrow others will possess them... The days of your life flee away as a breath of wind...

There are times, however, when I will spend some money on an object that may seem inappropriate, or outrageous, to others. When I do so, I consider the price, possible shipping costs and brokerage fees (if applicable), taxes and my Huququ'llah (if it is not an essential item). This gives me a "real" cost of the item, and not just the price on the tag. Oh, another part of the price that is generally not reflected is the environmental cost. My wife and I often try and calculate this when making purchases. There are times when we will purchase a more expensive version of something (usually a food item) because the packaging is less taxing on the environment.

Looking back at my Ebay experience, I have to wonder how many others make this sort of calculation when making a purchase. It seems like most people don't really care about their spiritual growth and are only concerned about their material stuff.

This is where the Faith looks pretty good to me, once again.

Nowhere in the Writings does it condemn anyone for possessing anything, only for allowing things to come between themselves and God. In fact, that seems to be another aspect of the Right of God that is often overlooked. Once we have paid God our due, we can do whatever we want with our wealth. Nobody can condemn us for how we spend our money (at least they're not supposed to do that).

I am reminded of a question I have heard over and over, in many different ways, from many different people, about the Temple in Wilmette. "If the Faith is so concerned about the poor, and making a difference in the world, why was so much money spent on the Temple?"

And you know, this is a great question. This is a question we need to be able to answer, not only for the one asking but for ourselves.

I like to think of the money that was spent on all the Temples, and on the Ark Projects, as a form of seed money. What do I mean by "seed money"? Let me give you an example.

Suppose you had no knowledge of farming and met a farmer who was just getting ready to plant her crops for the season. You might go up to her and ask what she is doing. She would explain that she is planting these seeds in the ground in order to grow food for her and her family.

This would seem odd to you, as you know that the seeds she is planting can be eaten (let's suppose they are corn). You would obviously ask her why she is sticking perfectly good corn kernels in the ground, instead of serving them up for her family. She would try and explain that each kernel will grow and produce many ears of corn, thereby giving back a lot more kernels than she currently has.

Would this seem reasonable to you? Especially if you were not aware of the dynamics of farming? Or would this seem like some sort of superstitious nonsense? Would you not decry the foolishness of this poor deluded farmer, wasting perfectly good food and all that time? I probably would.

But isn't this what all these projects are like? We put all this time and effort, and yes, even money, into these projects.  Why? Because we understand the dynamics involved, including prayer, sacrifice, effort, generosity, and so on and so forth. We know that the few dollars we put into the Temple projects will increase several thousand-fold, through the future contributions of those who are touched and taught by the project.

Come to think of it, I am one of those people who embraced the Faith because of the Temple in Wilmette. To all of those dear souls who sacrificed their pennies, nickels and hard-earned dollars during the Great Depression and two World Wars, I thank you. Your sacrifices allowed someone as simple and obtuse as myself to embrace the Faith.

But let's go back to where I began: Ebay and collectibles.

Is there anything wrong with collecting things? I would venture to say, "Not really". It all depends upon your purpose. Is your goal to have the biggest and most complete collection? Then there is an ego problem, and that needs to be addressed. Is your desire to have a great art collection so that you can open a museum for people to come and learn about the arts? This is surely a noble purpose, and many great collections have come together for that reason. I am in awe when I think about the number of great artists that got their start by going to the museums that spent millions of dollars to ensure that those children had something worthy of inspiring. I can still recall the countless times I have been to the Art Institute of Chicago, standing in front of those awesome canvases and sculptures. They truly changed my life. In fact, their incredible display of artwork from various religions also helped shape my destiny in becoming a Baha'i.

For myself, I collect old Baha'i texts. One of my favorite things to do is to study old translations of the Writings and see how the different translations, up to the Guardian's, helped shape Baha'i culture in the West. It is a fascinating study, and I long to read a scholarly text on the subject.

Then there is the example of the Greatest Holy Leaf: she was an avid collector, collecting some of the most obscure and bizarre objects imaginable. Her collection was what formed the foundation for the International Archives.

But collecting things for the sake of collecting? Well, I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes regarding detachment from all earthly things, found in the Tablet to the Kings: Say: If ye be seekers after this life and the vanities thereof, ye should have sought them while ye were still enclosed in your mothers' wombs, for at that time ye were continually approaching them, could ye but perceive it. Ye have, on the other hand, ever since ye were born and attained maturity, been all the while receding from the world and drawing closer to dust.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Food for Thought

"Do I go out today, or do I stay home, rest and write?"  That was the question I asked myself this afternoon. On the one hand, my wife and son were going ice skating today and I really wanted to join them. On the other hand, I'm not feeling all that good and am behind on my writing.

While the answer to that question, which is obvious from the fact that I am writing, was fairly straight-forward, it did lead me to some other questions. "What is the purpose of writing? Why should I stay home and rest? How important is my good health to me?"

The answer to those questions can be found in the writings of the Guardian (in Lights of Guidance, number 991).  "You should always bear in mind Baha'u'llah's counsel that we should take the utmost care of our health, surely not because it is an end in itself, but as a necessary means of serving His Cause."

This response, to me, addresses so many things. Why do I write? To serve His Cause. Why should I rest and take care of myself? To serve His Cause. Why is my health important to me? To better serve His Cause.

All right, that last one was not quite the same as my question, but it still gets to the heart of the matter.

I have been feeling chilled all day, and will probably get ill if I go out. Yet, if I go out, I will be able to talk with people about the Faith (this is not even a probability, but a certainty, as Marielle and Shoghi are skating at The Forks today). Shoghi and I always engage people in spiritual conversations when we go out.

But Tuesday evening, I have a very important engagement that will probably help introduce the Faith to 50 people. That is a higher priority to me.

Besides, when Marielle and Shoghi get home, I'll be better able to spend quality time with my son. He'll be a bit tired from skating all day, and running around, and I'll be rested. We should be about even with each other.

Important aside - Be sure to try and have your children in your early 20s, if possible, and not your late 30s. You need the extra bit of energy that youth brings in order to keep up with your kids. Just thought I'd mention it.

But let's get back to that quote again for a moment. "...take the utmost care of your health..."

How can we do that? What does it mean to "take the utmost care of your health"?

While I could go on and on about exercise and abstaining from alcohol, or being sure not to smoke nor do drugs, I think I will talk briefly about diet.

When I was a child, my mother ("Hi Mom!" - ok everybody, wave to my Mom, because I think she's reading this one) told me that I could save money on clothes or books, or just about anything else I wanted, but I should not try to save money on food. Why was that? Because, she explained, food is the basic building block of your body. If you put poor quality in, you will regret it.

For decades I have followed her advice (see Mom, I was listening).

While I do not eat much meat, I am not a vegetarian (although I was for a few years). And yet, since I am aware of the various abuses of chemicals in the general meat industry, I try to only eat organic meat. Marielle, however, is vegetarian. For years it was not a moral choice, but rather a practical choice. Meat made her ill. And when she eats chicken, it makes me ill (chicken really, REALLY doesn't agree with her).

Now, as we have both been doing more research on food and diet, our diet is consisting of more raw foods.

In a pilgrim's note (found in Ten Days in the Light of Akka), 'Abdu'l-Baha had been asked what we should eat. His response was "Fruit and grains. The time will come when meat will no longer be eaten. Medical science is only in its infancy, yet it has shown that our natural diet is that which grows out of the ground. The people will gradually develop up to the condition of this natural food."

Right now there are many wonderful web-sites about raw food, and healthy living in general. One of my favorites is www.renegadehealth.com/blog but there are many more.

Recently, for her birthday, I got a book for my wife entitled "I'll Have the Fruits and Grains Please". It is a marvelous introduction to the idea of eating a more balanced diet in light of the Writings. And if you have not discovered Victoria Leith's fantastic web-sites, I'll give her a plug right now: http://www.thelittleguru.blogspot.com/  It is well worth checking out.

But, if you are like me, then I also offer a caution. Many of the web-sites out there that talk about healthy living, and healthy diets, are quite fanatical. They fall into the "we're right and everyone else is going to hell" mentality, which really is a shame. They have such wonderful information to share, but the manner in which they share it leaves something to be desired.

An easy way to avoid falling to that common trap is to look at the quote from 'Abdu'l-Baha again. "The time will come... The people will gradually..." You see, in this simple quote the Master is letting us know that it is not the time for all of us to embrace this diet. We need to exercise patience with ourselves, and with each other.  We also need to show compassion, both for thoe who are struggling while trying to adopt this lfe-style, and for those who do not see it as useful.

You may have noticed that I mentioned I was vegetarian for a few years, but am no longer. The reason is that my body was unable to handle it. Although I was eating a good balance of foods, I was still not getting enough proteins. Although I wanted to continue eating vegetarian, my body seemed to require some degree of meat. Now I eat a bit of meat every now and then as my body calls for it, but I do so in the healthiest way I can.

I am also reminded of a great story of 'Abdu'l-Baha. Curtis Kelsey, that stalwart Baha'i from the early days of the Faith in the West, was in the Holy Land getting ready to install the electrical generator for the Shrines, at the Master's request. 'Abdu'l-Baha, the same One Who recommended that we eat fruits and grains, ensured that Curtis had eggs for breakfast each morning. There is even a letter from 'Abdu'l-Baha to Siyyid Abu'l-Qasim, asking him to ensure that Curtis "have plentiful food for lunch and dinner, and even breakfast... Either kill a chicken or bring meat from Akka. There must always be some kind of meat. And in the morning, serve milk, eggs, jam and olives."

What is the message here? To me, it is about flexibility and courtesy, as well as compassion. The best diet is to eat fruits and grains and nuts, but we must be flexible. We must also show patience and allow people to grow into things. It is not up to us to tell people when they must learn a lesson, or adopt a lifestyle. We must, at all times, honour that God-given right to free choice, and present the choices shown us in the Faith "as a gift to a king."

So for now, I eat the best that I can. I teach the neighbourhood children how to eat in a more healthy manner. I cook healthy food for my friends when they come over for dinner. And I pass on what little I have learned about a healthy diet.

Finally, I try and keep myself as healthy as possible so that I can serve more effectively and efficiently.

But just in case you are wondeing, Mom, homemade brownies are still one of the healthiest foods available.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Sunflowers

When asked what my favorite flowers are, I almost always respond, "Sunflowers". In French, those beautiful flowers are called "tournesol", or "turn with the sun".

I could stare at them for hours. Their scent is so uplifting, and yet truly subtle. Their colours are so vibrant, from the traditional bright yellow, to oranges or flame reds. They can be perfectly round, or fuzzy around the edges. Their variety is remarkable (see, I'm remarking on it here), and yet they are all from the same sunflowery family. I have a few in my garden that only grow a foot high, and have seen others that would tower over my house. Truly remarkable.

A fun aside - Years ago, when I was still making chain-mail jewelry and fashion designs for a living, an odd thing happened. I had met a woman at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, where I was selling my work. We hit it off really well, and sent each other numerous letters over the next year. We even visited each other a few times, although we lived in cities over 8 hours apart. I had met her family, and we really liked each other.  We were planning on driving down to Chicago after the next Folk Festival so that she could meet my family. I had thought that my search for a partner in life was at an end.  But then, at that same festival the next year, while I was sitting in my booth working away, she walked in and said, "Hi Mead. I never want to see you again." And she walked out. No explanation. No nothing. I was devastated, and heartbroken. And yet I couldn't leave my shop, nor could I break down in tears. So, what did I do? I told my helpers to not talk with me for a while and I ripped into my metal links, screaming through my art. The result? A chain-mail rendition of Van Gogh's Sunflowers.


For me it still stands as an example of crisis and victory in my life.

You see, I truly love sunflowers.

One of the things that I love most about them is the way they always face the sun, hence the name in French. Watching a field of them can be very inspirational. During the night, their heads droops toward the ground. You can almost feel their sadness at their remoteness from their beloved sun. As soon as the sun begins to rise, one and all they lift up their heads, eager to greet the sun as it begins its daily course.

As the sun reaches its noon-time zenith, the sunflowers are practically staring straight up into the sky. Never for a moment do they waver. They are constant in their loving devotion.

And then, as the sun begins its descent, so do the sunflowers. Down and down go their heads as the sun begins to dip below the horizon. As the darkness of night creeps over the land, a palpable darkness creeps over their spirit. their heads hang limp, facing the ground, devoid of all the joy they expressed throughout the day.

To me, they are a fine example of "He will discover in all things the mysteries of Divine Revelation, and the evidences of an everlasting Revelation."

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Traditions

Ayyam-i-Ha is soon upon us, and as a parent of a young child, I am once again wondering how to make that time even more special for him.  This task is made doubly difficult by the fact that Shoghi's birthday is during Ayyam-i-Ha.  Poor guy.  It must be like a Christian having their birthday on Christmas, but four times more likely (or five times in a leap year).

Relevant aside - Shoghi was born on Sunday 27 February 2005, just a few minutes before midnight.  We had no idea what to call him, as we were expecting a little girl. I held the beautiful little guy in my arms and said, "Samuel".  The wee one, just a few minutes out of the womb, looked at me and growled. The nurse, who was far more experienced in these mattes than myself looked over in surprise and said, "That's not his name." Not one to be daunted in such trying conditions, I said, "Daniel." The new-born little dude was not impressed, and growled his displeasure once again. I went through all the names we had considered, only to fail with each one. The last name on the list, our final hope, was "Shoghi".  When I said that name, he looked up at me and giggled.  He has been Shoghi ever since. Oh, and when we got home a few days later, Marielle was amused to see me in a large comfy chair, with Shoghi snuggled in my lap. I was reading "The Priceless Pearl" to him. Oh, and that was when, much to my surprise and shock, I learned that Shoghi Effendi was also born on a Sunday during Ayyam-i-Ha.

This is a great time to be a Baha'i (hmm, like there's ever a bad time?) because we get to set our own traditions.  And these traditions will have great meaning for our family.  So I am trying to take extra care with them, as much as I can.

Shoghi goes to a daycare a few times a week, and so he gets to learn about all the various cultural traditions in this country.  Over Christmas-time he learned all about Santa, and he just loves Santa.

Random aside - Due to my poor early morning typing skills, and a general weariness hovering over my brain right now, the thought of a Santa Mantra just came to mind.  I can just imagine a Buddhist / Christian child whose parents practice laughter yoga chanting "ho ho ho ho ho ho ho".  Ah, never mind.

Shoghi loves Santa and wanted to know if he came to visit Baha'is during Ayyam-i-Ha.  What else can you say but, "Of course, that's how he spreads out his workload."

One thing I decided a number of years ago was to draw upon my own family's traditions and incorporate them forward.  For example, I love Chanukah and the lighting of the menorah, so we often include the lighting of candles in our prayers.

Another tradition that really meant a lot to me as a child was the Christmas stockings.  (Yes, we did Christmas and Chaukah both when I was a child.) I have given a lot of time and thought about how to include the stockings in our family tradition, and this is what I came up with.

For Ayyam-i-Ha, a time devoted to feasting, rejoicing and charity, I decided to try and include these stockings.  I am so grateful to my wife for allowing me this quirk (everybody has their quirks; she just married hers). We hang the stockings by the plants (no fireplace in this house), and at night, after everyone has gone to sleep, we each sneak downstairs and put a small gift in every stocking, including our own.

Why including our own? Because I believe that we need to learn to show charity to everyone, including ourselves.  This, I thought, would be a good way to help cultivate that.

Each of these traditions should have significant meaning, as well as being fun or enjoyable.  After all, if religion isn't enjoyable, filling you with joy, why are you practicing it? Doesn't God want you to be happy in your life?  'Abdu'l-Baha said, "we must be happy and pass our time in praises, appreciating all things."


How can we use these traditions to help cultivate this sense of happiness and joy?

I believe the Ayyam-i-Ha stockings can work for my family.

I told my friend Samuel about this idea, and a few days later he gave me a gift that I treasure to this day: a red and white Ayyam-i-Ha stocking, with a little bear sticking out of the top.  Shoghi and I are looking forward to hanging it up soon and seeing what it gets filled with.

He and I are just beginning to go around to the various stores to look for little gifts we can use to fill the stockings and he is already thinking about all the friends he wants to give gifts to. In fact, he is even talking about giving Ayyam-i-Ha gifts to the people who are coming to his birthday party this year.

Yes, this is the time to begin our own traditions, laden with rich meaning, and evocative of that joy that will fill a lifetime with good memories. To this day I still get that warm and fuzzy feeling when I recall running downstairs as a child and seeing the ashen footprints my parents laid out from the fireplace to the Christmas tree.

That is the joy I hope to help Shoghi feel when he thinks of Ayyam-i-Ha. But don't worry, I'm not going to do snowy camel prints leading to the stockings.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Butterfly

I am in awe of the wisdom of the elders.  Truly I am.

I may not always agree with them, or like their perspective, but I am in awe of their wisdom.

Yet another aside from yours truly: I only put this disclaimer there as I recall a talk that it was my misfortune to hear. In it, an "elder" was telling us in the audience how we would be better off taking our children out back and shooting them instead of letting them grow up in the world.  Shoghi, my son, was only a year old at the time, and he was sitting in my lap as this speaker glared at us.  I am unable to call this speaker an elder, even though he was old.  I think he had a lot to learn about hope and life, but to each their own path.  He was one of the very few exceptions to my love for the elders, and I understand his point was to say how much we needed to work to improve the planet, but he sure didn't do it with wisdom.  Then again, I really need to remember (and apply) Baha'u'llah's words: Every time the sin committed by any one amongst them was breathed in the Court of His Presence, the Ancient Beauty would be so filled with shame as to wish He could hide the glory of His countenance from the eyes of all men, for He hath, at all times, fixed His gaze on their fidelity, and observed its essential requisites.  I have such a long way to go.  End of aside.

It was a tremendous bounty to be able to sit in a study of Ruhi Book 4, The Twin Manifestations, with a group of Aboriginal American Grandmothers.  Actually, that entire week (or two) was a bounty, for while one group was studying Book 4, another group was studying Book 7, and I could wander and sit in with any group I wished.  I believe there was also a group looking at Book 2 and a Book 6 study circle at the same time, but I may be getting my meetings confused.  What I do recall is the studies of Books 4 and 7.

It would actually be impossible for me to forget that Book 7 group as one of the Grandmothers took my Book 7 one night and gave it back to me the next morning adorned with stickers.  It is beautifully decorated with stickers that make up a medicine wheel on the cover, and each sticker has a story that she told me, from the mouse in the middle (which reminded her of me) to the Cookie Monster sticker (as she noticed that I really like cookies) to the sticker of a chicken (whose hair reminded her of mine), and on and on.  Every time I look at the cover of that book, I am reminded of that wonderful gathering, and the many stories she shared.

No, today it was while studying Book 4 with another group that I was reminded of those dear souls once again.

We were studying the following quote, when something that one of those ladies said came back to me:
During the days I lay in the prison of Tihran, though the galling weight of the chains and the stench-filled air allowed Me but little sleep, still in those infrequent moments of slumber I felt as if something flowed from the crown of My head over My breast, even as a mighty torrent that precipitateth itself upon the earth from the summit of a lofty mountain. Every limb of My body would, as a result, be set afire. At such moments My tongue recited what no man could bear to hear.

She noticed that this "something" began at His head and then "flowed... over (His) breast". I was unable to fathom why this seemed important to her, so I waited for her to explain. She just sat there for about five minutes, letting this observation hang in the air, her lips pursed as she gently rocked back and forth. Her eyes were slightly squinted as she stared somewhere between this world and the next.

No one said a word.  This was fairly normal in their culture, and I just needed to get used to it.  In fact, that was just the way each section worked in this study circle. Someone would read a quote and everyone would sit there in absolute silence, thinking, meditating.  A few minutes later, someone would repeat a single sentence or phrase from the quote, just an observation really, and that would hang in the air for up to ten minutes, followed by the most profound and simple explanation I have ever heard in my life about the application of it.  Everyone would just nod in agreement, and then we would go on to the next section.

For this quote, all this sagacious woman said was that "this something flowed from His head down over His breast".

While this seeped into everyone's conciousness, a yellow butterfly was flitting around outside as an oriole performed an aerial dance back and forth between a few trees.  I'm not sure why I remember that detail, but the two yellows struck me as quite beautiful against the shimmering green grass and the dots of purple flowers on the hills.  Perhaps it was the hills that fixed it in my memory, for hills are a rare thing in my part of the globe. (They often say that Manitoba is so flat that you can watch your dog run away for a week.)

As I lost myself watching this beautiful dance of colour, she spoke again, this time with a story, one I had heard many times, but never connected with this quote.

"When Baha'u'llah was in Karbila, a year before His imprisonment in the Black Pit, He met an old man, Shaykh Hasan-i-Zunuzi.  This man had been told by the Bab to go to Karbila and await the Promised One.  He was to give 'He Whom God Shall Make Manifest' the loving greetings of the Bab, a mission the Bab described as very important.  The Shaykh went there and waited, working to earn his keep. One day, in October of 1851, while praying in the Shrine of the Imam Husayn, he laid eyes upon the blessed countenance of Baha'u'llah. This, he knew, was the Promised One. Baha'u'llah confirmed His station, took this old man by the hand and said, 'This very day I have purposed to make thee known throughout Karbila as a Babi.'" The grandmother paused at this point and looked each of us in the eyes. "How did He know?  This was a full year before He received His revelation in the prison."

I had never considered this before that moment.

"I believe," she said slowly, taking her time to ensure her words were carefully weighed, "that Baha'u'llah always knew.  In His head. But when He was in the prison, this knowledge flowed from His head and washed over His heart, where the Revelation belongs."

Not a word was uttered, not a sound was made, aside from the birdsongs outside, as she stood up and walked to get a cup of coffee.

For myself, I stepped outside and sat as I watched the yellow butterfly move from flower to flower.

This afternoon, as this new study circle read this quote, the whole story came back full force.  As it does every time I read it. And I felt, dear Reader, that it was so beautiful a story that I just had to share it with you.

Gratitude and a Request

Dearly loved Friends,

These past few months have been quite a journey for me, both as a writer and as a reader.  I have learned many things and have struggled to find my voice as a writer for a Baha'i blog.  I have made some simple errors, and found much loving support as you have gently corrected my oversights (see comments on The Feast, as one example).

Aside number 1 - The funny thing about the comments on The Feast is that I was aware of these changes made in that letter, but for some reason couldn't find the letter.  And then when it came to the writing of that article, I just totally spaced out.  Obviously that was so that I could be reminded that these articles are always my own perspective, and as you know, dear Reader, I am not perfect.  Whenever I make an oversight like that, please let me know.  It is very much appreciated.

A lot of letters have come in that are very supportive, and others have come in that ask some amazing questions (a few of which I can attempt to answer publicly).  There have only been a few that don't fit into either of those categories, but they do fit quite nicely in my recycle bin.  So it is all well and good.

At our recent Unit Convention, at which we elected our delegates to go to the National Convention where they will consult as well as elect our National Spiritual Assembly, an interesting question arose.  We had been asked to discuss how well new believers were warmly welcomed into a vigorous institute process.  When this question arose, there was a long silence.  I called out to a new believer at the other end of the room, "Hey Ron!  Did you take Ruhi Book 1?"

He looked up at me and shouted back, "Yes, I did."

"Great," was my joyous response.  "Did you study a prayer with someone?"

And the silence descended upon the room once again.

The long and short of it is that all the new believers in the room had taken Book 1, and a few had done the practices, but every single one of them still had questions that they needed answered.  One of them, for example, asked what Ayyam-i-Ha is, while another wanted to know what the current Plan was.

This gave me an idea, for which I will need your assistance, dear Reader.

What questions did you have, as a new Baha'i?

I am very interested in this and would like to help by putting some of these questions here, as well as some simple answers, based in the Writings as much as possible.  While there is already a Baha'i 101, I would like to try and offer something that is more like a friend chatting with you (as one reader described this blog). I like Baha'i 101, but a lot of people have said that they feel it is too impersonal. I think it is just a case of different styles for different people.  It doesn't really speak well of my writing, just that it responds to a different audience.

Many of you have already noticed that my articles fall into several distinct categories (humourous, administrative, analytical, to name just a few), and this may be another area to branch into.

As I've mentioned before, this blog is written for Baha'is, but it seems many people who are not Baha'i are reading it, too. Well, I'm glad.  We have nothing to hide, after all.

So once again (I've done it before here), I am asking for your assistance.  What questions would have helped you as a new Baha'i?

For what it is worth, one of mine was "What is the Covenant?"  I had asked many Baha'is this, and the conversation usually went something along these lines:
  • What is the Covenant?
  • Oh, you have to be firm in the Covenant.
  • Yes, but what is the Covenant?
  • Well, 'Abdu'l-Baha is the Centre of the Covenant.
  • Yes, but what is it?
  • It's the most important aspect of the Baha'i Faith.
  • Ok, but what is it?
  • It's what tell us to turn to the Universal House of Justice.
  • Yes, but can you tell me what is the Covenant?
  • It's an agreement.
  • Thanks, but what are we agreeing to?
  • Well, it's between you and God.
  • Ok, we may be getting somewhere now.  So what do I have to do?
  • Oh, I see.  You have to be firm in the Covenant.
It was quite frustrating, and I hope to spare anyone else the silliness of all that.  Of course, now we have those wonderful talks in Ruhi Book 2, so I'm sure nobody will ever have to suffer that again.

So, once again, thank you dear Reader for your kind support.  Now feel free to inundate my inbox with those questions.  You can send them to mead@elsewhere.ca (remember, it's not here.  It's elsewhere.)


With love and prayers,

Mead

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Feast

My family and I had the wonderful bounty of being able to host the last Feast in our home.  It was truly a joy.

Quick aside, number 1 - We had taken all the chairs in the house and put them in the living room for the friends to sit on.  Afterwards, when we had cleared and cleaned the dishes, we decided to wait on putting the furniture back.  We were just too tired.  Marielle and I went upstairs to go to sleep when she looked around the bedroom and said, "I feel like that family from Ruhi Book 2."  I glanced over inquisitively, and she continued, "The Sanchez's".  You have to understand, my wife is French, from Quebec.   "Sans chaises" means "without chairs".

OK, where was I?  Oh yes, the Feast.

As hosts for this Feast, we were asked a number of questions about it by our friends and neighbours.  A few of them wanted to attend the Feast, just to see what it was like.  We were, therefore, in the position of having explain that the Feast is for Baha'is only, and why this was the case.  This turned out to be fortunate because later on one of the Baha'is phoned and asked if she could bring a friend of hers who wasn't a Baha'i.  This friend was an Iranian Muslim who she said is very interested in the Faith.  Needless to say, we had to explain to her that this was not allowed, either.

Aside number 2 - This was a great opportunity to talk about the friends in Iran who are currently on trial for their beliefs, and the dangers they are facing.  My wife had recently been in a remote community, and there was a Baha'i visiting from Iran who gave a public talk in the local library.  She, the woman from Iran, had asked that her name not be used anywhere in the publicizing of the event.  Later, my wife had the opportunity to talk with a local person who had attended.  The person was lamenting that this talk was not better advertised, as it was a very inspirational talk.  "Why," this individual cried, "didn't the Baha'is publicize it more?"  My wife talked about the danger involved in doing so.  She said that this woman who gave the talk had to go back to Iran, and that her entire family was over there.  Publicizing the talk could have put any or all of them in grave danger, literally.  You, dear Reader, will perhaps note that I am not even giving any possible reference here that could lead back to this stalwart soul.  My wife then added, as an after thought, that this was one way in which an injustice in one part of the world could have an impact in a completely different part of the world, even so remote a community as the one in which they were.  I believe that one statement, more than anything, really shook this poor person's view of the world in which we live and made her re-consider the importance of how she act in her life.

Back to the subject at hand, that of only members of the Baha'i community being allowed to attend the Feast, it occurred to me that it might be a good subject to raise here.

For those of you who are not aware of this aspect of the law, and I know that you all know it, the Guardian said, "These 19-Day Feasts are for the Bahá'ís, and the Bahá'ís exclusively, and no variation from this principle is permitted."  But as you also know, he tempered that with, "but if a non-Bahá'í happens to come, we should not ask him to leave and hurt the person's feelings."  The Universal House of Justice has gone on to further explain that "when a non-Bahá'í does appear at a Feast he should not be asked to leave; rather the Assembly should omit the consultative part of the Feast, and the non-Bahá'í should be made welcome."

In a recent letter on this subject, the House of Justice reminded us that, while someone who is not a member of the Baha'i community might accidentally show up, we would certainly never invite a non-Baha'i to a Feast.  They have also let us know that "A non-Bahá'í, who asks to be invited to a Feast will usually understand if this matter is explained to him."  And this is the case: everyone who asked to be invited understood once it was explained to them.  In one case, it got a woman to really think about whether or not she wanted to commit to being a member of the Baha'i community.  She is still undecided, so please keep her in your prayers.

What are we explaining to them?  Why is the Feast reserved for Baha'is only?

The simplest explanation is, of course, found in the guidance from the Universal House of Justice.  They explain, so succinctly, that "the Bahá'ís should be able to enjoy perfect freedom to express their views on the work of the Cause, unembarrassed by the feeling that all they are saying is being heard by someone who has not accepted Bahá'u'lláh and who might, thereby, gain a very distorted picture of the Faith. It would also be very embarrassing for any sensitive non-Bahá'í to find himself plunged into the midst of a discussion of the detailed affairs of the Bahá'í Community of which he is not a part."

I love this explanation. It is so obvious and simple.

A friend of mine used to say that the Feast was a very boring adminsitrative thing, and that they obviously would not want to attend.  Their friend asked, "So why do you?"  My friend realized that this was actually a way of telling the person that the Faith, itself, was boring, and that they obviously would not want to be a part of it.  I think that was the last time they ever used that explanation.

My wife and I noticed that some of our friends thought that the Feast was like a church service, which they would really want to attend.  We tried, unsuccessfully, to explain that it wasn't like a service at all.  Finally we hit upon the idea that it is sort of like a meeting of the Board of Directors of a company.  While not quite accurate, it did allow us to explain a bit about why it was reserved for Baha'is.  And they really understood it then.

We explained that if they wanted anything that was even remotely similar to a church service, that would be either a devotional gathering or a fireside.  Perhaps even a study circle could have something similar.   But what we emphasized is that the Baha'i Faith is not a congregational faith.  We have no clerical class, and therefore we have to do everything ourselves.  No one can bestow any teachings upon us: we have to study for ourselves.  The study circles are not about book learning: they are about helping us learn to arise to the service of humanity.

And during the consultation portion, we are arising as individuals to meet with the Assembly to share with them our ideas and concerns.  We are getting together as a loving and tight-knit family to discuss the affairs of our household, so to speak.  There are many things that we just take for granted during that time, and we need to have the freedom, as the House of Justice said, to express our views.  Of course, when we do this, we still observe all the rules of courtesy that we expect others to share.  We offer ideas, but never criticize.   We offer suggestions, but never insist or impose.  We listen respectfully when other ideas are shared, no matter how absurd they may be (yes, everyone is so patient with me when I talk).  And we base everything upon the guidance offered us in the Writings.

If someone wishes to learn about the Baha'i Faith, a far better venue for that would be a fireside, in which we offer such loving hospitality that they feel free to ask their heartfelt questions.

The night of that Feast, one of our neighbours offered us the best, and most beautiful, gift we could imagine.  She really wanted to attend the Feast, but understood that it was just not the right venue for her to learn about the Faith.  So instead, she came over before the Feast began and asked if she could say prayers with us, in our home.  She wished to help bless our home and prepare it for us to recceive our guests.  Now, she may not have had the language skills to phrase it that way, but that is what I felt of her intentions.  And when the first of our guests arrived, she was just putting on her coat.  It would be difficult to describe the warmth and love with which she greeted our guests, as she was departing.

Yes, that Feast was truly a gift.  It was an honour to be able to host such a gathering of the Friends of God, around which circled the Concourse on High.

Besides, I don't think our house been that clean in months.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

FMD, or Foot-in-Mouth Disease

Every now and then, my sense of humour, or perhaps it's my twisted ability to make odd connections, gets me in trouble.

I know, I know. It's hard to believe, but it's true.

When I was working at the US National Centre (lo, those many years ago), I used to have a bowl of candy on my desk.  Hard candies.  The ones that you're supposed to suck on, but always seem to get crunched and chewed.  Anyways, I always had a bowl of them and people would regularly come in and grab one as they walked past and said, "Hi".  This was  bit odd, as I think my desk was about as far off the beaten path as you could get and still be in the building.

One day in February I filled my bowl with extra special candies, super flavours and all that, and put a sign in front of it that said "Happy Ayyam-i-Ha!"  For some reason that made people smile even more than usual.  A few days later I emptied the bowl into a drawer and placed a new sign in front of the now-empty bowl.  "A Yummy?  Ha!  Happy Fast."

It was about two days later that I got a note asking me to go to Robert Henderson's office.

Robert was the Secretary-General of the National Spiritual Assembly at the time, and I felt like I had been called into the principal's office.  I sheepishly made my way down the hall trying to figure out how to explain that I really didn't think the note in front of my bowl was all that offensive, and attempting to figure out how to accept the thought that it might be.  I mean, really, I didn't think it was.

I walked down the hall, trying not to look at anyone, feeling like a cross between a convict going to the gallows and Arlo Guthrie going to sit on the Group W bench.  Needless to say, I was nervous, embarrassed and wondering what was going to happen.  Surely I wouldn't get fired over something as silly as this.

Well, I got to his office, and his assistant looked at me over a letter she was reading and, without the usual smile on her face, motioned me to go on in.  So I did.

Robert, uhm, excuse me, I mean Mr Henderson looked up from what he was doing and asked, no, told me to close the door.  He went back to finishing what he was doing while I turned and did as he bid.  The sound of a closing door never seemed so loud and echoey in all my life.

And then silence.

A few dispensations later, he looked up, stood up, and walked around his desk to me.  "I understand," he said in his rich voice, "that you can teach people to juggle."

And that, I believe, was the moment that I first experienced spiritual whiplash.

For years I had worked at Renaissance Faires in the States, and one of my pasttimes at them was to teach people to juggle. It seemed he had heard about this and had always wanted to learn, but never had the chance.

As you can imagine, he picked it up very quickly and even began to juggle a bit during some of his talks.  He is one of those people who never fails to impress me with his knowledge, wisdom and ability to convey a point to an audience.  His spiritual qualities go without saying.  And if there is anything that I will remember about my time at the National Center... well, that's not all that high on the list, but I won't forget it.

There was another time that I almost shudder when recalling. I had been asked to speak about the environment, and I was given absolutely no clue as to what the audience would be like.  All I knew was where to go and when. I couldn't even remember the name of the group that invited me. Nada. Nothing. Zip.

As per my usual madness, I mean method, I prepared five or six talks on the issue and wondered what the talk would eventually be about.

I was called up, got up, and spoke up.  First, though, I said a prayer.  In fact, I said my all time favorite prayer for that sort of a situation.  It's the one that goes, "Oh God!  Help!"  I'm not sure who wrote it, or where it is in the writings, but it is one of my favorites.  In fact, I even have it memorized.

Then I spoke up.

And what came out? A Hidden Word.

One of Baha'u'llah's.

"Yeah", I thought, "can't go wrong there."

I quoted an excerpt from the Persian Hidden Words, #20.  Remember it?  It says, "ye walk on My earth complacent and self-satisfied, heedless that My earth is weary of you and everything within it shunneth you."


OK, maybe not the best quote to open with, but it sure caught their attention.  I guess they were expecting something sweet and lovely, kind of "new age"-ish in feel (remember, the Simpson's referred to the Faith in that famous line "Oh no, it's a gentle Baha'i"), and they got me, instead.  From there, I was at least able to segue it into something about our role as custodians of the planet.

Sometimes I really have to wonder why I get called back to speak again at these sorts of gigs.

A sillier example is when my wife and I went shopping.  We got home, and I jumped around back to the trunk of the car and grabbed all dozen or so bags.  She looked amused and said, "You know, I can get some of those if you want."

"Oh no," I replied, "I'm following Baha'u'llah's command."

She knew I was setting her up, and still responded, "And which command is that?"

"All men were created to carry..."

When she finished laughing, she added, "...forward an ever-advancing civilization. You clown."

It might not have been "you clown" she said, but it was pretty close.

Yeah, sometimes my sense of humour gets me into trouble.  In fact, I'm still expecting a phone call from one of the Counsellors (or at least an Auxiliary Board member) about this blog.

Fortunately, the Concourse on High always seems to come to my aid.

I guess it just makes sense.  After all, they say that God looks after fools and small children.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Capture the Flagging Attention

The other day I attended a presentation on another faith path, and it really got me thinking.  Oh, not about their traditions, but about the presentation.  In fact, it reminded me so much of so many other presentations I have heard in the past that I felt I had to comment on it.

I have nothing against the particular tradition that was shared that evening, in fact there is quite a bit that I think it has to offer, but you would be hard pressed to tell that from the presentation.

Now, I don't mean to overly criticize the presenters, for they were quite good when they were speaking from their hearts, but the prepared stuff reminded me a bit too much of a shopping list.  And to be honest, most presenters do this when put in the position they were in.  They had been asked to speak about their faith before a group of people who, for most part, knew nothing of their traditions.

So what did they do that got my hackles up?  They gave a list of their beliefs.  Like I said, a shopping list.

A few years ago, I happened to catch a radio show called "The Age of Persuasion", on CBC, and it really caught my attention.  He said something in there that made so much sense I haven't forgotten it.  The show, in case you are not aware of it, is about advertising.  Yes, you read it correctly: advertising.  A show about commercials.

To summarize that episode, he spoke about the beginning of advertising as we know it.  According to the host, it all began with the one-sheets, single sheet newspapers that were printed to convey the news, and when there was space left over, they ran a few ads.  Those ads usually read something like "John's Stationers.  Paper, envelopes and pens."  Pretty catchy, no?  No.

After unsuccessfully running these ads for a few decades, the people writing the copy for them made an amazing discovery: verbs.  Soon afterwards, these literary gems would read something like "Come to John's Stationers.  See our paper, envelopes and pens."

As you can imagine, the response was somewhat underwhelming.

It wasn't until much later that these geniuses of the market discovered what people around campfires have known since ancient times: we remember stories.

Soon, the marketers were turning out stories like there was no tomorrow, each of which showcased their product saving the day.  And were they successful? Well, how many of us can picture Santa Claus, that iconic spokesman of Coca-Cola?  Or did you think the red and white was coincidental?  Well, ok, the colours were coincidental at first, but not for long.

And that is only a single example of many.  Most of the commercials we recall today are, in their essence, a short story.

Needless to say, we have come a long way in our understanding of how to capture people's attention since the early 1900s.

So why is it that when someone asks the average Baha'i what the Faith is all about, we rattle off some list of "basic principals"?  All right, maybe that's not quite the case any more, what with the brilliant presentation in Ruhi Book 6, but it is still common enough for me to comment on it.  Especially after the presentation the other night.

Yes, we believe in one God, but who doesn't?  Sure we recognize the equality of women and men, but you have to go to the fringes of society to find people who don't believe that these days (at least in most countries).  Racial equality?  It's been planted in the hearts of the young for more than a generation now.  Yes we have a long way to go, but everyone would agree with the basic idea.

No, if we want to convey the dramatic importance of the Faith, we have to convey the stories, as well as the Word of God.  In fact, I would venture to guess that for most of us, the stories are what will capture the attention.  It is the Word of God that will maintain the interest.

But for now, we should really revise the way we introduce the Faith.  To say that we believe in "the oneness of God, the oneness of humanity and the oneness of religion" does not even begin to convey the majesty and beauty of these ideas.

When we say "God, throughout history, has sent down different Messengers to help guide humanity", then we begin to throw off a spark that may ignite within their heart.  When we combine this with the uplifting and dramatic poetry we find within the Writings, then we are tossing some fuel onto that fire.

When asked if we believe in life after death, why should we even think of answering 'yes' or 'no'?  It is not a yes or no question.  It is a question of vision, and how we perceive this world and the next.  We can speak about death being made "a messenger of joy" to us, and proceed to talk about the uplifting vision that Baha'u'llah has bestowed upon us of the next world, a world wholly unlike anything we have seen here, as different from this world as this one is from the womb we left behind.

We are the followers of a faith that is mystical at its core, uplifting in its effect, world-embracing, transforming, sacred and completely practical in its application.  This is not something that can be conveyed in just a few lines, a few points, or a simple yes or no.

Behind every Book that was penned by the Blessed Beauty, behind every line in each one of those Books, and hidden within each word of those precious lines lies a story that will move us to tears of joy and feats of heroism.

Prior to the advent of the Primal Point, the Bab, it is said that all the Prophets had only revealed two of the twenty-seven letters of knowledge.  The Bab revelaed the remaining twenty-five letters.  So what did that leave for Baha'u'llah?  Perhaps He used those letters to reveal Words.

And now we can use His words to tell a story.

Training

The Blessed Perfection suffered innumerable ordeals and calamities, but during His lifetime He trained in all regions many souls who were peerless. The purpose of the appearance of the Manifestations of God is the training of the people. That is the only result of Their mission, the real outcome. The outcome of the whole life of Jesus was the training of eleven disciples and two women. Why did He suffer troubles, ordeals and calamities? For the training of these few followers. That was the result of His life. The product of the life of Christ was not the churches but the illumined souls of those who believed in Him. Afterward, they spread His teachings.

It is my hope that you all may become the product of the life of Bahá'u'lláh and the outcomes of His heavenly training. When the people ask you, "What has Bahá'u'lláh accomplished?" say to them, "He has created these; He has trained us."
This is one my favorite quotes from 'Abdu'l-Baha, found in Promulgation of Universal Peace.  Why is this one of my favorites?  For starters, it places the whole mission of Jesus into a perspective that we rarely see, and yet, it is one that makes so much sense.  It obviously conforms to the historical reality as we know it.

But what really touches me is the concept of training and the role it plays in the development of a civilization.  After all, those study circles we all engage in, those study groups we join to do the Ruhi books, are part of the training institute.  This begs the question, "What is training?"

If we look in the dictionary, it cleverly tells us that training means "the education, instruction, or discipline of a person or thing that is being trained".  Maybe it's just me, but I think that definitions that include the defined word in it are generally useless, and so we now have to look up the word "train".

According to the dictionary, the verb form of the word "train" means "to develop or form the habits, thoughts, or behavior of" and individual.  Now we're getting somewhere.  When looking at the origin of the word, it seems to come from a previous term meaning "to instruct" or "to drag behind".  Well, that often describes what the training looks like from the perspective of the instructor: dragging the unwilling students forward.  Fortunately that's not what it looks like in a study circle.

But let's look at this in the context of the Faith (after all, isn't that why we're here), and the training institute.

What is involved in training?  What is its purpose?  How do we measure it?

Training requires instruction, repetition and action.  Measurement is easy: we look at the results of the action.  And it is always for a purpose.  So what is the purpose of the training that 'Abdu'l-Baha refers to?

While I am not completely certain, I would venture to guess that it is service to humanity for the goal of helping to establish a divine civilization.  And don't we all need training in that?  I mean, really, no one has ever built a divine civilization before.  We may have the blueprints, but now, as the builders, we need on-the-job training.

So how does this training in the training institute work?  Sort of like training in sports, I believe.

We begin each session with a bit of a warm-up, otherwise known as prayers.  From there, looking at the curriculum, we start with simple exercises, designed to develop the most basic habit of all: looking at the Writings.

I have to point out, here, that I have noticed an amazing difference between myself and those who have entered into the Faith under the guidance of the training institute.  When I am consulting in a group, my inclination, unfortunately, is to add in my own ideas and perspective as we go along (in case you haven't noticed).  Those more mature believers who have recently enrolled are always turning to the Writings first, for guidance.  This, for them, is a habit they don't even need to think about.  They just do it, and presume that we all do.  God bless them, for they will propel the Faith forward in its development far faster and more efficiently than a thousand poor souls like yours truly.

So, there you have it.  The first requirement for training: developing a habit.  And which habit, in particular, are we interested in?  Turning to the Writings (after saying those prayers).

The practice, as you know, in the first unit of Ruhi Book 1 is to read a bit of the Writings every morning and evening.  When we do this, those Writings begin to shape our very thoughts.  We find ourselves drawing upon them more and more, and this to greater effect when we have them memorized.  I like to think of it as the dietary regime for our training.  And once our thoughts are beginning to be shaped by them, our actions soon follow.

There is also a pattern, or method, to the training.  When you work with a sports trainer, they have a program already in mind.  They work on multiple skills simultaneously, ensuring that the simple skills are well developed before moving on to the more complex skills.

This is true in the Ruhi books, too.  We begin the whole thing with a section on deeds, or action.   It is no coincidence that the first quote in the entire curriculum, out of all the myriad quotes they could have used, is "The betterment of the world can be accomplished through pure and goodly deeds, through commendable and seemly conduct."  After all, if our spiritual life does not result in deeds, what good is it?

But those deeds must be based in truthfulness, which is the second topic addressed.  After all, if our deeds are not truthful, what good are they?  However, it is possible to do something, be truthful and really hurt someone ("Golly, that dress really makes you look fat").

Kindness is needed, and is therefore the third topic.  We must be kind, for if we are not, we can say as much truth as we want, but the people will never listen.  Their hearts will be closed to us, and to our words.

Finally, we may actually do something, be truthful and think that we are being kind, but discover we are backbiting.  Backbiting?  Don't do it. Nothing will destroy the bonds of trust and love within a community faster than backbiting and gossip.  Everything towards which we are working will truly come to nothing if we are backbiting.

This last section, the one on backbiting, makes many of us nervous.  At least it made me nervous.  Why?  Because in it Baha'u'llah tells us that "backbiting quencheth the light of the heart, and extinguisheth the life of the soul".  Extinguishes the life of the soul?  What?  You mean to say that the life of my soul has been extinguished?  It's gone?  That's it?

Fortunately, someone heard my panic and took solace on me.  The very next unit is all about prayer, which "kindles" my soul.

There you have it.  If the soul is extinguished, prayer will re-ignite it.

And all of this is only the opening unit (plus a bit), the first of three in only the first book.

Now that we have been properly trained, regularly turn to the Writings before...  What?  What do you mean, "What if you haven't?"

Ok, let's take a quick peek, once again, in Unit 1 of Book 1.  Section 4, to be precise.  You know that question about "list 5 virtues"?  Well, as a tutor who has been trained with some pretty smart cookies, I learned to always ask the group to answer those questions in that section on their own before discussing them.  Now, this is a secret trick, so please don't tell anyone.  While they are answering that first question, I'm watching them. Do they flip back looking for those 5 virtues?  Of course!  We all do.  We all fell for that trick.

Oh, we didn't?  Well then, those that don't flip back are the ones I ask to answer the next question, "How can a kindly tongue be described?"  I can just about guarantee that they will give some long-winded, wonderful answer that has nothing to do with the quote.  By simply asking, "Thanks, and what does the quote say?" they are now trained to look back at the Writings.  Works every time.

But enough of that.

Now that we are looking at the Writings, our heart naturally turns to our Creator in thanks.  We pray.  It is so natural a response that it's almost silly to have a unit on it.  But silly it is not.  It is an important habit that we must continually develop, and we like to cultivate that.  The practice, however, is a bit interesting: study a prayer with someone.  We are not asked to pray with someone (although that is good), nor memorize a prayer with someone (which is also good), but to study it.

Why is that?

Again, I won't profess to have an authoritative answer, just one that works for me. I like to study a prayer with others because it helps make that mind/heart connection, which is so vital if we are to get as much as possible out of the Writings.  We always find more in the prayers than we dreamed of, and discover new perspectives that enrich our spiritual life.

This mind/heart conection is so important a part of our training, and one that was continually iterated and re-iterated (and re-re-iterated) by the Central Figures of our Faith.  It is, to my eye, the foundation of the principal of the independant investigation of truth.

And through it all, we are continually shown how to apply the Writings in action.  This is our training, a pattern that was established so early in our history.

I could go on and on, quoting those marvelous messages from the Universal House of Justice and the International Teaching Centre about the importance of the training institutes, and continue to describe what you already know about the Ruhi books, but really, I think that's enough for now.

Training requires the imparting of basic knowledge, repetition until that basic knowledge sinks in and becomes a habit, and the application of that knowledge.  Once the basics are mastered, or at least accomplished with a fair degree of facility, then we can go on to more complex tasks, until they, too, become second nature.

And this, to me, is what the Manifestations of God try to help us do.  They train us in virtuous behaviour, in such a manner so that it becomes second nature to do a virtuous act.

Come to think of it, that is the secret behind the parable of Good Samaritan, isn't it?  He did what needed to be done without even giving it a second thought.

Hopefully my son will be able to arise to that level of service.  I know I still give it a second thought, but who knows?  There may be hope for me yet.

At least when people ask me "What has Baha'u'llah done?"  I can point to those other Baha'is around me and say, "Well, He has trained them."