Monday, January 30, 2012

My Favorite Prayer

"What is your favorite prayer?"

That was the question she asked of me the other day.

I don't remember what I told her, but I know it wasn't really true. I mean, the prayer I shared with her was one I really love, but I can't honestly say that it was more favored by me than any other.

No. The one prayer that I think is really my favorite is one that nobody else would believe. Well, except you, dear Reader, but that's only because you know me so well by now.

No. The prayer that I would say is really my favorite is the one that begins, "My Lord! My Lord! I praise Thee and I thank Thee..." It's by 'Abdu'l-Baha. In Baha'i Prayers. Page 65.

Go ahead. Look it up. I'll wait.


Got it?

No? It's in your prayer book, over there on the left.

(more whistling)

Ah. You got it. I can tell by your expression.

You are probably thinking that it's rather sweet of me to choose that one, that it probably touches my heart and reminds me of a precious time in my life.

Well, I hate to tell you, dear Reader, but you'd be wrong.

Nope. It's because of all the people that I have seen who have read that prayer aloud that I love it so much.

I am convinced that somewhere out there, amidst that wily Concourse on High, there is a spirit whose sole job is to place that prayer in the hands of unsuspecting victims. Young victims. Young male victims. Young male victims who are generally somewhere between the ages of, say, 12 and 15. (Hey, that's the same age range as junior youth. Coincidence? I think not.)

Let's look a bit further into that prayer. I mean, it starts off so well (don't they all). It seems so innocent. So nice. So... harmless.

"...for that whereby Thou hast favored Thine humble maidservant," Wait. Maidservant?

Oh, sure. Why not? 'Abdu'l-Baha often referred to Himself as a maidservant, so we're still on safe ground here.

But by this point the warning bells have begun to ring in that poor soul's mind.

You see, this prayer is often chosen at random by those young males, generally between the ages of, say, 12 and 15, who are asked at the last minute to read a prayer in front of a large gathering, usually well-stocked with those who are nearest and dearest, not to mention close in age, to said young male victim.

Then they stalwartly continue: "...Thy slave beseeching and supplicating Thee, because Thou hast verily guided her unto Thine obvious Kingdom and caused her to hear thine exalted Call in the contingent world and to behold thy Signs which prove the appearance of Thy victorious reign over all things."

Aside from the occasional references to "her", this is still okay. The reader can stand tall, claiming the moral high-ground by demonstrating that they are not homophobic, that there is nothing wrong them reading a prayer that includes the feminine pronoun. After all, nobody sniggers or giggles when a girl reads a prayer laden with masculine personal pronouns, do they? This is but an example of gender equality, right?

"O my Lord," they continue, "I dedicate..."

And they pause. They have a sneaky suspicion, but are not too sure.


Their eyes grow suddenly wider..

"...which is in..."

They want to stop, rewind the page, choose another prayer, but it's too late. Everything is happening in slow motion and all you can do is wait and watch and wince. It's like watching a train wreck as it happens.


By now they realize that they have chosen THAT prayer. The prayer which is the bane of all Baha'i boys. The prayer that they will all, sooner or later, read by accident, thanks to that one soul who was accidentally allowed to consort with the concourse. That spirit who exemplifies that most mis-understood attribute of God, referred to only once in the Baha'i Writings, "the Humorist", but fails to demonstrate that other important attribute, "the Compassionate".

They probably close their eyes at this point, and read the next word from memory.


You can hear the deep bass echoing reverb of that singular word as it crashes before them.

If they were to open their eyes at this moment, they would most likely see a room full of people valiantly pursing their lips, struggling not to giggle or snigger or show any emotion whatsoever for fear of offending said young male victim. Most in the audience will sit there with their eyes closed, with only a bit of wrinkling around the corners of their mouth, but a few will have jiggling shoulders as they try to hold back and stifle the laughter that is welling up inside of them. Rarely, very rarely, but I have seen it on occasion, someone will let out a tiny spark of a laugh, which is enough. If even one person lets out a single sound, the combustion factor of the room explodes in a burst of laughter that the poor soul will hear for the rest of their traumatized life. They will wake up in the middle of the night, well into their 30s, sweating and shaking as the sound of that laughter fades from their dream turned nightmare. Fortunately, this almost never happens.

Now that this hurdle has been successfully passed, now that the WORD hath been spoken, they know that there is nothing to do but continue on to the bitter end.

"...unto Thee. Then cause it to be a praiseworthy child in Thy Kingdom and a fortunate one..."

Yes, they will think, cause them to be fortunate. Don't let them be a boy who will ever fall victim to this most embarrassing prank of the spiritual realm.

" Thy favor and Thy generosity; to develop and to grow up under the charge of Thine education. Verily, Thou art the Gracious!"

Oh yes, they may think, really gracious.

"Verily, Thou art the Lord of Great Favor!"

Yeah, they will often say deep within their heart, thanks a lot.

Yup. I would have to say, out of all the prayers I have ever heard or seen read aloud, this one has to be my favorite.

The Pieces of Peace

Here is the first in a series of articles I'm doing for my local paper about world peace:

Hope you enjoy.


Friday, January 27, 2012

The End?

Oh, don't worry. I'm not thinking of quitting this blog. No, I just have been looking over my copy of Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah recently and a theme has caught my eye from some things I had underlined a few years ago.

Have you ever noticed that there are times when you read something in the Writings and it just sort of leaps off the page at you? It is often a curious thing what catches our attention. How often have I read a passage from Baha'u'llah and practically jumped out of my chair shouting for joy? How often has that passage said something so profound that I can't understand why it isn't posted everywhere for all to learn? And then, when I go back a day or two later, after that passage has profoundly changed my life, I can't find it. Oh sure, the whole paragraph is beautiful and profound, but nothing like what I experienced a few days earlier.

Well, today I was flipping through the pages and re-reading what had caught my eye in the past. And it was through this that I noticed the theme of trials and tribulations. For some reason, I had underlined a number of passages related to this theme. I'm not sure why, so I think I'll look at a few of them, one at a time.

Oh, before I begin, though, let me just point out that it would be so easy to read all of these passages and just lie down in despair, but we know that this is not what will help the world. Instead, I think we can look at these warnings and rise to help mitigate the trials that seem to be looming close on the horizon.

So, in no particular order, except chronologically from the book, I'd like to just read them one at a time and share what few thoughts cross my mind.
"So blind hath become the human heart that neither the disruption of the city, nor the reduction of the mountain in dust, nor even the cleaving of the earth, can shake off its torpor...

...The dust of sedition hath clouded the hearts of men, and blinded their eyes. Erelong, they will perceive the consequences of what their hands have wrought in the Day of God.

Perhaps it is just me, but this strikes me as the cause of all our woes. We have become like that frog in the pot of water. The temperature is increasing, about to boil that poor frog, and it hasn't even noticed that it is about to die. Instead, it just sits there thinking how nice and cozy the warm bath is.

When we read the news, are we even aware of how dysfunctional this world has become? We all read about natural disasters, like the devastating earthquake in Haiti, and most of us sent a few dollars. We also probably felt good about being able to help. But there are many other disasters that don't get as much of a positive response. Why not? I think it's because we are just reading about too much death and horror. We seem to have lost our perspective on the human element of the suffering. Neither "the reduction of the mountain in dust, nor even the cleaving of the earth" are failing to move many of us these days.

We sit in our homes watching the movie we just rented, or playing that fun game on the computer, ignoring the fact that even our own neighbourhood is dying around us. Oh, torpor, in case we don't know is a form of apathy, or sluggish indifference, generally caused by a very deep sleep. It is when we can't be bothered to do get up and do anything about it.

I remember sitting on a bus one day and a group of girls got on, walked to the back and starting beating up this other girl. I watched as the people near them turned away, waiting for the bus driver to do something, but he was at the other end. I had to walk all the way to the back, past many people, to tell them to stop. As they pushed past me to get off at the next stop, another passenger said, "I'm so glad you did that." I cannot tell you how upset that made me. "And why," I asked none too kindly, "didn't you do anything?"

That is torpor, as far as I can tell.

But then the second part of that quote refers to sedition, or 'action rebelling against a government'. So many of us in society wait for "someone else" to do something, and then at the same time we try and undermine the government that we expect to do something. It doesn't really make sense. If we don't support the government and the police, then they have that much less power to try and do good. But I'm sure that's just me ranting, because there are plenty of things that the various governments around the world are entrusted to do that they are just failing at.

In short, to me this quote is saying to be aware of the suffering in the world, take reasonable action, and stand up for what is right. Don't wait for someone else to stand up. And don't just sit by and think that all the crime and drug abuse are a normal part of life, for they are not. Oh, and encourage those people who work for your government. Many of them are trying their best. They really are.

The next quote that stood out for me seems to further emphasize this point about the troubles we are facing:
"The world is in travail, and its agitation waxeth day by day. Its face is turned towards waywardness and unbelief. Such shall be its plight, that to disclose it now would not be meet and seemly. Its perversity will long continue. And when the appointed hour is come, there shall suddenly appear that which shall cause the limbs of mankind to quake. Then, and only then, will the Divine Standard be unfurled, and the Nightingale of Paradise warble its melody."
Even back in the late 1800s, the world was suffering great mental anguish. And it's only been getting worse. Back then, who would have believed the horrors we take for granted today? Lying in court? Road rage? Bullying to such an extent that those bullied commit suicide? Children murdering each other? Who could have dreamed of these things actually happening?

Baha'u'llah knew. He could clearly see the signs of where we were heading, and still are heading. But He seemed to know that if He spoke of it, we would not believe it.

And if all this wasn't bad enough, He further warns us that "there shall suddenly appear that which shall cause the limbs of mankind to quake". What does that mean? Well, first, it seems to mean that we won't have any notice, no buildup, no time to prepare when it starts. Oh, that's not quite true, for we do have the warning. It is right there, in this quote, and in many other quotes from all the various Sacred Scriptures.

But what is it that will appear? Of that I'm not sure we know, nor can know. We do, however, know that it will be severe and "cause the limbs of mankind to quake". So, what are these "limbs of mankind"? I had often thought of it as making people tremble, sort of like having a nervous breakdown, but now I wonder. It does not talk about the limbs of men, but those of mankind. Are they the various institutions, such as political and economic, that help take care of the affairs of the world? Could it refer to other institutions, such as religious or commercial?

This part of the quote really makes me raise more questions than I have answers, but isn't that just the way of it? All I really know is that it seems certain there will be a major catastrophe of some sort, and that it will severely effect a significant number of people on the planet.

Then, after that dire warning, He gives us hope. He reminds us that "Then, and only then, will the Divine Standard be unfurled, and the Nightingale of Paradise warble its melody."

Perhaps it is after this major upheaval, when people are more aware of the importance of supporting each other and demonstrating spiritual principals that things will begin to get better. You will note that it doesn't say that "Christ will return", or the world will end, or anything else along those lines. No. He says that the "Divine Standard" will "be unfurled". To me, and this is only my own opinion, this means that we who are striving to share these divine teachings with others, who are working with all our might to assist people in understanding how to apply these ideas in our daily life, will help unfold these teachings for all to see. They will see them in action, not just in theory. After all, "Until the public sees in the Bahá'í Community", says the Guardian, "a true pattern, in action, of something better than it already has, it will not respond to the Faith in large numbers." It seems to me that we are just beginning to help establish this pattern in the new behaviour exhibited in our community life.

But just in case we think this will be easy, Baha'u'llah still has many more warnings for us about the difficult times that await.
"A severe trial pursueth you, and will suddenly overtake you. Bestir yourselves, that haply it may pass and inflict no harm upon you."
"Bestir yourselves". He is telling us in clear terms that we have the option of putting the odds in our favor. Of course, it's not a guarantee, for the word "haply" reminds us of this, but still, it's better than nothing.

I am reminded of the 90 year-old guy who has smoked a pack of cigarettes and drunk a liter of whiskey every day for years, and then claims that it's not bad for you. Well, he may have lived to 90, but for every one of those guys there are hundreds or even thousands who died far earlier. Living a clean life doesn't guarantee you a long and healthy life; it just gives you better odds of having one.

"We have a fixed time for you, O peoples. If ye fail, at the appointed hour, to turn towards God, He, verily, will lay violent hold on you, and will cause grievous afflictions to assail you from every direction. How severe, indeed, is the chastisement with which your Lord will then chastise you!"
Note that He is not addressing individuals here. He says "O peoples". If we, as a people, do not turn towards God, then we are in big trouble, regardless of what may happen to us individually. Today it is very clear that as a society we have embraced greed and fanaticism, not to mention laziness and ignorance, and this is most definitely not what happens when we turn towards God. As we are clearly seeing, this can only lead us to "grievous afflictions".

"The winds of despair are, alas, blowing from every direction, and the strife that divideth and afflicteth the human race is daily increasing. The signs of impending convulsions and chaos can now be discerned, inasmuch as the prevailing order appeareth to be lamentably defective."
I am so captivated by that description, "lamentably defective". It is not only defective; it is lamentably so. Here in Canada, there was a lengthy study where they interviewed all out-going members of our Parliament. What they discovered was that the only problem that they had with the government was the party system. They said that it was this very party system, which is not part of our constitution, that was preventing good things from actually getting done. For these high-ranking members of government to say this, those who rode to power on the coattails of these very parties, really speaks volumes about how defective the current systems of governance are.

But Baha'u'llah is not only talking about the government. He is talking about the "prevailing order". As far as I can tell, this also refers to our banking systems, our methods of conducting business, our health systems, agriculture, and so on. I think He is referring to each and every system out there. But that's just my own take on it, for what that's worth.

"There is no place of refuge for you, no asylum to which ye can flee, no one to defend or to protect you in this Day from the fury of the wrath of God and from His vehement power, unless and until ye seek the shadow of His Revelation."
I can only think of that poor couple who wanted to go pioneering and "get away from it all". They wanted to pioneer to the most remote place they could think of, because they were trying to escape the impending convulsions. They chose the Falkland Islands, and got there literally months before the war broke out in the mid-80s.

The earth is a single place. We are causing severe imbalances in the entire system which is effecting every single place on the planet, from the deserts to the oceans, from the equatorial regions to the poles. Every culture on the planet is feeling the effect of our way of living. There truly is no place that we can go that is not being effected right now.

"The day is approaching when We will have rolled up the world and all that is therein, and spread out a new world order in its stead."
It is not hopeless. It would be so easy to read all of these passages and just lie down in despair, but we know that this is not what will help. Baha'u'llah, of course, gives us the answer. If we are wondering what we can do, He tells us in no uncertain terms.
"...They who are the people of God must... be busied in whatever may be conducive to the betterment of the world and the education of its peoples."

Monday, January 23, 2012

Salvation vs. Growth

Over the next few weeks I will be going through my "drafts" folder and rescuing articles that I had started, but never finished. (Or perhaps I'll just put them out of their misery.) Here is my latest attempt at cleaning up these unwieldy folder.

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A long time ago, way back in the ancient eternity of January of 2010, I wrote an article in which I said, "Now there's a theme for another article", and then promptly forgot all about it. Which article? Oh, sorry. It was called "The New Guilt". And no, I don't feel the least bit guilty about taking so long to write this one. I knew I'd get around to writing it eventually.

What was it?

Well, dear Reader, it was just a simple observation I made a while ago that seemed to  catch a few of my friends by surprise. I realized that there are two broad categories into which most religions seem to fall: those that are primarily concerned with salvation, and those that are more concerned with spiritual growth.

What do I mean by that? Well, I'm sure you can guess.

There are many faiths out there who seem to believe that salvation is like an on/off switch. You are either saved, or you're not. You either go to heaven, or you miss out. (Those that have purgatory try to find a middle ground to please those that are more liberal in their beliefs, but it doesn't change the underlying strata of their belief.)

There are other faiths that believe that it is all about growth. Whatever we do, they say, should lead us closer and closer to our Creator, without ever letting us think that we will get to the end of that journey.

Catholicism, for example, would be of the former, while the Baha'i Faith would be of the latter.

As I'm sure that we are all aware of the underlying concepts involved with salvation, I won't dwell on it too much here. A short bit. That's it. Most of this will be about the idea of spiritual growth.

Here's the bit about salvation.

In the salvation religions, there tend to be two different models. The first is that of a balance. At the end of your life your good deeds are put on one side of the balance, and your bad deeds on the other. If your good deeds outweigh your bad ones, you go up to heaven. If the bad deeds weigh more, you go the other direction. The question of absolute equality came up, what if they are exactly in balance, and that led to purgatory, a place in between. Of course, this has been modified since then to a place where you are purged of the bad deeds so that you are able to go up more pure than if you still had all those bad deeds weighing you down.

The second model is that any bad deed, even a single one, brings you down to the nether places, and that you require the intervention of a saviour for your good deeds to be worth anything. In some instances, just accepting that saviour figure allows you to go up, regardless of your actions.

In some ways, Santa Claus is the perfect figure to fit into this model. He watches you throughout the year and judges whether you've been good enough, or not. If so, you get presents on Christmas.

This is a lot like the salvation concept, in that you get judged throughout your life and if you've been good enough, you get a gift at the end.

 But me? I prefer the growth model.

For starters, it's not as judgmental. It also mirrors physical reality a bit more closely.

When we are in the womb, we are growing our body, even though we don't really need it there. There is not much to grab, yet we still grow our hands. There's not much to see, but we have to develop our eyes. What we hear is quite minimal and distorted, but we still build our ears there in the womb. Of course, we don't have to. We can live in the womb quite happily without any of those. But if we don't grown them, then we will suffer difficulties in this world, after we are born.

It would be very easy to jump to our moral behaviour, at this point, and talk about how we grow our spiritual limbs here, and use them in the next world, but let me step back a moment.

In the womb it is our growth that triggers all sorts of further development. It is when we bump into the uterine wall that the growth of our limbs and nerve-endings is triggered. It is when we grow to fill our available space in the womb that the birthing process begins. It is exactly each time that we meet our imposed limits that transformation to the next phase of our development occurs.

Once the basic outline of our body has developed, and we have reached the maximum capacity of the womb, we are born. And then we are just a baby. We need to grow and develop in this world. We have to achieve maturity.

When we are in this world, life starts out very easy. As we begin to explore our surroundings, we can't really get in a lot of trouble. It isn't until we're about 2 that our explorations can become dangerous, and our parents stop us. This is the root of the problem with the "terrible twos". It is really the first time in most people's lives that they are told "no". But it also when we really begin to learn about exploring our limits in the world.

Aside from the occasional reprimand by our parents, this is also a fairly easy time in our life. We don't get into too much trouble, although we may inconvenience our parents a bit. Or a lot. (Or a phenomenal amount. I still thank my Mom for letting me live through that time.)

It isn't until we really begin interacting with other people that the challenge occurs. This is when we run into the limits of our moral development. We need to learn to work on, and practice, our virtues if we want to get along with others. We don't need to, but we find life far more fulfilling if we do.

I say that we don't need to because there are many examples of people who don't who end up living very "successful" lives, in that they are wealthy and have all the trappings of society that they could want. But I would argue that they are missing out on the important growth aspect of their spirit.

In the Baha'i Faith, we don't talk a lot about heaven or hell, except as referring to them as nearness and distance from God. Instead, we talk a lot more about growing ever closer to our Creator.

Our life, and our spiritual development, is not about yes/no, or right/wrong, or success/failure. Instead, Baha'u'llah uses the idea of crisis and victory. The crisis here is when we reach our imposed limits. The victory is when we overcome those limits and move on to our next stage of development.

Throughout the Baha'i Faith we find this concept, this movement away from dichotomy and on towards process. It is far more difficult to grasp, but it sure seems to work a lot better.

Friday, January 20, 2012

A Pilgrimage Thought

Most of the time these articles are quite simply nothing more than a few thoughts about a simple subject within the Baha'i Faith. Well, the subject isn't simple: my thoughts are.

But today I want to write something a bit more heartfelt, so if you're not in the mood for heartfelt, please skip this. You probably won't enjoy it, and I would hate to be responsible for you not enjoying a bit of your reading time.

I was looking through my bookshelves the other day, looking for a good book to read. I didn't want anything too heavy, intellectual-wise not gravity-wise, and was about to grab the new bio of Patricia Locke, which has been sitting there for a while. But then, right near it, my eye was caught by a slender green volume: Our Beloved Guardian: An Introduction to the Life and Work of Shoghi Effendi, by Lowell Johnson. I don't know when I got it, or how long it has been on the shelf, but it couldn't have been there for too long. (That makes me think that it was probably part of Fariborz Sahba's collection, which I purchased from him just before he moved.) (Oh, I buy collections of used Baha'i books, if you have any you want to sell.) (I also sell them, if there are any you're looking for.) (Hmm. I didn't expect a sales pitch here today.)

Anyways, there it was. There I was. And thus we met.

It opens with a reference to a pilgrimage made by William and Marguerite Sears, and that got me thinking about my own pilgrimage a number of years ago.

Then I remembered something that really struck me at the time: Shoghi Effendi said that the purpose of pilgrimage was not to meet the Guardian. Meeting him was not part of the pilgrimage. The pilgrimage was the visit to the holy shrines.

He went on to say that you don't go on pilgrimage because you are worthy, but rather that you go to become worthy in order to go out into the Vineyard to serve the Lord.

So how does that relate to me? (What was that? How does it relate to you, dear Reader? I have no idea. You have ask yourself that.)

Well, most of us simply fill out an application for pilgrimage and then just go when we are called. We save up some money, get a ticket and a hotel room, and there we are. While we are there, we are overwhelmingly moved by the spirit of the place, and are at a loss to describe it. Then we come home and talk with others about it as if it were a really amazing vacation. (Of course, I only speak for myself. I know that you are far more spiritual about it than I am.)

But what changed for me after pilgrimage? Well, for one thing, I always have my prayer book with me, now. That is new. Before then, I used to pray regularly, but now, ever since 1993, that prayer book is always with me, and I use it far more often than I ever did before.

Aside: Ok. This aside will seem like a total non-sequitor, but it really makes sense for me. It was shortly before I went on pilgrimage that I had a dream. In the dream I was standing on Linden Avenue looking at the Temple in Wilmette. While I was watching, a crane swung over with a man standing at the end of the long chain. (I'm sure my terminology is wrong, but you can just picture it.) As the crane swung towards the Temple, he hooked the chain around one of the panels, which was promptly lifted away. As it swung away, another crane came in with a replacement section that was far, far brighter then the piece removed. As the new piece was being put into place, a third crane swung in and removed another panel. This was just as quickly replaced by another super bright panel. Faster and faster it went, pieces swinging out and new brighter pieces replacing and rebuilding the Temple. As this went on, the light just grew more and more intense, so intense that it woke me up with the image of a new Temple planted firmly in my mind.

This is how I think my view and understanding of the Faith changed when I went on Pilgrimage. Piece by piece, over those few days, my poor understanding was replaced with a vision that was so much brighter. I never missed a talk while I was there, and took as many notes as I could, but still failed to learn even a fraction of what I could have. And yet now, years later, I realize that this was not important. What I learned on an intellectual level actually paled in comparison to what changed in my heart.

Perhaps this is why the Guardian said that visiting him was neither the purpose nor part of the Pilgrimage. What he did, and the value of it cannot be overestimated, was inspire the friends with a vision of the Faith that they could not have had before. Pilgrimage, however, inspires the heart, and leads the friends to do things they never could have before.

I finished the book in a very short time, that afternoon, I believe. It was very inspirational, but what really stands out to me is the memories of Pilgrimage that it evoked. And for that I am so grateful.

Today, when I think about this experience, two things really stand out. The first is that when I say my prayers, I almost always feel myself there at the Shrines. Interestingly enough, though, I don't picture myself when I was there with my family on a 3-day visit. No. I envision myself during that precious time of Pilgrimage, which a 3-day visit is not. There really is something sacred about the Pilgrim that I can't explain, but I know that I experienced it in a way that I didn't when I returned as a visitor. So today, when I am saying my prayers, it brings me right back to that time of my life when I was a Pilgrim.

Secondly, when I think of the friends in Iran, or any of the other Baha'is who are suffering today, or when I'm reading any part of the history of the Faith, especially those trials that the friends have had to endure, I remember the Prison Cell. I happened to be there in July, the last Pilgrimage group of the season before they closed down for the summer, so the windows were open, as they must have been in the time of the Blessed Beauty. In fact, there was no glass in the windows when He was there.

I remember sitting there, on one of the mats, hearing a cock crowing in the distance, thinking how poignant this was, as Baha'u'llah called the world to recognize a new dawn. How long, I wondered, will humanity remain unaware of this Divine Bird Who has called. As I thought this, I felt something on my leg, which was odd, since I was wearing pants. But there, under my knee, was a feather that I had not noticed before. This feather remained in my prayer book for years until I loaned it to a friend whose father was dying. When the book came back, all the flowers were still in it, but the feather was gone, winged away with her father's soul.

In the cell, though, I sat there, holding the feather, wondering. And then I noticed the iron bars in the windows, iron that was rusting away, and has since been replaced, but was there at the time. I saw the iron and I swear I saw it crying. There, in that cell, on that hot and dry day, I thought I saw drops rolling down the bars in the same manner as tears rolling down cheeks. For some reason it could not be mistaken for rain, and besides, there was not a cloud in the sky. Even the iron, I realized, weeps at the thought of having kept in the Blessed Beauty.

Oh, and there is a third thing that stands out, now that I think about it. My last time in the Shrine of the Bab, when I didn't know if I would ever return there again, I found myself standing there, saying a prayer in the nearly unbearable heat. It happened to be a particularly hot day, and most of the other Pilgrims only stayed in the Shrine a very short time. But I'm weird. I love the heat. So there I was, saying a prayer, practically alone, my eyes bone dry. But then I had the most unusual sensation. I began to sweat, except that it didn't feel like sweat at all. My body, all over my skin, began to weep. It didn't sheen like sweat usually does in those circumstances, but beaded, with exactly the same sensation that tears do when they well up in the eyes. While my eyes were dry, unable to produce a single drop, my body wept in their place.

Pilgrimage is a special time in our life, and if we are open to it, nothing is ever quite them same afterwards.

We are enjoined to make this journey at least once in our lifetime, and when referring to it in the Kitab-i-Aqdas, Baha'u'llah calls upon God, "the All-Bountiful, the Most Generous." It truly is a bounty to be able to go, and to share one's experience with others. And it also does show the overwhelming generosity of God.

I can only pray to be worthy of having had such an experience.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

A Simple Conversation

The past few days have had many more interesting conversations, some of which I thought I might share here with you. Well, one, actually. It just went for a while.

On Saturday evening, we took my brother-in-law to the airport, and then went on to Marielle's work party. (That just sounds like an oxymoron.) Shoghi was with us, so I kind of took care of him while Marielle schmoozed. (I just love that word. It's a shame I don't get to use it more often.)

Oh, this was after I talked with a woman who is about to go to boot camp. Marielle had told her to phone us if she ever needed a shoulder to cry on, so she thought it would be good if I met her, too. That way she would know who she was talking with if I happened to be the one answering the phone.

Anyways, after this conversation, Shoghi and I went into the lounge to watch soccer. It's not that we said, "Hey, let's watch a soccer game" and then sought out the lounge. No. We went to the lounge, saw the game on the television and decided to watch it.

I went up to the bar to get a glass of juice and the bartender, Alejandro, asked me if Shoghi liked soccer. We talked for a few minutes when I asked him where he was from. "Chile." "Oh? Santiago?" "No, Concepcion." I mentioned that I was hoping to get to Chile in about 5 or 10 years. He said that he hoped I'd make it, and then asked me why.

"They're building a Baha'i Temple there, and I hope to visit it some day."

He apologized for his ignorance and said that he didn't know what Baha'i was. Instead of giving him my usual 30-second response, I said that it was my religion, and that we recognized that all the major religions come from the same God.

He smiled a wistful sort of smile at that, and said that he had no belief in any religion. "But I wish I did."

I asked him about his background and he said that he grew up Catholic, but after seeing the hypocrisy of many leaders of religion, he could no longer believe.

I nodded in sympathy, for this really does touch my heart. "In the Baha'i Writings," I said, "Baha'u'llah says that there is no greater oppression than that a soul would seek for truth and not know where to find it."

It was as if he had been thirsty and given a cup of fresh water. His expression said that this was exactly what he had been trying to say for years.

The conversation went on from there, as Shoghi glanced over, heard some of the conversation, and then went back to watching the game. I learned later that he had said a prayer for both of us.

During the few minutes we had together, he asked a number of very important questions, and I know that the Concourse on High was helping me, for simple responses came quickly and fluently.

He spoke about science and religion, and how he believed in science. "Me, too." Science, I explained, is how we begin to understand the physical world around us, and exert a degree of control over our environment. "But there is more to the world than the material. There is also the spiritual side, and since there is only one universe, the two cannot contradict each other." I used the example of science and religion being the two wings of the bird of human knowledge. Not only did he love the concept, but he immediately understood that you needed both wings to fly.

He also questioned the concept of a God who punishes us. As he had earlier mentioned that he has a daughter, 7, I spoke of my training of Shoghi. I said that the laws of God, to me, are not there to punish us if we break them, but are there to warn us. One rule that I have had for Shoghi since day 1 is to not touch the hot stove. This is a law in our house. If Shoghi were to violate that law, I would never think of punishing him for it. No. He will have already punished himself by burning his hand. The law is there because I love Shoghi, and am aware of the nature of both his hand and the hot stove. I know that if they touch, his hand will burn. This, I said, is how I understand the laws of God. They are there to warn us of the natural consequences that will occur if we violate them.

By the time we had to leave, Alejandro said that he was very grateful for the conversation. "We were meant to talk tonight." He said that he had never heard religious ideas expressed in this way before, and that it gave him hope of finding a faith again in his heart.

Friday, January 13, 2012

My Giving Tree

"Man", said Shoghi Effendi, "is organic with the world. His inner life moulds the environment and is itself deeply affected by it. The one acts upon the other and every abiding change in the life of man is the result of these mutual reactions."

*  *  *  *  *

One of my favorite books as a child was "The Giving Tree", by Shel Silverstein. I can't begin to tell you how much I loved it. Perhaps that is why it made me so happy when Shoghi said that he loved it, too. But it wasn't always that way. The first time I read it to him we almost didn't make it to the end. He was crying too hard. I had to work hard to convince him that it had a happy ending, and to let me finish reading it. I was so grateful that he trusted me.

The story, as you may know, is about a tree that loves a little boy. The boy plays with the tree every day, making crowns out of her leaves, climbing in her branches and eating her apples, and even playing hide-and-seek with her. As you would expect, he grows up and visits less often. The rest of the story is about her offering him different things to help him try to learn to be happy. He wants some money, so she offers him her apples to sell. He wants a house, so she offers her branches. At the end, she is only a stump, and he is a tired, old man. She is able to offer him a quiet place to sit and rest. "And she was very happy." It's a beautiful story about generosity, and it allowed me the opportunity to ask Shoghi if he thought that money or a house would make the man happy. "No," he said, "of course not."

Last night we read the story again, and it made him so happy to see such generosity in action.

This morning, as I was walking him to his bus, he asked me if there really was a Giving Tree.

"Of course", I said, with all sincerity. "I had a Giving Tree when I was your age." And then I told him the following true story.

When I was a young boy, about the same age as Shoghi, I lived in a house on the corner of a street. There were houses all down our street, on both sides. But across the other street, the one at the side of our home, to the east, was a tree covered hill, a forest of small trees. Except for one tree. One of them was big, a giant amidst all the others. This was our Giving Tree.

This tree was a beautiful, big, old weeping willow. From my child-like perspective, she was about 1 meter diameter across, and there was a single branch reaching out towards the horizon. It must have been about a foot thick at the trunk, and at least 5 meters long. Even a six-year old could easily climb onto that magnificent branch and lean back against the trunk of the tree and fall asleep. If you were brave, you could straddle it like a horse, move way from the trunk, climbing further and further along that limb, and bounce on it. No greater steed was ever ridden by any valiant knight.

One day we were Robin Hood, standing on that mighty branch, making our daring plans. Another day we'd be blasting off into outer space, lying down on it as the countdown went on. And another day we'd be the cowboys chasing the bank robbers, three of us bouncing up and down, vying to see who would be in the lead as we scrambled back and forth on that limb. Scrapes, bruises, even broken bones: none of that mattered as we strove to be the heroes of the day.

But then one morning we went outside and there, across the street, was a truck: a bulldozer. They were going to build some new houses.

We never dreamed that anyone could possibly cut down such a beautiful tree. Oh, the smaller trees, and the bushes, sure, but not our old willow. Not our Giving Tree. It just wasn't possible.

We watched over the next few days as they made their plans and did their little markers which meant nothing to our young eyes, and wondered as the different trucks and things moved in. We didn't know what was going on, but we knew that something was going to change.

Over 35 years later I still get tears in my eyes when I think of the day I walked outside and saw her gone, an empty space where she once stood so majestically.

When I became friends with the kids who moved into one of those houses, I still saw her standing there every time I went over to their home, there in the dining room that had been built over where she had once stood.

Today I encourage my son to find his own Giving Tree, to find the magic in the woods and cherish every moment he can playing there with her. Whether he builds a tree house, or sees her as a new type of Transformer, it doesn't matter. If he comes home with a scraped knee, or even a broken bone, I will know that it was worth it when he tells me the heroic stories of daring-do that he and his friends did, his eyes aglow as he recounts every detail through the tears of pain.

And that, I told him this morning, is why I get tears in my own eyes when I look at the tree-covered hills looming a mile or two beyond our home and know that they will soon be bare of those makers of legends. Whose Giving Tree will we be cutting down when we raze a forest on a hill to make a dozen new houses? How many Giving Trees will be lost because we want our bigger and "better" homes?

No, we both agreed. We need to find the magic in the forest, treasure it, and help others to see it, too.

If there is anything that my Giving Tree gave to me, it was the ability to dream.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Becoming Sincere

Oh wow. I never expected such a response to that last article. Actually, it wasn't really in response to the last article, but rather to the quote in the last article. (I guess I shouldn't be surprised by any response to the Writings, should I?)

It all began with my wife. You see, dear Reader, I often read these articles to her before posting them. This not only allows me to proof read them, but also prevents some of the more bozoic things I may say from actually getting out there. (I think "bozo" should be fully... what do you call the conjugatory form for adjectives? You know, bozoid, bozoic, bozoness, to name just three.)

So I read this to her (and she did have me change one thing, for which I'm very grateful), and she kind of jumped in surprise at that quote from Baha'u'llah I put in the end. You know, the one about growing in steadfastness. Anyways, it sort of surprised her and I guess she wasn't the only one. I'm surprised by how many people wrote to ask "Why?"

Well, as you know, I don't really have a clue. I'm no authority. And even though I've been doing an intensive study of the Kitab-i-Iqan with my friend Samuel, that by no means makes me an expert. (Trust me. I'm not.) But it did mean that I had run across this quote many times, and was not surprised by it in the least.

Oh, I'm sorry. Which quote? Well, here is more of it than I quoted yesterday:
Wert thou to ponder a while, thou wilt recognize that, apart from all these established truths and above-mentioned evidences, the repudiation, cursing, and execration, pronounced by the people of the earth, are in themselves the mightiest proof and the surest testimony of the truth of these heroes of the field of resignation and detachment. Whenever thou dost meditate upon the cavils uttered by all the people, be they divines, learned or ignorant, the firmer and the more steadfast wilt thou grow in the Faith. For whatsoever hath come to pass, hath been prophesied by them who are the Mines of divine knowledge, and Recipients of God's eternal law.
I'm not going to analyze this in my usual manner, for there are two things that really caught my attention when I started thinking about it, and going through it line by line doesn't lend itself to exploring those ideas.

To start, I want to contextualize this quote. It comes about 30 pages before the end of this 250-some page book. Baha'u'llah has just gone through an incredible analysis of that quote from Jesus in Matthew 24, and has set forth a lot of the proofs of the Bab's mission. (Don't take my word for it. Read the Kitab-i-Iqan for yourself.) Now, He is telling us that in addition to what He wrote before this quote, the previous 220 pages, we can also look at the "repudiation, cursing, and execration" against this Cause as a further proof.

Really? Why? Or perhaps that should be, how?

Well, that seems to be the question many of us have. I would have had it, too, except that in my own dim state it never occurred to me.

So why would this be the case? (I won't even bother going into the differences between those three words. I'll let you look them up, instead.)

And this, dear Reader, is where I'm treading on thin ice. I won't guarantee that this is in any way accurate, and I know it is certainly not authoritative, but it works for me, and that's good enough. I'm sure many of you will write in with your own more cogent thoughts.

It seems to me that looking at the derogatory comments about the Faith, and the absurd ways in which people try to attack it, can serve two purposes. The first is that it helps prevent us from asking those same silly questions. For example, if someone asks how it can be true, "because my parents weren't Baha'i", then we know that this is just silly. If our parents were the judges for our own path then we wouldn't have free will. We would only have our parent's choice. And by this criteria, the early Christians should have stayed Jews. So this argument, that of maintaining the family tradition, doesn't quite hold water. By looking at it, I won't fall prey to it myself if it comes up in my own mind. It becomes another one of the questions that I can just cross off my list and not bother about.

Oh, another question that I've been asked in the past is, "If it's true, why haven't I heard about it before now?" Well, the answer, to me, is that you're hearing about it now, aren't you? Timing doesn't validate or invalidate the truth, so that's another question I can cross off.

I could go on and on here, but seriously, why bother? By looking at these various grumblings, it gets rid of all the niggling little questions that really shouldn't even trouble me all that much.

But then there is a second point: He doesn't ask us to ignore the silly little arguments that people toss our way. He asks us to meditate upon them. Wow. Talk about trust in our capacity.

How often have I heard people tell me that they don't want to read any of Baha'u'llah's Writings because they might tempt them away from their own faith? Is their faith really that shaky?

Baha'u'llah trusts in our capacity. He has confidence in our own abilities to discern for ourselves. he doesn't seemed to be concerned, for He is supremely confident in the truth of His own Message.

Of course, it is also a test by which the sincere are separated from the wayward. When we say that we believe, the tests truly begin. "Think because ye say ye believe ye won't be tested?" And if we can be swayed by the "cavils uttered by all the people", then our faith wasn't all that strong to begin with.

It seems to me that Baha'u'llah isn't concerned about our falling away from the Faith. And this, too, may be for a couple of reasons. It may be that He trusts us to remain firm, or it may be that He only wants those who are firm. I'm not sure.

But let me say, I've known many who have joined the Faith and then left it again, and they're still good people. I don't think that what they call themselves has made much of a difference to their actual journey. I've also known some who became Baha'i, and then violated the Covenant. Well, that's an ego thing, and I don't think that's related here at all.

I think Baha'u'llah's vision for us is far greater than being concerned with what we call ourselves. He seems more concerned with helping us grow spiritually. And while I believe that being Baha'i can help the most in that regard, I don't believe that it is the only path to God. Nor do I believe that we all have to have the same label.

But I do think we need to be sincere. And I think we need to be confident in what we have come to understand in our own life. If some silly arguments by others can sway us, then perhaps we need to get a bit more backbone.

When Baha'u'llah asks me to not merely think about these arguments, nor to ignore them, but to meditate upon them, to deeply consider them, then I am grateful for His confidence in my own ability. I know there is a lot more that can be said on this, but I think I'll just meditate on it for now.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Enjoying the Moment

For those of you who have been reading this blog for a while, you are probably aware that I was asked to serve at the University of Victoria in their Multifaith Chaplaincy office. And while the official title is that of "Chaplain", which makes me both cringe and laugh at the thought of a "Baha'i Chaplain", I think of myself, and refer to myself as a "Baha'i Adviser".

Recap: Please feel free to skip this paragraph if you know the story. I had wondered what it was that I was supposed to do in this capacity of adviser. The previous advisers were not much help. I mean, they shared what they tried, but they hadn't met with much success, and so I had to look for new ways of trying things. The other Baha'is in the area went on and on about the core activities, but experience showed that nobody just came to them, except a few Baha'is. It's not that people weren't invited, but just that they weren't interested. So I took the radical step of talking to the students themselves. They said they wanted meditation. Thus began Meditation 101, a simple meeting in which we explore a different style of meditation each week. Oh, and this has led to a number of people asking about devotional gatherings, since I always mention that prayer and meditation are two aspects of that conversation with our Creator. By the way, out of the entire group of people who have come to this workshop, only 2 of the 30 or so were Baha'i. Recap done.

I have been learning so much from this meditation workshop I've been conducting. You would think that as the facilitator, I would probably know a bit about the subject, but the fact is that the longer I go on with it, the less I realize I knew.

Over the past little while a couple of interesting ideas arose that I thought would be good to share here.

Diet - The first is the many benefits of meditating while you are eating. This would be a form of sensory meditation. When you take a bite of food, you can allow yourself the joy of completely savoring it. Let the flavours spread over the tongue. See how they all combine with each other. Taste the various spices and herbs and see how they compliment each other. When you do this, you will find that you are eating far more slowly, which allows the food to get to your stomach before you take too many more bites. Your body will recognize that you have eaten enough, and you can stop eating at the proper time. When you rush through your meal, there are probably a number of bites that are still on the way down, and you will have overeaten. By only eating what you require, you also increase your body's ability to digest the food. You become more efficient and get more energy and nutrition out of each meal.

Beauty - One afternoon we decided to meditate on a flower in the garden just outside the chapel where I do Meditation 101. We took a few of the chairs outside and set them on the sidewalk in front of a hydrangea. It was awesome. We just sat there and looked at the flower, contemplating its beauty.

One of the participants said that she found that it was far more beautiful than she had ever noticed. By taking the time to actually look at it, instead of merely seeing it in passing, she became more enamored of it. She began to realize just how much more beauty was present in the world, in everyday objects, than she had ever thought possible. She said that this was a good way to learn to appreciate more of what is in the world.

Health - By practicing meditation, you take the time to really think about things. For myself, I found that my stress levels went down, not that I was all that stressed out to begin with. But there was a professor who commented on this. One afternoon after we had done a review meditation in which we recalled, to the best of our ability, our day moment by moment from the time when we awoke, he said he had gotten to a stressful moment in his day. There was an interoffice issue that had arisen, and they had been struggling with what to do. It was the cause of much stress and anxiety. By taking the time to go back and review it, he said that a much more comprehensive, and simpler, solution presented itself. This noticeably lowered his anxiety level.

Stress, as I'm sure we all know, is a major cause of health problems. By taking the time meditate, review and contemplate our life, it not only helps us deal with our stress, but also puts our entire life into a healthier perspective. Just how important are those little things that get us upset? (I'm one to talk. You should hear me rant about the dirty dishes. I should practice meditation in the kitchen. Beyond the eating aspect.)

Spiritual Growth - By reading the Writings and meditating upon them, we grow spiritually. There were a few sessions where we read a passage from the Writings and then meditated upon it, or we meditated while chanting the Greatest Name. The response to these two styles of meditation were profound. I wasn't sure what to expect, but people really loved them.

I know many people who read sacred texts, but don't take the time to meditate upon them. They read them in the same manner they would a good novel. While it is good to read them, it is better to meditate upon them, too. It is through this contemplation that we can develop our spiritual qualities. As we do this, we will see that our spiritual perceptiveness will also grow every day.

Baha'u'llah adds something else into this mix, as I'm sure you can imagine. If we were to "meditate upon the cavils uttered by all the people," He says, "be they divines, learned or ignorant, the firmer and the more steadfast wilt thou grow in the Faith." Here it is not just meditating upon the sacred texts, but also upon the trivial objections against the faith by others. By doing this, our steadfastness increases, and given the importance of steadfastness in our faith, that can only be a good thing.

In addition to all the above, meditating, to me, means taking the time to enjoy the beauty of the world around us. This has so many advantages it is hard to include them all here. Our life is so fleeting, so precious, and our time is so scarce that we really need to enjoy each and every moment of it. Meditation is when I take the time to try and appreciate it.

Well, time for me to go meditate in the woods with my wife. It's a beautiful sunny day, and we want to take full advantage of it.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

A Holiday Journey, parts 1 and 2

It's that time of the season again: I have three articles going into my local newspaper. Here are two of them:

I hope you enjoy them.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

A Chance Encounter

Yesterday, Shoghi, Marielle and I were walking along downtown, heading to a store to get Shoghi's new glasses. We walked through a parking lot and there, in the corner, was a Dodge Ram truck with some really interesting tail lights. He pointed to them and said, "Wow! They're so beautiful." "Yeah," I replied, "they're so cool." To which Shoghi replied, "No, it's beautiful."

This led to an interesting little discussion in which he asked what the difference was between beautiful and cool.

Have you ever tried to explain the difference to a 6 year-old? It's not easy. But I gave it my best shot. What I came up with in the end was that cool is unusual and interesting, but not necessarily pleasing to look at, while beautiful is very pleasing to all the senses and the soul.

I talked a little bit about the importance of beauty, and then felt that I needed to conclude with the statement "Beauty is very important in our life because it is an attribute of the divine."

And a man who had just passed us on the sidewalk stopped, turned around, and said, "Excuse me, but did I just hear you say that beauty is an aspect of God?" It was obvious from his countenance that he knew this was true, but was trying to understand it. "I've never heard it put that way before."

I'm not going to go into too much detail here, but it was a fascinating conversation on the sidewalk. He knew that he agreed with the idea that beauty is an aspect of God, and that what passes for "beauty" in society is not the same. (I forgot to add that he said "True beauty uplifts the spirit while false beauty tries to control it." Isn't that a great distinction?)

This singular statement of mine, along with Marielle's loving kindness towards him, and our encouragement of him to share his own personal wisdom learned throughout his life, opened him up to ask if there were any Baha'i activities that he could attend. Naturally we spoke about a prayer gathering, "in which people can share whatever prayers they feel like sharing, or just listen if that's what makes them more comfortable". You see, in the conversation, he mentioned that his wife had passed away a couple years ago, and his daughter four years before that. He also mentioned that he was having some health issues, so a prayer gathering seemed most appropriate to his needs.

We also mentioned the idea of a study circle, and he said that would be good, too. When he asked what the study was like, I mentioned that there was no pre-supposition that the tutor knew more than the participants. It was recognized that we all had an understanding of spiritual issues, and that the tutor was there to help us see implications of things that we may have missed. He appreciated that, especially when Marielle said that it was a lot like our conversation that we had just had.

With a hearty round of handshakes and smiles, we all went on our way. He went to buy his tea in Chinatown and we went to get Shoghi's new glasses.

As we continued walking, I asked Marielle how it was that I happened to mention that beauty is an aspect of God, for I couldn't recall after all the tangents the conversation had. She was the one who recalled the Dodge truck and the question of beauty versus cool. When we got to the eyeglasses place, I sat down and wrote up my notes of this conversation with Louis in order to share it here. I think it is a nice little example of following the instincts and sharing something that may seem odd at first, but then allowing it to go where it will. By being open with my own spiritual understanding, and being neither shy nor forceful, asking the other person questions, it all led to a very natural invitation to both a study circle and a devotional gathering.

Yeah, I think it was a good lesson for me.

Friday, January 6, 2012

A Book List

I normally think of December and January, not to mention February and parts of March, as a good time of the year to snuggle up in a big puffy blanket with a hot cup of cocoa and a good book. I say normally because here in Victoria it's about 7 degrees Celsius (which is about 45 Fahrenheit, for those of you who live in Jamaica, Belize or the United States), as opposed to the -20 that I'm used to at this time of year.

And so I thought I'd take a few minutes to share a bit of what I'm reading these days.

"The Maxwells of Montreal" (406 pages) - This is a wonderful book about May and Sutherland Maxwell, filled with all sorts of anecdotes and previously unpublished letters. It's by Violette Nakhjavani, with assistance from Bahiyyih Nakhjavani, and I have to tell you, I'm glad for Bahiyyih's assistance. I've also been reading Violette's book about Ruhiyyih Khanum, May and Sutherland's daughter, called "The Great African Safari" (586 pages), and it's a slog to get through. I mean, I love the various stories and extracts from talks in it, they're priceless, but it's just overwhelmed with too much detail about how bad the roads were and the names of every single individual they met during the journey. Some day I would love to extract the "good bits" and read the 60 pages that are left. And this is not to say don't read TGAS, because those good bits are worth the rest of the book. But The Maxwells is incredible. It reads so beautifully and is just chock-filled with stories and anecdotes that you will want to share with your family, your neighbours, your neighbour's family, their cousins and the cousin's dog, too. There are some wonderful letters from the Master to May and Sutherland, not to mention other people, and even a beautiful prayer by Mirza Abu'l-Fadl. You really begin to get an idea of why May is considered one of the greatest teachers in Baha'i history. Through the love she showed, and how others reacted to her, we can learn so much about how to improve our own teaching work. This book is truly a treasure for the ages. And it's only volume one. I can't wait for volume two.

The second book I'm reading, as I mentioned above, is "The Great African Safari" (586 pages), by Violette Nakhjavani. I don't have anything else to add to what I said above, except that it really does have some great bits in it.

The third book is "Rejoice in My Gladness: the Life of Tahirih" (331 pages), by Janet Ruhe-Schoen. Again, it is a fantastic book, filled with lots of stories and anecdotes that I hadn't read before. I am finding it a bit more difficult to read than The Maxwells, but I think that is more me than the book. For anyone who wants to read about Tahirih's life from the perspective of a very gifted writer and historian, they could do no better than this one. It is a great companion volume to those other books about her poetry by Hatcher and Hemmat, "Adam's Wish" and "The Poetry of Tahirih". As I haven't read too much of it yet, I can't say more about it at this time.

I just finished "I Loved Thy Creation" (495 pages), the short story works of Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff, one of my favorite fantasy authors. She has a marvelous way of incorporating the Baha'i teachings into her work, and I dearly wish she'd write more (hint hint, just in case she's reading this). While I still prefer her full length novels (The Meri, The Crystal Rose, and Taminy, in particular), these short stories give an insight into how we can use the teachings of the Faith in the arts. The first in the collection, Hand Me Down Town, is a beautiful example of taking a very sad real life occurrence, applying the teachings, and seeing what could happen. In this case, it's the absurd law that a California town passed outlawing homelessness. By applying the idea of true generosity, she comes up with a beautiful and touching little story.

"Abraham: One God, Three Wives, Five Religions" (210 pages) is another interesting read. While the story is pretty much what you would expect, that of Abraham's life, it is very well written and enjoyable. What I liked most, though, was the author says in the introduction. She says that her basic rules for gathering the information are quite simple: when scripture and tradition disagree, scripture wins; and when old and new scripture disagree the newest scripture wins because it is the newest Word of God.

"'Abdu'l-Baha in Their Midst" (337 pages) was an absolute joy. This book, which filled in many gaps for me in my knowledge of the Master's visit to the West, is one that I have referred to many times in this blog. If we are ever looking for more examples of how we should act towards others, how we should behave in our teaching work, this book is a must.

Another one that goes so well here is "Lighting the Western Sky" (276 pages), the story of the first pilgrimage group from the West. In fact, looking over this list again, I realize just how amazing it is to read "The Maxwells" along with these last two books all at the same time. We are talking so much about the importance of developing community, and how to reach out and teach other souls, and we have so many incredible examples right here. Time and again I see these signs, t-shirts or whatever that ask "What would Jesus do", and the truth is that we don't know. He was a Manifestation of God and acted in such a way as to transform an entire civilization. But here, in this religion, we can ask ourselves "What would Abdu'l-Baha do" and see clear examples in the stories from just a couple generations ago. These three books are not only filled with priceless stories of what the Master did in some fairly unusual circumstances, as well as some other situations that we still face every day, but they also contain stories of how our own communities were founded by such heroes as May Maxwell and Lua Getsinger.

The last book I'm reading right now is "Wonderstruck" (629 pages). This is another great work of fiction, ostensibly written for children, but good for kids of all ages. I'm not listing the other myriad works of fiction that I've been reading, for most of them are not worthy of mention. But Wonderstruck is beautiful. It is filled with gorgeous illustrations, and helps remind us of the wonder that is to be found everywhere in the world. I know it's not a Baha'i book, nor is the author Baha'i, but who cares? We need to look at all areas of human knowledge, not just what is found within our own small community. So this is another book I can highly recommend.

Last but not least, you may have noticed that the running total is 3270 pages, not counting the 8 or 9 other works of fiction that I didn't count, which total approximately 3500 pages, nor the Sacred Texts that I read every day, nor what I read on the internet. Conservatively, I've probably read about 7500 pages in the last few months, and this is average for me. I read while I'm eating by myself, on the bus, waiting for someone, every chance I get. I read about a page a minute, and easily find 90 minutes in total throughout the day, so 100 per day is not all that much. While I do read faster than the average person, it's not really all that fast. Most of us can easily read a page every two minutes, and can easily find random minutes throughout the day when we can open up a book and read a page or two.

Why do I mention this? Simple. Many years ago I had the incredible opportunity to take a class by one of my favorite writers. At the end of it, he made us all swear that, if we wanted to really be a writer, we would read for at least 20 minutes a night before going to bed, in addition to all the other reading we do during the day. If we miss our reading one night, we are to read for an hour the next. This was back in 1986, and I've missed very few nights since that time. Do the math. It comes out to nearly 3045 hours of additional reading.

In other words, in addition to all the reading I do in my daily life, I still read an extra 20 minutes each night. (You can ask my wife. She'll vouch for me.) That comes to an additional 120 hours per year. How much, I ask you, can you read in 120 hours? It adds up pretty fast.

I wasn't a Baha'i when I began this little night-time reading. Now I am. And Baha'u'llah tells us to read a bit of Sacred Text each evening. Combine these two, and we can easily read an additional 120 hours of Sacred Text every year. Pretty awesome that.

Besides, there really isn't much that is more comforting than snuggling up in that blanket with a good book and nice hot cup of whatever. Hmm. It's getting late. It's dark outside. And I sense a cup of tea calling my name. I wonder what I'll read now?

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Why Study a Prayer

This is a question I seem to get asked a lot: Why study a prayer? You know, it is that second practice in Ruhi Book 1, Reflections on the Life of the Spirit, but why is it that we do it?

As usual, I don't really know, but I can make an educated guess, based, of course, on experience. Most of us, and I'm not only referring to members of the Baha'i community, have a difficult time talking about spiritual issues with our friends or acquaintances, not to mention our neighbours and co-workers. You'll note that I put those two last because they seem to be the most difficult groups for many of us to initiate these sorts of conversations. Why? Because they are the ones that we spend the most time with, and have the least control about it. We can't really choose our co-workers or our neighbours. We're kind of stuck with them, for better or worse. (Maybe not 'til death do us part, but you get the idea.) If we annoy or offend our co-workers or neighbours, we still have to be around them most of the time. If we tick off our friends or acquaintances, well, we can leave them be for a short time, if we want.

I think we are all aware of the importance of talking about spiritual issues, so the question is how do we do it?

For most of us, studying a prayer is a safe and encouraging way to start.

You see, dear Reader, we're not asking them to pray with us, for that could be intrusive for many. I know that  it isn't for me, but it is for some, and we need to respect that. There are many that I have met who do not want to pray with others, nor do they feel comfortable with the idea. Prayer is a very personal thing for them, and they prefer to do it "in the privacy of (their) chamber", if you will.

We're also not asking them to memorize a prayer, even though we are all aware of the benefits of that. I'm certain you know the Bab said, "every breast which committeth His Words to memory, God shall cause, if it were that of a believer, to be filled with His love", so we don't need to go into that. Besides, memorizing is a lot of work for many of us, and many people just don't want to have to do more work.

Studying a prayer, however, is different. It's safe, and can be done over a cup of tea. It can take as long or as short a time as we want. There is no set way of doing it. And there is no prescribed prayer that we have to study. It can be any one.

This is where it can become a source of encouragement to the other: we can ask them to choose the prayer. And I don't mean that we should hand them a Baha'i prayer book and ask them to choose from a whole pile of prayers that they've never seen before, although we can, if we want. No. I mean that we can ask them to pick any prayer that they want. Any one. While we may be aware that "the revealed Word is endowed with a power of its own", this is not to say that other prayers have no power. They do, and they are also beautiful, and worthy of study. We only need to read the prayers of St Francis of Assisi, or those of Hand of the Cause of God, George Townshend, or even those of Mirza Abu'l-Fadl, to realize that.

When we ask someone else to choose a prayer that they know and love, then we are not only acknowledging their faith, we are showing respect, too.

Then, if they like the experience, there will be a next time. At that point you can feel free to share a prayer that touches your heart.

By studying a prayer, it opens a dialogue on a spiritual level. It also helps us all realize why some of these prayers are considered so profound and beautiful. We begin to get a deeper understanding of what it is we are saying, and what it is these prayers are doing for our life.

Of course, there are many other reasons why we should study prayers, but this is just one, and it works for me.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Laughter of Love

Marielle and I have shared this story so many times that I am certain it will go down through history as part of our family lore. So why, then, have I never shared it here? No clue.

But just this evening, Shoghi asked me about it, and after I told it to him again, he suggested that I write it here. And so, dear Reader, here it is: the story of love and laughter.

By now, if you are a regular reader of this poor author's thoughts on the Baha'i Faith and how they apply to his life, you are well aware of my deep and abiding love for my wife. As I was talking to my son, Shoghi, I asked him if he could imagine me without her. "Yes", he said, but he was also aware of just how lonely I would be. Then he asked me why I was laughing just after the two of us had gotten married.

You see, dear Reader, a few weeks after our wedding, Marielle and I came home one afternoon and were fairly tired. We plopped down on the bed, and just lay there, next to each other, on the blankets. We were probably well on the way to falling asleep, when I realized just how happy I was to be married to this wonderful soul lying next to me. It is not for nothing that I often introduce myself, when she is there, by saying "I have the bounty of being her husband."

Well, this sudden realization of happiness made me smile. (Ain't that sweet?)

What happened from there can only be described as a cascading effect. Perhaps "avalanche" would be a better word.

When I realized that I was smiling because I was so happy at the thought of being married to her, that realization made me smile even more. Of course, then I realized that I was smiling even more because I realized that I was smiling because of my joy at being her husband, and that made me smile even more than more. And then I realized that I was smiling even more than more because I realized that I was smiling even more because I was smiling because of my joy at being her husband, and that made my smile so big that it metamorphosed into laughter.

And that's when it all began to take a turn... well not for the worse, but just a turn.

Because, you see, dear Reader, when I realized that I was so happy at being her husband that I was even laughing for joy, I began to laugh even more, which made me even more happy which made me laugh even harder, which made me realize that I had severely underestimated the exact degree of my joy which made me laugh even harder than before which... You get the idea.

Except for one thing.

You are probably imagining me laughing aloud while lying on the bed, with my wife wondering what was so funny.

But that's not it at all.

You see, there are many different ways that people laugh, as Mary Poppins and Burt pointed out in the movie of her name. Some people let out a blasting guffaw, while others only titter and flit like a little bird. Some snicker, while others give a hearty laugh from deep within their belly. There are those who let out a little chuckle, as if enjoying some mildly amusing personal witticism, and others who continue to burble and bubble with the laughter welling up deep inside them, unable to stop for love or money. But not me.

Below are just a few examples, and I recommend continuing reading with the laughter in the background.

I don't do any of those.

My laughter, unless I am conscious of it and able to change it, is silent. Dead silent. If I were laughing in a room with a blind person, they would never know I was laughing, except they would probably begin to wonder why I am suddenly so quiet. I am the sort of person that people love to have in the movie theatre during a particularly funny scene, because they can still hear what is going on. Yup. That's me.

Oh, and it's not that I don't give any signs of laughter, just that's audibility is not one of them.

So what signs do I give, you ask? I'm glad you did. I go through all the physical motions of laughter, including the broad smile on my face, the tearing in the eyes, and the shaking of the body.

Please place the emphasis on the last: the shaking of the body.

That is probably the most obvious sign.

So there we were, lying peacefully on the bed together, minding our own business, relaxing after a tiring day, when all of a sudden Marielle feels the bed starting to shake, almost as if there were a light tremor within the earth. Now anyone who lives in a city is familiar with this effect, usually due to a large truck rumbling by outside. It often passes after a moment or two, and we no longer think about it.

But this trembling went on. And, to her concern, it began to get worse.

After a few more moments, she realized that the source of this trembling was not, in fact, deep within the earth, or the result of a fleet of trucks going past our window in a convoy, but due to the presence of her newly married partner, her espousal unit for all of eternity, which may have suddenly been seeming a lot longer than previously imagined.

By this point I had realized that I was so overjoyed at the thought of being married to her that I was laughing hysterically that I began to laugh even harder, which moved the shaking aspect of the laughter from merely residing in my shoulders to my entire upper body.

Which was when Marielle began to get seriously concerned. "Did he", she wondered, "forget to tell me that he has some sort of medical condition, like epilepsy?" And being the dutiful wife that she is, she asked, "Are you ok?"

Which I thought was hilarious.

Which made me laugh even more.

Which made her even more concerned.

Which I thought was even more hilarious.

Which made me laugh even more than more.

Which made her seriously consider calling an ambulance.

Which I thought was even more hilariouser.

I'll tell you, dear Reader, I never had to struggle so hard in my life as at that moment, when I had to control my laughter just enough to be able to tell her, as best I could, that I was only laughing. I really was ok. There was no need for an ambulance. Or for her to stick a wallet in my mouth.

Now, I'm sure I didn't say anything nearly that coherent, but she did begin to get the idea that this was not in the realm of a physical abnormality. Mental abnormality maybe, but not physical.

Even after telling her that all was ok, she was still kind of wondering. In fact, I'm certain that she is still wondering about it to this day.

But that's all right. Laughter and joy have just added more to our relationship, and for that I am very grateful. I hope that it lasts until the end of my days.

Actually, I hope it becomes the end of my days, sort of like Nabil of Qa'in, of whom the Master wrote of his passing, "He was sitting up, and conversing. He was radiant, laughing, joking, but for no apparent reason the sweat was pouring off his face -- it was rushing down. Except for this he had nothing the matter with him. The perspiring went on and on; he weakened, lay in his bed, and toward morning, died."

Yeah. That would be a good way to go. Laughing hysterically, radiant and joking, with my great-grandchildren by my side.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

12 December 2011 Message

You may have been wondering why I hadn't posted anything on the recent message that came out from the Universal House of Justice on 12 December 2011 (hence the title of this article). Well, dear Reader, there are a few reasons. First, I've been spending time with my family, as well as working on my book. (My chain art has gone by the wayside for a few days.) (I'm going to work on that when Marielle is back at work.)

Second, I just wasn't sure what to say. I mean, it's addressed to National Spiritual Assemblies, and I'm certainly not a member of one of those august institutions.

But our National Assembly sent it out to our local Assembly, and they asked if we could all study it last night. Alas, though, I was not at that meeting and so I did not partake of the benefits of the group's wisdom. (Due to my selfishness, I decided not to share a minor tummy malady with the other members of the community. Can you believe it?)

Yesterday morning, before said tummy malady, I had a couple of hours to kill while waiting for the car to have it's winter tires put on, so I began to study it on my own, thinking that at least then I would have some questions to ask in the evening. And so the first thing I did was look at the outline contained with the various headings:

  • Intro (That's not really there, but I added it) - paragraphs 1 and 2
  • The Path of Service - paragraphs 3 - 6
  • Coordination - paragraphs 7 - 12
  • Classes for Children - paragraphs 8 - 15
  • Educational Materials - paragraphs 16 - 20
  • Out-tro (that's not really there, either) - paragraph 21
Most of this letter, as you have seen, does not really concern the average believer, but it is wonderful to see the letters that are guiding our higher institutions. In the greater community we would refer to this as "transparency", but as we do not suffer from the lack of trust of these institutions, we call it "shared guidance". I truly love this community.

In my own usual manner, and without the wise input of my Assembly, I'm just going to go through this a bit at a time and share some of my own meager thoughts. I'm fairly sure that many more of you will lend me your wisdom later.

On to paragraph 1, and I'm presuming you have access to a copy, so I'm not re-printing it here.

The first thing that caught my attention was the outline for the continuum we move through when we study the recent guidance and deliberate on "the nature and extent of capacity developed". They talk about the efforts of homefront pioneers and the "first stirrings" of the institute process, and how this grows into a "pattern of rigorous activity", presumably based upon this program, and how this leads to "gaining mastery over the dynamics that characterize rapidly expanding, relatively large communities."

Of course, this all begs a few questions:
  1. What is the nature of the capacity we have developed?
  2. What are these dynamics that characterize these rapidly expanding communities?
Unfortunately, I'm not in a position to even begin to speculate on these questions, but I certainly would love to hear what those who are in a position to have a vision about them think about them.

In the second paragraph, I love how they "note the degree of effort being exerted" without mentioning what that degree is. Obviously it differs from community to community, from cluster to cluster. Regardless, they are happy to note the degree of effort, for this presumably helps them get a better understanding of what is happening in the world and are therefore  in a position to feed back to us what they have learned. What is interesting, though, is that they link this effort to the degree of number of people who actively participate in the work required to being into reality a New World Order. The greater our effort, the greater the numbers, and the faster we will bring this New World Order into existence. Of course, the converse is true, too.

They also give a list of the pieces (I'm sure there's a better word, but I can't think of it right now) involved in the institute process:
  • The Institute Board
  • The Coordinators, regardless of level
  • The tutors, animators and children's class teachers
  • The promotion of an environment conducive at once to universal participation and mutual support and assistance
This last one is the most interesting, for it has been mentioned many times in other letters, but is intriguing here in this list. I also, on a personal note, often think that these lists are a crescendo, not a decrescendo. At least I have found this to be true in the Writings of Baha'u'llah, so I often presume it here, too, in the letters from the World Centre.

When reading it yesterday, I had to ask myself how this list, in this order, could be seen as a crescendo. It seems to me that the Board, as a body, has very little direct interaction with the generality of the community. They provide grand overarching guidance, but this is mostly impacting the coordinators, and how they carry out their own work. Even the coordinators don't have much direct interaction with the generality of the community, except as they are acting as tutors, in which case they are serving as tutors, not as coordinators. What they do, for the most part, is offer guidance and direction to the tutors, animators and teachers. And it is these precious souls, this vast army of people motivated by the guidance that they receive from all these levels, from the World Centre on down, who have the direct contact with the individuals. These are the people who have the most direct impact on the affairs of the Faith at the local level. but none of this could happen without that environment spoken of in that last phrase above. It is this environment, conducive to universal participation and mutual support and assistance, that encourages the friends to become more involved and lend their effort to this mighty endeavour. And so now it really does seem to me to be that crescendo that I was looking for. While it may seem like a top down approach, it is, in reality, a grass roots movement that is being analyzed at the various levels and wisely guided into more and more effective lines of action by those with broader and broader perspectives that may not be readily seen at the local grass roots level.

This all leads to yet another observation: If I am concerned about the level of activity in my own neighbourhood or community, or if I am concerned about the growth of the Faith in my region, then it seems to me that the Universal House of Justice has directly tied this to my personal "degree of effort" in adding to the vitality of the institute process.

Now we move on to part 2 of this letter, "The path of service", which begins with a bit of a history, which I will not go into here, for you can read it yourself. Instead I will focus on what seems to be new: their observations on pedagogy. They point out that the organizing principle of the Ruhi Institute is "developing capacity to serve the Cause and humanity in a process that is likened to walking a path of service."

From here, in paragraph 4, they look at the metaphor involved, and the implications of walking this path of service. I just love it.

Looking at the implications of the concept of a path, they note the following:
  • Invites participation
  • Beckons to new horizons
  • Demands effort and movement
  • Accommodates different paces and strides
  • Is structured and defined
  • Can be experienced and known by scores upon scores
  • It belongs to the community
To walk this path, they say, is equally expressive.
  • It requires volition and choice
  • Calls for a set of skills and abilities but also elicits certain qualities and attitudes
  • Necessitates logical progression but admits, when needed, related lines of exploration
  • May seem easy at the outset but becomes more challenging further along
  • "And crucially, one walks the path in the company of others."
From here on out, the majority of the letter is primarily concerned with things that are not within the purview of the individual, and I won't go into much discussion here about them, for they don't really impact my life at this time. (And remember, this is all about how I apply the teachings to my own life.)

But what does interest me is paragraph 19.

In this paragraph they talk about the importance of the arts and the generation of a global culture that allows for and encourages the development of culture at the local level. "Propelled by forces generated both within and outside the Baha'i community, the peoples of the earth can be seen to be moving from divergent directions, closer and closer to one another, towards what will be a world civilization so stupendous in character that it would be futile for us to attempt to imagine it today." They also remind us that as this occurs, there are some parts of our own culture that will fall away, being deemed as either useless or detrimental. "By the same token, new elements of culture will evolve over time as people hailing from every human group, inspired by the Revelation of Baha'u'llah, give expression to patterns of thought and action engendered by Hi teachings, in part through artistic and literary works." And so this new culture will be partly, though not exclusively, seen through the various arts. Culture is, after all, far more than just the artistic expression that is generated. The way of doing something, the patterns of thought and action, as they say, are part of culture, too. Anyone who has ever traveled across the globe and seen the workings of another culture are well aware of this.

But then there is the caution: "such an efflorescence of creative thought will fail to materialize, should the friends fall, however inadvertently, into patterns prevalent in the world that give licence to those with financial resources to impose their cultural perspective on other, inundating them with materials and products aggressively promoted." Now I have a better understanding of why it bothers me when people ask me if I know "THE" song for a quote in Ruhi Book 1, or whatever. There is no "THE". The Writings are what they are, and we can superimpose them on any piece or style of music that we desire. There are many tens, or even hundreds, of versions of songs for all the quotes in Ruhi Book 1, not to mention the other books, or even the children's classes. And hearing the same words sung in so many different ways is joyous and uplifting. It also helps me realize just how universal this Faith is.

This is also not to deny the importance of sharing these songs, for all those songs that were shared back in the 70s, 60s, 50s or even back in the 20s, have now become universal and are enjoyed by Baha'is all the world over. We can go into most any community throughout the planet and sing "Allah huma" or that version of "Blessed is the Spot" that I know, but can't specifically reference. And there are also those songs that are from India, Congo, the Philippines, and so on, that are also known around the world. It's so wonderful.

So even though a vast part of this letter is not exactly relevant to me at this time, I am so glad to have been able to read it. Just in case no one else says it, "Thank you, Universal House of Justice, for this rich guidance that you are providing. Thank you."