Friday, July 30, 2010

A Commandment and a Covenant

Towards the end of the last article, I referenced a quote from 'Abdu'l-Baha. I said that it was a bit of a digression from the main point, and that perhaps I would analyze it at a later time. Well, a couple of people asked for the full quote and an analysis of it, so I might as well do it now. No time like the present, and all that.

Here is the quote that I was excerpting from:

And now I give you a commandment which shall be for a covenant between you and Me -- that ye have faith; that your faith be steadfast as a rock that no storms can move, that nothing can disturb, and that it endure through all things even to the end; even should ye hear that your Lord has been crucified, be not shaken in your faith; for I am with you always, whether living or dead, I am with you to the end. As ye have faith so shall your powers and blessings be. This is the balance -- this is the balance -- this is the balance.
So, here I am, sitting in my living room, watching the birds (seagulls and eagles) and the deer, drawing inspiration from the majestic trees across the street. As you can tell, I am not used to this environment yet, and this seems to me to be a major starting point for any religious train of thought: never take it for granted. The moment that we begin to take our faith, and God's grace, for granted, then we cease to be instruments for His work. How many great teachers fell from their position because they began to think that they were the one doing the work?

Perhaps this is one of the many reasons I keep reminding you, dear Reader, that this is only my own opinion. I won't presume to be in the same category as those great teachers of the past, but it still holds true for one doing as little as myself. The ones I feel sorry for, in this respect, are those dear souls that serve as Auxiliary Board members or Counsellors. What a burden they bear, and with such humility, too. I can't imagine it.

Sometimes I think I have it fairly easy. After all, who am I? Just a lone guy on a computer typing his meager thoughts.

Enough of that for now. Let's get to the text.

"And now I give you a commandment" - This forcefully reminds me of Moses, for Who else can you think of when you read that word? But here it is no Messenger of God; it is 'Abdu'l-Baha giving us this commandment.

Then He adds in an interesting phrase right after that. It is not a commandment like the 10 found in the Torah. It is not a list of imperatives, a series of Thou-shalt-nots. No, He says that it "shall be for a covenant between you and Me". So here we have an unusual combination, a commandment / covenant.

A commandment is an order given by one in authority. You do it, or else you face punishment.

A covenant is an agreement between two or more parties, with obligations on both sides. In the socio-religious context, it often refers to the promise God made the Israelites in which He would protect them if they obeyed His law and were faithful to Him. In the Baha'i context, it is a very obvious reminder of 'Abdu'l-Baha's station as the Centre of the Covenant.

This almost seems to be a covenant within the Covenant, or a rider to the original. In fact, it could quite easily be seen that way, for if you have not accepted Baha'u'llah as a Messenger of God, and have not formally engaged in His Covenant, then 'Abdu'l-Baha does not have the authority to command. I will not go into the fact that He is the Centre of the Baha'u'llah's Covenant with all mankind, for that could easily get confusing here, and I prefer simplicity. So if you have accepted to be a party to the Covenant, then this new covenant seems to help clarify your role within it.

But what exactly is our role in this new covenant? It is stated in three parts, as far as I can tell.

First, we must have faith. That seems easy enough, but as it is the foundation of the other two parts, we need to be certain we know what it means. Faith, by definition, is a confidence or trust in someone or something.

But what is He asking us to have faith in? Himself? I would tend to doubt it. My guess is that He is asking us to have faith first in God, and then in Baha'u'llah as His Messenger. Faith in God seems to me to presume an acceptance of His various promises in the sacred traditions. One of those crucial promises that occur over and over again in His promise to send a Redeemer, titled various things depending upon the Book you look at.

Many people believe in God but don't believe in the "end of days". Or if they do, they either seem to believe that that promised time won't occur in their lifetime, or else that they are somehow exempt from the trials that must herald that time. In all the traditions, we read that most people will not recognize Him when He comes.

There is a famous tradition in this vein which Baha'u'llah quotes in The Book of Certitude: Our Cause is sorely trying, highly perplexing; none can bear it except a favorite of heaven, or an inspired Prophet, or he whose faith God hath tested.

Most people, to use another quote from the Blessed Beauty, "admit that none of these three specified conditions is applicable to them. The first two conditions are manifestly beyond their reach; as to the third, it is evident that at no time have they been proof against those tests that have been sent by God..."

In the context of the phrase from the Master, it seems to me that we must first have faith in the promises of God. Then, if we are Baha'i, we must accept Baha'u'llah as the fulfillment of those promises. Once we do that, we have to accept the authority of 'Abdu'l-Baha or else we have failed to accept everything that Baha'u'llah has said and written. The order of this is quite clear, if you ask me (which you didn't, but hey). After all that, we now have to accept this new addition to the Covenant in the above quote.

But the foundation of all of this is the degree of our faith. Without that, nothing else can follow.

The second part, which further clarifies the first, is that our "faith be steadfast as a rock that no storms can move, that nothing can disturb, and that it endure through all things even to the end". In other words, if our faith isn't strong enough to withstand some tests, what good is it?

In this phrasing, I am reminded of who His audience was: the first Pilgrimage group from the West. This group included such luminaries of the Baha'i firmament as May Bolles (Maxwell) and Lua Getsinger. Interestingly enough, it also included that "great teacher" who opened up the West, enrolling hundreds under the banner of the Most Great Name, including Lua Getsinger and Thornton Chase, and who later violated the Covenant causing such turmoil within that nascent community: Ibrahim Khayru'llah.

Here were two of the greatest exponents of the Faith from the West with the one who would be the cause of such "storms" in that very community.

You also had in that remarkable group Phoebe Hearst, who provided such incredible services to the Cause, but whose own involvement in the community was later tested by others who violated the Covenant.

It seems as if this group would provide the backdrop for our response to this command: do we violate the Covenant akin to Khayru'llah, become tepid in our involvement as per Mrs Hearst, or do we strive to rise to such heights as Lua or May?

Lua, in case we have forgotten, was later to be called the "Herald of the Covenant". May Bolles Maxwell was so remarkable a soul that the Guardian himself is said to have claimed that he married Ruhiyyih Khanum because she was May's daughter. What greater testimony can we ask for? (And I need to find my thesaurus, for I use the words "remarkable" and "incredible" too often here, but am at a loss for suitable adjectives.)

So not only do we have a backdrop for this quote, and a spectrum for our own response to it, but we also have a context. They were ardent Christians, eagerly seeking the Return. Here, in this phrase, 'Abdu'l-Baha uses language and imagery that would resonate deep within their hearts. The very images He calls up bring to mind the storm that swept across the sea before Jesus walked across the water, the rock of Peter's faith, and even imagery from both John and Revelation. With just a few words, He calls to mind such a rich history, laden with so much meaning.

He is giving us clear guidance from history as to the importance of having a strong faith that nothing can shake.

Yet He doesn't end there, for there is still a third part to this command and covenant. We are to not be shaken in our faith, even when faced with the unimaginable, that our "Lord has been crucified".

Not only is He likening these people, and hence us by extension, to the Apostles of Jesus, but He is asking them to rise above even those Saints, to learn from their mistakes.

How many times must the Apostles have lamented their lack of Faith after the crucifixion? How often must Peter have berated himself for denying his Lord, not once but three times? Remember, it took the miracle of the resurrection to restore their faith.

'Abdu'l-Baha is reminding them of this.

He is also forshadowing the trials that are to come in His own life. In just a few years after this speech, representatives of the Turkish Empire would threaten Him with this very torture. Jamal Pasha will forever go down in infamy for uttering this threat towards the end of the First World War, thereby emboldening the British Baha'is to campaign to get General Allenby to march on Haifa faster than expected.

Our role is to never be shaken in our faith, no matter what happens.

But what about 'Abdu'l-Baha's side of the Covenant?

He says, "I am with you always, whether living or dead, I am with you to the end". Isn't this the promise of His guidance, carried forward by the Guardian and acted upon by the Universal House of Justice? Not only do I see it as the promise of His guidance, but also a reminder that there is another Messenger to come, for that is what I think is meant by "the end". I mean, sure the guidance will still be there, but with the next Messenger, God will do as He wills.

To get more on this, just read His Will and Testament. It's all there, both His role in relation to the Guardian and to the Universal House of Justice.

Finally, tempting as it would be to look at the last two sentences seperately, I think I need to look at them together: As ye have faith so shall your powers and blessings be. This is the balance -- this is the balance -- this is the balance.

Here is the final promise. Actually, it is more of a revealed truth than a promise. Our powers and blessings are directly proportional to our faith. Of course, this should not be seen in the guilt-laden sense, such as the poor child who is handicapped and is told that they are not healed because they don't have enough faith. No. That is not guidance, but a cruel form of blackmail.

Here we are told that we can accomplish things. If we want to do even more, then we need to act on faith. If we want to be aware of the blessings in our life, then we will see more when we have more faith.

Remember, May Maxwell was an invalid most of her life, and yet look at what she accomplished.

There is a balance between our faith and what we can do. So important is it that we recognize this balance that 'Abdu'l-Baha tells us to be aware of this relation three times.

As you know, emphasizing something by repetition is His way of calling to our attention its importance. So important is this lesson that it is repeated three times.

I could go on and on further analyzing this, but really, I think I've said the main points I wanted to put forth. Instead, I'd be very interested in what others see in this marvellous quote.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Happy Pendulum

It seems like there are only a few basic patterns of movement, or development, that occur within nature. The most common, which I have alluded to over and over, is that of growth from zero to infinity. The presence of heat moves in that manner, as does light. There is no cold, says the guy who just moved from Winnipeg, and darkness does not have an existence. They are merely the absences of the positive values of heat and light.

A form of movement that we see time and again is that of a pendulum, oscillating in its eternal path.

Society moves like a pendulum, back and forth, back and forth, only staying at the happy medium for a single moment. Anyone who has ever studied societal trends knows this, whether it is the movement from the "back to nature" ideal in the 60s in the States to the ultra-materialism in the US 80s, or the regular shift in laws from unbridled permissiveness to extreme control. A pendulum is the path it describes.

A fun example that seems to fit into this category is the various ways that some Baha'i communities tried teaching the Faith for decades. Many got onto the band wagon of expansion. "Go out and teach as many people as you possibly can. The deepening will follow." Then the pendulum seemed to shift. "You have to thoroughly deepen every single Baha'i before you can teach anyone else." Of course, neither of these extremes is a recipe for success. It is only when we follow the guidance of the Guardian, and the more recent guidance from the World Centre, by teaching a bit and deepening a bit, simultaneously allowing those who are taught to move into the teaching field for practical experience, that we see more sustainable growth.

Remember, "Whatsoever passeth beyond the limits of moderation will cease to exert a beneficial influence."

I think it is interesting to note that this not only works as a model for societies, but also for individuals. This is the point that fascinates me.

For quite a long time unhealthy role models were held up to be the ideal within society, ranging from the ultra-violent, testosterone-laden Rambo male type to the anorexic bimbo Barbie-style female. And what happened if you didn't fit into one particular model? Well, chances are you were, or still are, ostracized.

But what I am interested in is how this dynamic affects relationships.

You see, a number of years ago this inadvertantly came up when I went out for coffee with a woman. Some would call it a date, but that is probably a topic (or a rant) for another time.

We had a thoroughly delightful time, talked tons, and decided that we really wanted to do it again in the future. Quite some time later, after we had been seeing each other for months, she told me an amusing story about that first coffee together. It seemed when she got home, she had gone straight to the phone and called her mom.

"How was your date," her mom asked.

"It was wonderful."

"So, what's he like?"

"Well, he is very nice," she reported, "and loves musicals. He's a writer and an artist, and not at all pushy. He didn't even try to kiss me when he left."

"Oh," her mother said, disappointed, "he's gay."

I can't help but smile when I write that, for I find it very amusing that this would have been her mother's assumption. Why would that have been? Because I didn't fit into the typical male role. You see, because I wasn't the one extreme, the macho militant, she thought I should have been the other, gay. In her mind, there were only the two extremes, and if I wasn't one, I had to be the other.

It has often occurred to me that many people probably think like this about themselves, too. When talking about this with some of my friends, a few of them had thought that they were homosexual because of this type of reasoning. When they realized that there was a male-type between those two extremes, they actually discovered themselves, as they put it, and found they were much happier, regardless of their sexual orientation.

All of this, in my own opinion (remember, this is only my own opinion, and nothing "official") has to do with our understanding of the various attributes of God and how we understand our virtues.

How? Well, I'm glad you asked. I'd be kind of stuck here if you didn't ask, dear Reader.

We often think of many things in the world as being opposite of each other, without realizing that there are no opposites in nature. Remember back at the beginning of this article? Light and dark? We often think of gentleness and roughness as being opposite, the former being feminine and the latter masculine. But this is not the case. Roughness is the absence of the feminine trait of gentleness, not its opposite.

Submissiveness, which is often mistakenly thought of as a feminine attribute is actually the absence of the masculine attribute of assertiveness.

Oh, and before you even go there, masculine and feminine are not limited to men and women. All of us have all of these qualities within us, to a greater or lesser degree, and they need to become more balanced. When speaking of the civilization of the future, 'Abdu'l-Baha says, "the new age will be an age, less masculine, and more permeated with the feminine ideals -- or, to speak more exactly, will be an age in which the masculine and feminine elements of civilization will be more evenly balanced."

In the context of the quote, it is evident that He is speaking of the various virtuous attributes that we place importance on. Compassion will become of more importance than force, to cite just a single example.

Back to the earlier example, when someone who only thinks in extremes realizes that they are not particularly gentle, they often presume that they must be rough. I have seen too many examples of people who figured if they were not a genius, they must be an idiot, never realizing that nearly all of us are somewhere in the middle.

Now, to take another example of this, let's take a quick look at abuse. In a typical abusive relationship there are two positions: the abuser and the victim. It almost helps to see the abuser as being above the victim, for that is sort of how it works. When one who has been a victim is in a new relationship, they generally only see those two positions. And if they are no longer in the victim postion, they then seem to feel that they have to be in the abuser position, moving like the pendulum.
This happened with Marielle and myself. She had been in an abusive relationship (or actually more than one), and had me read about what I would go through while she was healing. This is what we learned. And sure enough, as I was not abusing her (except with my jokes) she unconciously tried to place herself in the abuser position. It took time and effort on both our parts for her subconcious to recognize a new dynamic: one in which the two partners are standing next to each other as equals. Fortunately, that's where we are today (except that she is sitting opposite me at the table) (Hey, wait, maybe there are opposites in nature. Ahh, never mind.).
In all cases, balance is needed. Remember, when the Master was speaking to the very first Pilgrimage group from the West, He told them, at the end of a very profound talk, "This is the balance. This is the balance. This is the balance." So important is this concept of balance that He mentions it three times. Perhaps I'll analyze that talk in another article, but for now, it is a digression.
If the man does not embrace his feminine qualities, then he could become rough and aggressive, instead of compassionate and caring. If the woman does not embrace her masculine qualities, then she could become submissive and dominated. This generally occurs when people do not see them as part of a continuum, but as opposite sides of a coin.

They swing from one end of the pendulum to the other, never really stopping in the middle. And while the pendulum may be a very useful tool, it never really seems to go anywhere. Just like those people who live in that manner.

Of course, if you see the path beginning at zero and continuing on towards infinity, then you realize it is a path we can walk, journeying through life, and ending up closer to our Creator.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

New House, Day 1

Well, we've moved in. Kind of.

When they unloaded the truck, there was no space to walk in the front room. It was packed nearly to the ceiling. Sheesh.

Fortunately most of it was books and the majority of them went into storage. For now.

Oh, except the Baha'i books. They're sitting in the hall awaiting their place on the bookshelves, which I hope to get to today.

After filling the storage unit, and thereby emptying a part of the house, we let Shoghi in. I'm not going to talk about the unpackers, or the myriad adventures in off-loading the truck. Too many more important things to mention.

For example, here is my obligatory Baha'i reference. Do you remember way back in October 2009 when I wrote an article about the Most Difficult Law? Well, the paragraph before that one in the Kitab-i-Aqdas is as follows:
Ye have been enjoined to renew the furnishings of your homes after the passing of each nineteen years; thus hath it been ordained by One Who is Omniscient and All-Perceiving. He, verily, is desirous of refinement, both for you yourselves and for all that ye possess; lay not aside the fear of God and be not of the negligent. Whoso findeth that his means are insufficient to this purpose hath been excused by God, the Ever-Forgiving, the Most Bounteous.
Why do I mention this passage? Thanks for asking, dear Reader. For some odd reason, it came to mind recently. When discussing "odd" passages in the Writings, this is one that seems to come up fairly often. Many people have asked me why this is a law and we have spent hours trying to unravel its significance.

Some have mistakenly interpreted it as "replace all your furiture every 19 years", but agree, when it is pointed out, that this is not what it says. It asks us to "renew" our furniture. So, in general answer to all those who have asked, I believe that, yes, it is ok to have antique furniture, as long as it is taken care of. We had a beautiful sofa in our old home, but it needed re-upholstering. That, to me, would constitute renewing it.

Let's face it, any piece of furniture will need renewing at least once a decade. Either cloth needs to be re-upholstered, or wood needs to be stripped and re-stained. It seems to to me that Baha'u'llah is asking us to take care of the appearance of our home and not let it look neglected.

Of course, as the return of Christ, He may just be drumming up business for carpenters.

When I look at the rest of the paragraph, one title for God that stands out is "the All-Perceiving". This seems to me to be a reminder that while God perceives all, we humans perceive some. And most of us quickly judge others based on first appearances. So when that ardent seeker comes by for your fireside, be sure that not only have you dusted and swept the floors, but that your very furnishings are looking good, too. And don't forget, God knows about those dust bunnies.

And then there is the point that God desires us to be refined, or elegant, in our taste, manners, feelings, language and attitude. As He says here, He also desires this for our possessions.

When I think of the two sofas we left behind, this comes clearly to mind. One was very dated from the late 60s, and just looked wrong. It did not, to my eye, signify taste. The other one was very elegant and could have been in style any time between the mid-1800s and today. It was of a classical style, one that never goes out, and was tastefully upholstered in a very nice dark green fabric.

Today, we have an old futon frame that I will be touching up before I re-assemble, with a very nice beige futon, complete with an abstract rectangle motif. Although it is not the height of fashion or elegance, it is quite nice on its own, and will fit in most rooms.

This wholoe question of style is now becoming more important to me, simply because of this one paragraph.

Then there is also the question of mercy. If you can't afford to do this, God forgives you from it.

Following this, of course, is the "mother paragraph", the one that says "Wash you feet".

Baha'i content finished, so now back to the story.

Yesterday, as I made the notes from which this article is taken, I noticed that my waiter had a wristwatch tatooed on his wrist. Instead of the traditional hands, though, which would only be correct twice a day, it had a smiley face. I liked it. It's always happy time.

So, where was I? Oh yes. We in to our new home a couple of nights ago. The cats were so happy. So were the deer.

It was kind of funny to watch the deer and the cats meet. Kismet didn't know what to make of them, and they sure weren't afraid of her, sweetie that she is. (Unless you're a vet. Then she is this hissing snarling claw-laden monster designated dangerous on her file.)

When I was truly sick and tired of shifting boxes around (the practical side of all those years doing sliding tile puzzles), we finally went down to the beach, that lagoon mentioned in an earlier comment by Isabelle.

Thank God for good neighbours. Geraldine, the woman behind us with the 4-year old boy (Shoghi's new playmate), walked us down there. We certainlywould have been lost without her.
By the way, I think I'll throw another aside in here: Years ago, I went to San Diego to visit one of my dearest friends, Ed. He was serving in the US Navy, and had been serving for many years, so he knew his way around a ship. One afternoon, during my visit, we all piled in his truck, and he began to drive. At the time, there was a major sinkhole that had swallowed a huge part of the highway that he would normally have taken, so he took an alternate route. We drove and drove and drove and drove, and he turned right here, and took a left turn there. Another left, followed by another right, and then another. And still we drove on. I thought he lived closer to the water than that, so I finally asked, "How much further?"

He said he didn't know. He couldn't find the ocean. In San Diego.

"And you've been in the Navy how many years?"

I'll never forget his expression when I said that.

Well, this beach, here in Belmont Park, is incredible. When you walk down, on the left is the ocean. On the right is the lagoon. In the distance are the snow-capped Olympic Mountains. I've only walked the first bit of it, and haven't gotten to the end of the road, so I don't know what's at the far end, but I will definitely be exploring it soon.

Oh, and at this point in my notes, I wrote the following: "I'm sitting here in Langford, eating at a restaurant called the Noodle Box. Remember how I said that I rarely recommend restaurants in my blog? This one is awesome. It started as a small stand in China town, and is now a 3 or 4 store franchise. The medium-hot Cambodian Jungle Curry is so, SO flavourful, but very spicy. They cautioned me to only get the medium and I now understand why. I wouldn't change it, but it definitely too hot for most people. I'll let you know about the banana spring rolls when I get to them."

Down at the water I saw the mandatory crabs, fish and various mussels on the ocean side. I walked back up to the road dividing the park, crossed over and went down to the lagoon side and saw geese, ducks, swans, bald eagles, a harbour seal pup and a family of otters. The seal seemed to be in trouble, and there was a guy on a cell phone calling for information about what to do. He had been watching the pup for nearly an hour, when someone at the BC Conservancy finally seemed to know what they were talking about. "Can you see the outline of the hipbone? No? Then he's alright." And when the seal heard that, he looked up, flipped into the water, and swam far and fast.

All this less than a 10 minute walk from home. I am sure that I will find inspiration at this beach for a very long time.

It is my hope to get a swim mask and explore the sea bottom there in the next week or so. Hopefully the water will be a bit warmer than it was when I was there.

For now, I need to go back home and continue unboxing. But before that, I want to thank you all, dear Readers, for making me feel so welcome in my  new home. The e-mails from those of you who have lived here, who do live here, and who wish to live here really make me feel welcome. It is, incidentally, the first place in my life where I feel safe leaving my front door unlocked.

Oh, and the banana spring rolls? They were incredible, too. I think they were a standard spring roll stuffed with banana puree and shredded sweetened coconut, deep fried and sprinkled with cinnamon sugar.

I think I'll find inspiration in those, too.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Trip West, part the fifth

"Part the fifth? I thought you already arrived at your destination." I hear your cry, dear Reader, and yes, you are correct. We arrived a few days ago and our stuff arrived yesterday. Today I was moving a lot of boxes into storage, and tomorrow the unpackers arrive (ah, the joys of the military wife.. I mean life).

Yesterday morning, I woke to a dark and snorey room and successfully snuck out without waking anyone. Taking my time, I slowly and scenically made my way to the new home. As I turned the corner near our place (on a road surprisingly and truly called Meade Avenue) there was a beautiful deer watching my progress.

After making my way around the next corner, our corner, I pulled up to our home, got out and went in. Fed the cats and went outside to wait in the morning sun.

While sitting on the front step, enjoying the challenge of a cryptic crossword puzzle, and basking in the clear sunshine, I saw another deer poke her head out of the woods a block away, with only an empty lot (and a couple of quiet streets between us). And then her baby poked his head out. They were soon followed by another large buck.

For nearly an hour I watched them nibble the grasss across the street, and in the yard across from ours, and the houses' next to ours, and ours. They were no more than 5 metres away as I sat there gazing at them. They evidently deemed me safe. It kind of reminded me of some of the women from my past.

Later, a neighbours cat came by. She introduced herself as "Ginger", and let me know that she wanted a bit of attention. She just pawed at my hands as I made the notes that eventually became what you are reading, and eventually she jumped on my shoulders. Ahh, a shoulder cat. I just love shoulder cats.

Given all of this incredible nature literally in our backyard, and front yard, and side yard, how can I fail to appreciate Baha'u'llah's statement "The country is the world of the soul, the city is the world of bodies."

When the movers came up, a few moments after I wrote the above, I spoke with Victoria, a woman who had "come along for the ride", and she agreed that you cannot help but be inspired in a setting such as this.

I had hoped to walk the couple of blocks to the ocean this afternoon, but we had to move tons of stuff to get ready for the unpacking tomorrow. Now, after a delicious meal (an oyster burger, of all things), Shoghi and Marielle are playing, and I'm ready to pass out.

One last thought, though.

I've been trying to figure out the main difference between here and Winnipeg when driving around, and I think I finally got it. In Winnipeg, a city in which you can watch your dog run away for a week, you can see everything for miles around. If you are looking for a store, chances are you can just look down the road a bit and see it in the distance.

Here you are lucky if you can see the end of the block.

I was standing in a parking lot with a huge cliff rising above me on one side. When I looked at the top, I saw a gazebo. 20 metres away the cliff dropped off so quickly that they had built a series of townhouses up it, leaving the back as it was. The  very topology of the land seems to force you to live in the moment, almost unconcerned for what lies around the corner.

Unless you're looking for a good restaurant, and are quite hungry (experience from earlier tonight which, fortunately, resulted in the fortuitous experience of said oyster burger).

I'm sure if I took a few more minutes I could find much guidance in the Writings about living in the moment, instead of worrying about the future, but for now I hear my bed luring me with a siren's call.

A bon nuit, dear Reader, and I promise to get back to some more interesting topics as soon as we get into the new home, after tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Trip West, part the fourth

In case you haven't guessed by now, we made it. I am sitting in a hotel room in the Sheraton Victoria Gateway, which, I believe, is in Langford and not Victoria, BC.

Yesterday began quite slowly. I woke to the gentle snoring of my little son and the call of a bird outside that sounded more like a cat than a bird. As usual, I headed to the little breakfast area in the hotel, got a small bite to eat, and logged on to this blog. The comments from the day before were checked, my notes were looked over, and I began to type.

When Marielle and Shoghi joined me, I had just about finished.

A few minutes later, we were off on the last leg of our journey west, driving through more "land of tremendous beauty". (Hmm. If I'm quoting my notebook, do I have to put the words in quotation marks?)

As we pulled on to the highway, we passed a sign that said something like, "No Hitchhiking. Do not pick up hitchhikers. It is illiegal." I'm sure that's not exactly what it said, but it was something very close to that. About twenty seconds later, we passed a guy on the side of the road, walking with the traffic, with his thumb lazily stuck out for a ride. Even if we had wanted to pick him up, there was no safe place for us to pull over.

This got us talking, Marielle and I.

I talked about the time that I was hitchhiking in Europe, and my own thoughts about it. I said that it was always important to me to make sure that I was standing in a place that was very visible for the drivers, where they could easily pull over. They needed to have enough time to brake, enough room on the shoulder, and a long enough space to accelerate again back into traffic. If these conditions were not present, I would not hitch there.

Then we spoke of appearances. We could easily have spoken about the attributes of cleanliness, and so on, but we were more mundane about it. And we compared this guy we had just passed with Shaylor.

Marielle said this last guy looked "scary".

I clarified that by saying that he was dirty, dusty and unkempt. His hair looked matted and his backpack was untidily stuffed and discombobulated. Did we want someone dirty, and possibly smelly, sitting in our car with us? Not likely. If I was alone, or the car was not so cramped, maybe, but definitely not under those conditions.

I told Marielle that I wasn't sure if my ideas of hitchhiking came from The Hitchhikers Guide to Europe that I had in my backpack while I was hitching, or just from my own sense of salesmanship. Aside from sensible placement on the side of the road, I explained that I had always made sure my clothes were clean, my hair was brushed and as tidy as it usually is (that's a joke, if you've ever seen me in person), and that my backpack didn't have things sticking out all over the place. Also very important was that I always had a smile on my face. I realized that I had to "sell" myself quickly to the driver. They had to want to pick me up, and I had only a moment to convince them. Aside from one unfortunate circumstance beyond my control, I never had to wait more than 20 minutes for a ride.

All of this, we realized, was similar to what we experience as Baha'is when we call upon people in their homes without a prior appointment. Have you ever noticed, for example, that the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Mormons never show up in anything less than the most immaculate clothing? There is a reason. I believe it similar to the reason that 'Abdu'l-Baha always ensured that His clothing was clean and neat. In fact, I have read that He usually changed His shirt in the middle of the day. Baha'u'llah, Himself, in the Kitab-i-Aqdas writes, "Be ye the very essence of cleanliness amongst mankind."

How can we, when we are presenting the Faith to people for the first time (or any time now that I think about it), do any less?

This was basically the gist of our conversation for the next hour or so. Oh, and it was, of course, interspersed with joyous silly talk with Shoghi, and proper ooh-ing and aah-ing over the scenery. We also spent quite a bit of time discussing future topics for this blog, about which I have copious notes. (Thanks Marielle.)

An hour or so later, we found ourselves approaching Chillliwack, yet another city with a name that conjures up amusing images. As we passed an on-ramp, we noticed another young man hitchhiking. He was well dressed and had a sign that said "West".

Sound familiar?

We got off at the next exit, drove back on a side road, got on the on-ramp, and pulled over to pick him up.

Shaylor just about doubled over in laughter when he realized who we were. And if you don't know who Shaylor is by now, I suggest you go back and read the first three parts of the trip west.

So no lie, I am not kidding, and this is the honest to God truth, we actually picked up Shaylor once again, and that is the only reason I am writing about this trip west for a fourth time. God really is an iron.

Well, we had another wonderful conversation, and Shoghi was so happy to have a friend sit with him in the back again. It was at this time that I shared with him (Shaylor, not Shoghi) my thoughts about hitchhiking, mentioned above, and asked him if he had any of this in mind while he was hitching, or if it was unconscious.

"A bit of both." He, too, had come to realize the sales aspect of hitching, and was also thinking of the driver when choosing his spot. He was very aware of his surroundings, and had come to understand that most people pick up hitchhikers in order to have someone "safe" to talk with. He said that he often felt like a counsellor when listening to the drivers speak, and was now considering that as a career. Given that he is quite good at it, as you can see from my own reaction in earlier posts, I encouraged him to look into it. Marielle and I both encouraged him to look into a combined degree of English Literature and Psychology, with either one as a minor. They could so easily compliment each other, and we both believe he would do well in each of them. (See? I told you I'd write about this, Shaylor.)

All too soon, we found ourselves approaching Vancouver, that elusive "West" towards which Shaylor was heading. When we asked him where he wanted us to drop him off, the conversation ended up something like this:
Shaylor: Horseshoe Bay

Me: Why?

Shaylor: I want to get the ferry to Nanaimo.

Me: We're getting the ferry to Victoria at Tsawwassen, and there's another one from there up to Nanaimo.

Shaylor: Is it a longer ferry ride?

Me: Yes.

Shaylor: Cool.

And so we took him with us to Tsawwassen, let him off at the "foot traffic" gate, and headed off into the sunset.

The ferry ride was uneventful and very beautiful. We met a couple of people on the ferry, but there is not much to report. Ishtar, a blind woman, was very pleasant to speak with, and encouraged us to not drive in Victoria, as there are plenty of bike lanes, and the rapid transit works well. Good on you, Ishtar.

Lauren was a young woman from... Uh oh. I just forgot. Goose Bay? I can't remember. But she is a folk singer who had just performed at the young performers' stage at the Winnipeg Folk Festival. She is exploring Vancouver Island for now, before she continues on and works a little bit at an herb and lavender farm in Chilliwack. I am certain she will do well, for she has the personality to succeed at whatever she puts her mind to.

Now we are here, in Victoria, and Marielle is picking up Bob (our friend and tenant who has moved out with us) and our cats (Kismet and George) at the airport. Our stuff arrives on the truck tomorrow morning, is upacked either later that day or the next, and then we move in to our new home.

Is the adventure over?

Nope. It has only begun.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Trip West, part the third

I really didn't expect to be able to write this much while moving, but I must say, being able to write while staring out at tree covered mountains is truly an inspirational joy.

For those of you who are wondering, or mapping such things, I am currently sitting in Merritt, BC, getting ready to head into Vancouver this morning. From there, we will take the ferry across to our new home of Vancouver Island. Why Victoria is on Vancouver Island, I will never know. It seems to me that Vancouver should be on Vancouver Island, or perhaps that they should rename the island Victoria Island. Of course, if they went through the trouble of changing the name, I would expect them to pick something Aboriginal, which Victoria definitely isn't. Come to think of it, neither is Vancouver.

But before I continue on names, let me go back to the beginning of yesterday morning. After a mediocre breakfast (have you noticed that I don't plug any restaurants here? There's a reason.) we continued our drive west. I drove while Marielle and Shoghi ate in the car. You see, I got up a few hours earlier and had the dubious pleasure of eating in the little restaurant at the hotel we had stayed at. While they really knew how to make a good Ceasar salad (which I knew from the night before), they were singularly lacking in the breakfast department. And I just didn't feel like another Ceasar salad.

So there I was, driving, while they were eating, and I had little else to do but enjoy the scenery and the signs.

The signs?

Yes, the signs.

Sometimes I really have to wonder about signage, who designs them, and what they were thinking. For example, why do they have those little warning signs about falling rocks?

What can you, as a driver, possibly do about it if you see those rocks falling like that? Swerve? You'd go flying off a mountain! Or crashing into one, and then be covered by those same no-longer-falling rocks. Neither option is particularly good.

As Marielle said, "If it's so dangerous, why did they put the road there?"

Nice as it may seem to caution you about the fact that becoming a road pancake is possible while travelling in the mountains, it doesn't really seem to do much other than raising one's blood pressure, which may be concern for other difficulties.

Once their breakfast was finished, we pulled over and filled the tank with gas, which gave me the opportunity to grab a newspaper. Now I have to tell you, one of my vices is the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle.

Oh, here's an aside: The NYT X-word puzzle. I love it. On a typical Sunday, or Saturday depending upon the newspaper, it takes me about an hour to finish it. There was the one memorable morning when I was sitting in a coffee shop and my dear friend Aaron Maciejko came by with  a buddy of his. He said to his friend, "Here watch this." Then he gave me the puzzle for the week. Without a word, I picked up my pen and wrote in the first clue, 1-across. Then I went to the next across clue and wrote that in. One by one, without any pause, I continued to fill in the first quarter of the puzzle, from top to bottom, and handed it back. His friend's eyes were agog. So were Aaron's. I can't recall if I mentioned that I had just finished it a few minutes before they walked in, or not. But their expressions were worth it.

Well, yesterday, I couldn't finish it. There are still about 15 squares left to go.

Feeling frustrated, I turned to the other puzzle in that paper, the London Times cryptic crossword. And I couldn't even get a single clue. I think I finally got about 4 or 5 clues this morning.

Now I know why they are called "cross words".

Back to the drive. And back to the question of names.

Sicamous, BC? Sounds like they found a large, ill deer there. If they waited a little while longer, perhaps they could have called it Moose Jaw. That's a reference to Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, in case you don't know.

After Sick Moose, we passed through Kamloops. The little voice in the car said, "Camel poop?" "No. Kam-loops." I couldn't supress the smile, even though I was that first voice. (What? Who did you think it was?)

As we were driving, and as I was fascinated by the dimishing size, and increasing age, of the mountains, and as I increasingly desapired of completing those cross word puzzles, I happened to look at the headlines on the newspaper. (First things first, after all.) And there, on the front page, it said, "Vader Considered Armed and Dangerous".

No matter how long I stared, that headline never rearranged itself into something sensible.

It turned out to be a sad story of a couple who have gone missing, and the guy considered the prime suspect had the last name of Vader. Surely the copy editor could not have been unaware of how that headline would read.

A couple of times during the drive we stopped and played in some parks. In the first one, Shoghi and I climbed all over a play structure, which he made into an airplane that flew between Kamloops (or Camel Poop) and Victoria. I went from being the passenger to the co-pilot to a real, actual pilot. The other kids in the park just loved playing with him.

The second park was the Rotary Club's Park in Merritt, which, if you've been paying attention, you know is where I currently am. We were so struck by the park, and its beauty, and the wonderful walk (we found three different types of mustard plant, and each were so delicious), that we decided to spend the night here. They also had an awesome splash pad, and even a nice bandshell stage that was dedicated to Lady Diana (the woman formerly known as Princess), and was funded by Elton John (the artist formerly known as Elton John).

When we checked in to the hotel, here in rural inner British Columbia, we noticed a flyer by the front desk for a Sushi restaurant: "I Love Sushi".

After thoroughly enjoying a swim in the hotel pool, we decided to go for dinner, and hesitantly went to the "western sushi" place. It is in an old Red Top diner, and boasts not only sushi, but "Western Food".

Western sushi? Sushi for cowboys? Don't cowboys call sushi "bait"?

We walked in anyways, despite our misgivings.

And we were promptly greeted by a young Korean man with the most winning smile.

This place was so friendly that we immediately forgot any of our misgivings.

When we ordered the Maki Tray, with the thought that we could always order more if we needed, we were ready to forgive them for whatever they served us.

We need not have been concerned.

Not only was the food excellent, but we could not possibly have finished it. It was the first time in Marielle's life, and only the second or thrid time in mine, that we came out of a sushi place stuffed. Sated beyond belief. We could not have eaten another flying fish roe without bursting.

And still they were even more friendly.

As we asked for the leftovers to be packed up, they gave us a free BC Roll to try.

And the conversation! Oh, they were so great to talk with. We even exchanged contact info with our waitress, Hye Young, who at first introduced herself as Grace.

The chefs came out and chatted with us, and the owner also came out to talk with us. They were all from Korea and truly did their culture proud.

Remember earlier how I said that I don't recommend restaurants here? Well, this is the exception that proves the rule. if you ever have the pleasure of visiting Merritt, BC, please be sure to go to "I Love Sushi", or "Red Top Sushi", at 2099 Nicola Avenue. It is well worth it.

And now Marielle and Shoghi are just finishing their breakfast, so it's time for us to go.

See you in Victoria!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Trip West, part the second

This morning I am sitting in a hotel room in Golden, BC, while my wife and son sleep merrily on. It is quite telling, I think, that I am typing right now instead of going out for a walk under the shadow of the beautiful Rocky Mountains.

(Who was the bozo that named this mountain chain? I mean, of course they're rocky. What else would they be? It's about as brilliant an observation of naming as someone going to an ocean and saying, "Duh, look Beaufort, it's a wet ocean." Well done, Sherlock.)

Yesterday, after sleeping in, we all went to a wonderfully fun swimming pool in the Ramada (where we stayed) in Canmore, AB. (Speaking of names, how did Canmore ever get its name? Did it produce the most preserves per capita in Canada at some point?) The pool was delightfully warm, and hot tub was even more delightfully hotter. Their water slide was one of the fastest I had been down in years, and Shoghi just loved it. When I went down on my own I shot clear across the pool (well, only halfway, but still...) and produced a huge wave. "Up to here," reported Shoghi.

By noon we were ready for the short drive in Banff. (I won't go into that name again, don't worry.)

We did manage to see the Nasseri's, and no, we didn't pass on any greetings requests, for I didn't see those until this morning, sorry. As they were heading out of the restaurant, we were heading in, so we planned to meet at the gondola for 2. Oh, and Robin Nablo was also there, and it is always a joy to see him.

When we got to the gondola, we discovered that it was supposed to be a 2 hour hike up to the top, with an elevation climb of 2281 metres, or 7486 feet for those of you who live in one of those handful of countries left that still use feet (wow, I can be snippy at this time of the morning, sorry). The trail itself was about 3.5 miles, and Shoghi, age 5 still, made it all the way up (with a bit of help from Marielle, Azin, Shelly and myself). But he made it. I'm so proud of the little guy.

The Nasseri kids, Anissa, Tahirih and Roshan, went on ahead with Robin, so the five of us worked hard to catch up.

But on the way, we began to talk. And we began to talk about the Faith, marriage and sexuality. A number of questions and topics were discussed, and I long to write about more of them, but I think I will only put a few of them here for now:
  • What has been the most challenging part of being married?
  • What do the Writings say about sexuality?
  • How can we make sexuality a healthy part of a marriage in so disfunctional a culture?
  • What is the purpose of the sexual drive?
  • Hey, Marielle, what is this plant? (ok, technically not about marriage or sex, but it was asked a lot)
We also explored the metaphor of climbing a mountain, which seemed to me so appropriate given the conversation. Discussing a healthy expression of sexuality within a marriage, in the context of a culture in North America that is so disfunctional in its sexual identity, seems like trying to climb a mountain.

It was initially suggested that climbing through the different eco-systems was a metaphor for spiritual transformation, but then we realized that there wasn't really much transformation occurring. There were still trees, and they were still mostly pine.

So then it was suggested that it may be a metaphor for spiritual growth, but that was challenged, too. The trees at the base were much taller and wider around. There was a greater diversity of undergrowth. We even saw a beautiful orchid! As we move up the mountain, further along the trail, the trees got shorter and much thinner. The air also got noticably colder.

Was this a sign of growth? Was it true that moving up the mountain meant growing? We were not sure. As we "moved closer to the sun", we got colder, not warmer. As we ascended, the trees seemed to get weaker, not stronger.

But then again, there was a demonstration of strength in their survival at that altitude (mine, too).

We spoke of the analogy of the Covenant as a pyramid and how when you are closer to the top, there is less room for latitudinal movement before you step out from under its shadow. Perhaps something similar is at play here.

We never did finish that train of thought, but then again, it seems like we never will. It is the discussion that is important, not necessarily the conclusions.

It is like the fortune Shoghi received in his fortune cookie the other night, which was all too appropriate for the circumstance: It is the journey that is important, not the destination.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Trip West, part the first

All right, this is more of a diary entry than a blog article, but I just don't know where else to put it!

As you may have noticed, my family and I are moving west, from Winnipeg, Manitoba to Victoria, British Colulmbia, in Canada, and it has been a beautiful drive so far. After packing the house and loading the truck, we finally set off yesterday morning. Before we left, I said a prayer and then we hit the road.

On the way out of town we did a couple of errands, like returning the post office box keys to the post office (which gave us another teary eyed goodbye as I said farewell to the ladies there). Then the very last stop was to see if my friend Cathy was at her bookstore, Globosapiens. She was. She had just returned from Africa the day before, and we were both very pleasanly surprised to be able to hug each other one last time.

Then we began the drive in earnest.

As we were leaving town we noticed a young man hitchhiking. He was well dressed and had a sign that said "West". We wanted to pick him up, but just didn't have the room in the car. Marielle felt bad about that, so she closed her eyes and started praying for him. She asked that he be guided, and that people who were good would be able to pick him up and help him out. She also wanted him to meet people who were like-minded to him so that he would have an enjoyable time.

I thought that was a very sweet prayer.

Two hours later we got to Brandon, MB, which, if you only stay on the highway, looks like a two light town. There at the first light was a young man hitchhiking: the same young man. Somehow he had gotten a ride and passed us on the road. When I pointed this out to Marielle, she asked me to turn around and pick him up. She said it was providential.

Who am I to argue?

Well, the young man's name was Shaylor, and he was from Halifax. With a bit of creative rearranging in the trunk, we were able to fit his bag in the car, under Shoghi's feet, which was also providential as it gave him a much-needed foot rest. It also gave him someone in the backseat to keep him company.

Needless to say, Shaylor was awesome. He is an aspiring writer (fantasy and science fiction, if you can believe that) and a delightful conversationalist. He is also very interested in hearing about other people's views of spirituality. He said that he was never given any religious training as a child, and had grown up thinking that religion was stupid. Later on he realized how narrow-minded that view was and decided to listen to what others believed. He said that he had come to realize that most people's practice of religion was stupid, but that this should not reflect badly on the faith itself.

As we were driving west with Shaylor, we stopped in Souris, MB to see the swinging bridge. Here, I want it to be known that this bridge is misnamed. It is not a swinging bridge. It is a bouncing bridge. Tons of fun, but it does not swing. Thank you.

We also went to the little museum situated on one side of the bridge and had the dubious joy of seeing over 5000 mounted butterflies. While some of them were astonishing in their beauty, I found it disturbing to see some displays of 50 or 100 of exactly the same type. Why? Why did someone who is not studying the diversity within a single species find it necessary to kill that many of the same type? Was it some twisted form of greed? I'll never know. But it was fascinating to see some other butterflies with clear wings. That was just cool.

Oh, and Shoghi really liked the walkingstick insects. He thought those were neat.

That night, as we got into Regina, Marielle fell ill. We quickly pulled into a hotel, and that is where Shaylor left us. We got Marielle upstairs where she almost passed out. She said that she was very nauseous and only needed to "use the facilities" and then sleep.

Shoghi and I, wanting to give her the time to heal, went swimming and then headed out for pizza. As we drove to the pizza place, we passed Shaylor hoping for another ride.

The next morning, meaning this morning, Marielle was feeling much better. As we headed west again, I was saying a short prayer for our trip, and for Shaylor. No more than 30 seconds later we pulled over and picked him up again.

I can't go into too much detail about today, for I am up way too late and need to get some sleep before heading into Banff tomorrow. Oh, can anyone explain to me how something spelled B-A-N-F-F can be pronounced "Bamf"? I mean, really. There is no "m" in it anywhere! How can it be pronounced like Nightcrawler's sound effect (semi-obscure X-Men comic reference here)?

We told many stories to each other, Shaylor and our family. We spoke of how the friends in the Arctic have a different way of mapping their world, how people mine pot ash, migratory birds, and Tahirih.

Oh, he loved the story of Tahirih and her explanation of Adam, and the poem Adam's Wish. It is so worth knowing these sorts of stories. They so captivate the heart, mind and soul, but not necessarily in that order.

For now, it is late and there is a beautiful mountain towering outside calling for my attention before I say my prayers for the evening.

Tomorrow we head into Banff and see our dear friends, the Nasseri's. Oh, there is another interesting story. Azin and Shelly and the kids are heading off to China on the 25th, but before they leave Canada, they decided to take a train trip around the west. By pure accident, we discovered that we would both be in Banff on Saturday, so we are hoping to hook up for lunch. God willing, it will work out.

It will be good to see them one last time, for they are very dear friends and we will miss them terribly. Actually, we'll be pretty good at missing them.

Azin and I go back many years. I recall one evening when we were at the Winnipeg Baha'i Centre and one of the lovely elders in the community, Mrs Hakimi (whose husband was a pall bearer for the wife of the Master), saw us talking. She came up to us and said how happy she was to see "two lions of the faith" talking. I laughed and said, "Yes, Azin is a lion because of his knowledge and wisdom, while I am a lion because of my hair."

I really hope to see them tomorrow for lunch.

If not, maybe we'll run into Shaylor again. Who knows?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Passing of a Friend

A friend of mine, Tom Faulkner, passed away yesterday, and that has gotten me thinking about death and the next world again. Kind of a recurring subject with me, isn't it?

It has often been said that contemplation of death leads one to spirituality.

Some believe that when we die we end up in some of sort of a line awaiting a decision about whether get to go to a good place or a bad place. It is a very binary view of the world, a "you're saved or you're damned" perspective, with little room in between. What I call "Salvation Religions" tend to be in this category.

Others believe that when you move from this world to the next (or die, to use a simple term), you continue growing in a spiritual way. They tend to believe that your spirit is growing during your entire life and that death just offers a continuation of that process. I like to call the faiths that lean towards this belief "Spiritual Growth Religions".

Most faiths seem to be of one category of the other, although some have a few aspects of each, such as the "recurring life faiths" that believe you come to this plane of existence over and over until you reach a high enough state that you can go on. It's almost like spiritual growth until you reach salvation.

When asked about this, Shoghi Effendi offered the following: "You ask an explanation of what happens to us after we leave this world: This is a question which none of the Prophets have ever answered in detail, for the very simple reason that you cannot convert to a person's mind something entirely different from everything they have ever experienced... All we know is that our consciousness, our personality, endures in some new state, and that that world is as much better than this one as this one is better than the dark womb of our mother was..."

This statement, of course, was in relation to 'Abdu'l-Baha's explanation of death being like our movement from the womb-world to this world. In Janet Harper's marvelous book, The Universe Within Us, she explains very well the idea that our task in the womb was to develop our body, while our task in this world is to develop our virtues.

With all this running through my mind, and while my body was delightfully soaking in a hot tub (we're moving today, and we have the hardship of having to stay in a hotel this evening, and the hotel has a hot tub and a swimming pool, so I suffered in the warm water, and my wife and son are still doing penance in the swimming pool, oh the pain of it all), a question ran through my brain. "What aspects of myself are most useful in this world?" Following swiftly on its tail was another question: "Which aspects of my life will be most useful in the next world?"

In response to the first question (no doubt influenced by the hot jets of water massaging my tired muscles), I thought "My physical strength". And no sooner had this crossed my mind than I thought again of Tom, and his extreme physical weakness in his last weeks. I may be biased, but I have never thought of Tom as particularly physical, but he was quite brilliant intellectually.

And then I thought of Stephen Hawking, another brilliant individual, whom I do not consider first when thinking of physical prowess.

No. I found myself correcting my earlier thought. The physical body is merely the lowest of the aspects of myself in this world. The intellect is far more important. (And this is not to say the physical is not important, just that it is the least important of those aspects that are important. Afer all, if you neglect the body, the mind will suffer.)

Me being me, and not finding much to distract me in the hot tub (except for the hordes of screaming children going down the waterslide), I put this into a perspective I could readily understand.

As we all know, a physically imposing person can get by pretty well in the world through physical intimidation. Bullying works. At least on a one to one ratio. With collective security being popular (like a police force, to name but one example), we all can begin to see that it doesn't work all that well on a ratio less favorable to the bully.

An intellectual person, however, can organize a group of bullies to act on their behalf. How often have we seen lame movies that show a "brilliant" bad guy with a bunch of dumb thugs doing their bidding? Too often to count, I'm sure.

Despite any religious convictions I may have, I am, unfortunately, forced to admit that people can get by quite well in this world in either of the two above categories.

But that is only in this world. What about the next?

There I am forced to admit that being spiritual, or virtuous, now takes the upper hand. Of course, this is nothing new, and I am only restating what we all know to be the case. What I am curious about is what that may look like there, in that next world.

Here, an intellectual can unravel difficult issues and solve complex problems (or write mildly amusing articles with a touch in it to make one think, hopefully). In the next world, we are told that our perceptions will be such that all the answers will before us.

Well, there goes the intellectual advantage. (I'm not bothering to eliminate the physical advantage as death itself has already done that.)

But for someone who has a keen understanding of virtues, and can elicit them forth in others? Now there is someone with an advantage in the next world.

That is something to strive for in this one. While we need to develop our own virtues to the greatest extent we can, it would also be great to learn to help bring forth those same virtues in others. Not only would this help make the world a much better place, but it would also help others to grow in ways that are needed for the next.

And that is where I began to think of Tom again. He had this beautiful way of gently encouraging virtuous development in others. Usually you were unaware of it (of course, he may have been unaware of it, too).

I remember one time when we were at some gathering together and I saw him struggling with his oxygen tank, trying to catch his breath. "Tom," I asked, "can I offer you a ride home?"

He looked up at me and smiled his gentle smile, "Mead, I was counting on it."

That simple assumption of courtesy on my part meant so much to me. He had just assumed I would offer, while never taking it for granted, for he was always unfailingly grateful. And I knew he could not have gone to that meeting if he had not known that he would get a ride home. So there we were, me offering, and Tom accepting.

Now, in retrospect, I also realize that he had made a profound statement, one that I truly take to heart. We really do have to presume virtuous behaviour on the part of others. The world depends on it. Too much is going wrong in the world and we need to do something to change it. Presuming courtesy, after teaching it, of course, may be a good place to begin.

In fact, I think I am counting on it, too.

Thanks Tom.

Magic and Prayer

Although I've addressed the idea of a good God, evil and free will here and here, there are still many more questions that come in regarding this concept. A fascinating letter recently asked about witchcraft as described by Evans-Pritchard regarding the Azande. He wrote of a tragedy in which 2 people were killed while sitting in the shade of a grain elevator. The incident was blamed on witchcraft, although Evans-Pritchard showed that it was caused by termites.

"Of course," the Azande people said, "but why were those two sitting under it at that particular moment?"

You see, what they called witchcraft is little different from what some would say was bad luck, or others would attribute to God's will. The underlying question is that of synchronicity, or coincidence. In other words, why do these things happen? Or more to the point, what can we do about it?

In the example above, it was presumed that someone did something to cause these two people to have bad luck, for whatever motive. There was the assumption of causation on the part of an individual for a negative purpose (wow, that sure sounds technical). But was this the case?

The questions that I think we need to look at are a bit more tricky. Is there anything we can do to affect future events? Is there anything we can do to prevent something bad from happening?

What I would like to look at is the difference between this concept of witchcraft and our idea within the Baha'i Faith of prayer, as both of these are suggested by some as being able to have an effect.

Witchcraft, or magic, as I understand it, uses a set of rituals and physical objects in an attempt to alter the world around the user. It is defined as "the art of producing a desired effect or result through the use of incantation or various other techniques that presumably assure human control of supernatural agencies or the forces of nature".

Prayer, according to the dictionary, is defined as "a spiritual communion with God or an object of worship, as in supplication, thanksgiving, adoration, or confession".

The first presumes that the individual has control, or can have control, over what happens. It assumes that the individual will be able to alter the world around themselves without necessarily changing the individual involved.

The second recognizes that we are not in control. Things happen in the world over which we have no say. In the case of our prayers (remember, I am coming from a Baha'i perspective), it also asks God to help us develop the virtues that we require to either change the situation or deal with it.

The first is self-centred, the second is God-centred. The first wishes to change the world, while the second wishes to change the self.

Magic puts the individual in the center and seems to feed into the notion that we have this power. In the end, it seems to me that it does little more than feed the ego.

Prayer puts God in the center and aids in our spiritual growth.

(I'm beginning to wonder how many other times I can say that. Don't worry, I'll go on now.)

Actually, before I continue, let me take a moment to address the Major and Minor Plan's of God, as these seem to be of a related topic, namely how we can affect future events.

When I think of God's Will, it is, to me, like the Major Plan of God, as spoken of by the Guardian. For example, it is part of the Major Plan to see world peace, but how we get there is up to us.

I may be off base, but this is how I think of them: the Major Plan is like water running down a hill. It will always run down the hill. We can put a rock or stick in front of it and divert the course, slow it or even seem to stop it for a bit, but it will eventually end up downhill. This is like "God's Plan". Can we impede it? Of course. But we cannot prevent it.

There are certain things that are historical inevitables, like the railroad. It has been said that when a society requires a railroad, someone will invent it.

When the world needs peace, Someone will bring it.

Let's get back to the simple: what if I want to sell my house? Will prayers help? Well, I believe that they couldn't hurt, but I better make sure that it is in the best condition possible and priced right for a sale. It's the old "Trust in God and tie your camel" thing.

It reminds me of a story of 'Abdu'l-Baha. There were these two women who very much loved Him and wanted to make Him a cake. They prayed and they prayed and they prayed for the cake to turn be delicious and ended up bringing the poor thing to a crisp. With much shame and sadness they served it to Him, and He ate it with great delight. When they apologized for the state of the cake, He asked them what they had done. "Oh we read prayers for it turn out well." "Next time," He said, "try reading a cookbook."

Prayers only go so far. We should definitely pray, but should also be sure to set up circumstances as best we can for what we hope to achieve.

I could go on and on with this theme, but I think I'll finish with just one last point. (I am, after all, moving house today and need to get back to that.)

In the Tablet of Ahmad, we read "Should one who is in affliction or grief read this Tablet with absolute sincerity, God will dispel his sadness, solve his difficulties and remove his afflictions."

Look at the order of rewards (if that is the correct term): God will dispel our sadness, then solve our difficulties and rmove our afflictions. I realize it is not actually stated as a chronological thing, but what if we read it that way?

First, our sadness is gone. Sadness is an internal state, caused by our own perception of things. If our sadness is gone, most of our difficulties are also gone, for they are not seen as difficulties any more. Not all of them, of course, but a significant number of them.

Of those that are left, He will now solve our difficulties, those sources of trouble. But what does that mean? To solve means to explain, or clear up. It does not mean that they will be gone, but rather that we will understand them. At least, that's how I understand this phrase.

By this point, how many afflictions could possibly be left? An affliction is a cause of pain, either physical or mental. As most of that, again, is based on our point of view, and by this point our point of view has been shifted, it seems like the hard part is already done.

One example that works for me is that of illness. As we all know, most illness is brought on by ourselves, usually through lifestyle choices. If you smoke, you are more prone to certain illnesses. If you eat rich and fatty foods all the time, you are more pronce to different illnesses.

When you study the Writings and discover the gems of wisdom that speak of cleanliness and moderation, then you are more likely to change those behaviours and are more likely to become more healthy. If, by chance, you do get ill, you can say the healing prayers. You should, however, also seek the advice of a competent physician and follow their advice.

The illness may, in the end, prove terminal. B y understanding the nature of death, as explained by Baha'u'llah, and seeing the vision He has given us for the next world, we will see that death may be the perfect positive answer to our illness. It may not be the answer we want, nor the one we expect, but it can be the best one.

So, finally, to try and answer that original question, "What can we do to try and influence the future?" Well, trust in God. Oh, and tie your camel.

Sunday, July 11, 2010


Sacred Text is often referred to as "the Creative Word". For many years, I have wondered what this means. Of course, as you know, it can refer to creative power of the Word of God in helping create a divine civilization, and transforming the hearts of people in order to help bring this about. But how else can we understand it? This is the question that has been puzzling me for years.

As an artist, it has often occurred to me that I am demonstrating creativity when making my art. And creativity, as you know, comes from the root word "create".

With that concept in mind, I have had the blessing of being able to ask a number of artists to create for me a piece of work based on the Creative Word. Usually, it would begin with someone wanting to trade for one of my pieces, and end up in a conversation about God.

"As you know," I might say, "we are created in God's image. Obviously God is not a male about 6 feet tall with dark curly hair, so what does it mean to be created in His image? I believe it means we have the attributes of God within us. Therefore, if God is the Creator, we are creative." And I go on depending upon their reaction.

After that, I may talk about how I am a Baha'i and believe that the Writings of Baha'u'llah are the Creative Word, which I feel should help them, as an artist, to create. If they agree to a trade, I will choose a piece of the Writings and ask them to make a work of art based on it.

For example, one really good friend of mine, Robert Pasternak, owed me a bit of money, so I told him I wanted a painting. He began to show me a number of his paintings that he still had kicking around his studio before I was able to stop him. "Robert," I said, "I would like an original piece based upon the Tablet of the Holy Mariner."

"The what?" He had never heard of it, but knew that it was probably a Baha'i piece of scripture.

I gave him a copy, and a handful of years later, he gave me a painting.

It is called "Arc of Eternity", and is based on the following extract from Baha'u'llah's work:

O Holy Mariner! Bid thine ark of eternity appear before the Celestial Concourse...
Launch it upon the ancient sea, in His Name, the Most Wondrous...
And let the angelic spirits enter, in the Name of God, the Most High...
Unmoor it, then, that it may sail upon the ocean of glory...
Haply the dwellers therein may attain the retreats of nearness in the everlasting realm

Another good friend of mine used to be a horror painter. He was one of the best in the field. When he declared, he came up to me one evening and asked if it was appropriate for him to draw horror as a Baha'i.  I think the basis of his question was that line from Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, "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."

Oh, an aside here. (I realize that I haven't been doing many asides lately, and I am sorry for that. It's just that I've been preoccupied with other things and my thoughts tend not to wander as much when I am preoccupied. Funny that, isn't it? But that's just the way my brain seems to work. Go figure.) It was after I realized what Baha'u'llah is saying in that line, about bringing tranquility, that I began to question some of my tastes in art. I used to love horror movies and punk music, but then began to see them in a different light. In fact, this whole shift in my perspective naturally changed all the arts I expose myself to. Now my preferred music is classical (yeah, Mark, Dad would have a field day at that, wouldn't he?). My preferred movies are thoughtful drama, or science fiction / fantasy. Clean comedy will do, also. Anyways, just thought I'd mention how reading a single line affected my tastes.

Now, where was I? Oh yes, Steve (the artist). He asked me if it was ok to still do horror. Why he asked me, I'll never really know, but it may be that I introduced him to the Faith, and he thought that I might know what the Writings say about it. Well, I didn't. Instead I just tried to point him to what seemed reasonable to me: The Fire Tablet.

"The Fire Tablet?" Yes, The Fire Tablet. What better piece for a horror artist to illustrate than The Fire Tablet? Can't you just see "Indeed the hearts of the sincere are consumed in the fire of separation..."? How about "The necks of men are stretched out in malice: Where are the swords of Thy vengeance, O Destroyer of the worlds?" Wow. The thought of it boggled my mind. Still does.

But my friend just couldn't quite imagine doing so many images in a single piece, both the lament at the beginning and the victory at the end. How would he compose what would have to be such a large piece?

I suggested he look at Rodin's "The Gates of Hell". In that piece, pictured below, Rodin told a magnificent story in sculpture, but to do so, he had to perfect all the different components. Nearly all of his most famous works are actually part of that larger piece. The Thinker, The Three Graces, Adam, Eve, Fallen Carytid Bearing Her Stone, She Who Was Once the Shoemakers Beautiful Wife: all of them come from that single piece.

Now my friend could envision the tapestry of The Fire Tablet as a magnificent painting. For the past umpteen years, he has been taking a line at a time and painting it (as far as I understand), getting it ready to go in the full piece. Hopefully we'll both live to see it completed.
There are also numerous artists who have agreed to try this, such as the Inuit carver who was going to carve a sculpture based on the quote, "But for the burning of their souls and the sighing of their hearts, they would be drowned in the midst of their tears, and but for the flood of their tears they would be burnt up by the fire of their hearts and the heat of their souls. Methinks, they are like the angels which Thou hast created of snow and of fire." I was so eager to see how he would have interpreted this in soapstone, but he never did.

Another friend of mine carves bone, and she was going to make a piece based on "Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch." She had a moose antler and a piece of ebony that were of similar size and shape. She was going to mount them to form a tree shape and carve as many different leaf-types as she could. In addition to this, she wanted to carve the various holy symbols hidden within so that you had to turn the piece clockwise and look from the bottom up to see them. But it was too grand a vision for her to execute. Oh well.
Now, you may ask yourself, "Why would he do this? Was it just to share the faith with a couple of artists?"

No. It was not. The idea I had, and which I would still like to do, but can't do on my own, was to publish a book. On the left page would be the quote, beautifully printed, along with a short explanation by the artist. On the right side would be a photo of the work of art.

It's good to have dreams, isn't it? And all this just from the idea that we are created in God's image.

Oh, and if you want to take over this project, feel free to ask. I'd be happy to lend the pieces I already have. And I want a copy of the book when it's published.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Hurt, Healing and Hearts

I recently had the bounty of speaking at a gathering at the University of Winnipeg. This meeting was a prelude to the G8 World Religious Leaders Summit, which itself comes right before the political leaders summit, sometimes known as the G-pick-a-number.

That evening, the three speakers addressed the three topics chosen as foci by the religious leaders for their meeting at the same university: poverty, the environment, and peace. The first was addressed by a Muslim, the second by myself, and the third by a Mennonite. There were many people of various faith backgrounds, a Member of Parliament, and university students, as well as a few children, including Shoghi. It was truly a wonderful gathering.

The talk I gave was a fairly short one, all things considered, and I had a lot of help with it.

Now, while I could reprint the talk I presented, I will, instead, write a short bit about something that happened on the way home. Besides, as I'll be extrememly short of time over the next few weeks, I can save that talk for another article when I don't have a few free minutes.

One of the organizers was a gentleman named Tom. As a nod to his humility, I will refrain from mentioning that his last name is Faulkner, for I wouldn't want to embarrass him.

Tom, and this is what Shoghi asked about on the way home, suffers from an ailment in which his lungs are not able to process as much oxygen as before (or as needed). There is, unfortunately, no known cure. He is currently forced to carry, or actually roll, around an oxygen tank, and has to wait about ten minutes after walking a short distance to catch his breath. I was very grateful that we had a car that evening, for we were able to offer Tom a ride home. Shoghi was so happy to be able to make that offer, for he has really come to love Tom, even though they only met for a few minutes.

Shoghi asked me, as children are wont to do, if Tom was going to die.

"Yes," I said, "but whether it is in a few months or a few years, I don't know."

"But Father," he said, with tears in his voice, "I love him. I don't want him to die." And then a moment later he added, "And, Father, I don't want to die."

What can you say to a child on the brink of tears when he says something like that? I decided to side-step the second part and focus on his love for Tom. (Yeah, I can be a coward at times. Besides, I knew it would give me a few moments to think before he could go there again.)

"That is very sweet, Shoghi," was my response, "so why don't we say a prayer for him?"

I thought we might include a special prayer for Tom that evening as Shoghi was getting ready for bed, but he had another idea. There in the car, he immediately started in with a very heartfelt rendition of "Thy Name is my healing". I say rendition, because it's never quite the same whenever he says it, but it is always recognizable. And this time it brought tears to my eyes, not just because it is such a lovely prayer, but because I could feel the pain that Shoghi was feeling at the loss of someone so dear. He really was quite passionate in his appeal for healing.

When he finished his prayer (for the third of fourth time in a row) we arrived at home. Shoghi didn't say a word, and I, for the life of me, couldn't think of anything to say either, although my mind was racing for something. We went inside, silent (which is something of a miracle for either one of us, much less both together), and I followed him as he headed straight upstairs. With nothing more than a slightly furrowed brow, evidently deep in thought, he did all his going-to-bed things while I sat in his room waiting. Eventually he came back in and climbed into bed without me having to say anything (yet another little miracle that was much appreciated).

As he lay himself on his pillow, I knelt on the floor next to his bed and just watched as he continued to stare up at the ceiling.

"Papa," came the tiny voice, "can I ask you a question?" He hadn't called me Father, so I knew he wasn't too traumatized by all that was going through his little mind, or giant heart.

"Papa, what is death?" I knew that we would talk about this sooner or later, but I didn't expect it when he was only five. And as soon as he asked the question, a quote from 'Abdu'l-Baha came to mind: "How does one look forward to the goal of any journey? With hope and with expectation. It is even so with the end of this earthly journey. In the next world, man will find himself freed from many of the disabilities under which he now suffers."

"That's a very difficult question to answer, Shoghi. First, you have to ask what is life before you can say what death is, because death is when life ends. Some people feel that life is a time to get things, like toys. Other people feel that life is only about what you feel, like hot or cold, or happiness or sadness. But I think that life is like a journey and death is the goal, like the goal a journey." He didn't say a word, but I could sense that he was thinking about what I was saying, paying very careful attention. "Sometimes, when we drive, we just go out and enjoy the scenary, but other times, when we drive, we are going somewhere. Then there are the times that we go and enjoy the drive without knowing where we are going, but we still end up somewhere wonderful. Life is like that. We go along, doing what we need to do, but we don't always know where we are going."

It seemed that he was remembering those times that we drove like that, just seeing where we would end up. And he, of course, knew that every single time that we had done that, it had been a joy.

"There is another thing, Shoghi," I had said. "As we get older, our body begins to get weaker. When you are a child, like you, as you get older you get stronger and bigger, but when you get even older, then your body begins to get weaker. Do you know why?"

Without moving his head, he swiveled his eyes toward me in question.

"It is because God wants us to begin to let go of our body and allow our soul to move even closer to him. Imagine a teddy bear, Shoghi, one that you love very much. You used to have one when you were only a couple of years old, but it began to get a bit tattered and you had to decide whether to keep the old bear, or your new tiger." Shoghi has never really been all that attached to any toys or dolls, but he does have a stuffed tiger that is a lot of fun. "You had a little bit of sadness at getting rid of the bear, but it wasn't all that difficult, was it?"


"Because it was old and falling apart, right?"


"Well, that is what it is like when you get rid of the body. The body is falling apart, and hurting all the time, and you are just ready to move on to the next stage. But it is still sad for those who are left behind, because we want to see those people we love, but we have to wait, and we miss them."

"But Papa," he asked, "what happens to the soul?"

"Well, I don't really know, Shoghi, because I've never died. But I think the soul is like when we sit in the car. When we get where we are going, do we stay in the car? Or do we get out?"

"We get out, of course."

"Exactly. And when our life here on this planet is finished, we get out of the car, or our body, and walk up to God's home, our new home."

I had thought about talking about the foetus in the womb developing its body, and so on and so forth, but that just didn't feel right. Shoghi has been thinking a lot about our upcoming trip to our new home in Victoria, so this seemed more appropriate.

He smiled, with a bit of sadness in his eyes, but a bit of joy, too.

"Shoghi," I asked quietly, "will you miss Winnipeg when we leave?"

"Yes, Papa."

"Do you think all of your friends here will miss you, too?"

"Yeah, I guess."

"But you'll still remember them, and they'll still remember you. Maybe someday you'll even see each other again, right? Death is like that, full of sadness and expectation."

Saturday, July 3, 2010

A Hundred Martyrs

Don't worry, I'm not thinking of becoming a martyr, or of helping anyone else become one. I was just reading the Tablet of Ahmad, and talking with a friend about it, when the subject came up. In this Tablet, as you know, "God hath ordained for the one who chants it, the reward of a hundred martyrs and a service in both worlds." Naturally, I asked my friend what this means, as I really have very little clue about it.

His response made me think. He said that he thought it meant that your reward was to serve, like the martyrs.

I pointed out that there seemed to be two rewards, as far I could tell. The second is the service in both worlds that my friend spoke of, but the first is "the reward of a hundred martyrs". It says that you get that reward and the service. The word "and" implies two different things.

Whereas I can understand the idea of service, I don't think I know what the first reward is.

It seems that it can be a few different things, depending upon how you interpret the phrase. For example, it can mean that you receive a hundred martyrs, kind of like receiving a hundred coins, except a bit more useful. If you can imagine the spirit of a martyr coming to your aid while you are teaching, helping draw someone's attention to you or aiding you in saying the right thing for that person at the right moment, then you can begin to imagine how incredible it would be to have a hundred of those souls helping you out. Even someone like me would have a chance at doing something decent with that kind of help.

Another interpretation would be to imagine the reward that a martyr receives in the next world, and then multiplying it by a hundred.

However we understand that phrase, it is awesome when we begin to think about it.

But then my friend and I got to talking about what a martyr is. He was a bit concerned about this, as his understanding of martyrdom came from the mass media in which terrorists of various sorts call themselves martyrs because they die for one cause or another.

"These people are not martyrs", I said.

"They're not?" He seemed very interested. "Then what are they?"

I said that they didn't fit the definition of a martyr, who is killed for their belief rather than renouncing his or her religion. A true martyr doesn't kill someone else for their beliefs, while willing to die in the process. The motive action is done by someone else, not themselves. If they are the instigator, killing themself and others, then first and foremost they are a suicide, not to mention a murderer. They may be many other things, too, depending upon how coarse your command of the language is, but martyr would not be one of the words I would use.

This is where the conversation ended, but as I said, it got me thinking. Assuming that Baha'u'llah may be intending to say that our reward is akin to that of the martyrs, what do the Writings say their reward is for suffering martyrdom?

'Abdu'l-Baha says, "Until a being setteth his foot in the plane of sacrifice, he is bereft of every favour and grace; and this plane of sacrifice is the realm of dying to the self, that the radiance of the living God may then shine forth. The martyr's field is the place of detachment from self, that the anthems of eternity may be upraised... once ye have reached such heights of servitude, ye will find, gathered within your shadow, all created things. This is boundless grace; this is the highest sovereignty; this is the life that dieth not."

To put it in a different perspective, He says, "To consider that after the death of the body the spirit perishes is like imagining that a bird in a cage will be destroyed if the cage is broken, though the bird has nothing to fear from the destruction of the cage. Our body is like the cage, and the spirit is like the bird... Its feelings will be even more powerful (when released from the cage), its perceptions greater, and its happiness increased. In truth, from hell it reaches a paradise of delights because for the thankful birds there is no paradise greater than freedom from the cage."

Perhaps this gives us some glimpse as to why the martyrs were not fearful about their own demise. They obviously understood the freedom that death could offer.

Baha'u'llah, in The Hidden Words, says that those who suffer martyrdom will "repose with Me beneath the canopy of majesty behind the tabernacle of glory" and "become the manifestation of My command and the revealer of My light in the highest paradise". (Whatever that means, cool as it sounds.)

If He intends, instead, that we receive the assistance of a hundred martyrs' souls in our work, either by giving others the heebie-jeebies or helping us find the right thing to say or do, then fantastic. We could use all the help we can get.

Perhaps it is like receiving some of the "Concourse on high" who come to our aid. After all, we are told that they aid and reinforce us like "a great fighting host", and that He has "entrusted (our) triumph to the armies of the Concourse on high". Interestingly enough, 'Abdul-Baha also says, "only the listening ear can hear the singing of the Concourse on high", and that they magnify and exalt the name of those who are favoured by God. Over and over this mighty force is described as both great spiritual warriors and impressive singers. It almost sounds like an amazing choir of Valkyries, one that would impress even Wagner.

Whichever way we interpret it, this reward is surely worth the few moments it takes to chant this great Tablet. Pardon me, now, but I have a bit of chanting to do.

Hopefully I'll be able to hear some good music while I do it.