Friday, April 29, 2011

Spiritual Starvation, part 2

I'm sorry this post has taken so long to get out. I've been fighting a silly cough, and it has left my head a bit more fuzzy than usual.

My last post on this topic talked a bit about this sense of spiritual starvation that some of the friends have mentioned to me. In that post, as you know, I only really spoke about the Administration and, as one reader pointed out so well, acknowledged how we are still at the very beginning of this whole process of building the Baha'i civilization.

Before anything else, I'd like to take a quick look at some of these other traditions that a few friends are turning towards and see what it is that they offer. To do so, I'm going to look at my own life and my own particular leanings. After all, this is all about how I approach my own faith (hence the name onebahai), so why not start there?

As some of you may know by now, I grew up in a Jewish community. One of my most cherished memories from childhood is the annual Passover Seder, in which my cousins' grandfather, Grandpa Leo, presided over the ceremony. I loved all the little details of it, from the yarmulke he wore to the search for the "passover gelt", which was usually a silver dollar hidden somewhere in the house.

Odd as it may seem, we also celebrated Christmas. And one of my favorite things during that time was, as you can probably tell from my posts about Ayyam-i-Ha, the Christmas stockings. There was something absolutely delightful about running downstairs on Christmas morning and finding one of my socks absolutely stuffed to overflowing with little gifts. (I won't even go into the magical moment of running downstairs and seeing the ashen footprints leading from the fireplace to the Christmas tree.)

Yeah. These are precious moments, indeed.

But what are the magical moments that my son will grow up with? What are those moments of tradition that we find within the Faith?

Too often, when I ask this question, I am faced with the indignant reply of, "Oh, well we don't have any rituals within the Baha'i Faith."

While it may be true that we don't have any rituals, in the sense of the term that the Guardian used it, this does not mean that we don't have any traditions. In fact, we have a great many traditions, some of which are actually useful (in my opinion).

Aside: I remember one evening a number of years ago when I was renting a room in a family's house. I came down to prepare some dinner only to discover the mother with a hacksaw (yes, a hacksaw in the kitchen) cutting off the end (aren't you worried now) of the (isn't the suspense just killing you) bone on a (ewwwww) leg of lamb. (What were you thinking?) She was working quite hard at getting rid of the knot on the bone that goes into the hip joint. And so I asked her why she was doing this. She looked at me kind of puzzled, and said, "Well, my mother always did this."


She wasn't sure, so we got on the phone and called her mom. When asked about this, her mom replied, "Well, my mom always did it."

And so we got on the phone and called her grandmother.

"Grandma," my friend asked, "why did you always cut off the knob on the end of the bone on the leg of lamb when cooking it? Did it release more of the juices from the bone marrow, or something?" See? We were trying to consider why this would be.

"Oh, no," she said. "The oven was small, and it wouldn't fit in unless I cut it down."

It took me a long time to stop laughing. And even longer to not giggle whenever she made any sort of roast in the oven. In fact, I'm still giggling as I type this.

All this to say that some rituals are quite empty of the original meaning.

But some rituals are just wonderful, adding, as they do, a sense of beauty to our life.

It is not uncommon for my wife and I to light candles, or burn incense, or even use a bit of attar of rose when saying our prayers. This adds a greater dimension of beauty to an otherwise sacred moment.

And that, dear Reader, is what I wanted to mention. There have been some cases where a few of the friends, not the majority by any stretch of the imagination, have so reacted against the empty traditions of their childhood (or young adulthood) that they condemn all such traditions. In a very few cases this has led to some rather dry and dusty prayer gatherings, as one friend put it.

You see, the friends, in general, know that prayers are supposed to be beautiful and uplifting, and so they seek that out. Syndey Sprague, in his book "A Year with the Baha'is in India and Burma", made a very interesting observation on this phenomena. He noticed with surprise that the Persian Baha'is were always joyous and laughing. He pointed out they "do not take their religion, as did our ancestors the Puritans, with long faces and acid countenances. Religion is a thing of joy to them, and they rejoice in the spirit and are glad."

In so much of the guidance we find references to the need for beauty, and the importance of joy. And while everyone's intentions are pure, without any doubt, there are some cultural things that just don't translate well, especially in a prayer gathering.

I remember when my wife and I went down to Martinique. We attended a Feast, and while someone was saying a prayer, another person walked in late. Now this did not bother me. I'm actually used to it from my own past. People always come in late, but they usually wait by the door. In Martinique, however, the person reading the prayer stopped in mid-sentence and warmly welcomed the late-comer. This new person then went around and shook everyone's hands before sitting down. Once the greetings were finished, we all sat back down and the reader continued from the beginning of the paragraph where he had left off.

In the north, where I live, we generally read our prayers rather monotonously, or chant in a language most of us can't understand. And while both are beautiful in their way, to someone coming from a southern Baptist background, it sure seems boring. Nobody is jumping up and yelling "Ya! Baha'u'l'Abha!" No one is dancing in the aisles. There are no tears of joy as the Lord's Name is being read aloud. "What is wrong with these people", some may think.

Now that may not be my preferred style either, but it is a good and beautiful way to pray. And to one who is used to this, they may feel a sense of spiritual starvation without it.

It is for this, or similar reasons, that some of my friends have turned to Shamanism, or other similar practices when looking to fulfill their longing for a spiritual life. There is a mystique about it. There is a sense of beauty in the performance of a prayer. It touches them deep down somewhere within the core of their being. And let's not forget that religion is, at its core, fundamentally mystical, even though we also acknowledge that it is in accord with science.

And when they try to find that within the Baha'i community, they are sometimes shot down for it.

I remember a Native American friend of mine who wanted to smudge before the devotions at a Feast. This involves taking some sage, or sweet grass, depending on the tradition, and burning it. He had a large shell in which he would burn it, and then would use a bird's wing to fan it to keep it smoking. The smoke would then be "washed" over the individual to purify them, much like water with ablutions. It is a beautiful ceremony, laden with meaning.

But he was told "we don't do such things in the Baha'i Faith".

And that was where someone else lovingly disagreed.

"You may not do such things," they said, "but I do. As long as it is not against anything in the Writings, I will gladly do it." And they did.

It was a very confirming moment for me.

It made me realize just how inclusive this Faith of ours really is.

There is nothing in the Writings that I have found that says we cannot use incense. There is nothing that says we cannot dance for joy during our devotions, except in a House of Worship, but that is for different reasons. There is nothing that says we cannot anoint each other with rose oil, or smudge, if that is our preferred tradition.

Oh, and there is also ample guidance about what is appropriate during the devotional portion of a Feast, which is quite different from a Devotional Gathering. During the latter we have ample opportunity and latitude to experiment.

The purpose of prayer is to commune with our Creator. And if any of these things help us in that, then well and good.

But, as usual, there is a caution. Within many of the traditions that my friends are turning towards, there is the danger of the ego. When someone styles themselves "master" or "sensei" or some other grandiose title, I always take a step back to see if it is deserved. There are, sadly, too many people I have met in other traditions who are actually quite egotistical, and use their "hidden" knowledge to hold power over others. This is not of God. God does not hide His teachings. They are there for all to see.

When Jesus said that He had many other things to share, but that we could not bear them, He was not hiding His knowledge. He was protecting us. When humanity is ready, the knowledge is freely given.

And so, when turning to these other traditions, I always have to ask myself, "Am I looking for power? Or connection?" If the first, then there is an ego problem. If the second, cool.

But coming back to the Baha'i devotions, there are still many questions we can ask.

Can we have a sweat lodge as part of the devotions? Sure. Why not? If you have a 10 hour Feast and 3 hours for devotion? Why not have a sweat?

What? You haven't heard about those wonderful communities where the Feast lasts all day? I think we should experiment with this more in the West, where we tend to rush so much to do things that are not really all that important. Perhaps if we dedicated an entire day on a weekend to the Feast, we might just find that we advance by leaps and bounds in our teaching efforts. Who knows?

You see, it reminds me of what 'Abdu'l-Baha once said:

Whensoever holy souls, drawing on the powers of heaven, shall arise with such qualities of the spirit, and march in unison, rank on rank, every one of those souls will be even as one thousand, and the surging waves of that mighty ocean will be even as the battalions of the Concourse on high. What a blessing that will be -- when all shall come together, even as once separate torrents, rivers and streams, running brooks and single drops, when collected together in one place will form a mighty sea. And to such a degree will the inherent unity of all prevail, that the traditions, rules, customs and distinctions in the fanciful life of these populations will be effaced and vanish away like isolated drops, once the great sea of oneness doth leap and surge and roll.

I swear by the Ancient Beauty, that at such a time overwhelming grace will so encircle all, and the sea of grandeur will so overflow its shores, that the narrowest strip of water will grow wide as an endless sea, and every merest drop will be even as the shoreless deep.

Does this mean that we won't have any traditions? I don't think so. I think it means that these traditions won't be the cause of separation. They will be the cause of unity and celebration. Instead of negatively saying, "Oh, that's not of my tradition", we will, instead, positively react and say, "That is so beautiful".

And so, in conclusion, all I can say is that I think this is all part of the great cycle in which we find ourselves. It is a marvelous part of the on-going crisis and victory as we learn what this up and coming Baha'i community looks like.

So, am I concerned that some of my friends are seeking spiritual connection in other traditions? No. Of course not. I only hope that they bring back the beauty that they find and share it with the rest of us.

1 comment:

  1. Great post, Mead. I was brought up in the High Church tradition of the Church of England. When I became a Baha'i I missed (and still sometimes miss) the stately processions and beautiful choral music. (I watched the marriage of Prince William on TV this morning, relishing the theatre of the whole process.) I have toyed with the idea of applying Gregorian chant to Baha'i prayers - Gregorian chant is intended for non-metrical texts like the Baha'i Writings, and is a Western spiritual tradition.

    Last year I was a guest at the Pesach Seder of the President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. Around 20 of us, family and friends, sat down to follow the Haggadah and the various Pesach rituals and to enjoy a huge meal. Now, an 8-hour religious ritual is a long one, but I thought it a wonderful festival of hospitality. I also saw where some of the Christian traditions that I had followed as a child and teenager came from!

    Some years ago I was present as a Hindu Pandit made puja at an inter-faith meeting. It was lovely, appealing to many senses as well as being spiritually uplifting.

    I feel sure that we Baha'is will feel more confident in adding the richness of the arts to our Feasts and Holy Day celebrations and devotional meetings as the community matures and as more of the diverse peoples of the world recognise Baha'u'llah.

    I feel sure that our Feasts and Holy Day celebrations will become richer as the Faith gets older!