Monday, March 31, 2014

Studying the Writings

I love studying the Writings. Have I ever mentioned that? There is always so much more in them than I ever dreamed I would find. It truly is like diving into an ocean. Just when you think you have seen it all, something new, something that was there all along, but hidden from your eyes, comes along and blows you... well... out of the water.

But what, I have often wondered, is the most effective way to study them? Obviously there is no single answer to that question, but I'm sure we can find ever more effective ways.

Now if you are anything like me, it means that you have studied the Writings in group settings for a long time. You have taken every opportunity you can to study them with as many people as possible, for the views and insights of others continually shed more and more light upon them. Or to be more accurate they uncover more and more layers of meaning, for these writings shed a light on their own.

And, if your experience has been anything like mine, then you have probably sat in countless groups in which you read a paragraph out loud and are then were asked fairly facile questions, the answers to which are found directly in the Writings. These are what have been lovingly referred to as "level 1 Ruhi questions". You know, the kind of question like "How can the betterment of the world be achieved?" "The betterment of the world can be achieved through pure and goodly deeds..." Nothing wrong with that style of question, but as they say in Book 1, they don't use that style of questioning for long.

Aside: I remember one time in which a small group of us were supposed to be studying a recent message from the World Centre before we went on to some other business we had. The guy who was supposed to be conducting this study had someone read the first paragraph, and then another person read the next one, and so forth around the circle. When we finished reading it aloud a few minutes later, for it wasn't a long message, he said, "Okay, now that we've studied this message..." And being a bit of a newbie at the time, I didn't say anything, but I thought to myself, "No, we didn't study it. We only read it."

Even now, though, nearly thirty years later, with the Ruhi books as a great example, we still, as a community, from what I have seen, tend to have some trouble with figuring out how to effectively study the Writings. What I mean by effective, just in case it's unclear, is how to apply them in our daily life.

And you know what? I'm tired of it. I want to do better. I want to see us do better.

As usual, though, I have no idea how to go about it.

So what do I do whenever I am faced with something I know virtually nothing about? I ask others.

Over the past few weeks I have had the opportunity to ask a number of friends how they prefer to study the Writings, and the response has amazed me. And again, based on what I have heard, it feels like we just haven't asked this question enough, Instead, we have just gone on autopilot, doing what we have always done: Read the writings aloud, ask a few questions whose answers are direct quotes from the text, and go on. But it seems that most of us don't really get a lot out of that style of study. Some do, of course, but not a lot. And here I thought it was just me.

Of course, this is nothing official, and only based on what I have heard from others, combined with my own admitted bias.

So what have I heard? Simple, really. Just a few points.

  • Have the friends read the text ahead of time. Unless you are focusing on a particular passage, don't read the whole text aloud.
  • If you are focusing on a passage in the middle of a letter, have a simple summary of the main ideas up to that point, along with time for people's questions on those sections. Presume that the friends are responsible enough to read ahead of time, but don't presume that it is all well-understood.
  • Read the passages of focus aloud.
  • Have some questions distributed ahead of time, so that the friends have a chance to think about them.
  • Have sessions around 1.5 hours to 2 hours in length. While many people can go longer, some have trouble keeping their attention, or committing the time all at once. Better to have more sessions that are shorter.
  • If appropriate, have direct lines of action based on the text that you can carry out between sessions, so that you can reflect on what you experienced.
  • Try to keep the questions around lines of action, and how we can apply what is in the piece we are studying.
  • Oh, and while some like large groups, there are many who prefer small break-out groups of, say, 3 or 4.

That's about it.

Any thoughts? Anything you would add to this list?

Personally, I'm very excited to try this out with our next community study, which will be on Insights from the Frontiers of Learning. We'll be trying these ideas out, and focusing our study on the third part, as that seems to be what is most relevant to our community. I'll let you know how it goes.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Fast Lips

"Can I brush my teeth during the fast?"


I don't remember what I said, but I think the question mark sort of covers it.

"You know, nothing is supposed to pass your lips."


I was still fairly clueless.

"It's the fast. Nothing shall pass your lips?"

I suddenly visualized Gandalf in Lord of the Rings, "You shall not pass!"

"Where", I wondered aloud, "did you get that from?"

"Well, you know. I think I read it in the Writings. That's the law, isn't it? Nothing should pass your lips from sunrise to sunset?"

Ah. The old "show it to me in the Writings" issue.

Well, I was sort of curious, so we did a bit of an exercise, my friend and I. While we both agreed that this was not quite how Baha'u'llah phrased the law of fasting, we decided to follow through on this one.

What about bubble gum? I remembered another friend of mine who loved to chew gum. And during the fast, because of that "you shall not pass" issue, he would pop in a stick of gum before sunrise and proceed to chew it all day. After all, it didn't count if it was already past the lips, right? Besides, He said to "abstain from food and drink", and chewing gum is neither, right? (I'll leave that for you to decide, dear Reader.)

So, if the rule was to allow nothing to pass your lips, what if you're sick and have to throw up? Does it count in that direction? (I know. As long as you don't eat it again afterwards, right?) (Ewwwwwwwww.)

Obviously being ill doesn't count, so that's a no-brainer.

But hey, what if we go with that nothing past the lips going in? What about sticking out your tongue? What if you accidentally stick your tongue out at someone? Does that mean you would have to keep your tongue out until sunset? ("What are you doing?" "I'm thathting.")

And what if a bug flies in your mouth? Oh, that's accidental. That doesn't count anyways.

Quite often, when we are fasting, our breath becomes quite nasty. For that, I often chew a piece of parsley, or perhaps swish around some mouthwash. Courtesy, after all, is the prince of all virtues, and I think that's only courteous to those around me.

But, no. In the end, we both saw the silliness of the "nothing past your lips" idea.

And I still have this image of Gandalf, but now he's saying "You shall not floss!"

(My dentist would probably have a heart attack.)

Friday, March 14, 2014

Pain and Suffering

For some reason, this has been one of the hardest, and yet most rewarding, fasts I have ever done. And please don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining, but just a bit puzzled. I'm still very grateful to have food to eat in the morning and in the evening, and very grateful for clean water to drink. I've just noticed that this particular fast has been, for some unknown reason, more difficult than most for me.

During this time, I do try to remember His days during my days, and I call to mind a lot of what Baha'u'llah endured in His life. And compared to that, my little pangs are nothing.

But, of course, it has gotten me thinking. That, combined with talking with my wonderful wife (I love how those two words alliterate), has brought forth some interesting meditations.

Oh, and I also combine that somewhere in the deep recesses of my brain with the various comments I hear from others when I mention that I'm fasting, "but thanks for the offer of a drink". Almost everyone says how good it is that I'm doing this. They want to encourage me and support me in this, whether or not they know me.

Aside - I don't know if I've shared this before, but I want to mention my first fast. I was working in a bookstore at the time and I had told everyone that I would be doing this. They were, of course, supportive. But, and this kind of got me, I was working the closing shift that first day. That meant that I was to close the store and then head across the street to the train station to catch the train home. The sun would just happen to set shortly after the train left the station, and I still had another 30 - 40 minutes before I'd get home. I had thought of all sorts of things that I could do, such as bring a sandwich and some water on the train, but I decided to just wait instead.

What I didn't know was that my co-workers had planned something special for me. They had all been fasting, too. And when it came time to close, they all came back to work, closed up shop for me, and set out a huge feast of food to break fast together. They asked me to say some prayers, which I did, as the sun was setting. Then we all dug in. While we were eating, one of them asked me what I had learned that day. "Well", I replied, "I learned a new reliance upon God, and more gratitude for what I have. I now thank God I can eat again."

Ok. Back to the article.

When people say how great fasting is, they also follow it up with some variation of "But I can't do it".

Why, I wonder. Why do so many people feel that they cannot fast? Of course I understand that there are some medical reasons, such as diabetes, but surely not that many people suffer from such illnesses.

No, I don't think that's it at all.

I think it's that in our culture we are trained from early childhood to think of pain and suffering as things to avoid at all costs. We are told, "If you have a headache, take a pill. You shouldn't have to suffer under that headache." "If you suffer from acid reflux, take a pill. You should still be able to eat whatever you feel like and still feel fine afterwards."

Isn't this kind of silly?

I mean, really, if you eat spicy, fatty food, as just one example, and your body is giving you these signs of suffering, maybe you should just change your diet instead.

But not to get sidetracked, what is the purpose of pain? Of suffering?

Here I really wish there were some more words, for I feel like I need more.

Pain, in my opinion, is the physical sensation that is unpleasant to experience. Suffering, though, is how we react to it. Of course, there are two types of suffering. One is the suffering of the pain itself, which we have little control over. I mean, pain hurts and that's just about it. The other type is that suffering internally that we can control. It is that spiritual anguish we feel when things get to us, that type of suffering that can be dispelled with detachment and love.

Perhaps that is the word I wish to use: anguish.

Suffering, after all, comes from the root word meaning "to bear". Anguish comes from a word meaning "a tight place". Pain, by the way, comes from a word meaning "penalty".

So there we are, told by society that pain and suffering should be avoided at all costs, and realizing that sometimes we have no choice in the matter. But what about pain for a purpose?

Baha'u'llah suffered countless pains and tribulations "that the souls of men may be edified". He sustained all those "woes and tribulations... that the horizon of the hearts of men may be illumined with the light of concord and attain real peace and tranquility."

What about us? Why do we suffer the pain, or penalty, of not eating and drinking during the sunlight hours? Well, as usual, I really don't know, but I can give you my feeble thoughts on it. I think it is to be more aware of and better appreciate the special moments of this time. Baha'u'llah has said that each and every hour of this time, the month of fasting, is endowed with special virtue. By breaking out of our regular routine of consuming comestibles, we become a bit more aware of our present circumstances. Because we change our regular routine, everything else is done with a slightly higher sense of the present. We can no longer just work on autopilot. (I think that's also one of the reasons for the Feast being every 19 days. You really can't establish a rhythm around it. It's just too weird a number.)

By taking the time to fast, consciously and with a purpose, we also gain insights that likely would not have otherwise had. We are more acutely aware of those who never have enough to eat. We become more aware of just little we actually require. We are more conscious of just what it is that we do consume.

When we turn that autopilot off, and live with a greater awareness of what we are doing, then life itself has more meaning.

Up above I quoted the Tablet of Ahmad, and just a few sentences later in that same Tablet, He tells us to "Rely upon God, thy God and the Lord of thy fathers." And isn't that just what I had learned, all joking side, that very first day? To thank God for what I have?

And then the very next sentence continues that thread: "For the people are wandering in the paths of delusion, bereft of discernment to see God with their own eyes, or hear His Melody with their own ears."

Thank God. And be aware.

And sometimes, quite often actually, with awareness comes pain. When I examine my life, when I bring myself "to account each day", and truly look within, I see how little I have done. I see how far I have to go in achieving my full potential. I see what I have done that has hurt others. And to be fair, I also see how far I have come, and what I have done to try and bring joy to others. But I do see how much I have to grow.

Then I recognize that growth and change involve pain. They require the letting go of the ego, if you are to have true and meaningful growth, and that can be scary.

So at this time of the year I look around at all those people who praise me for fasting, and I pray, deep down inside, that they, too, will find the courage and strength to do the same. And I also thank them, truly and deeply, for their encouragement. Without it, this fast would be even more difficult.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Evolution of...

There is an interesting theory, or perhaps I should call it a phenomenon, by which we feel that if we understand how something works in nature then we should no longer be able to ascribe it to God. I wonder why that is. After all, even though I understand the principle behind a screwdriver I would never think to tell a carpenter that they can no longer use it. That would be silly, right?

Another example, perhaps closer to home, is that of love. I love my son. Most people I know love their children. And yet we understand that there is a biological imperative built into our very genes that predisposes us to want to pass on those very genes to the next generation. And further to that, we also want to give those genetic imprints the best opportunity for survival that we can. We do this primarily through nurture and education, as well as protection. Many species do this. Well, it is likely that our sense of love arose from this. And that's ok. It doesn't negate the importance of that emotion. It merely tells us where it may have come from. Seen from a certain perspective, it can make that love even more special, for not only is it a spiritual property of our soul, it is even hard-wired into our very physical makeup. Surely that is a reason for awe and wonder.

Now, what does all this have to do with the Baha'i Faith? Good question. I'm glad you asked, dear Reader.

It seems to me that there is still this huge debate in society about whether we should look to science or religion for answers to many of the problems facing us. As a Baha'i, of course, I love to talk about the harmony of science and religion, but what does that really mean?

It is far more than just a few words that sound good together.

To start, 'Abdu'l-Baha says, "Religion and Science are inter-twined with each other and cannot be separated. These are the two wings with which humanity must fly. One wing is not enough. Every religion which does not concern itself with Science is mere tradition, and that is not the essential. Therefore science, education and civilization are most important necessities for the full religious life." He is reported to have said, in London, "If any religion rejected Science and knowledge, that religion was false. Science and Religion should go forward together; indeed, they should be like two fingers of one hand."

Baha'u'llah, in the Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, praises science when He says, "Such arts and sciences, however, as are productive of good results, and bring forth their fruit, and are conducive to the well-being and tranquility of men have been, and will remain, acceptable before God."

I could easily go on with many more quotes in this vein, but suffice it to say that science is very highly esteemed in the Baha'i Writings.

So we know that science is important, but we cannot deny the discoveries of science that have gotten many people to question the validity of religion.

I think that we are facing a spiritual crisis, much the same as the Catholic Church faced when Galileo and all the other scientists of his day were making breakthrough discoveries, such as the fact that the earth is not the centre of everything. Now, to be fair, it was very comfortable hearing that we were the centre of it all, great for the ego, but hey, sometimes we have to hear difficult truths. And you know, when we find out that the universe is much bigger than we thought, much more complex than we imagined, we can either quiver in fear and try to suppress that, or cherish the greatness of creation. Personally, I choose the latter.

So we have this crisis.

In the past, various institutions, such as the Church, did all they could to deny what was evident. They strove with all of their incredible might to suppress this truth. Other institutions, however, strove to vindicate it. The one was weakened, the other strengthened. The lesson, to me, is that we should never try to fight science, and the discoveries of it.

But neither should we abandon religion or God.

We could, if we want, try to deny the existence of God, and claim all sorts of high and mighty positions for ourselves since we have discovered some of the tools that God uses, but why? It would almost be like saying, to go back to that screwdriver analogy, that since we understand the physics behind a screwdriver we no longer need that carpenter. Nor do we need the toolmaker.

It would be like saying that since we understand some of the biological aspects of love, and perhaps how it arose historically, we no longer need to love our children.

You see, going back to The Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, Baha'u'llah says, "The Divine Messengers have been sent down, and their Books were revealed, for the purpose of promoting the knowledge of God, and of furthering unity and fellowship amongst men." Science is one of aspect of knowing God. And even if we want to put that aside, we still don't have sufficient unity and fellowship amongst us. Religion, and I mean true religion and not the dogma that passes for it, is for promoting unity. Anything that divides us is not from God.

So we can be all depressed about not being in the centre of everything, or we can look up and see just how much more magnificent this creation really is.

An Observation

All right. This morning I was looking for the prayers for the Fast in my prayer book when I noticed something interesting.

If you have the US edition of Baha'i Prayers, there is a section in the back called "Occasional Prayers". It comes right after "General Prayers", and just before "Special Tablets".

Got it?


The first section in that part is called "The Fast". Great. Just what I was looking for.

Except that I didn't turn right to that. I ended up flipping into the middle, a few sections later. What I found was "Intercalary Days".

Great. No problem. I know that the intercalary days come right before the Fast, so I flipped to the next section.

And did I find "The Fast"? Nope. I found "Martyrs and Their Families".

Puzzled, I checked the next section. "The Fast"? Nope. "Naw Ruz".

Confused, I flipped all around and finally found "The Fast" at the very beginning of "Occasional Prayers".

And then I realized what I had seen.

In this prayer book, Martyrs come right between the Intercalary Days and Naw Ruz.


Must just be me.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Virtue and the Fast

"These are, o my God," writes Baha'u'llah, "the days whereon Thou didst enjoin Thy servants to observe the fast. With it Thou didst adorn the preamble of the Book of Thy Laws revealed unto Thy creatures, and didst deck forth the Repositories of Thy commandments in the sight of all who are in Thy heaven and all who are on Thy earth. Thou hast endowed every hour of these days with a special virtue, inscrutable to all except Thee, Whose knowledge embraceth all created things. Thou hast, also, assigned unto every soul a portion of this virtue in accordance with the Tablet of Thy decree and the Scriptures of Thine irrevocable judgment. Every leaf of these Books and Scriptures Thou hast, moreover, alloted to each one of the peoples and kindreds of the earth."

Marielle and I were reading this prayer this morning and noticed something interesting in this first paragraph. Of course, there are many interesting things in these prayers, but this one really struck us this morning.

First of all, we noticed that fasting is enjoined in the "preamble" of the Book of Laws. It is so important a law that it actually comes before the laws themselves. Interesting.

When we looked in the Kitab-i-Aqdas we noticed that it is first mentioned in paragraph 10, along with prayer. Now this is not to say that it isn't the preamble, for He may be referring to a metaphorical Book above. But it is interesting that after the introductory 5 paragraphs, and following immediately upon the obligatory prayers, Baha'u'llah next commands us to "pray and fast". They are intimately joined here.

And in fact, if you look through the Kitab-i-Aqdas, there are many times that fasting is mentioned. It is almost as if He wants to keep reminding us of this very important law.

But then, in this prayer, He says that every hour of these days of the Fast are endowed "with a special virtue". And while the temptation is there, at least for me, to read it as if each specific hour has a particular virtue assigned to it, I don't think that's the case. Virtue can  refer to a particular moral quality, as in "the virtues of compassion, kindliness, trustworthiness, and so forth", or it can refer to moral excellence in general.

Either way, we noticed that it is singular in this instance. "A special virtue".

Oh, and please remember that this is only my own view, and not anything official. You can take it or leave it, as you will. (I promise not to be offended.)

So, each hour is endowed with special virtue: this is not the same as "the virtues", but each has virtue. Virtue, we realized, is singular, in its essence, and we have separated it into the various virtues in order to better understand it. Perhaps this is why they cannot act on their own. A good thief, for example, shows forth great patience, but is not trustworthy. Many great soldiers have shown tremendous steadfastness, but may have not shown compassion or mercy.

We often say that God is one, but perhaps virtue is one, also. And whereas we call upon God by many Names, such as the All-Compelling, we do not think that each of these names are a different God.

Perhaps we may want to think of the virtues, or virtue, in the same way.

Now, He says that not only is each hour special at this time, but that each person has been given a portion of this virtue, too. So, not only are these hours during the Fast special, but so is each person. Maybe that is why teaching takes on a special significance, and has a special potency, at this time.

Oh, and finally, these teachings, these leaves from the divine Books of God, are not just for us, or given only to us. They are portioned out to everyone. And personally, I think that's wonderful. For it means that everyone has a piece of the truth, and I can learn about that truth from everyone.

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Fast

It's that time of year again. It's the Fast. I almost forgot it was upon us already.

This has, in some ways, become one of my favorite times of the year. I know, I know. There are, of course, some challenges, but the benefits far outweigh them.

First of all, I want to clear something up. I have heard from a number of friends about how they cannot fast, and that they feel they are missing out on all the benefits (I just can't seem to spell that word today) (spellcheck keeps correcting me, thank goodness). Well, let's look at the law of fasting as found in the Kitab-i-Aqdas.

To start, there is this: "We have commanded you to pray and fast from the beginning of maturity; this is ordained by God, your Lord and the Lord of your forefathers. He hath exempted from this those who are weak from illness or age, as a bounty from His Presence, and He is the Forgiving, the Generous." That's from paragraph 10. Then there is this, from paragraph 13: "God hath exempted women who are in their courses from obligatory prayer and fasting. Let them, instead, after performance of their ablutions, give
praise unto God, repeating ninety-five times between the noon of one day and the next 'Glorified be God, the
Lord of Splendour and Beauty'." In paragraph 16, it continues, "The traveller, the ailing, those who are with child or giving suck, are not bound by the Fast; they have been exempted by God as a token of His grace. He, verily, is the Almighty, the Most Generous." In addition to this, there are also the explanations in the questions and answers section at the end of the book, in which He explains that people traveling on foot for more than 2 hours, or are engaged in hard labour are also exempt, as are those who are ill. There are other exemptions for traveling, but I don't want to get into it all here. Oh, and after 70 years of age, you are also exempt.

So, without getting into too much detail, it seems to me that, like the Right of God, if you fall into one of the exemption categories, you are still fulfilling the obligation of the law. In other words, you are obedient through the exemption.

Now, looking at it again, the other question that often comes up is how to do it. As usual, I don't really know, but I can share what I do.

I mentioned this in a previous posting, but I may as well repeat it here.

In the morning, I begin with a small drink of water, and then juice some fresh fruit. By the time the juice is ready, so am I. After all, I don't want the juice too soon after the water, right? Then, while the juice is settling in, I usually take the pulp and make muffins. Of course, today I made a couple of fried eggs. I was feeling a bit protein starved. (I don't know why, though. I've been getting plenty.) Then, during the day, I keep busy. This usually entails my regular work, but also extra prayer time. And when I would normally be eating lunch, usually alone, I pick a fairly tough book to study, such as The Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, or something. Then, when sunset begins to roll around, I prepare a fresh vegetable juice. Again, I start with a small drink of water, and then the juice. And once more I take the pulp and try to do something clever with it, such as a soup, or a bread, or give it to my wife to make crackers.

That's basically it.

Fresh fruit juice in the morning. Fresh vegetable juice in the evening. Lots of prayers, and try to get ample sleep.

Now that that is out of the way, what should I write about the rest of this week?