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Posts Tagged ‘The Báb’

Yesterday evening we had the bounty of celebrating this very special anniversary with a group of precious friends.

We shared the story of His life, heart-warming company, beautiful music and good food, some of it provided by someone who was not able to be present except in spirit.

We are able to share the details of Bahá’u’lláh’s life, His exile and His suffering and His ultimate triumph through the progress of the Bahá’í Faith which has now spread to all corners of the globe where celebrations of the centenary, some small like ours and some much grander, are taking place over this weekend.

Bicentenary Leaflet

The Life of Bahá’u’lláh.

A prayer was said followed by the story of Bahá’u’lláh’s life.

O God!  Thou art kind to all, Thou hast provided for all, dost shelter all, conferrest life upon all.  Thou hast endowed each and all with talents and faculties, and all are submerged in the Ocean of Thy Mercy.

O Thou kind Lord!  Unite all.  Let the religions agree and make the nations one, so that they may see each other as one family and the whole earth as one home.  May they all live together in perfect harmony.

O God!  Raise aloft the banner of the oneness of mankind.

O God!  Establish the Most Great Peace.

Cement Thou, O God, the hearts together.

O Thou kind Father, God!  Gladden our hearts through the fragrance of Thy love.  Brighten our eyes through the Light of Thy Guidance.  Delight our ears with the melody of Thy Word, and shelter us all in the Stronghold of Thy Providence.

Bahá’u’lláh’s life, which began in comfort and security, after the execution of the Báb, the Prophet Herald of the Bahá’í Faith, in 1850, was one of constant imprisonment and exile.

On 15 August 1852 there was an ill-considered and unsuccessful attempt on life of Shah by three followers of the Báb who were reacting against the persecutions taking place at the time. Bahá’u’lláh was denounced as a Bábí by the Shah’s mother amongst others.

The Chain that weighed on Bahá’u’lláh in the Siyah-Chal

He was taken to the so-called Black Pit – an underground disused water cistern used as a prison. Two chains were used on His shoulders, the heavier weighed more than 50 kgs. They left lifelong scars. The thumbs of both His hands were bound behind his back at times.

His first reported mystical experiences of the Divine occurred in this foul prison (See Moojan Momen, Bahá’u’lláh: a short biography  – page 32 – for both instances):

While engulfed in tribulations I heard a most wondrous, a most sweet voice, calling above My head. Turning My face, I beheld a Maiden—the embodiment of the remembrance of the name of My Lord—suspended in the air before Me. So rejoiced was she in her very soul that her countenance shone with the ornament of the good pleasure of God, and her cheeks glowed with the brightness of the All-Merciful. Betwixt earth and heaven she was raising a call which captivated the hearts and minds of men. She was imparting to both My inward and outer being tidings which rejoiced My soul, and the souls of God’s honoured servants.

Pointing with her finger unto My head, she addressed all who are in heaven and all who are on earth, saying: By God! This is the Best-Beloved of the worlds, and yet ye comprehend not. This is the Beauty of God amongst you, and the power of His sovereignty within you, could ye but understand. This is the Mystery of God and His Treasure, the Cause of God and His glory unto all who are in the kingdoms of Revelation and of creation, if ye be of them that perceive. This is He Whose Presence is the ardent desire of the denizens of the Realm of eternity, and of them that dwell within the Tabernacle of glory, and yet from His Beauty do ye turn aside.

The authorities failed to implicate Bahá’u’lláh in the plot so He was released after four months.

There followed His exile to Baghdad on 12 January 1853.

He spent 10 years there apart from a retreat to Sulaymaniyyih in Kurdistan 300 km north of Baghdad. This He did to avoid making worse the conflict his half brother was causing within the Bábí community. During those two years He wrote two mystical works, The Seven Valleys and The Four Valleys, for two prominent Sufis. He returned to Baghdad on 19 March 1856.

Somewhere between 1857 and 1858 the Hidden Words were written, a condensed summary of the spiritual teachings of earlier revelations.

It wasn’t until 22 April 1863 on the brink of His exile to Constantinople (now Istanbul) and then Adrianople (now Edirne) that He openly declared He was the one foretold by the Báb.

It was in Adrianople that His half-brother tried to poison Him, leaving Him with a tremor for the rest of His life.

Bahá’u’lláh’s reputation was by now spreading in spite of His exile. The Bahá’í community can be said to have really begun to take shape at this point.

In 1868 He was banished again via Gallipoli and Haifa to ‘Akka, a walled and disease-ridden city, where He arrived on 31 August 1868. The authorities hoped and expected He would die there. Most people did.

It was in that prison His younger son, Mirza Mihdi, died, after falling though a sky light while pacing in prayer on the prison roof.

The Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh at Bahji

Bahá’u’lláh was moved under house arrest in September 1871 to the house of ‘Udi Khammar. This was where the Kitáb-i-Aqdas was completed. In this book He explains in full the laws applying to and the obligations of Bahá’ís. He also speaks of the successorship – without naming ‘Abdu’l-Bahá at this point He explains the successor will be the authoritative interpreter of Bahá’u’lláh’s Writings. He also lays the foundations of the Universal House of Justice.

A compassionate governor took office in 1876 and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was able to make plans for his father to move to a house at Mazra’ih near a beautiful garden in June 1877. He moved again to the mansion at Bahji in September 1879, close to where He was eventually buried in 1892.

His wife Asiyih Khanum had died in 1886 followed by His brother in 1887.

During the whole period from arriving in Baghdad to His time in ‘Akka a stream of books and letters flowed from His lips through the pens of His secretaries (his tremor did not allow him to write clearly and the speed of revelatory inspiration would have made it almost impossible for one hand to keep pace) – more than 7000 in all have been authenticated. In these texts he explained the details of his revelation.

Food and Fellowship

After the story of His life was told, the letter to the Bahá’ís of the UK from Teresa May, Prime Minister, was read.

After that came the food and conversation. As the friends left we gave them a small token of our thanks for the warmth of their support.

Parting Gift

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View of the River from the entrance of the Pavilion Centre

One hour’s reflection is preferable to seventy years’ pious worship.

Bahá’u’lláh quoting a hadith in Kitáb-i-Íqánpage 238).

Take ye counsel together in all matters, inasmuch as consultation is the lamp of guidance which leadeth the way, and is the bestower of understanding.

(Bahá’u’lláh – Tablets – page 168)

Reflection takes a collective form through consultation.

(Paul Lample in Revelation and Social Reality – page 212).

Last Thursday, at the Hereford Pavilion Centre, I gave a brief talk to the Herefordshire Interfaith about the Bahá’í Revelation.

Beforehand I was told that I would have 15 minutes and was given a list of questions to address.

On the day the committee part of the meeting spilled over into the Faith-to-Faith’s time slot. The quart into a pint pot problem of describing my beliefs in quarter of an hour became a quart into a test tube experience. I had five minutes!

Even so the Faith-to-Faith moments were valuable if tantalising.

First one member briefly explained the basics of Universal Sufism, a movement connected to the mystical teachings of Inayat Khan which regards itself as expressing the compassionate spiritual core of all religion and therefore does not see self-definition as Muslim a necessary criterion of membership. He closed with a short prayer.

There was time for only one question before it was my turn.

Bicentenary Leaflet

Fortunately I had copies with me of the Bicentenary leaflet that had been mailed out to us earlier from the National Office. That saved me explaining at any length the core beliefs. I handed it round at the start of my talk to all the seven people who were there.

I had time then to briefly outline the basic details of Bahá’u’lláh’s life and the essence of the Bahá’í teachings.

There was one question, before everyone shared the same feeling that next time we really needed to allow much more time to explore what was being explained.

Given that I had spent a fair amount of time preparing what I was going to say, I think it would be a shame to waste the notes I made, though not all of them were going to be shared even in a 15 minute time slot.

So, here goes.

What was unusual this time was that I was given a set of questions in advance, most of them predictable.

Question One: What is the historical and geographical story of you faith? What are your main tenets/beliefs?

Much of what I planned to say in response to that first question focused upon the life of Bahá’u’lláh, given this year celebrates the 200th Anniversary of His Birth.

The Life of Bahá’u’lláh.

Bahá’u’lláh’s life after the execution of the Báb, the Prophet Herald of the Bahá’í Faith, in 1850, was one of constant imprisonment and exile.

On 15 August 1852 there was an ill-considered and unsuccessful attempt on life of Shah by three followers of the Báb who were reacting against the persecutions taking place at the time. Bahá’u’lláh was denounced as a Bábí by the Shah’s mother amongst others.

The Chain that weighed on Bahá’u’lláh in the Siyah-Chal

He was taken to the so-called Black Pit – an underground disused water cistern used as a prison. Two chains were used on His shoulders, the heavier weighed more than 50 kgs. They left lifelong scars. The thumbs of both His hands were bound behind his back at times.

His first reported mystical experiences of the Divine occurred in this foul prison (See Moojan Momen, Bahá’u’lláh: a short biography  – page 32 – for both instances):

While engulfed in tribulations I heard a most wondrous, a most sweet voice, calling above My head. Turning My face, I beheld a Maiden—the embodiment of the remembrance of the name of My Lord—suspended in the air before Me. So rejoiced was she in her very soul that her countenance shone with the ornament of the good pleasure of God, and her cheeks glowed with the brightness of the All-Merciful. Betwixt earth and heaven she was raising a call which captivated the hearts and minds of men. She was imparting to both My inward and outer being tidings which rejoiced My soul, and the souls of God’s honoured servants.

Pointing with her finger unto My head, she addressed all who are in heaven and all who are on earth, saying: By God! This is the Best-Beloved of the worlds, and yet ye comprehend not. This is the Beauty of God amongst you, and the power of His sovereignty within you, could ye but understand. This is the Mystery of God and His Treasure, the Cause of God and His glory unto all who are in the kingdoms of Revelation and of creation, if ye be of them that perceive. This is He Whose Presence is the ardent desire of the denizens of the Realm of eternity, and of them that dwell within the Tabernacle of glory, and yet from His Beauty do ye turn aside.

The authorities failed to implicate Bahá’u’lláh in the plot so He was released after four months.

There followed His exile to Baghdad on 12 January 1853.

He spent 10 years there apart from a retreat to Sulaymaniyyih in Kurdistan 300 km north of Baghdad. This He did to avoid making worse the conflict his half brother was causing within the Bábí community. During those two years He wrote two mystical works, The Seven Valleys and The Four Valleys, for two prominent Sufis. He returned to Baghdad on 19 March 1856.

Somewhere between 1857 and 1858 the Hidden Words were written, a condensed summary of the spiritual teachings of earlier revelations.

In January 1861 the Kitáb-i-Íqán was written for the uncle of the Báb and explains the nature of progressive revelation and the meaning of prophetic symbols of the second coming of former messengers of God.

It wasn’t until 22 April 1863 on the brink of His exile to Constantinople (now Istanbul) and then Adrianople (now Edirne) that He openly declared He was the one foretold by the Báb.

It was in Adrianople that His half-brother tried to poison Him, leaving Him with a tremor for the rest of His life.

Bahá’u’lláh’s reputation was by now spreading in spite of His exile. The Bahá’í community can be said to have really begun to take shape at this point.

In 1868 He was banished again via Gallipoli and Haifa to ‘Akka, a walled and disease-ridden city, where He arrived on 31 August 1868. The authorities hoped and expected He would die there. Most people did.

It was in that prison His younger son, Mirza Mihdi, died, after falling though a sky light while pacing in prayer on the prison roof.

The Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh at Bahji

Bahá’u’lláh was moved under house arrest in September 1871 to the house of ‘Udi Khammar. This was where the Kitáb-i-Aqdas was completed. In this book He explains in full the laws applying to and the obligations of Bahá’ís. He also speaks of the successorship – without naming ‘Abdu’l-Bahá at this point He explains the successor will be the authoritative interpreter of Bahá’u’lláh’s Writings. He also lays the foundations of the Universal House of Justice.

A compassionate governor took office in 1876 and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was able to make plans for his father to move to a house at Mazra’ih near a beautiful garden in June 1877. He moved again to the mansion at Bahji in September 1879, close to where He was eventually buried in 1892.

His wife Asiyih Khanum had died in 1886 followed by His brother in 1887.

In 1882, at the suggestion of His father, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s The Secret of Divine Civilisation had been published in India.Political and social reform would not succeed without an underlying spiritual and moral reform’ was its theme. (Momen: page 138). Current thinking about the unwise divorce in free market thinking between J S Mill’s economics and his insistence on moral checks and balances reinforces the wisdom of this.

During the whole period from arriving in Baghdad to His time in ‘Akka a stream of books and letters flowed from His lips through the pens of His secretaries (his tremor did not allow him to write clearly and the speed of revelatory inspiration would have made it almost impossible for one hand to keep pace) – more than 7000 in all have been authenticated. In these texts he explained the details of his revelation.

In conditions less conducive than the British Museum reading room used by Karl Marx, he was able to produce what seem to me and many others across the world a better blueprint for a true civilisation. More of that next time along with an explanation of why I headed this sequence up with quotations concerning reflection and consultation.

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766px-Members_of_the_first_Universal_House_of_Justice,_elected_in_1963

Members of the first Universal House of Justice, elected in 1963 (For source of image see link)

The recent sequence of workshops on unity that I am blogging about at the moment also has roots in the insights expressed in a book I delved into about two years ago. Here is the second post of eight. I will be posting them interwoven with the Becoming True Upholders of His Oneness sequence. Century of Light is a key text published by the Bahá’í World Centre designed to help us understand the challenges we face in the world today. If you prefer you can download this in PDF version (8 The Universal House of Justice). I learned a huge amount both from preparing these materials and from walking with others in the 2015 workshop along a path of intense exploration over a period of days. 

Whole Group Session (Slide Presentation)

Essential Background

After the passing of the Guardian in 1957, nine Hands of the Cause selflessly steered the Faith towards the next key development in its unfolding destiny. They organised the process by which the Universal House of Justice would be elected, and then stepped back to allow that institution to lead the Bahá’í community exactly as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had envisaged in His Will & Testament, though sadly, given that Shoghi Effendi had appointed no successor, with no possibility of the continuance of the Guardianship.

Century of Light describes the moment when the Universal House of Justice came into being (page 81):

On 21 April 1963, the ballots of delegates from fifty-six National Spiritual Assemblies . . . . brought into existence the Universal House of Justice, the governing body of the Cause conceived by Bahá’u’lláh and assured by Him unequivocally of Divine guidance in the exercise of its functions . . .

They point towards the difficult decision Shoghi Effendi had had to make (pages 82-83):

. . . . it is clear that Shoghi Effendi early accepted the implications of the fact that the Universal House of Justice could not come into existence until a lengthy process of administrative development had created the supporting structure of National and Local Spiritual Assemblies it required.

It is important we begin to understand the full significance of this election and what it presaged (page 92):

The process leading to the election of the Universal House of Justice . . . . . very likely constituted history’s first global democratic election. Each of the successive elections since then has been carried out by an ever broader and more diverse body of the community’s chosen delegates, a development that has now reached the point that it incontestably represents the will of a cross-section of the entire human race. There is nothing in existence . . . . . that in any way resembles this achievement.

The House then had some significant decisions to make given that it did not have the authority to appoint new Hands of the Cause but their function needed to continue (pages 97-98):

. . . the House of Justice created, in June 1968, the Continental Boards of Counsellors. Empowered to extend into the future the functions of the Hands of the Cause for the protection and propagation of the Faith, the new institution assumed responsibility for guiding the work of the already existing Auxiliary Boards and joined National Assemblies in shouldering responsibilities for the advancement of the Faith. [In 1973 there was] another major development of the Administrative Order, the creation of the International Teaching Centre, the Body that would carry into the future certain of the responsibilities performed by the group of “Hands of the Cause Residing in the Holy Land”, and from this point on coordinate the work of the Boards of Counsellors around the world.

The Period Since Then

There has been a twin impact in terms of the Faith (page 97):

During these crucial thirty- seven years the work proceeded rapidly forward along two parallel tracks: the expansion and consolidation of the Bahá’í community itself and, along with it, a dramatic rise in the influence the Faith came to exercise in the life of society. While the range of Bahá’í activities greatly diversified, most such efforts tended to contribute directly to one or other of the two main developments.

A sequence of seven plans of various durations followed (page 98-99) until ‘Twelve Month Plan that ended the century.’ The strands of activity in each plan built upon those of Shoghi Effendi and the Founders of the Faith: ‘the training of Spiritual Assemblies; the translation, production and distribution of literature; the encouragement of universal participation by the friends; attention to the spiritual enrichment of Bahá’í life; efforts toward the involvement of the Bahá’í community in the life of society; the strengthening of Bahá’í family life; and the education of children and youth.’

The opportunities created were beyond the capacity of any individual to manage (page 100):

. . . it became necessary to ‘launch Bahá’í communities on a wide range of collective teaching and proclamation projects recalling the heroic days of the dawn-breakers.’ Teams of teachers were created and the Faith reached ‘entire groups and even whole communities. The tens of thousands became hundreds of thousands.’

As a result ‘members of Spiritual Assemblies . . . . had to adjust to expressions of belief on the part of whole groups of people to whom religious awareness and response were normal features of daily life.’

The role of the youth was central – not for the first time in the history of the Faith (ibid):

. . . one is reminded again and again that the great majority of the band of heroes who launched the Cause on its course in the middle years of the nineteenth century were all of them young people. The Bab Himself declared His mission when He was twenty-five years old, and Anis, who attained the imperishable glory of dying with his Lord, was only a youth. Quddus responded to the Revelation at the age of twenty-two. . . . . Tahirih was in her twenties when she embraced the Bab’s Cause.’

More challenges followed. Mass enrolments exceeded the community’s capacity to nurture those who had declared their faith in Bahá’u’lláh. Also (page 101)

. . . Theological and administrative principles that might be of consuming interest to pioneers and teachers were seldom those that were central to the concern of new declarants from very different social and cultural backgrounds. Often, differences of view about even such elementary matters as the use of time or simple social conventions created gaps of understanding that made communication extremely difficult.

Though the Bahá’í World Centre emphasised that expansion, the bringing in of newly declared Bahá’ís, and consolidation, their deepening in the Faith, were ‘twin processes that must go hand in hand,’ the ‘hoped for results did not readily materialise’ and ‘a measure of discouragement frequently set in.’ Enrolment slowed ‘tempting some Bahá’í institutions and communities to turn back to more familiar activities and more accessible publics.’

The main impact of the setbacks was to clarify that (page 102) ‘the high expectations of the early years were in some respects quite unrealistic.’ It became obvious that ‘the easy successes of the initial teaching activities . . . did not, by themselves, build a Bahá’í community life that could meet the needs of its new members and be self-generating.’

(End of Presentation: any questions? The video immediately below gives a sense of how the Bahá’í Faith has responded to these challenges: the original can be downloaded at this link.)

Key Questions

Pioneers and new believers faced questions previous experience offered few answers (ibid: my bullet points).

  • How were Local Spiritual Assemblies to be established – and once established, how were they to function – in areas where large numbers of new believers had joined the Cause overnight, simply on the strength of their spiritual apprehension of its truth?
  • How, in societies dominated by men since the dawn of time, were women to be accorded an equal voice?
  • How was the education of large numbers of children to be systematically addressed in cultural situations where poverty and illiteracy prevailed?
  • What priorities should guide Bahá’í moral teaching, and how could these objectives best be related to prevailing indigenous conventions?
  • How could a vibrant community life be cultivated that would stimulate the spiritual growth of its members?
  • What priorities, too, should be set with respect to the production of Bahá’í literature, particularly given the sudden explosion that had taken place in the number of languages represented in the community?
  • How could the integrity of the Bahá’í institution of the Nineteen Day Feast be maintained, while opening this vital activity to the enriching influence of diverse cultures?
  • And, in all areas of concern, how were the necessary resources to be recruited, funded, and coordinated?
  1. How many of these questions do we feel relate to our own situation?
  2. Do we have answers? If so, what are they? If not, what might those answers be?

Page 102: The pressure of these urgent and interlocking challenges launched the Bahá’í world on a learning process that has proved to be as important as the expansion itself. It is safe to say that during these years there was virtually no type of teaching activity, no combination of expansion, consolidation and proclamation, no administrative option, no effort at cultural adaptation that was not being energetically tried in some part of the Bahá’í world.

Group Work

For each group discussion the group should choose a facilitator. It would be best to change the facilitator for each piece of group work over the series of workshops but the group will remain the same. During the consultation, the facilitator’s role is to keep track of the time, to ensure that:

  1. everyone contributes something,
  2. no one keeps repeating the same point, and
  3. no one makes excessively long contributions.

All group members needs to keep their own record of the main points for using in the role play at the end of the group consultation. The notes should be easy to use in a conversation. Both groups will use the same material.

The Bahá'í House of Worship in Delhi, India

The Bahá’í House of Worship in Delhi, India (for source of image see link)

The Integration of Social Action

Page 103: The fact that the Bahá’í message was now penetrating the lives not merely of small groups of individuals but of whole communities also had the effect of reviving a vital feature of an earlier stage in the advancement of the Cause. For the first time in decades, the Faith found itself once more in a situation where teaching and consolidation were inseparably bound up with social and economic development.

An Office of Social and Economic Development was created at the World Centre in October 1983, and ‘Bahá’í communities throughout the world were called on to begin incorporating such efforts into their regular programmes of work.’

Page 104: The temptation was great, given the magnitude of the resources being invested by governments and foundations, and the confidence with which this effort was pursued, merely to borrow methods current at the moment or to adapt Bahá’í efforts to prevailing theories. As the work evolved, however, Bahá’í institutions began turning their attention to the goal of devising development paradigms that could assimilate what they were observing in the larger society to the Faith’s unique conception of human potentialities.

The successive Plans yielded the greatest harvest in India. By 1985 the growth of the Faith there had reached a level a more sharply focused attention was needed ‘than the National Spiritual Assembly alone could provide. Thus was born the new institution of the Regional Bahá’í Council, setting in motion the process of administrative decentralisation that has since proven so effective in many other lands.’

In addition (page 105) ‘India’s House of Worship has become the foremost visitors’ attraction on the subcontinent, welcoming an average of over ten thousand visitors every day, . . . [which] has given new meaning to the description by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá of Bahá’í Temples as “silent teachers” of the Faith.’

Its reputation was now such that the National Spiritual Assembly of India was able to host, ‘in collaboration with the Bahá’í International Community’s newly created Institute for Studies in Global Prosperity, a symposium on the subject of “Religion, Science and Development“. More than one hundred of the most influential development organisations in the country participated.

Malaysia began to follow suit. Then Bahá’í communities in Africa (page 106) achieved remarkable spiritual victories, havingsurvived war, terror, political oppression and extreme privations.’

In 1992 (page 107) ‘the Bahá’í world celebrated its second Holy Year, this one marking the centenary of the ascension of Bahá’u’lláh and the promulgation of His Covenant. Truly remarkable was ‘the ethnic, cultural and national diversity of the 27,000 believers who gathered at the Javits Convention Centre in New York City’ together with together with the thousands present at nine auxiliary conferences acorss the world.’

At Ridván 2010, the Universal House of Justice’s message explained that ‘all social action seeks to apply the teachings and principles of the Faith to improve some aspect of the social or economic life of a population, however modestly.’ The Office of Social and Economic Statement (OSED – page 2) amplifies on this:

Most central to this vision was the question of capacity building. That activities should start on a modest scale and only grow in complexity in keeping with available human resources was a concept that gradually came to influence development thought and practice.

They continue (page 4):

Bahá’í activity in the field of social and economic development seeks to promote the well-being of people of all walks of life, whatever their beliefs or background. . . . Its purpose is neither to proclaim the Cause nor to serve as a vehicle for conversion.

Page 5: To seek coherence between the spiritual and the material does not imply that the material goals of development are to be trivialised. It does require, however, the rejection of approaches to development which define it as the transfer to all societies of the ideological convictions, the social structures, the economic practices, the models of governance—in the final analysis, the very patterns of life—prevalent in certain highly industrialized regions of the world. When the material and spiritual dimensions of the life of a community are kept in mind and due attention is given to both scientific and spiritual knowledge, the tendency to reduce development to the mere consumption of goods and services and the naive use of technological packages is avoided.

Page 6: Every member of the human family has not only the right to benefit from a materially and spiritually prosperous civilization but also an obligation to contribute towards its construction. Social action should operate, then, on the principle of universal participation.

The ‘scope and complexity’ (page 9) of such activity must be ‘commensurate with the human resources available in a community to carry it forward.’

Page 13: when an effort is participatory, in the sense that it seeks to involve the people themselves in the generation and application of knowledge, as all forge together a path of progress, dualities such as “outsider-insider” and “knowledgeable-ignorant” quickly disappear.

Capacity Building

Pages 108-09: One of the great strengths of the masses of humankind from among whom the newly enrolled believers came lies in an openness of heart that has the potentiality to generate lasting social transformation. The greatest handicap of these same populations has so far been a passivity learned through generations of exposure to outside influences which, no matter how great their material advantages, have pursued agendas that were often related only tangentially – if at all – to the realities of the needs and daily lives of indigenous peoples.

As a result, ‘the lessons that had been learned during earlier Plans now placed the emphasis on developing the capacities of believers – wherever they might be – so that all could arise as confident protagonists of the Faith’s mission.’ The means to achieve this had been developed from the 1970s in Colombia, ‘against a background of violence and lawlessness that was deranging the life of the surrounding society.’ A ‘systematic and sustained programme of education in the Writings’ had been devised and was ‘soon adopted in neighbouring countries.’

By the time the Four Year Plan ended (pages 109-110) ‘over one hundred thousand believers were involved world-wide in the programmes of the more than three hundred permanent training institutes.’ The process was moved on a stage further ‘by creating networks of “study circles” which utilise the talents of believers to replicate the work of the institute at a local level.’

  1. The word ‘modest’ effectively occurs twice in the quoted passages about social action. Why do we think that is?
  2. How does the idea of ‘capacity building’ translate into this context?
  3. How easy is it for us to step outside the assumptions we have acquired in our ‘industrialised’ (note OSED does not say ‘developed’) society? Why is it so necessary that we do so?
  4. Much of the work within the Bahá’í community has been aimed at breaking the prevalent pattern of passivity and involving an ever-greater proportion of people in its activities. Why do we think this can be so difficult to achieve? What are the influences that militate against this attempt? What are the benefits of breaking this pattern in however small a way?

Group Report Back: this is to be done as an exercise in role play. As far as time permits, one member of each group takes it in turns to explain to a member of the other group what they have learnt and needs to field whatever questions and comments come their way. This should involve those, if any, whom time did not permit to do this earlier. The exact method for this will be determined on the day when we know the exact group sizes.

Kofi Annan

Kofi Annan

Not Just the Bahá’ís

Page 110: The prosecution of the Divine Plan entails no less than the involvement of the entire body of humankind in the work of its own spiritual, social and intellectual development.

Various threads intertwine here.

  1. Involvement in the UN

Pages 115-16: The birth of the United Nations opened to the Faith a far broader and more effective forum for its efforts toward exerting a spiritual influence on the life of society. [In1948] the eight National Spiritual Assemblies then in existence secured from the responsible United Nations body accreditation for “The Bahá’í International Community” as an international non-governmental organisation.

In 1980 (page 117), ‘the attempt by the Shi’ih clergy of Iran to exterminate the Cause in the land of its birth’ catapulted the Bahá’í relationship with the wider world to a new level.’

The Bahá’í response was unusual (page 119):

The persecuted community neither attacked its oppressors, nor sought political advantage from the crisis. Nor did its Bahá’í defenders in other lands call for the dismantling of the Iranian constitution, much less for revenge. All demanded only justice – the recognition of the rights guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, endorsed by the community of nations, ratified by the Iranian government, and many of them embodied even in clauses of the Islamic constitution.

  1. Justice.

The word ‘justice’ occurs a number of times in Century of Light. It is ‘the best beloved of all things’ in the sight of God, Bahá’u’lláh writes. It entails seeing with our own eyes and not relying on the eyes of others. To get a clearer sense of how the Bahá’í community sees this principle operating at the highest level of the wider society it is perhaps worth pausing to look at a statement that has been twice presented to the UN before we continue with the issue of the human rights of the Bahá’ís in Iran.

In terms of both the individual and the legal system the Bahá’í position is as follows (from Turning Point – pages 10-11 – and from Prosperity of Humankind – pages 6-8):

In any system of governance, a strong judicial function is necessary to moderate the powers of the other branches and to enunciate, promulgate, protect and deliver justice. The drive to create just societies has been among the fundamental forces in history and without doubt no lasting world civilization can be founded unless it is firmly grounded in the principle of justice.

Justice is the one power that can translate the dawning consciousness of humanity’s oneness into a collective will through which the necessary structures of global community life can be confidently erected. An age that sees the people of the world increasingly gaining access to information of every kind and to a diversity of ideas will find justice asserting itself as the ruling principle of successful social organization.

At the individual level, justice is that faculty of the human soul that enables each person to distinguish truth from falsehood. In the sight of God, Bahá’u’lláh avers, justice is “the best beloved of all things” since it permits each individual to see with his own eyes rather than the eyes of others, to know through his own knowledge rather than the knowledge of his neighbour or his group.

At the group level, a concern for justice is the indispensable compass in collective decision-making, because it is the only means by which unity of thought and action can be achieved. Far from encouraging the punitive spirit that has often masqueraded under its name in past ages, justice is the practical expression of awareness that, in the achievement of human progress, the interests of the individual and those of society are inextricably linked. To the extent that justice becomes a guiding concern of human interaction, a consultative climate is encouraged that permits options to be examined dispassionately and appropriate courses of action selected. In such a climate the perennial tendencies toward manipulation and partisanship are far less likely to deflect the decision-making process.

Such a conception of justice will be gradually reinforced by the realization that in an interdependent world, the interests of the individual and society are inextricably intertwined. In this context, justice is a thread that must be woven into the consideration of every interaction, whether in the family, the neighbourhood, or at the global level.

  1. Persecution of the Bahá’ís in Iran

While progress was slow and complete reversal of the persecution was not achieved (page 121), ‘In time, the United Nations Human Rights Commission, however slow and relatively cumbersome its operations may appear to some outside observers, succeeded in compelling the Iranian regime to bring the worst of the persecution to a halt. . .’

As a result of the persecution the Bahá’í community (ibid) has learnt ‘how to use the United Nations’ human rights system in the manner intended by that system’s creators, without having recourse to involvement in political partisanship of any kind, much less violence.’

  1. Promoting Peace

In 1985 (page 122), as the Iranian crisis was unfolding, the Universal House of Justice issued through National Spiritual Assemblies the statement The Promise of World Peace, addressed to the generality of humankind. In ‘unprovocative but uncompromising terms’ the document expressed ‘Bahá’í confidence in the advent of international peace as the next stage in the evolution of society.’

  1. The Bahá’í International Community

The Bahá’í International Community (pages 122-23) ‘became, in only a few short years, one of the most influential of the non-governmental organisations . . . Because it is, and is seen to be, entirely non-partisan, it has increasingly been trusted as a mediating voice in complex, and often stressful, discussions in international circles on major issues of social progress. This reputation has been strengthened by appreciation of the fact that the Community refrains, on principle, from taking advantage of such trust to press partisan agendas of its own.’

  1. Publications

Page 140: This process [of spiritual empowerment] was immeasurably strengthened in 1992 through the long-awaited publication of a fully-annotated translation into English of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, a repository of Divine guidance for the age of humanity’s collective maturity.

  1. The Unity of the Bahá’í Spiritual and Administrative Centres

Page 142: In contrast to the circumstances of other world religions, the spiritual and administrative centres of the Cause are inseparably bound together in this same spot on earth, its guiding institutions centred on the Shrine of its martyred Prophet. For many visitors, even the harmony that has been achieved in the variegated flowers, trees and shrubs of the surrounding gardens seems to proclaim the ideal of unity in diversity that they find attractive in the Faith’s teachings.

Final Questions (hopefully 30 minutes!)

It is clear that on the world’s stage the Bahá’í community has achieved increasing prominence over the years, first through the travels of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, then through the campaigns launched by Shoghi Effendi, later by our involvement at the UN and finally by increasingly effective programmes of expansion, consolidation and social action.

  1. Where does that leave us now – whether as members of the Bahá’í community or of the wider society?
  2. What are our respective roles?

3. How do we play our different parts in the context of what we have learnt about the world right now?

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Abdulbaha

My Name is ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. My Reality is ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: and Service to all the human race is my perpetual Religion….

(From a letter sent to the friends in New York, January 1st, 1907.)

The recent sequence of workshops on unity that I am blogging about at the moment also has roots in the insights expressed in a book I delved into about two years ago. Here is the sixth post of eight. I will be posting them interwoven with the Becoming True Upholders of His Oneness sequence. Century of Light is a key text published by the Bahá’í World Centre designed to help us understand the challenges we face in the world today. If you prefer you can download this in PDF version (6 ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Vision & Station). I learned a huge amount both from preparing these materials and from walking with others in the 2015 workshop along a path of intense exploration over a period of days. 

My Name is ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. My Reality is ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: and Service to all the human race is my perpetual Religion….

(From a letter sent to the friends in New York, January 1st, 1907.)

Groupwork

For each group discussion the group should choose a facilitator. It would be best to change the facilitator for each piece of group work over the series of workshops but the group will remain the same. During the consultation, the facilitator’s role is to keep track of the time, to ensure that:

  1. everyone contributes something,
  2. no one keeps repeating the same point, and
  3. no one makes excessively long contributions.

All group members need to keep their own record of the main points for using in the role play at the end of the group consultation. The notes should be easy to use in a conversation. Both groups will use the same material.

The Guardian’s Explanation of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Station

In God Passes By Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith, explains exactly what the station of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is for Bahá’ís. It is a long passage so I have decided to focus on what is most relevant to our current purposes. It is perhaps necessary to explain that the Manifestation of God, in a way that underpins part of the imagery used here, is seen as a Lote[1] (or boundary) Tree marking a line ‘beyond which there is no passing.’ The offshoots of this Tree, in this case the descendants of Bahá’u’lláh, are described as Branches. Shoghi Effendi writes:

He [Bahá’u’lláh] bids them, moreover, together with the Afnán (the Báb’s kindred) and His own relatives, to “turn, one and all, unto the Most Great Branch (‘Abdu’l-Bahá )”; identifies Him with “the One Whom God hath purposed,” “Who hath branched from this pre-existent Root,” referred to in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas; . . . . and concludes with an exhortation calling upon the faithful to “serve all nations,” and to strive for the “betterment of the world.

. . . . His had been the unique distinction of recognizing, while still in His childhood, the full glory of His Father’s as yet unrevealed station, a recognition which had impelled Him to throw Himself at His feet and to spontaneously implore the privilege of laying down His life for His sake. . . . .

On Him Bahá’u’lláh, as the scope and influence of His Mission extended, had been led to place an ever greater degree of reliance, by appointing Him, on numerous occasions, as His deputy, by enabling Him to plead His Cause before the public, by assigning Him the task of transcribing His Tablets, by allowing Him to assume the responsibility of shielding Him from His enemies, and by investing Him with the function of watching over and promoting the interests of His fellow-exiles and companions. He it was Who had been commissioned to undertake, as soon as circumstances might permit, the delicate and all-important task of purchasing the site that was to serve as the permanent resting-place of the Báb, of insuring the safe transfer of His remains to the Holy Land, and of erecting for Him a befitting sepulchre on Mt. Carmel. He it was Who had been chiefly instrumental in providing the necessary means for Bahá’u’lláh’s release from His nine-year confinement within the city walls of ‘Akká, and in enabling Him to enjoy, in the evening of His life, a measure of that peace and security from which He had so long been debarred. . . . .

He alone had been accorded the privilege of being called “the Master,” an honour from which His Father had strictly excluded all His other sons. Upon Him that loving and unerring Father had chosen to confer the unique title of “Sirru’lláh” (the Mystery of God), a designation so appropriate to One Who, though essentially human and holding a station radically and fundamentally different from that occupied by Bahá’u’lláh and His Forerunner, could still claim to be the perfect Exemplar of His Faith, to be endowed with super-human knowledge, and to be regarded as the stainless mirror reflecting His light. . . . . To Him He . . . . had alluded (in a Tablet addressed to Hájí Muhammad Ibráhím-i-Khalíl) as the one amongst His sons “from Whose tongue God will cause the signs of His power to stream forth,” and as the one Whom “God hath specially chosen for His Cause.” On Him, at a later period, the Author of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, in a celebrated passage, subsequently elucidated in the “Book of My Covenant,” had bestowed the function of interpreting His Holy Writ, proclaiming Him, at the same time, to be the One “Whom God hath purposed, Who hath branched from this Ancient Root.” . . . . . To Him, on the occasion of His visit to Beirut, His Father had, furthermore, in a communication which He dictated to His amanuensis, paid a glowing tribute, glorifying Him as the One “round Whom all names revolve,” as “the Most Mighty Branch of God,” and as “His ancient and immutable Mystery.” . . . . . And finally in yet another Tablet these weighty words had been recorded: “The glory of God rest upon Thee, and upon whosoever serveth Thee and circleth around Thee. Woe, great woe, betide him that opposeth and injureth Thee. Well is it with him that sweareth fealty to Thee; the fire of hell torment him who is Thy enemy.

And now to crown the inestimable honors, privileges and benefits showered upon Him, in ever increasing abundance, throughout the forty years of His Father’s ministry in Baghdád, in Adrianople and in ‘Akká, He had been elevated to the high office of Centre of Bahá’u’lláh’s Covenant[2], and been made the successor of the Manifestation of God Himself—a position that was to empower Him to impart an extraordinary impetus to the international expansion of His Father’s Faith, to amplify its doctrine, to beat down every barrier that would obstruct its march, and to call into being, and delineate the features of, its Administrative Order, the Child of the Covenant, and the Harbinger of that World Order whose establishment must needs signalize the advent of the Golden Age of the Bahá’í Dispensation.

Question: While recognising that we are only really able to grasp a small part of what this all means, it will be useful to explore what we understand by three key expressions: (a) the Mystery of God, (b) the Perfect Exemplar, and (c) the Centre of the Covenant. As a group pause to share your understandings of the possible meanings of those terms.

It is also important to remind ourselves that whenever ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was asked about Himself He replied along these lines:

My Name is ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. My Reality is ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: and Service to all the human race is my perpetual Religion…. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is the Banner of the Most Great Peace …The Herald of the Kingdom is he, so that he may awaken the people of the East and the West. The Voice of Friendship, of Truth, and of Reconciliation is he, quickening all regions. No name, no title will he ever have, except ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. This is my longing. This is my Supreme height. O ye friends of God! ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is the manifestation of Service, and not Christ. The Servant of humanity is he, and not a chief. Summon ye the people to the station of Service of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and not his Christhood.”

(From a letter sent to the friends in New York, January 1st, 1907.)

Thornton Chase (for source of image see link)

Thornton Chase (for source of image see link)

Examples of His Powers

Page 19: [Quoting Thornton Chase] “His [the Master’s] own writings, spreading like white-winged doves from the Centre of His Presence to the ends of the earth, are so many (hundreds pouring forth daily) that it is an impossibility for him to have given time to them for searching thought or to have applied the mental processes of the scholar to them. They flow like streams from a gushing fountain….”

Page 22-23: Invariably, the Master’s actions were as eloquent as the words He used. In the United States, for example, nothing could have more clearly communicated Bahá’í belief in the oneness of religion than ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s readiness to include references to the Prophet Muhammad in addresses to Christian audiences and His energetic vindication of the divine origin of both Christianity and Islam to the congregation at Temple Emanu-El in San Francisco. His ability to inspire in women of all ages confidence that they possessed spiritual and intellectual capacities fully equal to those of men, His unprovocative but clear demonstration of the meaning of Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings on racial oneness by welcoming black as well as white guests at His own dinner table and the tables of His prominent hostesses, and His insistence on the overriding importance of unity in all aspects of Bahá’í endeavour – such demonstrations of the way in which the spiritual and practical aspects of life must interact threw open for the believers windows on a new world of possibilities. The spirit of unconditional love in which these challenges were phrased succeeded in overcoming the fears and uncertainties of those whom the Master addressed.

Horace Holley (for source of image see link)

Horace Holley (for source of image see link)

Page 40: [After ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s passing Horace Holley wrote]:

“Now a message from God must be delivered, and there was no mankind to hear this message. Therefore, God gave the world ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá received the message of Bahá’u’lláh on behalf of the human race. He heard the voice of God; He was inspired by the spirit; He attained complete consciousness and awareness of the meaning of this message, and He pledged the human race to respond to the voice of God. …to me that is the Covenant – that there was on this earth some one who could be a representative of an as yet uncreated race. There were only tribes, families, creeds, classes, etc., but there was no man except ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, as man, took to Himself the message of Bahá’u’lláh and promised God that He would bring the people into the oneness of mankind, and create a humanity that could be the vehicle for the laws of God.”

Howard Colby Ives-a

Howard Colby Ives (for source of image see llnk)

In Portals of Freedom Howard Colby Ives shared his impressions of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (page 16):

To me, a man of middle age, a Unitarian Clergyman, a student since youth of religions and philosophies, the experience had a disturbing quality somewhat cataclysmic. Why should this man be able so to upset all my preconceived notions and conceptions of values by His mere presence? Was it that He seemed to exude from His very being an atmosphere of love and understanding such as I had never dreamed? Was it the resonant voice, modulated to a music which caught the heart? Was it the aura of happiness touched at times with a sadness implying the bearing of the burden of all the sin and sorrow of the world, which always surrounded Him? Was it the commingled majesty and humility of His every gesture and word, which was perhaps His most obvious characteristic? How can one answer such questions? Those who saw and heard ‘Abdu’l-Bahá during those memorable months will share with me the sense of the inadequacy of words to communicate the incommunicable.

Mahmud (for source of image see link)

Mahmud-i-Zarqani (for source of image see link)

Earl Redman’s ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Their Midst (page 190) quotes Mahmud’s Diary (page 257):

‘Abdu’l-Bahá was up and packed before dawn and calling for the rest of His party to get up. As He left, He gave the hotel manager a $1 tip for the chambermaid since she was not there at that time. They took a taxi to the train station, where the taxi driver demanded more than the usual fare. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá ignored him, saying, ‘A man may give $1000 without minding it but he should not yield even a dollar to the person who wishes to take it wrongfully, for such wrongful behaviour flouts justice and disrupts the order of the world.’

From the Library of Congress Photo Collection,Juliet Thompson with her portrait of First Lady Grace Coolidge (for source see link)

From the Library of Congress Photo Collection,Juliet Thompson with her portrait of First Lady Grace Coolidge (for source see link)

Juliet Thompson, in her Diary (page 285) records this moment:

The Master sat at the centre on the high stage… on the platform of the World Peace Conference.

The Master was really too ill to have gone to this conference. He had been in bed all morning, suffering from complete exhaustion, and had a high temperature. I was with Him all morning. While I was sitting beside Him I asked: “Must You go to the Hotel Astor when You are so ill?”

“I work by the confirmations of the Holy Spirit,” He answered. “I do not work by hygienic laws. If I did,” He laughed, “I would get nothing done.”

After that meeting… the Master shook hands with the whole audience, with every one of those thousands of people!

Lady Blomfield (for source of image see link)

Lady Blomfield (for source of image see link)

‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s foresight saved many lives as Lady Blomfield explains in The Chosen Highway (page 210):

Preparation for war conditions had been made by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá even before His return to Palestine, after His world tour. The people of the villages Nughayb, Samrih and ‘Adasíyyih where instructed by the Master how to grow corn, so as to produce prolific harvests, in the period before and during the lean years of the war.

A vast quantity of this corn was stored in pits, some of which had been made by the Romans, and were now utilised for this purpose. So it came about that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was able to feed numberless poor of the people of Haifa, ‘Akká, and the neighbourhood, in the famine years of 1914-1918.

We learned that when the British marched into Haifa was some difficulty about the commissariat. The officer in command went to consult the Master.

‘I have corn,’ was the reply.

‘But for the army?” said the astonished soldier.

‘I have corn for the British Army,’ said ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.

He truly walked the Mystic way with practical feet.

Wellesley Tudor-Pole | 'Abdu'l-Bahá in America

Wellesley Tudor-Pole (For source of image see link)

Wellesley Tudor Pole in Writing on the Ground gives this account (page 150):

On many other occasions the prophetic insight of the Bahá’í leader was made clear to me. As an instance of this, I recall that when visiting him at Haifa, just after the Armistice in November 1918, I spoke with of thankfulness we all must feel that the war ‘to end all wars’ had been fought and won. He laid his hand upon my shoulder and told me that a still greater conflagration lay ahead of humanity. ‘It will be largely fought out in the air, on all continents, and on the sea. Victory will lie with no one. You, my son, will still be alive to witness this tragedy into to play your part. Beyond and following many tribulations, and through the beneficence of the Supreme One, the most great peace will dawn.’

Question: What do these comments, descriptions and anecdotes tell us about what the experience of meeting ‘Abdu’l-Bahá might have been like and what the full significance of His role in history might be?

Group Report Back: this is to be done as an exercise in role play. As far as time permits, one member of each group takes it in turns to explain to a member of the other group what they have learnt and needs to field whatever questions and comments come their way. This should involve those, if any, whom time did not permit to do this earlier. The exact method for this will be determined on the day when we know the exact group sizes

Creative Pause

As we have agreed that memorising is a valuable way to internalise important quotations and can help us in moments of quiet reflection, can we take a few moments now to begin to reflect upon a quotation we have memorised.

Groupwork

The Limitations of His Hearers

Page 25: No objective review of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s mission to the West. . . . . can fail to take into account the sobering fact that only a small number of those who had accepted the Faith – and infinitely fewer among the public audiences who had thronged to hear His words – derived from these priceless opportunities more than a relatively dim understanding of the implications of His message. Appreciating these limitations on the part of His hearers, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá did not hesitate to introduce into His relations with Western believers actions that summoned them to a level of consciousness far above mere social liberalism and tolerance. One example that must stand for a range of such interventions was His gentle but dramatic act in encouraging the marriage of Louis Gregory and Louise Mathews – the one black, the other white. The initiative set a standard for the American Bahá’í community as to the real meaning of racial integration, however timid and slow its members were in responding to the core implications of the challenge.

. . . . . Commitment to the cause of international peace; the abolition of extremes of wealth and poverty that were undermining the unity of society; the overcoming of national, racial and other prejudices; the encouragement of equality in the education of boys and girls; the need to shake off the shackles of ancient dogmas that were inhibiting investigation of reality – these principles for the advancement of civilisation had made a powerful impression. What few, if any, of the Master’s hearers grasped – perhaps could have grasped – was the revolutionary change in the very structure of society and the willing submission of human nature to Divine Law that, in the final analysis, can alone produce the necessary changes in attitude and behaviour.

Page 45: However much one may rejoice in the praise poured on the Master from every quarter, the immediate results of His efforts represented yet another immense moral failure on the part of a considerable portion of humankind and of its leadership. The message that had been suppressed in the East was essentially ignored by a Western world which had proceeded down the path of ruin long prepared for it by overweening self-satisfaction, leading finally to the betrayal of the ideal embodied in the League of Nations.

  1. How do we explain how difficult it was for His hearers to understand ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s message?
  2. What relevance might that experience have for us now?

The Proclamation of the Faith

Page 35: As war’s inferno was engulfing the world, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá turned His attention to the one great task remaining in His ministry, that of ensuring the proclamation to the remotest corners of the Earth of the message which had been neglected – or opposed – in Islamic and Western society alike. The instrument He devised for this purpose was the Divine Plan laid out in fourteen great Tablets, four of them addressed to the Bahá’í community of North America and ten subsidiary ones addressed to five specific segments of that community. Together with Bahá’u’lláh’s Tablet of Carmel and the Master’s Will and Testament, the Tablets of the Divine Plan were described by Shoghi Effendi as three of the “Charters” of the Cause.

Question: What can we learn of help to us now in this decision of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s?

His Legacy

We will be looking in more detail at both the Guardianship and the institution of the Universal House of Justice in the last two workshops, in an attempt to understand the implications for our work in the world, whether Bahá’í or not.

Page 41: In His Will and Testament, which Shoghi Effendi has described as the “Charter” of the Administrative Order, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá set out in detail the nature and role of the twin institutions that are His appointed Successors and whose complementary functions ensure the unity of the Bahá’í Cause and the achievement of its mission throughout the Dispensation, the Guardianship and the Universal House of Justice.

Page 42: Before the reading and promulgation of the Will and Testament, the great majority of the members of the Faith had assumed that the next stage in the evolution of the Cause would be the election of the Universal House of Justice, the institution founded by Bahá’u’lláh Himself in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas as the governing body of the Bahá’í world. An important fact for present-day Bahá’ís to understand is that prior to this point the concept of Guardianship was unknown to the Bahá’í community.

  1. In what way might this unexpected development have tested some believers?
  2. What do such tests signify, if anything?

Group Report Back: this is to be done as an exercise in role play. As far as time permits, one member of each group takes it in turns to explain to a member of the other group what they have learnt and needs to field whatever questions and comments come their way. This should involve those, if any, whom time did not permit to do this earlier. The exact method for this will be determined on the day when we know the exact group sizes

Creative Interlude

Along this journey through the Century of Light we have moved from the pitch black horrors of the First and Second World Wars, with their mixed legacies of trauma and attempted healing, beyond the chilling tensions of the Cold War and its easing into hope, to the turn of the century and beyond where storm and sunlight continue to shift across the globe promising either self-destruction or reconstruction.

This may be a good time to reflect in a different way upon what we have experienced on this journey.

Depending upon our different skills, can we pause to create a poem, story, drawing or song to capture some sense of what it feels like to be poised at a point of faintly glimmering dawn, after a night of such vivid horrors?

If we get through this early we will begin the presentation that starts Session 7

[1] Wikipedia explains as follows: ‘Sidrat al-Muntahā (Arabic: ‫سدرة المنتهى‎) is a Lote tree[1] that marks the end of the seventh heaven, the boundary where no creation can pass.’

[2] We have met this word ‘Covenant’ already in this last workshop. I will repeat the footnote here for ease of reference. This terminology dates from the time of the Báb as Shoghi Effendi makes clear in God Passes By (page 27): ‘The Greater Covenant into which, as affirmed in His writings, God had, from time immemorial, entered, through the Prophets of all ages, with the whole of mankind, regarding the newborn Revelation, had already been fulfilled. It had now to be supplemented by a Lesser Covenant which He [ie the Báb] felt bound to make with the entire body of His followers concerning the One [ie Bahá’u’lláh] Whose advent He characterized as the fruit and ultimate purpose of His Dispensation. Such a Covenant had invariably been the feature of every previous religion.’

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Abdulbaha Using the familiar metaphor of “candles”, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote to Mrs. Whyte:

“O honoured lady!… Behold how its [unity’s] light is now dawning upon the world’s darkened horizon. The first candle is unity in the political realm, the early glimmerings of which can now be discerned. The second candle is unity of thought in world undertakings, the consummation of which will erelong be witnessed. The third candle is unity in freedom which will surely come to pass. The fourth candle is unity in religion which is the corner- stone of the foundation itself, and which, by the power of God, will be revealed in all its splendour. The fifth candle is the unity of nations – a unity which in this century will be securely established, causing all the peoples of the world to regard themselves as citizens of one common fatherland. The sixth candle is unity of races, making of all that dwell on earth peoples and kindreds of one race. The seventh candle is unity of language, i.e., the choice of a universal tongue in which all peoples will be instructed and converse. Each and every one of these will inevitably come to pass, inasmuch as the power of the Kingdom of God will aid and assist in their realisation.”

While it will be decades – or perhaps a great deal longer – before the vision contained in this remarkable document is fully realised, the essential features of what it promised are now established facts throughout the world.

(Century of Light – pages 127-28)

The recent sequence of workshops on unity that I am blogging about at the moment also has roots in the insights expressed in a book I delved into about two years ago. Here is the fourth post of eight. I will be posting them interwoven with the Becoming True Upholders of His Oneness sequence. Century of Light is this key text published by the Bahá’í World Centre designed to help us understand the challenges we face in the world today. If you prefer you can download this in PDF version (4 Impact of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Unity the Core). I learned a huge amount both from preparing these materials and from walking with others in the 2015 workshop along a path of intense exploration over a period of days. 

 

The Impact & Legacy of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

Creative Pause

As we have agreed that memorising is a valuable way to internalise important quotations and can help us in moments of quiet reflection, can we take a few moments now to begin to memorise either this quotation or another from the first session.

Whole Group Session (Slide Presentation)

Basic Background

In addition to Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, there are two other key individuals and one key institution whose roles are of central importance to the unfolding story we are following right now.

The first is the son of Bahá’u’lláh, Whom His father designated as the Centre of His Covenant, the Mystery of God and the Perfect Exemplar. Some of the meaning of these terms will become clearer to those not familiar with them as the remainder of this sequence of workshops progresses. For now I will simply say that Bahá’ís believe God has made a Covenant with both His Followers and with humanity as a whole. The former is known as the Lesser Covenant, the latter as the Greater Covenant[1]. We will be coming back to an examination what those terms mean in more depth, but basically the role of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá as Centre of the Covenant refers to how all Bahá’ís in His lifetime and beyond should see Him as the One to Whom His Father entrusted the protection of the unity of the Faith. We will be looking closely at ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s role and its impact in the next two workshops.

Shoghi EffendiLater we will focus on Shoghi Effendi, the grandson of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá who was designated the Guardian of the Cause of God on ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s passing. He was also authorised to be the translator and interpreter of the Writings.

Finally we will come to the Universal House of Justice. Elected in 1963 the House is the elected international governing body of the Bahá’í Faith. More on that later.

There are other writers who can shed some further light on this before we plunge into the details.

We are clearly living through a critical period. Paul Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson write in Cultural Creatives (page 236): ‘[We are also facing] a breathtakingly dangerous tipping point for our civilisation and our planet. Our need to discover a way through is the most urgent, most central question of our time.’ They add (page 203) ‘In the consciousness movement, the people who can persevere for ten, twenty, and thirty years are the ones who can have a dramatic impact on the culture – because that is the true time horizon of effective action.’ The Universal House of Justice feels this will be the work of centuries (from a letter to Bahá’ís of Iran – 2 March 2013):

The rejection of deeply ingrained prejudices and a growing sense of world citizenship are among the signs of this heightened awareness. Yet, however promising the rise in collective consciousness may be, it should be seen as only the first step of a process that will take decades—nay, centuries—to unfold. For the principle of the oneness of humankind, as proclaimed by Bahá’u’lláh, asks not merely for cooperation among people and nations. It calls for a complete reconceptualization of the relationships that sustain society.

As Paul Lample explains in Revelation & Social Reality (page 109), Bahá’ís share this perspective and recognise that Bahá’ís alone can never bring about such changes. To say that the process of building a new civilisation is a conscious one does not imply that the outcome depends exclusively on the believers’ initiatives. . . . emphasis on the contributions Bahá’ís are to make to the civilisation-building process is not intended to diminish the significance of efforts being exerted by others. He also states (page 6): ‘Human beings are not passive observers of reality and our personal reality, our thought, is not simply imposed upon us. In a very specific way we may consider ourselves – collectively – as co-creators of reality, for through the power of the human mind and our interactions, the world undergoes continued transformation.’

And the time scale, as well as the engagement of all humanity, is very clear (page 48): ‘Generation after generation of believers will strive to translate the teachings into a new social reality. . . . . . . . [I]t is not a project in which Bahá’ís engage apart from the rest of humanity.’

Ray and Anderson make a key point (page 246): ‘Cultural Creatives may be leading the way with responses directed towards healing and integration rather than battle. For these responses to contribute to the creation of a new culture, grassroots activism and social movements will have to evolve into new institutions. . . . [W]hile new social movements are transitory, institutions can turn the energies of these movements into everyday action.’

(End of Presentation: any questions?)

For now we return to the role of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and begin with the core concept of unity or oneness.

Group Work

For each group discussion the group should choose a facilitator. It would be best to change the facilitator for each piece of group work over the series of workshops but the group will remain the same. During the consultation, the facilitator’s role is to keep track of the time, to ensure that:

  1. everyone contributes something,
  2. no one keeps repeating the same point, and
  3. no one makes excessively long contributions.

The group also needs to agree who will keep a record of the main points for reporting back to everyone at the end of the group consultation. The aim should be to make the report back no longer than five minutes.

Unity

Group One Task

Unity

Page 7: [‘Abdu’l-Bahá] came to [this moment in history] resolved to proclaim to responsive and heedless alike the establishment on earth of that promised reign of universal peace and justice that had sustained human hope throughout the centuries. Its foundation, He declared, would be the unification, in this “century of light”, of the world’s people:

. . . . . Hence the unity of all mankind can in this day be achieved. Verily this is none other but one of the wonders of this wondrous age, this glorious century.

Page 9: My meaning is that the beloved of the Lord must regard every ill-wisher as a well-wisher.… That is, they must associate with a foe as befitteth a friend, and deal with an oppressor as beseemeth a kind companion. They should not gaze upon the faults and transgressions of their foes, nor pay heed to their enmity, inequity or oppression.

. . . . . He hath brought the whole creation under the purview of His gracious utterance, and hath enjoined upon us to show forth love and affection, wisdom and compassion, faithfulness and unity towards all, without any discrimination.

Page 18: [Of those who responded to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s call] Their response arose from a level of consciousness that recognized, even if sometimes only dimly, the desperate need of the human race for spiritual enlightenment. To remain steadfast in their commitment to this insight required of these early believers on whose sacrifice of self much of the foundation of the present-day Bahá’í communities both in the West and many other lands were laid – that they resist not only family and social pressures, but also the easy rationalisations of the world-view in which they had been raised and to which everything around them insistently exposed them.

  1. Bahá’ís have been dismissed as hopelessly Utopian. Part of the reason for this lies in the perception that the ideals of, on the one hand, learning to evince the degree of love ‘Abdu’l-Bahá describes, and, on the other, of establishing universal peace and justice, are permanently beyond humanity’s reach. What do we feel about that?
  2. What can we learn from the experiences of the early believers that might give us some hope, especially as the Universal House of Justice describes this as the work of centuries?

Page 20: The gift of God to this enlightened age is the knowledge of the oneness of mankind and of the fundamental oneness of religion. War shall cease between nations, and by the will of God the Most Great Peace shall come; the world will be seen as a new world, and all men will live as brothers.

To fully understand the relationship between man’s progress towards peace and the role of the Bahá’ís compared to the role of all humanity, it will help to provide some background. In the compilation on Peace (pages 38-39) we read in the words of the Universal House of Justice:

As to the Lesser Peace, Shoghi Effendi has explained that this will initially be a political unity arrived at by decision of the governments of various nations; it will not be established by direct action of the Bahá’í community. This does not mean, however, that the Bahá’ís are standing aside and waiting for the Lesser Peace to come before they do something about the peace of mankind. Indeed, by promoting the principles of the Faith, which are indispensable to the maintenance of peace, and by fashioning the instruments of the Bahá’í Administrative Order, which we are told by the beloved Guardian is the pattern for future society, the Bahá’ís are constantly engaged in laying the groundwork for a permanent peace, the Most Great Peace being their ultimate goal.

  1. How would a wider acceptance of the concept of the oneness of humanity be conducive to peace?
  2. In the light of this, what are Bahá’ís meant to be doing and why?
  3. What might people in the wider world be working at and why?

 

Group Two Task

The Full Implications of Unity

Page 21: {Shoghi Effendi unpacks these as follows – my bullet points:]

  • The independent search after truth, unfettered by superstition or tradition;
  • the oneness of the entire human race, the pivotal principle and fundamental doctrine of the Faith;
  • the basic unity of all religions;
  • the condemnation of all forms of prejudice, whether religious, racial, class or national;
  • the harmony which must exist between religion and science;
  • the equality of men and women, the two wings on which the bird of human kind is able to soar;
  • the introduction of compulsory education;
  • the adoption of a universal auxiliary language;
  • the abolition of the extremes of wealth and poverty;
  • the institution of a world tribunal for the adjudication of disputes between nations;
  • the exaltation of work, performed in the spirit of service, to the rank of worship;
  • the glorification of justice as the ruling principle in human society, and of religion as a bulwark for the protection of all peoples and nations; and
  • the establishment of a permanent and universal peace as the supreme goal of all mankind

these stand out as the essential elements of that Divine polity which He proclaimed to leaders of public thought as well as to the masses at large in the course of these missionary journeys.

The Guardian (page 50), addressing the friends in the West in 1931, ‘opened for them a brilliant vista’:

The principle of the Oneness of Mankind – the pivot round which all the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh revolve – is no mere outburst of ignorant emotionalism or an expression of vague and pious hope. Its appeal is not to be merely identified with a reawakening of the spirit of brotherhood and good-will among men, nor does it aim solely at the fostering of harmonious cooperation among individual peoples and nations. Its implications are deeper, its claims greater than any which the Prophets of old were allowed to advance. Its message is applicable not only to the individual, but concerns itself primarily with the nature of those essential relationships that must bind all the states and nations as members of one human family…. It implies an organic change in the structure of present-day society, a change such as the world has not experienced…. It calls for no less than the reconstruction and the demilitarisation of the whole civilised world – a world organically unified in all the essential aspects of its life, its political machinery, its spiritual aspiration, its trade and finance, its script and language, and yet infinite in the diversity of the national characteristics of its federated units.

. . . . using as illustration the same ‘organic metaphor in which Bahá’u’lláh, and subsequently ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, had captured the millennia-long process’ that has brought us to this point (ibid):

The long ages of infancy and childhood, through which the human race had to pass, have receded into the background. Humanity is now experiencing the commotions invariably associated with the most turbulent stage of its evolution, the stage of adolescence, when the impetuosity of youth and its vehemence reach their climax, and must gradually be superseded by the calmness, the wisdom, and the maturity that characterize the stage of manhood.

  1. There is a huge amount of detail here. Basically though, in what ways do the above passages help us understand what the Bahá’í Faith means when it uses the word ‘unity’ or speaks of ‘oneness.’
  2. How would the ‘political machinery’ and ‘trade and finance’ be changed do we think?
  3. What might it feel like to live in a world reconstituted in this way?

Report Back: One member of each group explains their conclusions and what they have learnt. Their group members can join in to field whatever questions and comments come their way.

Footnote:

[1] This terminology dates from the time of the Báb as Shoghi Effendi makes clear in God Passes By (page 27): ‘The Greater Covenant into which, as affirmed in His writings, God had, from time immemorial, entered, through the Prophets of all ages, with the whole of mankind, regarding the newborn Revelation, had already been fulfilled. It had now to be supplemented by a Lesser Covenant which He [ie the Báb] felt bound to make with the entire body of His followers concerning the One [ie Bahá’u’lláh] Whose advent He characterized as the fruit and ultimate purpose of His Dispensation. Such a Covenant had invariably been the feature of every previous religion.’

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To download the complete materials click this link Upholders of His Oneness v2.

Each day we drove into Strathallan from Dundee. This was because my health issues meant that I needed to make sure I had enough rest each day. Being a resident at summer school means that you have the benefit of more activities but with that goes a greater expenditure of energy that I couldn’t afford this time round.

So, after the long ribbon of the bridge over the shining waters of the Firth of Tay and the 17 miles of dual carriageway under alternating showers and sunshine, we arrived back at the school in time for prayers and Khazeh Fananapazir’s engaging exploration of the significance of this year. Two hundred years ago Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, was born in Tehran. This year therefore Bahá’ís are taking every opportunity to remember His life and connect with Him spiritually, as well as to deepen our understanding of the spiritual connection between Bahá’u’lláh as the Manifestation of God for this day and the Báb as His Herald .

After that, and a cup of coffee and a cake, we headed for our workshop.

Consensus Consciousness

It might help if we begin more or less where we left off. Charles Tart in his book Waking Up.’ begins his analysis of social reality and its impact on the individual by contending (page 9) that ‘Consciousness, particularly its perceptual aspects, creates an internal representation of the outside world, such that we have a good quality “map” of the world and our place in it.’ He doesn’t mince words when he describes what he feels is an important correlative of this (page 11): ‘Our ordinary consciousness is not “natural,” but an acquired product. This has given us both many useful skills and many insane sources of useless suffering.’

He chooses to introduce a phrase that captures this (ibid):

. . . [For the phrase ordinary consciousness] I shall substitute a technical term I introduced some years ago, consensus consciousness, as a reminder of how much everyday consciousness has been shaped by the consensus of belief in our particular culture.

He continues (page 59):

. . . . one of our greatest human abilities, and greatest curses, is our ability to create simulations of the world . . . . These simulations, whether or not they accurately reflect the world, can then trigger emotions. Emotions are a kind of energy, a source of power.

In the workshop at Strathallan School we delved deeply into this down side and its costs from a spiritual point of view. In a mystical work of poetic power and great beauty Bahá’u’lláh writes (Seven Valleys – pages 19-20):

Thus it is that certain invalid souls have confined the lands of knowledge within the wall of self and passion, and clouded them with ignorance and blindness, and have been veiled from the light of the mystic sun and the mysteries of the Eternal Beloved; they have strayed afar from the jewelled wisdom of the lucid Faith of the Lord of Messengers, have been shut out of the sanctuary of the All-Beauteous One, and banished from the Ka’bih of splendour. Such is the worth of the people of this age! . . . . .

Clearly, this kind of tunnel vision is more than enough to account for why Bahá’u’lláh can dismiss much of what we think as superstition, illusion, delusion and ‘vain imaginings.’ There was some discussion in the workshop as to whether invalid should be taken to mean ‘sick’ or ‘unconfirmed/inauthentic.’ Fortunately we had the chance to check out with Khazeh, the presenter of the plenary sessions and a reader of both Arabic and Persian, what the word in the original text meant: he said without the slightest hesitation, ‘sick’.

Also, what we see is still very much in the eye of the beholder. In an exploration which compares reality at the spiritual level to the sun, whose pure light is white, Bahá’u’lláh illustrates how different what we observe is from the light itself (pages 19-20):

In sum, the differences in objects have now been made plain. Thus when the wayfarer gazeth only upon the place of appearance–that is, when he seeth only the many-colored globes –he beholdeth yellow and red and white; hence it is that conflict hath prevailed among the creatures, and a darksome dust from limited souls hath hid the world. And some do gaze upon the effulgence of the light; and some have drunk of the wine of oneness and these see nothing but the sun itself.

It cannot be emphasised too strongly that these subjective differences, which result from the imperfections of our vision, can give rise to utterly toxic conflicts, conflicts whose origins are in essence delusional.

Cleansing the Mirror

As individuals, brainwashed by flawed worldviews, what can we do to transcend the resulting limitations?

In exploring this angle on the issue I am not discounting that steps also need to be taken to address the limitations of our culture, but, in seeking to capture the flow of consultation around the quotations we were considering, it’s easiest to start from here and deal with the wider issues later.

Bahá’u’lláh writes (Gleanings – XXVII):

. . . These energies with which the Day Star of Divine bounty and Source of heavenly guidance hath endowed the reality of man lie, however, latent within him, even as the flame is hidden within the candle and the rays of light are potentially present in the lamp. The radiance of these energies may be obscured by worldly desires even as the light of the sun can be concealed beneath the dust and dross which cover the mirror. Neither the candle nor the lamp can be lighted through their own unaided efforts, nor can it ever be possible for the mirror to free itself from its dross. It is clear and evident that until a fire is kindled the lamp will never be ignited, and unless the dross is blotted out from the face of the mirror it can never represent the image of the sun nor reflect its light and glory.

I have dealt at length elsewhere on this blog with the idea of the human heart as a mirror that needs to be burnished if it is to reflect the light of spiritual reality and that we also need to be sure that we do not mistake what is reflected there for the mirror itself. It is enough at this point simply to quote a writer whose insights, along with my experience of Buddhist meditation, helped prepare me to understand Bahá’u’lláh’s Revelation sufficiently to choose the path He reveals to us. What this writer says covers what our consultation on the day disclosed to us about the power and challenges of separating consciousness from its contents, a process he calls reflection.

In his brilliant book on existentialism The New Image of the Person: The Theory and Practice of Clinical Philosophy, Peter Koestenbaum states that (page 69):

[a]nxiety and physical pain are often our experience of the resistances against the act of reflection.

By reflection, amongst other things, he means unhooking ourselves from our ideas.

An example he gives from the clinical context illustrates what he means:

. . . to resist in psychotherapy means to deny the possibility of dissociating consciousness from its object at one particular point . . . To overcome the resistance means success in expanding the field of consciousness and therewith to accrue increased flexibility . . .’

But overcoming this resistance is difficult. It hurts and frightens us. How are we to do it? In therapy it is the feeling of trust and safety we develop towards the therapist that helps us begin to let go of maladaptive world views, self-concepts and opinions.

This process of reflection, and the detachment it creates and upon which the growth of a deeper capacity to reflect depends, are more a process than an end-state at least in this life.

Koestenbaum explains this (page 73):

The history of philosophy, religion and ethics appears to show that the process of reflection can continue indefinitely . . . . there is no attachment . . . which cannot be withdrawn, no identification which cannot be dislodged.’

By reflection he means something closely related to meditation.

Reflection, he says (page 99):

. . . releases consciousness from its objects and gives us the opportunity to experience our conscious inwardness in all its purity.

What he says at another point is even more intriguing (page 49):

The name Western Civilisation has given to . . . the extreme inward region of consciousness is God.

I feel this brings us in psychotherapeutic terms close to the exact place ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is describing in Paris Talks. These are the quotes we wrestled with at the Summer School, striving to understand the role of silence more fully (page 174-176):

Bahá’u’lláh says there is a sign (from God) in every phenomenon: the sign of the intellect is contemplation and the sign of contemplation is silence, because it is impossible for a man to do two things at one time — he cannot both speak and meditate.

It is an axiomatic fact that while you meditate you are speaking with your own spirit. In that state of mind you put certain questions to your spirit and the spirit answers: the light breaks forth and the reality is revealed. . . .

Through the faculty of meditation man attains to eternal life; through it he receives the breath of the Holy Spirit — the bestowal of the Spirit is given in reflection and meditation. . .

Meditation is the key for opening the doors of mysteries. In that state man abstracts himself: in that state man withdraws himself from all outside objects; in that subjective mood he is immersed in the ocean of spiritual life and can unfold the secrets of things-in-themselves. To illustrate this, think of man as endowed with two kinds of sight; when the power of insight is being used the outward power of vision does not see.

This faculty of meditation frees man from the animal nature, discerns the reality of things, puts man in touch with God.

. . . Through this faculty man enters into the very Kingdom of God. . . .

The meditative faculty is akin to the mirror; if you put it before earthly objects it will reflect them. Therefore if the spirit of man is contemplating earthly subjects he will be informed of these. . . .

Therefore let us keep this faculty rightly directed — turning it to the heavenly Sun and not to earthly objects — so that we may discover the secrets of the Kingdom, and comprehend the allegories of the Bible and the mysteries of the spirit.

May we indeed become mirrors reflecting the heavenly realities, and may we become so pure as to reflect the stars of heaven.

Bronze mirror, New Kingdom of Egypt, Eighteenth Dynasty, 1540–1296 BC. For source of image see link.

This paved the way for our attempt to understand the relationship between achieving oneness and cleansing the mirror of the heart, which Bahá’u’lláh describes as burnishing, a process of intense friction involving metal against metal, not just picking up a duster and some polish to bring the shine back to a modern glass mirror. Once again a quick confab with Khazeh confirmed that the original word implied effort and friction. This suggests that Bahá’u’lláh may have had the early metal mirrors in mind when He wished to convey how difficult, even painful, the polishing process would be for the heart’s mirror. A Wikipedia article states:

. . . . stone and metal mirrors could be made in very large sizes, but were difficult to polish and get perfectly flat; a process that became more difficult with increased size; so they often produced warped or blurred images. Stone mirrors often had poor reflectivity compared to metals, yet metals scratch or tarnish easily, so they frequently needed polishing. Depending upon the color, both often yielded reflections with poor color rendering.[6] The poor image quality of ancient mirrors explains 1 Corinthians 13‘s reference to seeing “as in a mirror, darkly.”

The art of making glass mirrors was not perfected until the 16th Century.

If we become capable of polishing the mirror of our hearts, then we can potentially become capable of reflecting the pure undivided light of spiritual reality, thus transcending both our inner conflicts and our conflicts with others.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá describes this possibility in the following words (Selected Writing of ‘Abdul-Baha 1978 – page 76):

For now have the rays of reality from the Sun of the world of existence, united in adoration all the worshippers of this light; and these rays have, through infinite grace, gathered all peoples together within this wide-spreading shelter; therefore must all souls become as one soul, and all hearts as one heart. Let all be set free from the multiple identities that were born of passion and desire, and in the oneness of their love for God find a new way of life.

This then will remedy our current conflicted state, wherein we are at war with ourselves as well as with others. This is Bahá’u’lláh’s description of the challenge we face compared with the reality most of us are blind to (Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh = CXII):

No two men can be found who may be said to be outwardly and inwardly united. The evidences of discord and malice are apparent everywhere, though all were made for harmony and union. The Great Being saith: O well-beloved ones! The tabernacle of unity hath been raised; regard ye not one another as strangers. Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch.

He is unequivocal about the role of religion in this healing process (ibid. – CXXVIII):

The religion of God is for love and unity; make it not the cause of enmity and dissension. . . . Conflict and contention are categorically forbidden in His Book. This is a decree of God in this Most Great Revelation.

And now we come to a cusp where we move from looking mainly at the individual to where we look at the community. And here it is that we will see where words can change from misleading labels or names, corrupted by misguided worldviews, to lamps of guidance.

That needs to wait for the next post.

When we got back to Dundee that evening, from the window of the flat where we were staying we could see the lights of a cruiser docked at the harbour side. Though purely material, it had a beauty of its own.

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© Bahá’í World Centre

© Bahá’í World Centre

From time to time it comes to seem appropriate to republish a much earlier sequence from 2009 on the Bahá’í approach to healing our wounded world. Recent events across many countries again makes it seem timely to revisit this sequence. The posts will appear over the next week or so.

Empowerment

To mistakenly identify Bahá’í community life with the mode of religious activity that characterises the general society — in which the believer is a member of a congregation, leadership comes from an individual or individuals presumed to be qualified for the purpose, and personal participation is fitted into a schedule dominated by concerns of a very different nature — can only have the effect of marginalising the Faith and robbing the community of the spiritual vitality available to it.

(Universal House of Justice, 22 August 2002)

Training is helping move us from a passive congregational culture to an actively empowered one.

Referred to as the “chief propellant” of the change in culture, the training institutes, with their ability to produce an expanding number of human resources, have fundamentally altered the approach of the Bahá’í community to the tasks at hand. More than ever the rank and file of the believers are involved in meaningful and vital service to the Cause. Whether by holding devotional meetings, facilitating study circles, or teaching children’s classes, a greater number of friends have found paths of service that do not depend on public-speaking prowess.

(Building Momentum: pages 18-19)

The three activities referred to in that last quotation have often been described as ‘core activities.’  Core does not, however, mean only. The analogy of the spear has also been used, with these activities, or some aspect of them, referred to as the spearhead. This metaphor points up (terrible unintended pun – sorry!) the  issue here. A spearhead without a  shaft is not much use. So, there are many other things that we need to do as well as those three important components of our plan if they are to have the impact we would like.

The House of Justice has remarked on this increase in empowered participation:

It is especially gratifying to note the high degree of participation of believers in the various aspects of the growth process.

(Building Momentum: pages 18-19)

People often refer to how, in most organisations, 20% of the people do 80% of the work. Bahá’ís are learning how to buck this trend.

A Sequence of Courses

A critical tool in this process is a sequence of courses devised by the Ruhi Institute in Colombia, tested in the field there and gradually improved in the light of experience. Certain principles underpin the components of this set of materials:

From among the various possibilities, the Ruhi institute has chosen ‘service to the Cause’ as the organising principle of its educational activities.

(Learning about Growth: page 50)

They describe this further in one of the modules of the course:

The purpose of our courses is to empower the friends spiritually and morally to serve the Faith . . .

(Book Seven: page 102)

Learning to implement these courses here and in other countries has not been without its problems of course:

Out of a desire to apply the guidance ‘correctly,’ there was a tendency in isolated cases to go to extremes: either everyone was to be a tutor or restrictions were imposed; people who had taught children for years were told they couldn’t continue unless they did Book Three; firesides [informal introductory meetings usually with an invited speaker] were abandoned in place of study circles; people were rushed through the courses without doing the practice.

(Paul Lample: Revelation and Social Reality, pages 64 and 92)

This pain and discomfort of learning by these mistakes is perhaps the inevitable accompaniment of creativity and enacting higher values. There is no doubt though that the basic methodology is sound and has proved itself in many places, in spite of these teething problems, to be a powerful means of giving people the confidence to act. People are also learning how to dovetail the activities connected with the sequence of training courses with previously existing patterns of action such as the fireside and courses designed to further deepen our understanding of the Writings of the Faith.

© Bahá’í World Centre

© Bahá’í World Centre

Refining What We Do

We are also learning not only to be more active in service of the community as a whole, but also to think about what we are doing in order to do it better. The methodology for this was part of the Colombian experience and draws on models of action research (see Peter Reason for example) undertaken in the wider community.

The most [the teachers and administrators] could expect from themselves was to engage wholeheartedly in an intensive plan of action and an accompanying process of reflection and consultation. This reflection and consultation had to be carried out in unshakeable unity and with a spirit of utmost humility. The main thrust of the consultation had to be the objective analysis of possible courses of action and the evaluation of methods and results, all carried out in the light of the Writings of the Faith.

(Learning About Growth: page 10)

Other posts on this blog examine in considerable detail what Bahá’ís mean by consultation and reflection. The key components of the process described here are study, consultation, action and reflection.

Relating to Scripture

In using scripture as part of this process of empowerment certain aspects are emphasised:

. . . to reach true understanding . . . one must think deeply about the meaning of each statement and its applications in one’s own life and in the life of society. Three levels of comprehension are: basic understanding of the meaning of words and sentences, applying some of the concepts to one’s daily life, and thinking about the implications of a quotation for situations having no apparent or immediate connection with its theme.

(Learning about Growth: pages 30-31)

A good mnemonic for this is AIMs. The ‘A’ stands for applications, the ‘I’ for implications and the ‘M’ for meanings. The bedrock of the process of empowerment here is to enable us all to relate to the Word of God in a way that inspires us to put what we have understood into action for the betterment of the world.

© Bahá’í World Centre

© Bahá’í World Centre

The Links to Civilisation-Building

It is important to have a brief look now at how the work of each book including its ‘service’ component links to the aim of building a better world for everyone.

This is made quite explicit at the beginning of the first book in the sequence (page 9):

The betterment of the world can be accomplished through pure and goodly deeds, through commendable and seemly conduct.

(The Advent of Divine Justice: pages 24-25)

The theme is continued in the other books, for example:

Book Two (page 46):

The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh encompasses all units of human society; integrates the spiritual, administrative and social processes of life; and canalises human expression in its various forms towards the construction of a new civilisation.

(Universal House of Justice: 1989)

Book Three (page 9):

Regard man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value. Education, alone, can cause it to reveal its treasures, and enable mankind to benefit therefrom.

(Gleanings: CXXIII)

Book Four (page 8):

It is incumbent upon all the peoples of the world to reconcile their differences, and with perfect unity and peace, abide beneath the shadow of the Tree of His care and loving-kindness.

(Gleanings: IV)

It is perhaps worth stressing here that specific patterns of action are linked to the work of each book and are central to the purposes of that book. Book Three is designed for example to empower people to run children’s classes. Book Four encourages us to speak to people about the lives of the central figures of the faith as a way to inspire them to a new way of living. The lives of the Báb and His disciples, for example, unfold before our eyes a quality of moral heroism that  many profound thinkers lament is missing from modern life.  Zimbardo devotes the closing chapter of his book  The Lucifer Effect to describing ways of cultivating exactly that quality in the ordinary challenges of life. Susan Neiman describes examples of such heroism in her book Moral Clarity.

Civilisation-building is the underpinning purpose of the courses and it is seen to begin with small changes in our patterns of daily action. Again in a later book:

Book Six (page 11):

The world is in great turmoil, and its problems seem to become daily more acute. We should, therefore, not sit idle . . . Bahá’u’lláh has not given us His Teachings to treasure them and hide them for our personal delight and pleasure. He gave them to us that we may pass them from mouth to mouth, until all the world . . . . enjoys their blessings and uplifting influence.

(Shoghi Effendi, The Guardian: 27 March 1933)

Book Seven (page 67):

Children are the most precious treasure a community can possess, for in them are the promise and guarantee of the future. They bear the seeds of the character of future society which is largely shaped by what the adults constituting the community do or fail to do with respect to children.

(Universal House of Justice: Ridván  2000)

The Purpose of the Core Activities

Many people has felt confused at times about the exact purpose of the ‘core activities.’ A member of the Universal House of Justice has reportedly offered the following clarification.

He gave the example of a glass. He said that while it is not inaccurate to say that the glass is transparent, it is evident that transparency is not the purpose of the glass. Transparency is one of the attributes of the glass, but its purpose is to hold liquid. Similarly, one of the attributes of our core activities is that they become instruments for teaching – but that is not their purpose. He stressed that the purpose of our core activities is to enable us to serve society and help “translate that which hath been written into reality and action”.

The primary purpose of our core activities is to raise our capacity to serve society, such that these activities become instruments for developing communities, and not merely instruments for teaching the Faith.

He encouraged the participants present at the seminar to re-look at the Ruhi Institute books from 1 – 7 with the eye of society and to reflect on how the concepts embedded in them could be used for social action and not just for the sake of bringing more people into the Faith.

He developed this further. It is clear that we need to imbue participants engaged in our core activities with a vision of social transformation as well as personal transformation. Now if someone were to ask us whether the purpose of our inviting them to join study circles is to make them Bahá’ís, we can confidently say ‘no’ and tell them that the purpose of our core activities is to assist in the transformation and betterment of society.

The next posts will look more closely at the nature and value of devotional meetings and the compelling need for the spiritual education and proper nurturing  of children.

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