Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Grandpa Joe's Nose

One fine, crisp, winter day, Marielle and I were walking in Winnipeg. This was long before we moved out to Victoria, and even before Shoghi came along and joined our family.

We were walking on the river, heading from the Forks to Osborne Village.

Aside - I remember another winter day when I called my Father. This was before he passed away. (Obviously.) In the midst of the conversation, he had asked me what my day had been like. In the midst of describing my day, I mentioned that I walked on the river, and it was one of those rare moments when he began to wax poetic. He spoke of the beauty of the sound of the splashing water, and I stopped him with, "No Dad. Not near the river. Not beside it. On it." It was very amusing. He hadn't realized just how cold it gets up north, as he was in Chicago, and it hadn't occurred to him that the river walk was actually a walking path on the river itself.

Second aside - Another time I was talking with him and he asked me what the temperature was. I said, "Minus 40." "Oh? Fahrenheit or Celsius?"  I laughed and said, "At this temperature, who cares?" He was amused. (I really miss my simple conversations with Dad.)

So, there we were, on the river, walking to Osborne Village, a good couple of kilometres away in total. In the cold. The freezing cold. The sort of freezing cold that makes you think that we should begin using the IQ system instead of Celsius, how stupid you have to be to walk outside.

And there was the wind.

In our faces.

And not for the first time in my life, walking that path with my beloved wife, she-who-will-be-my-partner-in-all-the-worlds-of-God, I began to seriously question my sanity. Oh, not because I was with her, but just because I was outside for what would be a subjectively long time in that weather.

To be fair, though, it was bright and sunny. (Which, of course, meant that it was just that much colder.)

Anyways, there we were. Walking. Enjoying each other's company. And shivering.

And the absurdity of the whole situation just sort of hit me.

"Marielle," I said. "I can just picture it. Years from now, when I'm an old man, I'm going to be talking to our grandchildren, and one of them will ask, 'Grandpa, why is your nose so big?' And you know what I'm going to say?"

We had already talked about having children, so this wasn't too much of a leap. She could tell that I was in story-telling mode, so she asked. And that, dear Reader, was when I began using my Grandpa Joe voice. If you haven't heard it yet, I've been told that it is quite good, very convincing. And that I really get into the character. Oh, and this story was all made up on the spot, completely improv, timed to last the rest of the journey to our destination.

So now, dear Reader, if you will, please imagine the rest of this in a sort of old man's voice. Thanks.

"Well, darling, one day your Grandma and I were out walking. And let me tell ya, it was cold. It was a really cold day there back in Winnipeg. And we were walking on the river. I don't know why, but there ya go. We were doing it, walking on the river. And we were freezing. Just shivering as we walked. And that wind comes along and began biting. I thought my cheeks were gonna freeze. Try as we might, we just couldn't get warm. It was a bit ridiculous, it was.

"And then one particular gust of wind come along, and my gosh, I couldn't believe we were there. And you know what? That wind done froze my nose right off. Boom. There it went, fell right on the ground.

"And you know what? My nose started to run. Course, that's not all that odd, really. Lots of folks noses run in the winter. Kinda normal, that. But mine began to really run. It started to run right on back to the Forks.

"And I began to chase it, trying to get my nose back, but it was fast. Pretty fast for such a little guy. I tried to grab it, but I just couldn't catch it.

"That little nose began to run faster and faster, and I'm chasing it for all it's worth. It got all the way back to the Forks and began to run towards this fire they had burning outside. It ran around and around this bonfire, trying to warm up.

"That was when I noticed that there were all these other guys chasing their noses, too.

"Musta been a couple o' dozen of us all running round that fire, chasing our noses.

"Finally, after a short bit, I leapt and tackled it. I was able to grab my nose and shove it back on my face. Held it there, makin' sure it didn't get away again.

"It was only when I got home, a bit later, that I realized I had grabbed the wrong nose.

"And that, darling, is how I ended up with such a big one."

*     *     *     *

Now, what does that story have to do with my living out my understanding of the Baha'i Faith?

Simple, really. I think it is very important to keep a light heart. Marielle and I made it into the Village that afternoon, half frozen, but filled with joy.

Not all stories have to have a deep spiritual significance. Sometimes just the joy of a good tale is enough. And sometimes, just sometimes, anything more would be too much.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Dawn Prayers, Day something or other

Just the other day my wife was getting ready to water the garden when she noticed a tiny baby rat curled up against the black garden hose for warmth. It was just over a week old, with its hair grown in but its eyes not yet open. It was obviously healthy, but hungry and scared. She picked it up and brought it inside, to show me. We found an eyedropper to use for feeding it, and I did a bit of quick research, learning that goat's milk cut in half with water seemed to be the ideal formula for it.

Within a few minutes we learned all the basics of taking care of a baby rat and were on the way to nursing it back to health.

In no time at all, the little guy warmed up to us and began to crawl on my shirt, exploring his new surroundings. We found a small home for him and made sure to keep him warm, feeding him every 5 hours, as suggested.

The little guy, now named "Ravi", a blending of the French for both rat and live, was welcomed into our lives.

Yesterday, though, we awoke to find that he had passed away in the night.

As we said our dawn prayers on the beach that morning, there was a bit of sadness in the air and in our hearts. Just before I left for work, I had a quick opportunity to tell Shoghi that Ravi had passed away. He looked like he was about to cry, but then smiled and said, "He had a short, but happy, life."

This morning Marielle and I went back to the beach again to say prayers once more. I soon began walking along the sand, following a family of otters that were playing in the water. When I rejoined her, a few minutes later, she was shaking a rattle and chanting a beautiful prayer, or perhaps mantra is more accurate.

Afterwards, I said a prayer, or maybe two, and then Marielle began talking. She spoke of how attached we had all become to Ravi, and how she regretted that we had not taken any pictures of him. And then she said something that really touched me.

She described how puzzling it is that we get so attached to things in life, even other lives. One of the gifts that Ravi brought us was an appreciation of life, despite, or perhaps because of, its impermanence.

Marielle spoke of Shoghi's comment about a short but happy life, and then added, "It's like being attached to a wave." Silly, really. Part of the beauty of the ocean is that the waves continually ripple and flow. It is only through the vast multitude of waves that we really get a sense of the beauty of them. And while we may appreciate one wave because of some treasure it has left on the shore, it is still only one of many.

The past few days have been delightfully pleasant on the beach at sun-up. And I am looking forward to many more mornings on the beach. When it begins to rain, I still don't know what I will do, but I would like to continue to pray at dawn, somewhere besides in the comfort of my own home.

I likely won't write much more about it in the near future (or maybe I will, we'll see), but I truly encourage you, dear Reader, to give this a shot. Try getting up for dawn prayers, if you aren't already. Try making it a community project. It's fun! (Especially when you see the looks on the faces of the friends when you suggest it at the next Feast.)

And who knows, we may all live to see that wonderful day when we get our own Mashriqu'l-Adkhar in our own community.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Dawn Prayers, day 7

There was a car there this morning when I went down to the beach. And as I approached, I saw two women sitting on the bench near where Marielle and I usually say our prayers. Now, Marielle and I don't usually sit on the bench. We sit on a log just in front of it, with another longer, but lower, log in front that acts as a little table for the incense she often burns.

But let me start again. This morning I awoke around 5:50, and Marielle and my Mom were still sound asleep. I was fairly awake and realized that, once again, God was my alarm clock (as opposed to a few days ago when my alarm clock was God). (That's a reference to "Thou hast wakened me out of my sleep".) And so I headed on down to the beach by myself, camera, drum and prayer book all in hand, anticipating a sunrise of prayers all by my lonesome.

Well, that was not to be.

As soon as I was near the bench one of the women said that she was glad to see someone else down to see the sunrise. She went on to explain that she lives near there and her friend was visiting and that watching the sunrise was on her bucket list. Our conversation went on to all sorts of things, from community building to career development. We talked about world perspectives and how the parents can help shape the vision of a child to allow them to see the wonders of the world.

Aside - A number of years ago there were some car execs from the US who flew to Japan to see what they were doing that was helping their companies just explode in the car business. When they came back, someone interviewed them, and they said that they were unimpressed. "It was all staged", they said. "Those weren't real factories." You see, they had a pre-conceived idea of how factories had to work, and those factories didn't conform to that idea. They were unprepared to see the reality of what they were looking at. I said that her own children, whom she had raised to ask a prayer and look for the universe to give an answer, didn't get regular confirmation because she was right, but because she had given them the chance to see the reality before them.

Aside number 2 - She later said that she was going to read this (Hi!) and see if I went all over the place like our conversation did. (The answer is yes.)

We talked about how every morning is so very different from each other, and how I can read the same prayer every day and how it says something different to me.... No. Scratch that. I can read the same prayer every morning and I hear something different in it each day.

We also talked about practical spirituality, one of my favorite topics (in case you haven't noticed yet). "How do you manage to do dawn prayers every morning?" "Step 1. Get up."

At some point I went off to a log, sat and tapped the drum. I read a few prayers, and felt myself immersing within the ocean of His words. The sun, which seemed so much brighter today than on previous mornings became a beacon of beauty to which I was continually drawn. It was also a reminder of just how much more spectacular prayers are when shared in the presence with others, especially those whom you haven't met before. I mean, it's a treasure to pray with your loved ones, and it's a different joy to pray with new friends.

I took a handful of photos, marveling at the little wonders that I never seem to be able to share with others.

I found a sweet memory that I could share as a little otter swam by. There is something truly wonderful about discovering a tiny beauty, and then being able to share it with others later, much like I am doing here. Perhaps, if I get a chance, I'll post a few of the photos here. This morning, though, I have to get ready to head out to Union Bay with Mom, Marielle and the little guy. So while I may not actually post here for a few more days, I will be taking notes. The place we are staying at is just a short walk from an incredibly beautiful beach, with black sand, and gorgeous view, and large moon snail seashells.

It was a beautiful sunrise today, filled with the promise of a marvelous day. And in addition, I met two new friends. That, in the end, was the best answer to any prayer I may have. Thank you, both of you whom I met on the bench (whose names I won't mention, although I do remember them), for sharing this magical dawn with me this morning.

Well, I guess I was able to share the photos today.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Dawn Prayers, Day 4

"I give praise to Thee,", Baha'u'llah says in one of the morning prayers, "O my God, that Thou hast awakened me out of my sleep, and brought me forth after my disappearance, and raised me up from my slumber. I have wakened this morning with my face set toward the splendors of the Daystar of thy Revelation, through Which the heavens of Thy power and Thy majesty have been illumined, acknowledging Thy signs, believing in Thy Book, and holding fast unto Thy Cord."

This is one of the prayers I have been saying most mornings during this experiment with dawn prayers. (I know. It just seemed like a good one to use. I tried using the one that begins with "I am Thy servant and the son of Thy servant", but I've always felt awkward with that one. My Dad was an atheist, and try as I might, I just don't feel worthy enough to consider myself a servant of God.) (I'm sure the interview for the position is actually quite easy, but I just don't feel I have the necessary qualifications or experience.) (And now back to our regularly scheduled blog.)

"I give praise". Isn't that what started this whole thing? A place where souls gather at daybreak for humble invocation and communion? I give praise, truly I do.

"That Thou hast awakened me out of my sleep." (Wait. What? My alarm clock is God?) It's always good to be grateful for awakening to another beautiful day. I mean, one of these days I'm going to wake up dead, so I try to be grateful for every day I wake up alive.

"And brought me forth after my disappearance." When I read this phrase, a seal popped his head out of the water, and I sort of felt that this is what it must be like. I'm asleep, swimming, in a sense, beneath the ocean of existence, and then suddenly wake up, popping up again to take part in the world above. And much as I might like to stay there, in the ocean of His reality, I still need to breathe, and so must come up every now and again, rising "up from my slumber".

As I continued to read, I envisioned myself waking up (which I probably was doing, despite having already driven down to the beach) and appreciating the beauty of God's creation. I breathed deep of the fresh salt air, enjoyed the light spray of moisture on the breeze, welcomed the myriad sounds of nature. I noticed a patch of orange illuminating a small rift in the clouds, a breech of heaven insinuating itself into this realm. And I became even more aware of the book in my lap. (Try as I might, I could find no cord, except the one connecting my spirit to the realms above.)

"I beseech Thee, by the potency of Thy will and the compelling power of Thy purpose, to make of what Thou didst reveal unto me in my sleep the surest foundation for the mansions of Thy love that are within the hearts of Thy loved ones, and the best instrument for the revelation of the tokens of Thy grace and Thy loving-kindness." I read this and thought about the shallowness of my dreams. With gratitude I continued to read, truly thankful that it is Baha'u'llah's vision towards which we are aiming, His vision, His dream, and not my own. If it were my own vision that became the foundation of these lofty mansions, then we would all be in trouble, for that foundation would not be solid and stable.

Then I recalled Jesus' statement about how there are many mansions in God's house (John 14:2). It is so beautiful., this idea, this truth that there is a mansion of God's love within the hearts of each every one us. And as this thought passed through my own little one-bedroom mansion I realized that one of my joys is to have other people over to visit. And then I thought, "Well, I better clean the place up." And isn't that one of the purposes of prayer and meditation? To clean up the mansion of our heart?

At the moment I recalled a dream I had of Ruhiyyih Khanum. I asked her why she didn't come to people's dreams more often, and she said, "Why would I want to visit so dirty a place?" I realized that if we don't keep our very thoughts pure, then that itself is staining the purity of our heart. It is like when Jesus said that if someone even thinks about committing adultery, it is as if they have already done it (Matthew 5:28). (Isn't it nice of me to give you these references?)

"The best instrument." What God reveals to us, and in particular to Baha'u'llah, is that very best tool for revealing and recognizing the various signs and tokens of God's grace and love. To me, and please remember that all this is just my own opinion and nothing official (it's been a long time since I've mentioned that), this is a reminder to not only trust in what I know of Baha'u'llah's vision, but also to trust my own instincts. They're there for a reason.

"Do Thou ordain for me through Thy most exalted Pen, O my Lord, the good of this world and of the next. I testify that within Thy grasp are held the reins of all things. Thou changest them as Thou pleasest. No God is there save Thee, the Strong, the Faithful." I really do hope for the good in both this world and the next. Not only for myself, but for those around me. And while it is up to God, I also need to work on it. (More on that in the last paragraph.) But that which is good actually changes from time to time. What is good for me today may not be good for me tomorrow. Something that I enjoy today may prove harmful to me later on. That which I believe right now may prove to be wrong later on. God reveals His laws to us over and over again, but sometimes those very laws change because the needs of the society change. I could go on and on about this, about keeping an open mind and examining all things, but this all fits into a massive study of the Kitab-i-Iqan, and this blog is too short for that.

"Thou art He Who changeth through His bidding abasement into glory, and weakness into strength, and powerlessness into might, and fear into calm, and doubt into certainty. No God is there but Thee, the Mighty, the Beneficent." Here I envision someone who has been abused, or through a serious trauma. They have been abased. We have been lowered. Society has taught us that we are far lower than we really are. But Baha'u'llah raises us. He reminds us that we are created noble. He only asks that we arise to that station for which we have been created. He reminds us of our many strengths, and helps us put those strengths to use. Any fears that we may have had find no place left in our heart. And we achieve that wonderful station of certitude when we see the results of what we achieve when we arise to serve.

"Thou disappointest no one who hath sought Thee, nor dost Thou keep back from Thee anyone who hath desired Thee. Ordain Thou for me what becometh the heaven of Thy generosity, and the ocean of Thy bounty. Thou art, verily, the Almighty, the Most Powerful." Remember when I said "more on that..."? Now is that time. While God provides the means, it is we who have to take the steps. It is never God that keeps us back, but ourselves. Whether it is through our laziness or our ego, it is always we who put our own obstacles in our own way. Actually, that's not quite true. There are always obstacles in our way. They are a part of nature. But with perseverance and an openness to new ways, we can overcome anything. And with a readiness to be open to other goals, we will see that sometimes the answer to our prayers is not quite what we may have envisioned. God may never keep us back, but sometimes we try to take a long way around, or just give up entirely.

And all of this passed through my mind and my heart as my wife and I sat there this morning, at the very edge of that ocean.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Dawn Prayers, Day 3

When I was a kid, we used to go to my aunt and uncle's house for Passover Seder every year. My cousin's grandfather, Grandpa Leo, used to preside over the ceremony of the supper, reciting the prayers and leading the family in the remembrance of why we were there. I loved the beauty of the ceremony, the recitations, the stories, and the various tools he had. I loved his yarmulke (probably the single stupidest spelling of any word I know), his shawl, and everything else.

This annual celebration was likely the very beginning of my love for religions.

But now, years later, I realize that I was likely also highly attracted to those various accouterments. And that those very accouterments that attracted me could also have become a distraction to the spirit of the ceremony itself. That, perhaps, is why, as much as I love all those various doodads, I often prefer to just say my prayers with nothing around to distract me.

I thought about this when we got to the beach and my wife began fiddling with the incense and setting up her clarinet. Now I'm not saying that there is a problem with this, but just that I now understand a bit more about why I don't deal with any of that. I appreciate it, but I don't go out of my way for it. (Actually, I really loved the wafting scent that occasionally blew in my direction today.)

This morning, as we were driving down to the beach, my wife was saying that she had a new understanding of prayers and healing. She said that a way to approach healing through prayer is to state the intention and then turn all your attention to God. This is different from what most do, as they often turn towards God and then focus on the problem they want to fix. This is focusing on the negative. But if you simply state your intention, then you can turn towards the light and focus all your attention on the positive, allowing it to flow where it needs.

This, incidentally, is what the short healing prayer seems to look like. Almost the entire prayer is dedicated to focusing on God. It starts with mentioning the need for healing, but then seems to go on to all sorts of other things.

When we were sitting at the beach reading some prayers, I read one of the morning prayers, which has the phrase, "with my thoughts fixed so steadfastly upon Thee", and realized that this is another confirmation of this insight Marielle had.

So, today. This morning. We were sitting on a log, alone on the beach, with the fog low in the sky, but enough above the water that you could see quite far. We watched the birds and the waves, the gentle waves today, much softer than a few days ago. The birds glided along, a single reflection silently passing by. Quiet. Contemplative. An occasional cry of a gull. Peace.

When my wife began to play the clarinet, some of the birds sat and watched. And when she finished a lone seal swam by. She began to play again, and the seal paused, watching, listening, before diving under again.

It was a long moment of quiet joy.

What a great way to begin the day.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Dawn Prayers, Day 2

Well, it didn't happen today.

Despite the best of intentions, I just couldn't drag myself out of bed this morning. I tried (well, maybe not that hard), but I just couldn't do it.

Yesterday, my Mother was supposed to come into town yesterday around 8:30 pm, but her plane was delayed, and mess-ups happened, and she finally got in just after midnight.

I asked her if she wanted to join me at the beach at 6 am, but she said she'd rather not.

Anyways, I woke up at 6 and felt decidedly not well enough to go out, so I sort of rolled over, said, "Ya'Baha'u'l'Abha" and went back to sleep.

Besides, I heard the falling rain and thought I better have a back up plan for inclement weather.

Maybe tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Dawn Prayers, Day 1

"It's a beautiful letter", he said last night, "of information, but I don't see where they actually tell us to do anything."

And that was where my mind kind of went, "Ping!"

We were talking about the recent message from the Universal House of Justice, dated 1 August 2014. And, you see, I can't imagine a letter from the Universal House of Justice like that in which we are not given some sort of indication of something to do. Of course, it may not be overtly stated, and you may have to hunt for it, but I think all of their messages give us guidance for some sort of action.

So what about this one?

Well, I'm not really sure, but this is what I found: "a place where souls gathered at daybreak for humble invocation and communion before flowing out of its doors to engage in their daily pursuits."

I mean, the whole letter begins with a bit about interfaith relations, or at least that's what I read in the quote referring to "the Lord of all religions", and then talks about the importance of community building and service. And while these are on-going things, it was this bit about gathering at dawn that caught my attention.

My train of thought, if you want, was really along the lines of "how can we prepare for a Masriqu’l-Adhk√°r in our own community?" And this is what I came up with. Let's try dawn prayers. Let's see what happens when we get together at daybreak and offer humble invocation before going forth to engage in our daily pursuits.

And so, this morning, at 5:45, my wife and I headed out of our home and down to the far end of the beach at the Esquimalt Lagoon. (We were way down by Lagoon Road, if you want to join us some day.)

There really is something about leaving the home to do it. It's not the same as just heading downstairs in your pajamas and saying a prayer or two while curled up on the sofa with a warm cup of coffee. It requires a degree of effort beyond just setting the alarm clock and heading back to sleep a few minutes later. There is a degree of sacrifice if you're not used to getting up at that time. It does mean changing the habit of one's routine to include that extra time in the morning. It does mean heading to bed a little bit earlier. But, hey, isn't all that a good thing? Isn't a major part of religion about using what we discover to change our behaviour for the better?

Anyways, we got there around 6 am, and were amazed at the lonely beauty of the beach at that early hour. There were tons of birds, and some seals bobbing their heads in the water. There were the early morning clouds still blanketing the mountains in the distance, with occasional flashes of lightning throughout. And there was the sound of the waves. Oh, the sound of those waves, with the piercing cry of the gulls, and bursting honks of the geese. What a symphony of sound.

We decided to grab our drums so that, just in case, others might know what we were doing: praying (that's a local Native tradition, drumming while praying). My wife grabbed some sweetgrass to smudge with (that's a Native ritual of cleansing with smoke), and I grabbed some blueberries (that's a traditional berry in the area that I eat before prayers) (but only because I was hungry). We parked our car (a traditional means of transportation to go from one place to another), at the far end near the restrooms (that's a traditional.... never mind).

And then we got out and sat on a log and began.

We must have gone on for about 30 minutes, reciting prayers, drumming, keeping beat with a rattle, and chanting. And it felt so good.

It felt SO good.

Of course, to be honest, there were some times when I felt that the various things my wife brought were a distraction, but that's ok. While smudging may not be part of my tradition, I don't insist on someone else not doing it. I just need to learn to not get distracted by it.

And while I sometimes found the drums distracting, that's ok, too. If they help someone else focus, great. I just need to learn not to be distracted. No problem.

We were getting ready to go when this man, who was watching us, waved to me. He had ridden his bike down to the lagoon,  heard the drums, and decided to stop. He saw a little sign near where we were that said "open", and figured that we had put it there. Well, we hadn't. We hadn't even noticed it. But we were glad he came by.

As he walked up to us, I read aloud the words on his shirt. "This little Indian loves Jesus".

It turns out he was visiting from Hawai'i, and had decided to ride the bike while waiting for his family to wake up.

We had a great conversation, shared places to visit. We all told a bit about our lives, our tests and our victories. It was truly delightful. I gave him our number, and asked him to call us. I hope he does. It would be wonderful to visit him near Volcano National Park some day. Perhaps he'll come by tomorrow, too.

Oh, and tomorrow we are going to bring down our white board to invite people to join us. We may not say "open", but we will sure be inviting. Perhaps we'll say "A gathering of gratitude - please feel free to join us."

This was a wonderful way to begin our day, and I look forward to trying this every day for the next week, just to see what happens.

Perhaps I'll make a habit of it.