Bahá’í worship, however exalted in its conception, however passionate in fervour, . . . . . cannot afford lasting satisfaction and benefit to the worshipper himself, much less to humanity in general, unless and until translated and transfused into that dynamic and disinterested service to the cause of humanity which it is the supreme privilege of the dependencies of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár to facilitate and promote.
(Shoghi Effendi — 25 October 1929)
I have embarked on sequences of new posts which examine a number of ideas from books I have recently read. These ideas relate to where our society is heading and what we as individuals might be able to do about that. I decided that I also needed to republish other posts from the past that related in some way to that basic theme. This time, over the next three weeks I will have republished the whole sequence: this is the fourth post of seven – yes, I know it says 4/5 but two posts are split!
Century of Light quotes ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s description of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár (page 23):
The Mashriqu’l-Adhkár is one of the most vital institutions in the world, and it hath many subsidiary branches. Although it is a House of Worship, it is also connected with a hospital, a drug dispensary, a traveler’s hospice, a school for orphans, and a university for advanced studies…. My hope is that the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár will now be established in America, and that gradually the hospital, the school, the university, the dispensary and the hospice, all functioning according to the most efficient and orderly procedures, will follow.
There is an indissoluble link between a temple and helping humanity. This goes back centuries, for example, in the monastic tradition of Christianity. However, in the Bahá’í Faith, monks (and priests as well for that matter) have no equivalent: the life of the temple depends upon the whole community, not just a small sub-section of it. It also serves the whole surrounding community regardless of whether a person is Bahá’í or not. The Bahá’í concept of a temple is therefore unique. The Universal House of Justice explains this in a recent letter (18 April 2014):
The Mashriqu’l-Adhkár is a unique concept in the annals of religion and symbolizes the teachings of the new Day of God. A collective centre of society to promote cordial affection, the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár stands as a universal place of worship open to all the inhabitants of a locality irrespective of their religious affiliation, background, ethnicity, or gender and a haven for the deepest contemplation on spiritual reality and foundational questions of life, including individual and collective responsibility for the betterment of society. Men and women, children and youth, are held in its embrace as equals. This singular and integral universality is captured in the very structure of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár, whose design as a nine-sided edifice conveys a sense of completeness and perfection symbolized by that number.
So, it is not a resource of the Bahá’í community alone, neither as a temple nor in terms of its subsidiaries. They are there for everyone regardless of what (s)he believes or where (s)he comes from.
It needs to be recognised, of course, that the full development of these institutions will require a long period of time (ibid):
In the Bahá’í writings, the term “Mashriqu’l-Adhkár” has variously been used to designate the gathering of the believers for prayers at dawn; a structure where the divine verses are recited; the entire institution of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár and its dependencies; and the central edifice itself, often also referred to as a “Temple” or a “House of Worship”. All these can be regarded as aspects of the gradual implementation of the law set out for humankind by Bahá’u’lláh in His Most Holy Book.
This process will depend upon Bahá’í communities everywhere beginning to lay down the requisite foundations. How is that sense of communal responsibility to be achieved?
It begins with small devotional meetings in our homes.
This destination, laid down in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, is foreshadowed in the tiny seed of the devotional meeting. The Universal House of Justice writes:
The spiritual growth generated by individual devotions is reinforced by loving association among the friends in every locality, by worship as a community and by service to the Faith and to one’s fellow human beings. These communal aspects of the godly life relate to the law of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár which appears in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas. Although the time has not come for the building of local Mashriqu’l-Adhkárs, the holding of regular meetings for worship open to all and the involvement of Bahá’í communities in projects of humanitarian service are expressions of this element of Bahá’í life and a further step in the implementation of the Law of God.
(Universal House of Justice, 28 December 1999)
Without worship as a community we deprive ourselves of the food for the spirit of our collective endeavours.
. . . . the flourishing of the community, especially at the local level, . . . involves the practice of collective worship of God. Hence, it is essential to the spiritual life of the community that the friends hold regular devotional meetings …
(Universal House of Justice, Ridván 1996)
Now these devotional meetings are clearly the early seeds of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár:
It befitteth the friends to hold a gatherings, a meeting, where they shall glorify God and fix their hearts upon Him, and read and recite the Holy Writings of the blessed Beauty, may my soul be the ransom of His lovers. The lights of the All-Glorious Realm, the rays of the Supreme Horizon, will be cast upon such bright assemblages, for these are none other than the Mashriqu’l-Adhkárs, the Dawning-Points of God’s Remembrance, which must, at the direction of the Most Exalted Pen, be established in every hamlet and city . . .
(Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, pages 93-95)
These devotional meetings are not enough in themselves. They need to be aligned with action. The Universal House of Justice quotes the passage at the top of this post from Shoghi Effendi in full at this point (ibid.):
Divorced from the social, humanitarian, educational and scientific pursuits centring around the Dependencies of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár, Bahá’í worship, however exalted in its conception, however passionate in fervour, can never hope to achieve beyond the meagre and often transitory results produced by the contemplations of the ascetic or the communion of the passive worshiper. It cannot afford lasting satisfaction and benefit to the worshiper himself, much less to humanity in general, unless and until translated and transfused into that dynamic and disinterested service to the cause of humanity which it is the supreme privilege of the Dependencies of the Mashriqu’l- Adhkár to facilitate and promote.
Devotional Meetings and Empowerment
Such a high level engagement, of course, does not happen automatically. It starts small and builds up slowly over a period of time.
In various parts of the world, special endeavors to increase the number of devotional meetings often begin with encouraging believers inspired by their institute course on spiritual life to undertake such meetings on their own.
(Building Momentum: page 8)
These meetings are often small scale experiments in ordinary homes and take many different forms. It is vital though that they happen in some form because the power of this embryonic institution of the Faith is ultimately immense and indispensable:
When the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár is accomplished, when the lights are emanating therefrom, the righteous ones are presenting themselves therein, the prayers are performed with supplication towards the mysterious Kingdom, the voice of glorification is raised to the Lord, the Supreme, then the believers shall rejoice, the hearts shall be dilated and overflow with the love of the All-living and Self-existent God. The people shall hasten to worship in that heavenly Temple, the fragrances of God will be elevated, the divine teachings will be established in the hearts like the establishment of the Spirit in mankind; the people will then stand firm in the Cause of your Lord, the Merciful. Praise and greetings be upon you.
(Bahá’í World Faith, page 415)
The yearning for a connection to a higher spiritual reality is far more widespread than many of us imagine: it cannot be responded to by accident. We must choose to act and act persistently.
Responding to the inmost longings of every heart to commune with its Maker, [we] carry out acts of collective worship in diverse settings, uniting with others in prayer, awakening spiritual susceptibilities, and shaping a pattern of life distinguished for its devotional character.
(Universal House of Justice: Ridván Message 2008)
The devotional meeting is an essential component, prerequisite even, for the process of civilisation building upon which we are embarked. It is conducive to the unity which we have seen is essential if we are to be effective:
In brief, the original purpose of temples and houses of worship is simply that of unity – places of meeting where various peoples, different races and souls of every capacity may come together in order that love and agreement should be manifest between them. That is why Bahá’u’lláh has commanded that a place of worship be built for all the religionists of the world; that all religions, races and sects may come together within its universal shelter; that the proclamation of the oneness of mankind shall go forth from its open courts of holiness – the announcement that humanity is the servant of God and that all are submerged in the ocean of His mercy.
(Promulgation of Universal Peace, pages 65-66)
© Bahá’í World Centre
How should Devotional Meetings be Conducted?
The Guardian’s statements in Bahá’í Administration will give us a sense of how we should be conducting our devotional meetings, though still only embryonic Mashriqu’l-Adhkárs:
It should be borne in mind that the central Edifice of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár, round which in the fulness of time shall cluster such institutions of social service as shall afford relief to the suffering, sustenance to the poor, shelter to the wayfarer, solace to the bereaved, and education to the ignorant, should be regarded apart from these Dependencies, as a House solely designed and entirely dedicated to the worship of God in accordance with the few yet definitely prescribed principles established by Bahá’u’lláh in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas. . . . .
(Bahá’í Administration, pages 184-185)
There is much in the Writings: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá indicates that they are in effect the Mashriqu’l-Adhkárs of the districts in which they take place if held in the right spirit.
55…. These spiritual gatherings must be held with the utmost purity and consecration, so that from the site itself, and its earth and the air about it, one will inhale the fragrant breathings of the Holy Spirit.
(Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá)
It will make our houses heavenly:
57. We hear that thou hast in mind to embellish thy house from time to time with a meeting of Bahá’ís, where some among them will engage in glorifying the All-Glorious Lord… Know that shouldst thou bring this about, that house of earth will become a house of heaven, and that fabric of stone a congress of the spirit.
(Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá)
And they should be open to all, as we know:
Let the friends not hesitate to welcome to their observances, even to those of a devotional character, the non-Bahá’í public, many of whom may well be attracted by the prayers and expressions of gratitude of the believers, no less than by the exalted tone of passages from Bahá’í Writings.
(Universal House of Justice, 25 June 1967)
The Research Department at the World Centre summarises the themes in the many quotations on the subject of devotional meetings and the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár as follows, though at this stage of our development we should not allow our incomplete understanding of them to stifle creativity and the spirit of experimentation that characterises much of what we do at the moment:
A number of themes emerge from perusal of the extracts contained therein. For example:
* Care should be taken to avoid developing rigid practices and rituals (extracts 1 and 6).
* Bahá’ís are encouraged to use the revealed prayers of Bahá’u’lláh and the Báb as well as those of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. It is permissible to have prayers and readings from the Sacred Scriptures of other religions (extracts 2 and 7).
* The form of programme would appear to depend in part on the setting, the occasion, and the purposes of the gathering (extracts 6 and 7).
* The practice of collective worship is one important ingredient in the flourishing of community life. It also reinforces individual spiritual development (extracts 3, 4, and 5).
In the end we cannot expect ourselves or our communities to rise to the heights of service necessary to transform society without such acts of collective worship. After all, would we expect to vacuum-clean the house without plugging the hoover into the mains?
. . . . . the flourishing of the community, especially at the local level, . . . . . involves the practice of collective worship of God. Hence, it is essential to the spiritual life of the community that the friends hold regular devotional meetings in local Bahá’í centres, where available, or elsewhere, including the homes of believers.
(Universal House of Justice, Ridvan 1996)
The next and last post in this series will look at the spiritual education of children. It comes last not because it is the least important, but in the hope that it may prove to be the longest remembered.