Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Arts

(Please imagine me standing on a dark stage, with a single white spotlight illuminating me. I'm talking in a deep, somber voice, sounding very serious.)

"I am an artist."

(I pause, look at various points of the audience, and continue speaking, slowly, one phrase at a time, in that voice that always denotes something important.)

"My job, in society, is to share ideas, perspectives, thoughts, things in ways you haven't seen before. Through this, it is my hope, and intention, of helping move you, and society, indeed all of civilization, towards something better, bigger, broader, more beautiful than before."

(Don't you like that alliteration? It just came naturally to me.) (Oh, sorry. I don't mean to interrupt me. I'll try not to do it again.)

"Society is like a line, drawn back through history, looking at the world through a single lens. It is the artist who moves off to the side, views reality from a different vantage point, and reports back what they have witnessed."

(George Takei in some of his more recent roles. That's the voice I'm hoping you hear. Deep. Slight British accent, even though he's not British. Perhaps cultured is the word I want. Like a professor explaining something  to his students.) (Oh, sorry. I interrupted me again. My apologies.)

"When you see something from a single point, the effect of parallax is lost. The world becomes two-dimensional, loses its depth, becomes, shall we say, more dangerous. Without depth, you miss things. You more easily run into objects. You can get hurt. And there is a sad loss of context.

"With the artist, things regain perspective. Depth is added once more. Things you never dreamed of are revealed.

"But. There is a caution. The artist must be able to report back so that the audience can follow. If not, they are deemed crazy. Their work is scorned. Discounted. Dismissed. They can, at times, be deemed a danger. This can have drastic results. Stravinsky, for example, discovered this in Paris, in 1913, May 29th. This was the same time that 'Abdu'l-Baha, Himself, was in Paris."

(I didn't actually know that. I googled the date of the premiere of the Rite of Spring, just out of curiosity, and was struck by it. It seemed familiar. A quick search in "'Abdu'l-Baha in Their Midst" showed that the dates coincided. Kind of cool, that.)

Let me step back for a moment. Back to my regular voice.

There is so much written about the arts in the Baha'i Writings, and the importance of them. When I was letting the above words flow down, it occurred to me just how similar the role of the artist is to that of the Messenger of God, although on the micro scale, not the macro. When depth is lost, and things lose their context, that is when the Messenger appears.

While we all know that famous line from the Master, "Among the greatest of all great services is the education of children...", how many of us know the rest of it? "...(A)nd the promotion of the various sciences, crafts and arts." He goes on, in that same passage, to say, "The more ye persevere in this most important task, the more will ye witness the confirmations of God, to such a degree that ye yourselves will be astonished." He calls the teaching of the sciences and arts "the unshakeable foundation".

As with all things spiritual, there are many themes or concepts that we find are just not expressible in words. For that, the arts will often serve better. Once again, that elusive fourth Valley comes to mind.

But just this morning, the initial impetus for this article, I saw a short video that perfectly expressed this, and I will leave it with you for your consideration in how it applies to the teaching of the Faith.

(If you can't see the video, try clicking here.)


"Even the sword", 'Abdu'l-Baha is reported to have said, while in the West, "is no test to the Persian believers. They are given a chance to recant; they cry out instead: 'Ya Baha'u'l-Abha!' Then the sword is raised," - He shot up His arm as though brandishing a sword - "they cry out all the more 'Ya Baha'u'l-Abha!' But some of the people here are tested if I don't say 'How do you do?'"

There is something profound about this amusing story, as one would only expect.

I mean, look at it: He is describing the profound tests that the believers in Iran had to face, and still face. And yet, when He was in the West, there are many stories of stalwart believers, heroes of our Faith, who suffered from what I can only call panic attacks if He didn't look at them in the morning and say, "How are you?" He was busy, far busier than I can ever imagine being, and He gave so much of both His time and His Self. Surely we could forgive Him for paying attention to those who seemed to be far more in need of His attention.

But I don't think that He was criticizing anyone in particular. I think He was, instead, teaching us a lesson. Or, at least, trying to.

You see, it may just be me, but I think that religion here in the West is kind of strange. It seems that we struggle to believe that God loves us.

In Persia, they not only accept that God loves them, they were able to see firsthand that love in the Person of Baha'u'llah. They were so fully and completely committed to the Faith that they were ready to die for it. That is where they were at. Their test was that others couldn't accept their belief, but they knew that there was nothing that they could do about that, except pray.

But here, in the West, we still haven't quite believed that God could possibly love us.

This, in a sense, seems natural, for in the West we are so far from the point of origin, the cradle of the Faith. We haven't seen a Messenger here. But there, they could not deny it, for He was right in their midst. They could feel His love, see it. It was very real to them.

Perhaps that is one of the reasons why the Master's visit here is considered so important. When He was a prisoner, there were only a few people who were able to make the journey over there to actually be in His presence. They brought back such wonderful stories, but they couldn't convey what it actually felt like to be in His presence. They tried, and it is wonderful to read what they described, but it still fails to convey the reality. It is, in a way, like that fourth Valley that I've been having trouble writing about. Words just fail to convey. "The pen groaneth and the ink sheddeth tears..."

When He was here, all the friends were able to see, and feel, what it was like to be with One Who was that spiritual. We began to get a taste of what it was like to be in the presence of a Manifestation of God, even though the Master was not a Manifestation. But it was far more than we had ever seen. "For wide as is the gulf that separates 'Abdu'l-Bahá from Him Who is the Source of an independent Revelation," says Shoghi Effendi of this experience, "it can never be regarded as commensurate with the greater distance that stands between Him Who is the Center of the Covenant and His ministers who are to carry on His work, whatever be their name, their rank, their functions or their future achievements."

All this just to say how much awe I feel for the friends in Iran, how important I think the Master's visit to the West was, and how pathetic I am when I think about complaining of something in my life.

I guess I better go and do the vacuuming.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

A Ladder for the Soul

You may have noticed that I haven't written much this past week. Sorry about that. I had a very minor surgery, and it seemed that the rest of my body knew that something was going on. In other words, it took a bit more out of me than I expected. And I wasn't quite prepared for that, so, in short, no articles this week.

But I'm back on my feet, my head is relatively cleared, and I'm thinking about as goodly as I normally do. (No comments from the peanut gallery, thank you very much.)

Oh, and Marielle was out of town, which meant that I had to look after Shoghi while recuperating. He was wonderful, so helpful, and really took care of his Papa. That's me. I can't tell you how grateful I am to the little bug.

Then last night, just to cap things off, Marielle got back in town at 5, and we were asked to give a presentation on Music and Spirituality at 6. Tons of fun, that. We really had a good time. (I can't speak for the audience, but we enjoyed ourselves.)

Anyways, amidst all the talk about the importance of music, many pieces of quotes were shared, and some very interesting ideas were expressed (mostly by people other than myself).

I could mention that we talked about how intoning a verse, as in the phrase "Intone, O My servant, the verses of God" kindles your own soul, and how kindling ignites a fire where there is none, or increases it where there is one. I could also mention how 'Abdu'l-Baha says that music is "worthy of the highest praise", and that it is "necessary that the schools teach it". I could mention all sorts of things about how music "is spiritual food for soul and heart", and "is divine and effective", and so on and so forth. But I won't. (Besides, I already did.)

Instead I want to talk briefly about how Baha'u'llah says that music is "a ladder by which souls may ascend to the realm on high."

When I searched the Writings of Baha'u'llah for other "ladders", I found that He said "Knowledge is as wings to man's life, and a ladder for his ascent." "Obligatory prayer", He said elsewhere, "is a ladder of ascent for the believer." This last is like an echo of Muhammad's statement, where He said "Prayer is a ladder by which everyone may ascend to Heaven."

Knowledge, prayer and music: three ladders by which mankind can ascend.

It would be very easy to go into a lengthy comparison of these, but instead I'll just share a simple observation made by someone last night. He said that when you position a ladder for climbing, it is very important to place it against a structure that is solid. If you don't, then the ladder is unstable and can easily fall.

Baha'u'llah, when comparing music to a ladder goes on with a warning: "Take heed, however, lest listening thereto should cause you to overstep the bounds of propriety and dignity... make it not, therefore, as wings to self and passion. Truly, We are loath to see you numbered with the foolish."

'Abdu'l-Baha, in a Pilgrim's Note quoted in a compilation by the Universal House of Justice (see, I'm not the only one who finds value in these notes), further explains this when He says, "With whatever purpose you listen to music, that purpose will be increased."

It seems to me that if our purpose in listening is to distract ourselves, then we will be even further distracted from the cares and concerns of the world. If our purpose is to elevate ourselves, then we will be further elevated.

And so, in my own humble opinion, it seems to me that I need to be doubly aware of the type of music I subject myself to, as I am with any of the arts. I love them all, and try to be aware of the effect that they have upon me. After all, all of the arts should be "productive of good results" and be "conducive to the well-being and tranquility" of all people."

Monday, November 21, 2011

That Fourth Valley

Wow. I had no idea what I was getting into when I stepped into this one. "I'm gonna take a break today." "I feel like a spiritual wimp today." I can just hear the peals of divine laughter rolling in the distance.

I think I finally have a glimmering of an idea as to why most women I know seem to prefer the Four Valleys to the Seven: it's because they're up to the task. Even 'Abdu'l-Baha talks about "mental alertness, intuition, and the spiritual qualities of love and service, in which woman is strong".

But what about me? Let's see. Mental alertness? Obviously not, for I'm actually trying to write about this without the loving guidance of my wife. Intuition? Again, obviously not, for if I was acting on my intuition right now, I'm sure they'd be going off like a three-alarmer at a local firehall. (As is "A one-l lama, he's a priest. A two-l llama, he's a beast. A three-l lllama, and we need to call the fire department.") Love? Hmm. That's debatable. I mean, I am subjecting you to my sense of humour and shallow insights on this incredible Work by the Blessed Beauty. (If it's shallow, what would you call it? "Outsight"?) Service? Again, I'm not sure. How am I being of service by contributing my own seemingly senseless thoughts this morning? Well, maybe I'm being of service by helping turn you away from drivel such as mine and to the profound wisdom found within the Writings of Baha'u'llah. (One can only hope.) (Hey, there's an idea. Can you let me know if these two articles have gotten you to read, or re-read, or re-re-read The Four Valleys? Thanks.)

Anyways, back to that Fourth Valley.

When I sit back and think about it, what really comes to mind is ultimate humility. It's not nihilistic in the least, as I mistakenly said in the last article, but profoundly deep. It is a beautiful reminder that whatever we imagine we know of God, God is far more than that. Even trying to write about it defies the reality, for whatever we say ends up becoming a limiting factor. It requires a look inside, a deep and long look within to truly try and get to know oneself, while at the same time looking outside and seeing how little we really are. Noble, yes, but at the same time insignificant in comparison. It truly brings to mind those passages quotes by Shoghi Effendi in The Dispensation of Baha'u'llah:

"How bewildering to me, insignificant as I am," Bahá'u'lláh in His communion with God affirms, "is the attempt to fathom the sacred depths of Thy knowledge! How futile my efforts to visualize the magnitude of the power inherent in Thine handiwork -- the revelation of Thy creative power!" "When I contemplate, O my God, the relationship that bindeth me to Thee," He, in yet another prayer revealed in His own handwriting, testifies, "I am moved to proclaim to all created things 'verily I am God!'; and when I consider my own self, lo, I find it coarser than clay!"
Reading these passages yet again, this time in conjunction with this Fourth Valley, it occurred to me that the personal pronoun, "me", is not capitalized here. I believe, and this is, of course, only my own interpretation, that Baha'u'llah is speaking for each and every one of us. When I, Mead, contemplate my relationship to God, and remember that His Light is within me (Hidden Words 11 and 12, to name but a couple instances), it would be easy to look at that light and say "I am God", as many are wont to do of themselves. How often, in religious discourse, do we here people saying we are all God? But when I consider my own self, I really do find me to be "coarser than clay". (There are other, more colourful, metaphors that I could use, but I think I'll stick with His.)

As I've said in the past, humility is one of the most important qualities we can possess. (I used to joke with the neighbourhood kids that I had perfected all the virtues except for humility. Or else I would tell them that I had more humility in my little finger than they did in their whole body. But I always made sure that they knew I was only joking.)

Humility is what distinguishes us. It has the same root as the word "human", coming from the word "humus", or "of the earth". Without it, we are not demonstrating our human nature. "Humility exalteth man to the heaven of glory and power," Baha'u'llah writes, "whilst pride abaseth him to the depths of wretchedness and degradation."

While I could go on, my soul is weary trying to further describe what I feel when reading this Valley. I feel as though I am nothing. I keep going back and reading more of it, trying to see what else I get, and keep coming back to the question of "Who am I?" Who am I to try to write about such things? I am only a speck of dust in comparison to the Sun of Baha'u'llah. I think I expressed it best in another article.

Perhaps I'll just leave it here, publish this, and let my wife enlighten me as to what it really means, later.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Four Valleys

I'm gonna take a break today. I was going to write a bit about that prescription the Divine Physician prescribed for today, but it's really just too heavy for me, and I feel like a spiritual wimp today. Maybe I strained a spiritual muscle this past weekend. Who knows?

Besides, there is so much going on in the news with the Occupy movement today that it is difficult to separate the spectacle from the substance. So, nope. Sorry. Not going to do it today.

Instead, I'm going to go with something that sort of crossed my mind this morning. On Facebook, someone commented that they were reading the little prayer book, "Blessed is the Spot", to their child, and that they loved it. But, they, the child, felt that the valleys and the land were not really worth mentioning. Gotta love kids. My comment was that without the valleys, there would be no mountains. (And without the land, well... you can just sort of fill in the blank from there.)

That sounded kind of profound to my spiritually wimpy ears, so I thought I would go with it.

Oh, not with that lame comparison, but with the idea of Valleys, capitalized. Four of them.

You may recall a fun little article I did a while ago about the Seven Valleys (one of my personal favorites), and I have long wanted to do something similar with the Four Valleys, but just never quite got around to it. Until today.

To start, let me make a completely non-scientific observation that will certainly raise many eyebrows, and probably evoke a flurry of e-mails. I've noticed that among those people I know, there is a fairly clear divide: most of the men prefer the Seven Valleys, while the women generally prefer the Four. Like I said, this is completely non-scientific, and just a personal observation, to which I am sure there are many exceptions. (Hopefully my inbox won't swell so much now.)

Why this would be the case, I'm not really sure. It may have to do with the linear nature of the Seven, and the idea that Four seem to be more like four paths leading to a central point. Who knows.

Anyways. This slender volume begins with an admonition that, while traditional in the sense of Persian literature and letters, hits home a little too closely for my liking. It raises that all-too-traditional sense of guilt, instilled so carefully by my Jewish upbringing in a Christian culture.

But not to fear! Baha'u'llah begins, as is also traditional, with an invocation of some attributes of God: He is the Strong, the Well-Beloved!

And thank God that He uses those attributes. They are, as ever, perfectly suitable for this work. Using my also-traditional method of macro / micro, I see this as a reminder that I do actually have some strength, and that I am loved by God (and my Mother, too, I'm sure).

What follows is a number of quotes asking why the reader, me in this case, has neglected the Writer, Baha'u'llah in this case, while all the time reminding the reader (me) of His (Baha'u'llah's) love. I can only sit here and say, "Yup. Guilty as charged." I'm sure I haven't paid as much attention to God, His Messenger, or generally good things as I should have.

It would be so easy at this point to go into a detailed analysis of all the various quotes He mentions, and so on and so forth, but really, I want to get to the Valleys themselves. You can read the whole Text here, if you want. (And I really encourage it.) (Oh, and this was the best link I could find. All the others have the Seven Valleys first, and you have to do tons of scrolling.)

* * * * *

Ok. Aside time, for a moment. I just re-read the whole text. Yes, that's right. All 18 small pages of it.

You see, this is how I work. I get an idea, write the intro, based on whatever whim I happen to be following at the moment, while keeping the text in mind, and then when I lose steam for the intro, I begin to read the text in question and write about it.

Well, that ain't gonna happen here.

I tried. And failed. Tried again. Failed once more. Gave up for a bit and did a math puzzle on-line (I just love kenken puzzles), and am now trying again. This time my wife is sitting next to me, so I actually have a chance of writing something reasonable.

Anyways, what happened, before she got home, is this: I re-read the text, and made a few notes, and realized that this is just way beyond me. (Must be because I'm a man, as my wife so lovingly pointed out.) (Since I'm reading this aloud as I type, she is now trying to defend that statement by saying that she is merely following my above logic regarding men and women, 7 and 4, and you know the rest.)

What I have so far, now that I'm not being interrupted anymore (dig dig), is this:

Bahá'u'lláh says that he will look into and describe the qualities and grades of four types of people "who progress in mystic wayfaring".

The four are, I think:
Those who journey first in the valley of self transformed to God-pleasing attributes.
Those who journey by rejecting self and patterning their lives after Divine reason.
Those who journey purely by the love of God.
Those who journey in what is termed a "secret" and "bottomless sea."
(These phrases are wonderfully supplied from a Wikipedia article on this Book. Thanks.) (You didn't really think I could sum it up so nicely myself, did you?)

He seems to prefer the last of these, which He seems to consider the highest or truest form of mystic union.

As you can see, this is really way beyond me.

So, what do I usually do when I feel something is way beyond my ken and understanding? I wing it.

It's interesting to note the order in which Baha'u'llah presents these:
Valley 1 - the goal is Maqsud, the Intended One
Valley 2 - the goal is Mahmud, the Praiseworthy One
Valley 3 - it's Majdhub, the Attracting One
Valley 4 - it's Mahbub, the Beloved One

Why? I have no idea.

Now my wife is stepping in and explaining it to me, and I'm typing what she says, as best I can.

She's telling me to look above, see what I already wrote.

In the first Valley, you look at what is within you, and promote the good stuff. This requires conscious intention. The Intended One. (She's so wise.)

In the second Valley, imagine how tough it is to reject self. Not only is it an intention, it requires a sacrifice. It is a great feat of will, steadfastness. The first valley requires effort, but in the second, he sacrifices what is bad, and concentrates, focuses on God's teachings. Is this not eminently praiseworthy?

(I can only sit here in awe as she snarfs down olives and cheese.)

This is a great path, and yet it is not Baha'u'llah's favored one yet. Let's move on.

In the third Valley, it is no longer about themselves. They are no longer the author of their own transformation. It is very reminiscent of some new-born Christians. They say that your actions do not warrant your saving. Only your love of God allows you to change, and it is the Lord that transforms you. It is their love of God that is attracting these divine blessings, what these people would call "salvation". That is why they seek the environs of the Attracting One, so that they can attract these blessings.

So far, it would appear that these goals are all separate, but in reality we know that they are all attributes and titles of God. We may seek God, the Intended One, and Baha'u'llah describes how this works. Or we may seek God, the Praiseworthy, and Baha'u'llah describes this path. Alternatively, we may seek God, the Attracting One, and this is yet another path.

Now, we are given the fourth path that He describes in this Book: the path to God, the Beloved. In this path, we recognize that God loves us, far beyond our comprehension, and that whatever is put in our path is given to us because God loves us. Whatever trials and tests we may face, they are there for our strengthening, to help us increase our capacity.

But in the end, the attributes of God are not God Himself. Even the animist shamen know that there is something beyond the attributes. It is as He says in Gleanings, "If I call upon Thee by Thy Name, the All-Possessing, I am compelled to recognize that He Who holdeth in His hand the immediate destinies of all created things is but a vassal dependent upon Thee, and is the creation of but a word proceeding from Thy mouth. And if I proclaim Thee by the name of Him Who is the All-Compelling, I readily discover that He is but a suppliant fallen upon the dust, awe-stricken by Thy dreadful might, Thy sovereignty and power."

These attributes of God that Baha'u'llah describes here in the Four Valleys are pretty much as far as we can go for now. But we know that there is still more beyond them.

Going back to the fourth one, there is still a nihilistic-type mystery in there. It is so much deeper than what I allude to above. He says that we can't describe it, we can't put words to it, nor picture it, but He does give us some indication. This valley is "the apex of consciousness and the secret of divine guidance."

He goes on and says that this radiant acquiescence, as I describe above, is "the center of the mystery".

If we were all to try to understand this, this "darksome riddle", to analyze it until the trumpet sounds (which for my wife, as a musician, is every day), we would never succeed. Whenever the people asked the Prophet about this, He only answered in mysterious ways: It's "a bottomless sea". It's "the blackest of nights".

(And I wondered why I couldn't write about this. Sheesh.)

If you even try to talk about this valley, they'll nail you to a cross.

And at this point, my wife, too, gives up. "You need another article for this Valley on it's own." Good idea, o light of my life. I completely agree.

As I'm sure my readers will, too.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Egyptian Spring and the Western Fall, part 1

As you can tell from many of my recent postings, I've been watching and following as global events have been unfolding themselves before our eyes. As we all know, Baha'is are encouraged to keep up with current events, but not let the news of the day distract them from the all-important work that lays before us all.

Some friends of mine have been asking why I am not more involved with the Occupy movement, or political causes, or anything else of that nature. The fact is, and this is all just my own personal opinion and nothing official, I don't believe they will, in the end, and by themselves, really solve the issues that are facing us. This past weekend, as I was re-reading the recent Ridvan Message from April, a few sentences leapt to my attention. They are at the end of the third paragraph, in which the Universal House of Justice describes some of the socio-political rumblings of recent days, the volume of which has only increased since they wrote this.
"No matter how captivating the spectacle of the people's fervor for change, it must be remembered that there are interests which manipulate the course of events. And, so long as the remedy prescribed by the Divine Physician is not administered, the tribulations of this age will persist and deepen."
The events linked to the so-called Egyptian Spring, and the more recent Occupy movement, are surely a spectacle that captivates our attention, but, as some of the elections in the Spring countries have demonstrated, they run the risk of being all show and little substance.

The language of many of the organizations looking to shut down and evict members of the Occupy sites demonstrate their desire to make these past months of demonstration nothing more than mere placation of the masses. They bring to bear the "inconvenience" of those who live or work in the areas near these sites, without ever mentioning the "inconvenience" of those illegally evicted from their homes, or deprived of a livable wage because of the billions of dollars spent on the salaries and benefits of just a few.

It is easy, as has been amply demonstrated in the past few days, to lose sight of the real issues at play when some few give ammunition to those who would use the media, and other tools at their disposal, to cast a shadow over the entire movement due to what can only be regarded as mere distractions. We have, of course, all heard the reports of those few who are using this movement as an excuse to vent their rage or "rebel against the machine", to express nothing more than a childish desire to run amok and engage in immoral activities. We have heard the reports of dangerous fires in some of the tents, the flagrant disregard for general modesty by some, or even the death by drug overdose in some of the camps. Surely such activities can serve no purpose except to give fuel to those referred-to "interests" and aid them to try and demoralize the entire campaign. This all highlights the importance of good moral, and just plain sensible, behaviour, for lacking that, it is just too easy to discredit an entire group.

All this aside, though, it does beg the question of what is that "remedy prescribed by the Divine Physician"?  What would constitute an effective action? How can we find that long-ranged vision that takes in the need for this Day?

(to be continued tomorrow)

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Master's Travels

I've been thinking.

I realize that can be a dangerous thing, but it's what I've been doing today. After all, I had a root canal yesterday, and then went and accidentally bit down on that same tooth. Aside from sitting there in a bit of pain, there wasn't much else for me to do.

But today I've been thinking about some of those letters that we've received from the Universal House of Justice in the past couple of years. That, combined with the fact that I just finished reading 'Abdu'l-Baha in Their Midst (amazing book, and I highly recommend it), particularly got me thinking about a letter that came out on 29 August 2010. It's not particularly long, only 5 paragraphs, but I realized that I've never really looked at it here.

Why not?

Good question. I think it's because I didn't quite understand its importance. I'm sure that I still don't, but I'd like to. It's the letter that signaled the centenary of "the opening of a glorious new chapter in the annals of the Faith", namely the Master's departure from Haifa for Port Said. This was the beginning of His epic journey to the West. This was the journey that allowed the Faith to "burst its restraints", the first time that the "Head of the Faith enjoyed a freedom of action to pursue unencumbered its divinely prescribed mission." 16 pages in God Passes By, and 10 pages in Century of Light, deal with this historic journey, not to mention all the other countless pages that have been written about it. It's pretty important, a significant part of the history of our Faith, and the Universal House of Justice brought it to our attention, once again, with this letter.

They point out the He was in poor health, unfamiliar with the customs of the areas He visited, and generally would have been considered ill-suited to carry out such a task. Yet He arose.

But like usual, the Universal House of Justice does not merely call our attention to His sacrifice and the wonderful deeds He accomplished. No. They set this incredible example before our eyes to inspire us to "embrace receptive souls, to raise capacity for service, to build local communities, to strengthen institutions, or to exploit opportunities emerging to engage in social action and contribute to public discourse."

We are to use His example to arise whenever and wherever possible and meet with people of all walks of life with wisdom and love.

I find it quite intriguing that we have such a stage set, right now, in cities all over the world, with this "Occupy" movement. Can we not use such a forum, such a platform for discussion to uplift and inspire people with this divine Message? Can we not praise them for their efforts in drawing attention to such a crisis in our social institutions, while avoiding those forms of protest that the House of Justice implies will not meet the needs of today?

Let's remember that priceless quote from over 10 years ago: "Humanity's crying need will not be met by a struggle among competing ambitions or by protest against one or another of the countless wrongs afflicting a desperate age. It calls, rather, for a fundamental change of consciousness, for a wholehearted embrace of Bahá'u'lláh's teaching that the time has come when each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family."

Time and again the Master attended meetings and halls to praise the efforts of those who were striving to help change the world for a better place. Most of these groups were foredoomed to failure, but still He praised their efforts, while also helping them achieve a greater vision of their work.

Can we do any less?

Out of all the talks He gave, the one which He continually recommended people to study, one of those that He had translated and sent to the East, was the one He gave in a synagogue, Temple Emmanu-El in California, in which He spoke about Jesus and Muhammad. There is very little about Baha'u'llah, or the Baha'i Faith directly in that talk, except towards the very end in which there is a short mention, but He really spoke about what they needed to hear at that moment.

When reading about His travels in the West, the one thing that stands out the most to me is the time He dedicated to really listening to people's needs. To countless thousands He spoke about Baha'u'llah and the Baha'i Faith directly, but there are also countless times when He didn't. There were many times when He was indirect.

We need to look at His example, and not go to either extreme.

Admittedly, for years we, as a community, were at the extreme of not using the direct method often enough, and needed to balance that. But we should not go to the other extreme either. We should follow His example, and listen to the needs of those we would seek to teach, and then use the appropriate method, all the while showering them with love.

I'm sure I've said a lot of this before, but it seemed worth saying again.

Besides, it's a good time to look at His travels once more.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

"I Do"

It has been said many times before, and I'll continue to say it many more times in the future: I love my wife. (Just thought I'd get that out of the way.)

It kind of took me by surprise, the number of e-mails I received about the most recent article, the one about the YoW. Most were very positive, a few were delightfully cynical, a couple asked some questions about the effectiveness of the YoW, and one asked a question that has prompted this article. It was, essentially, "What are you Baha'is willing to do about it?" Meaning, what answers do we offer for helping strengthen the institution of marriage, and lowering this skyrocketing divorce rate.

Well, good question.

I think I've covered some of the basics of a Baha'i marriage in the past, but let's check again.

First of all, the process leading up to marriage is pretty straightforward. The two people involved have to be at least 15 years old. Then they decide for themselves whom they would like to marry. While they are free to consult their parents, the choice is really theirs, and theirs alone. "...(F)irst thou must choose one who is pleasing to thee," says 'Abdu'l-Baha, "and then the matter is subject to the consent of father and mother. Before thou makest thy choice, they have no right to interfere." (I just love the way He phrases that. Can't you just imagine the "interference" He must have seen for Him to have said that?)

From here, it would be really easy to go straight into the question of parental consent, but I'm going to ask you to hold on to that for just a moment, because there is still something that hasn't been covered: why you would propose to someone in the first place.

To better understand who you would want to marry, we have to consider what the Writings say. I mean, obviously it is more than just "one who is pleasing to thee" in the physical sense. "Bahá'í marriage", it says in the Writings, "is the commitment of the two parties one to the other, and their mutual attachment of mind and heart. Each must, however, exercise the utmost care to become thoroughly acquainted with the character of the other, that the binding covenant between them may be a tie that will endure forever." While there are many more quotes that talk further about the purpose of marriage, I want to look at a singular concept in here: we "must... exercise the utmost care to become thoroughly acquainted with the character of the other". To me, and remember this is only my personal opinion, the word "must" is an imperative. 'Abdu'l-Baha doesn't say that we might want to, or that it's a good idea. He says we "must". Why? So that the marriage "will endure forever".

When we truly get to know the character of the person we want to marry, then we basically know what we are getting into. We see their good qualities and are aware of their less than stellar attributes. Of course, we also need to be aware of our own character. This is said over and over in the Writings of all faiths.

So, to sum up: get to know yourself, know the character of your intended, then ask your parents for permission. Why? For many reasons. They probably know you better than most anyone else and can help you from being a total bozo. It also helps build family unity, and that unity will be very important when you inevitably go through tough times. Really, I could go on and on, but just know that it's a good thing to do. Oh, and it also helps develop a healthier relationship between the parents and the child right from day one. For example, I know that some day Shoghi will ask me for permission to get married. I have to begin now, and lay the groundwork, to be worthy of the trust that is involved in such a decision.

Now let's presume that consent is given, and everything is ready. Here is the most important thing of all, to me: the commitment. This is the point that I really want to touch on, for it is, in my opinion, at the heart of the matter of divorce.

In this day and age, the whole concept of a promise seems to have fallen by the wayside. You only need look around to see that this is true. When politicians are not held accountable for the promises they made during their campaign, contracts are regularly violated, corporate giants feel that they can try and flout the law: you just know that the concepts of integrity and trustworthiness have fallen. Even pre-nuptial agreements are fairly standard. In other words, people are preparing for the divorce even before they get married. Kind of makes me wonder.

When you make a promise to your spouse-to-be, it is a pledge. In the Baha'i Faith, we say, "We will all, verily, abide by the Will of God." And Baha'u'llah, elsewhere, tells us to "Be... a preserver of the sanctity of thy pledge". He doesn't just tell us to preserve our pledge, He qualifies that pledge with the word "sanctity". We've all heard of the "sanctity of marriage", but "the sanctity of our pledge"? Yes. A pledge is a sacred obligation, and we seem to have sadly forgotten it these days. Keeping faith to your word is seen as a sacred thing in most religions, and in virtually all cultures. It is only in recent times that this has been forgotten.

This pledge that we make to our spouse, before our community of loved ones, is so important. It should not be taken lightly.

When we cultivate within our children the importance of keeping our word, and talk to them openly about the "abhorrence" of divorce, then we will begin to see a decline in the divorce rate.

When we remember that the phrase in many contemporary weddings is "I do", and not "I might", and cringe from the thought of breaking our word, then we will work more diligently to maintaining our marriages, even when the times get tough.

And even though divorce is permitted in the Baha'i Writings, it is still only to be used as an absolute last resort.

What all this means to me is that we need to be far more careful in our selection of a partner, recognize the duty before God as parents to ensure that the characters of our child and their intended spouse are actually compatible and mutually encouraging, and truly appreciate the sacred nature of our word when given as a pledge.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Year of Waiting

Warning! This is a bit of a rant (although I will try to add some useful stuff in here).

Why am I warning you? Well, it just seemed appropriate. I mean, this whole topic is just ridiculous, and I wanted to vent a bit.

And just what is it that gets me going? The Year of Waiting, that precious time in which a husband and wife, or wife and husband depending on your point of view, can strive, under the guidance of an institution of the Faith, to repair any damage that may have occurred to their marriage. This is a very important time in the healing of the souls involved, and yet so many of us just seem to want to neglect it.

Ok. Let me go back a moment. To start, I have heard of many of my personal friends who have gotten divorced in the last little while, and over the years I've also spoken with many members of Assemblies who have, without violating confidentiality, confided in me about their general concerns regarding other divorces.

As you may know, divorce, while permitted, is highly discouraged within the Baha'i Faith. In fact, the Teachings "consider it a reprehensible act," says the Guardian, "which should be resorted to only in exceptional circumstances, and when grave issues are involved, transcending such...considerations as physical attraction or sexual compatibility and harmony." "...(T)he foundation of the Kingdom of God", says 'Abdu'l-Baha, "is based upon harmony and love, oneness, relationship and union, not upon differences, especially between husband and wife. If one of these two become the cause of divorce, that one will unquestionably fall into great difficulties, will become the victim of formidable calamities and experience deep remorse." Wow. Can't get a much sterner warning than that.

Now that the whole idea of divorce is put into that perspective, it needs to be mentioned that a Baha'i divorce requires a "Year of Waiting". This is, in a sense, a "cool off" period, where you have already recognized that things are not working out, and need some time away from each other to try and make things better. During this period you are not allowed to live under the same roof, sleep together, or date anyone else. It is a time for trying to reconcile. The year begins when you notify an Assembly of your intentions, and then proceed to work with their assistance in achieving reconciliation. In the event that reconciliation does not occur, this year is also a form of spiritual healing.

And yet in virtually every case I have heard about, and I mean like 95% (and no, that's not an exaggeration), the couple has asked that the "Year of Waiting" be backdated. It has even gotten to the point where I ask my friends when they tell me that they've begun a YoW (hey, good acronym) if they have asked for a backdate to the start of their year. In every single case where I've asked, the answer has been "yes".

Friends, this is ridiculous. It's absurd. It totally seems to me (and yeah, it's still only my own personal opinion) to miss the point of the YoW (I really like that acronym). Worse! I think it's disobedient to a law of Baha'u'llah (as far as I can tell).

I mean, sure, the Assembly has the right to grant a backdate, but look at the quote: "...the date of the beginning of the year of patience normally commences when one of the parties notifies the Assembly that they have separated with the intention of divorce. However, the Assembly may establish the beginning of the year of patience on a prior date provided it is satisfied such prior date reflects the actual date of separation and there is good reason for so doing." Look at that last bit again: "provided... there is good reason for so doing".

No one, not a single friend, has ever had what, to my own limited rant-filled mind, is a "good reason for so doing". And yes, I ask. I mean, they are friends, after all. And none of them have ever told me that they were offended at my asking. It was just a part of the conversation when they told me they were getting divorced.

"My partner and I have filed for a YoW." (Even the acronym sounds like it hurts. That should tell you something.)

"Did you, by any chance ask for it to be backdated?"

"Uhm , well, yes."

"I'm just curious, why?"

And there they are. I've heard all sorts of reasons from people, and not a single one of them admitted that it was a "good reason for so doing".

Oh, there were two. One asked for it to be backdated 50 weeks because her husband was due to get married again in 15 days, and she didn't want him to be a bigamist. And no, the husband was not a Baha'i.

The second was that her husband had already married again, and no he wasn't a Baha'i either. (What is it with these husbands?)

But separating "with the intention of divorce" sounds like it's already foredoomed to failure, for your intention is divorce, not reconciliation. True, but it actually works. When a couple has discovered that there are problems, and they've tried to work them out, and failed, there is probably a lot of anger and resentment involved. They separate. And their intention, at that time, is divorce. Then, after a month or two, tempers cool off (given the chance), and they can begin to work towards reconciliation.

This is when I've seen it work.

When they have given each other the gift of time apart, allowed things to cool down, and then worked with all sincerity towards getting back together: this is a recipe for success.

A family is a living entity. And when you divorce, it is as if you are killing that being.

The YoW is a chance to examine that being to see if the illness is actually terminal or not.

We need to respect that time, honour it, and really use it to its intended purpose. Not all marriages will work out. There is a reason that divorce is permitted. But it really seems a gross injustice, to me, to treat this time as if it were nothing more than an administrative nightmare.

Ok. Rant done.

And now back to your regularly scheduled blog.