Monday, February 15, 2010


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.

1 comment:

  1. "Why did the Baha'is spend so much money on the Temple?" [Derisive snort.] The National budget of the Faith in one year is a fraction of what every neighborhood church spends. Who looks at every church or other temple on the corner and asks how the congregation can spend so much? Anyway, if a church or temple is a house of God, we can't make it too jazzy.