Thursday, March 3, 2011

Spiritual Starvation, part 1

A number of friends in the past few years have commented that they are not finding what they need spiritually within the Faith. They are, for the most part, turning to shamanism, or some similar path, to meet their spiritual needs. They are still Baha'is, and quite active within the community, but finding some solace in this other path.

And I, for one, have been wondering why?

Oh, not that there is anything wrong with shamanism. I, too, happen to love it, but I am just wondering why it is that they feel that the Faith is not meeting their needs.

Not one to shy away from such questions, and very grateful that these friends have each felt comfortable enough in our friendship to confide in me, I decided to pursue this and see if we could, together, discover what it is that they feel is missing in their spiritual life.

Just asking was enough to get them started. Once they began talking and exploring what it was that they were feeling, they all came to virtually the same conclusion: They were feeling the need for spiritual connection, and they didn't feel it within the Baha'i community.

Interesting, I thought. And very revealing.

Once they came to that realization, they all realized that it wasn't the Faith that was lacking in this, but just their own connection with the community, or perhaps their particular community. I'm not really sure, and have no desire to go there, as it could easily lead to inappropriate judgement (not that there is any appropriate kind).

Either way, we explored what the Writings said, looked at the guidance from the Universal House of Justice, and generally talked about our lives, both as human beings and as members of the Baha'i community.

There are a number of questions that were raised by this exploration: What is this spiritual connection they are talking about? And how does the shamanistic tradition offer it to them? Most importantly, what does the Baha'i Faith offer that also fulfills this same need, and how can they reach it?

But the first thing we looked into was how they perceived the Baha'i community. A few of these friends, when they thought of the Faith, they said that what came to their mind was a stuffy group of Assemblies and committees. Now, of course, they knew that this was not a good representation of the Faith, but it is what came to their mind. (I really appreciate their honesty there.)

In fact, they saw a distinct separation between the spirit of the Faith that initially attracted them, and the practical day-to-day running of the Faith with the Administration.

The thing I found most interesting (and please remember that this is only my own opinion and nothing "official") was that they mostly saw the Administration as an adjunct to the Faith, and not really having naything to do with the spiritual needs they had. When asked about the Administration, they virtually all talked about the incredible number of committees, the unending agendas that dealt with trivial minutiae, and the extreme attention to "irrelevant" details. In other words, they felt that someone forgot that, as the Guardian says, the Administration "should never be regarded as an end in itself but purely as a means to canalize and make effective a spiritual vitality generated by the Word of God in the hearts of the believers." In another letter, we read that all of these Assemblies and committees, the whole administrative structure is there "to blow on the fire newly kindled in the hearts of these people who have accepted the Faith". He also says, so beautifully, "To dissociate the administrative principles of the Cause from the purely spiritual and humanitarian teachings would be tantamount to a mutilation of the Body of the Cause, a separation that can only result in the disintegration of its component parts, and the extinction of the Faith itself." This latter quote, in relation to their own inner spirit, really hit home. For both of us.

I believe we need to constantly remember that service to the Faith should be a source of joy. Our work in the Administration should also be a joy. If it isn't, if our service in the administration of the Faith is draining our personal joy and strength, perhaps that is a sign that something is not quite in line with the Writings, and bears examining.

But also on that point, we need to remember that the Administration of the Faith should always serve the needs of the community. We should never have a committee, for example, unless the needs of the Faith demand it. The Universal House of Justice says it so well in the 28 December 2010 message, when describing the increasing complexity in which an Assembly will function as it grows in maturity. They say that such administrative functions "may in time include the judicious appointment of committees". It may. And these appointments should be wise and prudent, never random or haphazard.

This seeming hesitancy would really change things in some communities where I have seen up to 70% of a community serving on committees. Of course, this is far rarer these days with the increased awareness of the current Plan, and the further development of the Training Institute, but for some, the memory lingers.

This still doesn't address the issue of fulfilling the spiritual needs of the individual. That only addresses what many of us have already discovered: over-administration can stifle the spirit just as much, if not more, than under-administration. A careful balance is needed.

So what are some of the needs that have to be fulfilled?

A simple, but insufficient, answer would be prayer. But this doesn't really say anywhere near what needs to be said. After all, many of us have also discovered that prayer, or, more precisely, the mere recitation of prayers is not enough. Action is also required.

But I think I have gone on enough here today. I'll talk a bit more about this tomorrow. Or maybe the next. The Fast can make life so unpredictable.


  1. I absolutely understand feeling spiritually left out in the Baha'i Faith. While everything you say about the Administration is true, there is also another aspect. We are not really in the Baha'i Faith yet, we are in its nascent form. We do not yet have a community that worships together profoundly, or a strong and consistent form of mutual deepening. We are still growing into the fullness of the community that Baha'u'llah envisions, and those of us who have recognized the Faith in this day, while given other great bounties, are given the task of building the institutions of worship and study, the bonds of support and the institutional capacity to help individuals through rough spots. This is still very much a community that demands that you take care of yourself. Someday we will have houses of worship in every community with rich, regular worship. Someday we will find the balance between deepening new believers (Ruhi) and coming together to dive into the writings. The community is so small today that we each must decide if we are willing to bear the extra burden of belonging to a community that is not yet finished.

  2. I suggest you send your shamanistic seekers on a spiritual quest, to discover "what is the Mashriqu'l-Adhkar." The mystic, as distinct from the obvious, answer to the question will set them on their way towards a different understanding of Bahai life.

    Abdu'l-Baha wrote:

    It befitteth the friends to hold a gathering, a meeting, where they shall glorify God and fix their hearts upon Him, and read and recite the Holy Writings ... The lights of the All-Glorious Realm, the rays of the Supreme Horizon, will be cast upon such bright assemblages, for these are none other than the Mashriqu'l-Adhkars, the Dawning-Points of God's Remembrance, which must, at the direction of the Most Exalted Pen, be established in every hamlet and city ... (Selections from the Writings of `Abdu'l-Baha, pages 93-94)


    and of course Jackson Armstrong-Ingram's book, Music, Devotions and the Mashriqu'l-Adhkar

  3. One can, as a Bahai, step toward the edge of complete reliance upon God and find that the 'spirituality' one sought is available through one's own actions. Detachment, sacrifice, done for the sake of the Cause of God and love of His Will--results in those feelings being awakened. It does not depend upon one's percieved station of 'others', only in one's own willingness to be obedient to just one tiny request God puts forth.

  4. I so relate to this post.
    Fernandez, what you say seems to make sense, but what of the power that the still new undiluted, undivided Revelation has? Why are people not finding solace, spirituality, rejuvenation from the Faith then?

  5. I believe that these Baha'is who seek solace in shamanism are comparing apples and oranges. Shamanism is a system for attaining social and mental balance through healing of the spirit. It would seem that these folks come to faith without the equipment needed for a religion that is in the process of reshaping the world -- and then find fault with the struggle to put that in place. In any case, the purpose of religion isn't really psychological and social support -- the purpose of shamanism is.

  6. I find deep meditation and reflection on the Holy Writings very helpful for spiritual growth. Also, devotional gatherings done with small circles of friends nurture the spirit and always make me feel refreshed and cleansed. You have to detach from physical distractions and set your mind and heart towards Truth, reflect deeply on your life, where it is now and what it could be. You'll find immeasurable joy and strength within yourself...