Monday, October 20, 2014

Personal Prayer

"But you should", she said. "You really are only allowed to read prayers from the Writings."

I had been talking about prayer, our habitual ways of saying prayers within the Baha'i community in North America, and how some people find this either boring, annoying or in any other way off-putting. I had described our monotonous manner in which many of us say our prayers in English, thinking, for some reason, that a monotone shows some sort of reverence, which it may, for some, but definitely does not for others. I spoke about how there are a few who come into our community, or join us for devotions in some setting, and proceed to say their prayers in a charismatic sort of way, only to receive a quick, unconscious glance of judgement. I explained that the judgement was not intentional, nor was the individual doing it aware of it, but that the effect was clear if you watched. I talked about how we, as a community, must really learn to be as open as possible to all styles of prayer, including those that arise naturally from the heart. All of this was not meant as any sort of criticism, for I often say my prayers in a monotone, too, but rather to help shed a bit of light on why some of our devotional gatherings may not have been as effective as we would have wished. I said that we really needed to examine this from an unbiased perspective, re-thinking what it is that we do, especially unconsciously.

"I have never", I confessed, "found anything in the Writings that says we should only use the prayers from the Baha'i Writings. Well, except for the devotional portion of the Feast, but that is the exception, not the rule, as far as I can tell."

That was when this woman said, "You really are only allowed to read prayers from the Writings."

I asked her where that was in the Writings, really wanting to know, but was told that we all just know it. It was obvious.

And so my quest continued. For years I've been looking for a quote that says we must either only read prayers from the Bab, Baha'u'llah, or 'Abdu'l-Baha, or one that clearly states that we can say prayers from our heart.

And for just as many years, I had never found anything, except circumstantial evidence.

Some of the Hands of the Cause, those eminent souls who "speak not without His leave", were known to have written some beautiful prayers. One of the most famous, the one that begins with the line "Make of me a hallow reed from which the pith of self hath been blown", inappropriately attributed to 'Abdu'l-Baha, was written by Hand of the Cause of God, George Townshend. Ruhiyyih Khanum wrote some beautiful prayers, in the form of poems, most notably after the Guardian's passing. And I say this because if prayer is "conversation with God", then those poems sure seem to count, in my opinion.

Baha'u'llah and the Bab both quoted prayers by some of the Imams.

Really, I could go on and on, but suffice it to say that I never found any direct quote.

Until yesterday.

At the end of section 31 in Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Baha, we read the following: "The brief prayer which thou didst write at the close of thy letter was indeed original, touching and beautiful. Recite thou this prayer at all times."

This is a very interesting selection, for in it the Master writes about the expansion of the Faith in England, and by extension the world. And at the very end, after some beautiful ideas, He mentions that this person beheld Baha'u'llah in Haifa, but did not recognize Him at the time. How incredible is that? Here we have the Master's own testimony that someone else from Europe beheld the Blessed Beauty!

Then, at the very end, the very last lines, is that quote I've been seeking for years. You wrote your own prayer, said the Master, and it is beautiful. "Recite thou this prayer at all times."

Now, why is this so important to me? Simple, really. I am always leery of how we may inadvertently set up conditions, rules, or rituals within our community that are not actually part of the Faith itself. What we take for granted, such as only reading prayers from the Writings, is actually cultural, not integral to the Faith itself. It's not bad, mind you, but just cultural.

If we are in the middle of prayers, and someone new comes into the room, should they wait by the door, either within the room or without? Should they sit down quietly? Should the reader stop reading the prayer and greet them, warmly welcoming them to the group? It doesn't matter. All those responses are both personal and cultural. I have seen each of these responses, and they are all beautiful. There is no right or wrong response.

The only problem is when we try to impose our cultural values upon others, and do so in the name of the Faith.

So it is with children. If we teach our children that we should only say prayers from the Writings, then we are inadvertently imposing a cultural bias on their Faith. If they only see us adults praying with prayers from the Writings, and never explain that it is ok to do otherwise, then we are, through omission, limiting their potential.

But when we say our prayers, consciously choosing to read and pray from the Writings, occasionally saying some from our heart, and carefully explain to our children that all prayer, all conversation with God, is totally acceptable, then we give them broader wings upon which their spirits can soar.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

A Look at "Creation from the Intellect"

Back to the Writings.

I feel like it has been way too long since I've really explored a single text. So why not right now? My wife is sitting at her computer, arranging some music for the band (she's a musician in the Canadian military, in case I've never mentioned it before), and I've just finished working on a chain-mail piece for my son's Halloween costume (a glow-in-the-dark scale-mail mask) (ultra cool).

Now what? Well, I'll walk over to the bookshelf, grab a random book by Bahau'u'llah, turn to a random page, grab a passage and see what turns up. (I'll be right back.)

(Thanks for waiting. Now I'm going to grab something to munch on while I write. I won't be long. I promise.)

Ok. I'm back. Thanks.

I grabbed The Tabernacle of Unity, which I have to admit surprised me. I would have expected something like Gleanings, along with a nice familiar traditional quote to dissect. No such luck.

What I got was paragraph 2.51. But to better understand it, I needed to go back a bit and find the context. After all, this tablet is to Mirza Abu'l-Fadl, responding to Manikchi Sahib's complaint that Baha'u'llah didn't answer his questions in the first tablet. In this second tablet Baha'u''llah inserts Manikchi Sahib's original questions and then shows how He answered each and every one of them with characteristic conciseness and brilliance. And so, in order to better explore this paragraph, I feel I should go back a bit and begin with the question.

A further question that he hath asked: “The Hindus assert that God fashioned the Intellect in the form of a man named Brahma, Who came into this world and was the cause of its progress and development, and that all Hindus are His descendants. The followers of Zoroaster say: ’God, through the agency of the Primal Intellect, created a man whose name is Mahábád and who is our ancestor.’ They believe the modes of creation to be six in number. Two were mentioned above; the others are creation from water, earth, fire, and from bears and monkeys. The Hindus and Zoroastrians both say that they are begotten of the Intellect, and thus do not admit others into their folds. Are these assertions true or not? That wise Master is requested to indicate that which he deemeth appropriate.”
The entire creation hath been called into being through the Will of God, magnified be His glory, and peerless Adam hath been fashioned through the agency of His all-compelling Word, a Word which is the source, the wellspring, the repository, and the dawning-place of the intellect. From it all creation hath proceeded, and it is the channel of God’s primal grace. None can grasp the reality of the origin of creation save God, exalted be His glory, Whose knowledge embraceth all things both before and after they come into being. Creation hath neither beginning nor end, and none hath ever unravelled its mystery. Its knowledge hath ever been, and shall remain, hidden and preserved with those Who are the Repositories of divine knowledge.
The world of existence is contingent, inasmuch as it is preceded by a cause, while essential preexistence hath ever been, and shall remain, confined to God, magnified be His glory. This statement is being made lest one be inclined to conclude from the earlier assertion, namely that creation hath no beginning and no end, that it is preexistent. True and essential preexistence is exclusively reserved to God, while the preexistence of the world is secondary and relative. All that hath been inferred about firstness, lastness and such hath in truth been derived from the sayings of the Prophets, Apostles, and Chosen Ones of God.
As to the “realm of subtle entities”16 which is often referred to, it pertaineth to the Revelation of the Prophets, and aught else is mere superstition and idle fancy. At the time of the Revelation all men are equal in rank. By reason, however, of their acceptance or rejection, rise or fall, motion or stillness, recognition or denial, they come to differ thereafter. For instance, the one true God, magnified be His glory, speaking through the intermediary of His Manifestation, doth ask: “Am I not your Lord?” Every soul that answereth “Yea, verily!” is accounted among the most distinguished of all men in the sight of God. Our meaning is that ere the Word of God is delivered, all men are deemed equal in rank and their station is one and the same. It is only thereafter that differences appear, as thou hast no doubt observed.
It is clearly established from that which hath been mentioned that none may ever justifiably claim: “We are begotten of the Intellect, while all others stem from another origin.” The truth that shineth bright and resplendent as the sun is this, that all have been created through the operation of the Divine Will and have proceeded from the same source, that all are from Him and that unto Him they shall all return. This is the meaning of that blessed verse in the Qur’án which hath issued from the Pen of the All-Merciful: “Verily, we are God’s, and to Him shall we return”. 17
As is clear and evident to thee, the answer to all of the questions mentioned above was embodied in but one of the passages revealed by the Pen of the Most High. Blessed are they who, freed from worldly matters and sanctified from idle fancies and vain imaginings, traverse the meads of divine knowledge and discern in all things the tokens of His glory.

I am so grateful to for this. It makes life so much easier when studying the Writings.

To begin, the question. Manikchi Sahib is basically asking "Which creation story is correct?" Well, really, how can He answer that? No matter what He says it will be both incomplete and offend some. It is like earlier in the book when He is asked which of four schools of thought is correct. The short answer is none of them, but that "the second standeth closer to righteousness... One can, however, provide a justification for the tenets of the other schools..." In the end, through His wisdom, He replied, "Be anxiously concerned with the needs of the age ye live in, and centre your deliberations on its exigencies and requirements." In other words, who really cares? What difference does it make in your daily life?

Here, he is asking are the claims of the Hindus and Zoroastrians correct? If He were to simply say "No", then virtually all Hindus and Zoroastrians would feel insulted. And yet all knowledge comes from God through the Manifestations, so it is likely that their claims are true in that regard. When you re-read the question in light of that, then we can readily see that there is a truth within their teachings.

The problem, though, is that they become exclusive in their assertions. "We're right and all others are wrong." He corrects that. He reminds us clearly, in paragraph 2.51, that we have all been created from "the Intellect", for we are all created by the same God. At no time should the story of our creation become divisive. "Know ye not", He asks us to consider in the Hidden Words, "why We created you all from the same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the other."

In paragraph 2.48, He reminds us of the essential mystery of creation, further emphasizing in the next paragraph that there is a difference between the creation of the universe and the other realms of existence. This whole thing about firstness and lastness, preexistence and so on, falls into insignificance when we consider what we know of the visible universe and the Big Bang. Time itself came into being with that Bang. And so to talk about anything "before" that is actually kind of silly. The very word "before" presupposes the concept of time and a chronological order to things. We have seen back to the beginning of time, and know that anything "before" that is pure mystery.

What we believe about anything before that moment is, in a very real sense, irrelevant. "Be anxiously concerned with the needs of the age ye live in, and centre your deliberations on its exigencies and requirements." What we believe has no impact on our daily life.

What matters, He seems to say, is not what we believe about scientific reality, although it should be in accord with what we observe, but what really matters is how we respond to the divine Manifestation.

Now, looking at 2.51, which is where this all began for me, it is also a reminder to be free from the ego. No matter what our field of study, no matter what our expertise, we can never claim to have a knowledge that others are deprived of. People who study religion have one view of the world. And in a sense, their view is correct. "One can, however, provide a justification for the tenets of the other schools..."

As long as we do not claim exclusivity, somehow thinking that only our particular perspective is the "correct" one, then we can respect the views of others, and others can respect ours. If we, for some odd reason, believe that only our definitions are relevant, then we become exclusive, denying a greater understanding of the world around us. When we accept other perspectives, we can readily accommodate the ideas of both scientific creation with the Big Bang, or even the String theory, along side the above stories of the Hindu and Zoroastrian creation, as well as the creation myth from Genesis (either 1 or 2), for we see the beauty and truth within the poetry of each. And that leads to not only a greater sense of unity, but also a broader and more beautiful understanding of the world.

As for me, I personally like the idea of "creation... from bears and monkeys."

Friday, October 3, 2014

Unity Feasts

I love my community. I said that at a recent gathering in Vancouver for all members of Local Spiritual Assemblies in British Columbia. I love them, I said. They're wacky.

"Last year", I announced at the microphone, "we celebrated 19 Feasts and are so proud of our achievement that this year we decided to see if we could celebrate 23."

And you know what? It's true.

As you are no doubt aware, the Baha'i Feast is reserved for members of the Baha'i community in good standing. Why? Well, to put it simply, it's because that is the time in which we have free and open consultation on the affairs of the community. It is sort of like a family meeting. As the Universal House of Justice has said, the Feast is "an entirely private religious and domestic occasion for the Baha'i community when its internal affairs are discussed and its members meet for personal fellowship and worship." It is "essentially domestic and administrative", and "No great issue should be made of it for there is certainly nothing secret about the Feast but it is organized for Baha'is only." And while we would "certainly not invite a non-Baha'i to attend", if someone does show up who is not a member of the Baha'i community, we would, of course, make them feel welcome.

In our community, as I'm sure you have seen in your own, there are a number of families in which one spouse is a Baha'i, and the other is not. This, of course, has led to some concerns, most of which were addressed in that letter from the Universal House of Justice a few years ago

We hope to be ever more open, while still being obedient to the guidance.

And so, in our community the question came up, once again, about having a Unity Feast. After all, we all know the importance of the Feast, and how we find ourselves "spiritually restored, and endued with a power that is not of this world." We know that is brings "bliss and unity and love", that it "rejoiceth mind and heart". How could we not want our loved family members to attend?

But the rules regarding attendance are still there.

So we looked at it again. We really wanted to see what the guidance was, and if there was any wiggle room that we could find,

While still being obedient, of course.

We looked at many Writings. We looked at lots of guidance. We looked at all sorts of aspects, from the three parts of the Feast to the guidance that the while non-Baha'is may be there for the devotional and social portion, those two parts are still considered part of the Feast and we would, of course, never think to invite someone who is not Baha'i. We even looked at the guidance about how if someone outside the community shows up, we could still have the administrative portion, given that most everything we discuss is not confidential in nature.

But still we could not invite.

And then we focused. Our attention was drawn to the line, "Feasts should be held on the first day of the Baha'i month, if possible."

What, we wondered, if we hold the Feast on another day? But it should be on the first day.

But what about a Unity Feast? No guidance there.

Hey! What if we have our Feast on the first day of the month, and a Unity Feast on another?

You mean, like a public meeting? No. A Feast. It would be modeled on the Feast, and follow all the guidance of a Feast, and the agenda of a Feast, but it would be on another day, and open to all.

Oh yeah, and then we can have a topic for consultation that is relevant to the greater community. We can see what others think about, for example, fostering the devotional character of the community.

And so, dear Reader, our community has set a goal for 23 Feasts this year. 19 regular Feasts, and 4 Unity Feasts, the first of which is this evening.

So how about you? Is this something that would be useful in your community? I'd love to hear your thoughts or experience.