Thursday, November 13, 2008

Piercing Heaven

Several years ago, in my meanderings through spiritual literature, I ran across the saying "A short prayer pierceth heaven." It kind of caught my attention, because sometimes I had a attitude of "If a little prayer is good, then a whole lot is better" -- which isn't necessarily the case. Thinking about it, mini-prayers are probably the most natural way to pray, which we do without thinking about it. If we hear of a friend of relative in the hospital we'll say -- either out loud or to ourselves -- "Oh, God, let them be all right." I don't know about other mothers, but a short one-sentence prayer asking God to look after one or the other of my children bubbles up naturally when circumstances warrent.

I've never been a big user of the Baha'i prayer book. I always say the obligatory prayers, and I have a few short, memorized favorites. The written prayers are beautiful and inspiring -- and I preferred them to the kind of extemporaneous prayer I grew up with, when I was in a group. A single person praying for a group always felt wrong to me, but Baha'i prayers belong to all of us. On my own, however, it was often difficult for me to find a prayer that says what I really want to say. And what I want to say is usually pretty simple and direct. Almost always, before I go to work, I say "Oh, God! Make me a good teacher today. Let me give the children what they need." Then, I'll add a couple of names of God, just like you find at the end of Baha'i written prayers.

That's not entirely a selfless prayer, by the way -- obviously, if I do well in my job it benefits me as well as the children I teach.

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about ways to develop compassion within myself -- a virtue that all of us could pay a bit more attention to. And there isn't a written prayer that specifically addresses that, so I just say "Oh God! Let me show compassion to everyone who crosses my path." It's simple, to the point, and what more do I need to say?

Maybe that's why such prayers pierce heaven -- they focus on what really matters.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Tony Lee on Tahirih

I know I've been quiet of late, but I ran across something too good not to share. This is an interview with Tony Lee about his translations in Tahirih: A Portrait in Poetry.

Translated By, hosted by Shaindel Beers

Besides discussing the translation process, he reads several of these wonderful poems aloud -- and reads them like a poet. Not everyone can read aloud like that. When I first read the book, I found the part about the translation interesting -- there was an example of the literal meaning of the Persian, which was transformed into the published poem in English. It really demonstrates just how much of an art form translation is.

The book is available here from Kalimat Press. You can also get it on Amazon.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the interview, and do get the book as well. And God bless Tony and his colleagues for this marvelous work.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Restless Souls

I've just finished reading "Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality" by Leigh Eric Schmidt, and I thought it would be relevant for unenrolled Baha'is to know that independent spirituality is not just some fly-by-night thing that the Baby Boomers invented, but has a long history of its own, dating back to the 1830s. And, Baha'is are very much a part of that history.

An entire chapter is devoted to telling the story of Sarah Farmer and Green Acre. She started it in 1894, right after the Parliament of World Religions, and it was an important meeting place for almost every unorthodox form of spirituality around at the time: Transcendentalists, Vedantists, Theosophists, Christian Scientists, New Thought, and the like. She wanted it to be dedicated to the ideal of peace between religions -- I noted on the Green Acre website that the green-letttered Peace Flag that Sarah flew over the original Greenacre still flies there. But there were tensions, and these tensions became even worse when Sarah herself became a Baha'i, and this chapter dwells on the problem of what happens when an independent seeker actually finds something. Poor Sarah got pressures from Baha'is (including 'Abdu'l-Baha') to make Green Acre a center for teaching the Baha'i Faith, her old associates thought she had betrayed the cause of religious liberalism by submitting herself to "the Persian Revelation". The strain of trying to juggle these competing interests took a great toll on her physical and mental health. But its an interesting read -- one of her best friends, Sara Bull, was among the first practitioners of yoga in this country. (I was pleasantly surprised to see that Green Acre's current schedule includes a yoga class.) Green Acre was not only an important landmark for Baha'is, but in the history of alternative religion in America.

Moving further into the book, I was caught by Thomas Kelly's approach, since it seemed similar to my own;

Kelly, in effect, shifted away from the Trancendentalist emphasis on ephemeral moments of spiritual awareness --"the flickering of our psychic states" -- to sustained "inward practices of the mind." Not transient states of mystic consciousness, but continuous habits of daily devotion -- these were Kelly's chief pursuit: "Practice comes first in religion".

This is, at least one answer, to those who criticize unaffiliated spirituality as essentially a lot of romantic slosh with no real substance.

The book, in its last chapter, actually goes into some of those criticisms, particularly by conservative Christians. One thing that Schmidt points out is that there are some -- gays stand out particularly as one such group -- that don't fit very well into organized religion. I would also include those of a less social temperament. Certainly, introverts have a tough time in the Baha'i community -- and they probably do in other communities as well. The orthodox want these folks to either change themselves in order to fit into a community or to just forget about God. Well, too bad, because that doesn't happen -- Americans have been charting their own spiritual path for many generations now, and they will continue to do so. It's as old an American tradition as the revival meeting.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Unenrolled Baha'is and Pilgrimage

I ran across this article titled "Uphill Pilgrimage: Unenrolled Baha'is face a long road to Haifa". It's on the site for the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. It's a bit old, written in 2005 -- and the source material is even older. For the information on me, Jason Anthony used my "leaving the faith" story on my website.

I still get comments on that, as if it were written yesterday, instead of nearly nine years ago. Jason also makes the common mistake of thinking I left because of local conditions -- I didn't actually, but I spent so much time in that essay complaining about them that a lot of people have that impression. I'd have put up with local conditions indefinitly, perhaps as an enrolled inactive Baha'i, if I hadn't come across the larger issues. I sometimes ask myself, though, what I would have done with those larger issues, if I had been very happy with my local community . . . Motives can sometimes be very complex, and reasons for an action can't always be boiled down to a single thing. Oftentimes the "reason" is more of a final straw, which obscures the whole story.

The rest of the information appears to have been taken from Talisman posts, probably from 2000 or so, when I was still very emotional about the situation.

Nevertheless, I think the article was fair and well done. It was nice to see an outsider's viewpoint on the position of unenrolled Baha'is.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

The Limits of Universalism

In "The Illuminated Prayer: The Five-Times Prayer of the Sufis" by Coleman Barks, a story is recounted of a child in the Sufi community asking Bawa Muhaiyadden what religion she was. He responded:

You are a Christian because you believe in Jesus, and you are a Jew because you believe in all the prophets, including Moses. You are a Muslim because you believe in Muhammad as a prophet, and you are a Sufi because you believe in the universal teaching of God's love. You are really none of those, but you are all of those, because you believe in God. And once you believe in God, there is no religion. Once you divide yourself off with religions, you are separated from your fellowman.

Now, this has some resonance with me, and I would imagine with many Baha'is. After all, it is the teaching of the unity of religions that drew a lot of us into investigating the Faith in the first place. It felt very odd, once I became a Baha'i, to identify with a particular community, with its own particular expectations and culture. Like the new kid on the block, I did my best to fit in to all of that -- and the more "Baha'i" I became, invariably, I lost a good deal of that universalist outlook that had drawn me into the Faith in the first place. I have recovered some of it since leaving -- though, not all. I still have a distinct Baha'i identity; I still believe in Baha'u'llah.

And truthfully, Bawa and his followers have a distict identity as well. This book, which teaches in a non-dogmatic way, the prayer "of the Sufis" is actually teaching the Muslim salat, presenting it as a universal prayer. No matter how broad-minded and inclusive his community attempts to be, it remains Muslim in its essence, although I suspect they'd fit in with traditional Muslims about as well as I do in the Baha'i community.

It seems part of human nature to need a certain identity. I'm not entirely sure that anyone can follow a spiritual path without becoming attached to one more than another, no matter how inclusive you try to be. And, naturally, when you choose one, you have the feeling that it is somehow more "right" than the others, which don't suit you as well. But Bawa was correct in saying that it does cut you off from others to some extent. I don't feel comfortable showing up for Sunday Services at any of the local churches, although I know there are folks there who would do their best to make me welcome. There's just that little hitch of believing in Baha'u'llah, which means I just don't belong in a Christian church, no matter how liberal. There are New Age groups around, too, but I don't quite fit in there, either -- again, believing in Baha'u'llah makes me a Baha'i, and I can't really pretend to be anything else.

Going it alone, though, really isn't so bad. After all, it's what I did before I became a Baha'i. And, with the online community, there are many of us who are "going it alone", together. That sense of a community of solitaries is what I've been trying, with some success, to build out here. And it works. It's hard, but it works.

I find it interesting, though, how spiritual practices appear to be the most "separable" aspect of religion -- in some cases they are virtually idenitcal anyway. The practice of saying a mantra is pretty much like Sufi dhikr, which in turn is much like saying a Rosary or repeating the Jesus prayer -- you're just using different sacred words. Barks, in writing this book, clearly sees prayer as prayer -- usable by anyone no matter what creed is professed. I had to suppress a chuckle recently, when a yoga teacher told me that saying "OM" was just for the cleansing vibrations and had nothing to do with religion. Yoga is a path within Hinduism -- it's religious through and through. The Hatha Yoga Westerners practice to reduce stress or get into shape was originally inextricable from religious meditation. Of course, an act is religious only if you intend it so -- but I don't believe for a minute that the ancient yogis taught their disciples to chant "OM" so they could get rid of their toxins and improve their health. But then, unlike some, I don't have a problem with it being religious.

To continue: Religious identity can be a complex thing: There are spiritual practices, which, as I said, can be separated from the whole and performed by anyone who finds them meaningful. There are belief systems, which those of us coming from a Christian background tend to regard as the whole of what we mean by "religion", and which is generally the most exclusive aspect. (I doubt if the majority of adherents in any major religion actually have beliefs which entirely match those of religious authorities; folks beliefs are extremely persistent.) There are traditions -- holy days, rites of passage, and the like -- which people can be sentimentally attached to long after they leave behind the religious beliefs and/or community they were raised in. And finally, there are communities, where the formalities of membership apply -- although some religions are more formal about that than others. It is probably possible for a person to be a different "religion" in each of these four aspects. Certainly, it's not uncommon to find someone who is split between two, usually the religion they were brought up in, and the religion of their choosing. There are times I think that multiple religious identity may be the wave of future -- along with the "spiritual, but not religious" crowd -- but only time will tell.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Spirituality vs. Religion

The other day, on one of the lists I subscribe to, one of the posters said something to the effect that he was bothered by the term "spirituality". It seemed be a word without much meaning, particular for those who go about claiming that they are "spiritual, but not religious". This isn't the first time I've heard this. A friend of mine who is an evangelical Christian once said the same thing to me, when I used the term "spirituality"; he said "I don't know what that means". At the time, I was kind of taken aback and didn't quite know what to say -- only confirming, I suppose, his belief that "spirituality" is a term without meaning. I know what he *thinks* it means: A way for folks to have the comfort of believing in God without the nuisance of dealing with all the "Thou shalt nots" and inconvenient issues like sin. Cherry-picking beliefs so you take what you like and leave what you don't. A shallow belief-system that's just a little too easy. And, so on.

Then, on the other hand, there's religion. Archaic rules that don't make sense in today's world. Bigotry and intolerance cloaked as the Will of God. Narrow-minded people who follow their leaders like sheep; leaders who are control-freaks intent on preserving their own power. Obsessive conern with obscure theological issues that divide the pure from the heretical, etc, etc. Certainly, these battle lines are familiar to everybody who has any interest at all in religion and/or spirituality; it most certainly is not limited to the online "Baha'i Wars". What you've got basically is two world-views talking past each other. What is meaningless to one is absolutely essential to the other.

I'm always very reluctant to label anything in the realm of religion "meaningless", especially if we're talking about spiritual experience. Quite obviously, the practice, or belief, or whatever must have meaning to somebody or it wouldn't continue to exist. There are some religious perspectives that absolutely leave me flat -- I can't fathom why anybody would get into it, however tolerant and understanding I might try to be. Generally, all I'm left with is a polite incomprehension. (The polite part meaning that I'm not going to name any of these perspectives here.) Fundamentalism, on the other hand, I understand; I just think it's spiritually harmful. Fundamentalism focuses a person on his/her own rightness, and causes an obsession about what others are doing wrong. It's all about controlling others, rather than developing one's own relationship with God. Despite appearances, fundamentalism is not strong faith -- it's got cracks all over it, which requires the believer to anxiously try to "seal" them up i.e. defend their faith from "wrong" views.

The critics of "spirituality" actually do have a point. Very often, people who are "spiritual, but not religious" do miss the richness and depth of centuries-old traditions. There's plenty of spirituality in religion, if a person cares to dig; it's just that sometimes folks don't know that there's treasure underneath all the seemingly irrelevant and restrictive aspects that turn people off at first glance.

I define spirituality as the interior journey one engages in through spiritual practice. Anybody who's followed me around must be aware that I'm fascinated by spiritual practices: prayer, meditation, and discipline in all its various forms. That's not "fluff"; that's hard work. Work that does not center around who controls and who needs to be controlled or what belief is correct or not.

Take a look at Baha'u'llah's Tablet of the True Seeker (Kitab-i-Iqan p.192-196). When Baha'u'llah speaks of the spiritual journey, he emphasizes two things: The seeker must become detached from the world, and he must develop spiritual qualities. The things one does to achieve those two things is pretty much what "spirituality" is.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Intone My Servant -- The City of Immortality

I have spent the last month reading Gems of the Mysteries, and am close to the end. This morning's reading was from "The City of Immortality": In this instance, I actually prefer the official translation:

Having, in this journey, immersed himself in the ocean of immortality, rid his heart from attachment to aught save Him, and attained unro the loftiest heights of everlasting life, the seeker will see no annihilation either for himself or for any other soul. He will quaff from the cup of immortality, tread in its land, soar in its atmosphere, consort with them that are its embodiments, partake of the imperishable and incorruptible fruits of the tree of eternity, and be forever accounted, in the lofty heights of immortality, amongst the deniszens of the everlasting realm.

Now, I am intimately familiar with the Valley(or Garden) of Search, acquainted with the Valley(or City) of Love, and have gotten a few scattered glimpses of the Valley of Knowledge (which doesn't appear in "Gems"), but when you get towards these upper stations, Baha'u'llah is talking beyond my experience -- and, I suspect, beyond the experience of virtually everyone else who reads these passages. 'Abdu'l-Baha' says somewhere that those who recognize the Manifestation have already traversed all seven valleys, but the slightest trace of self brings us back to the beginning -- and which of us is free from "the slightest trace of self"?

What Baha'u'llah describes here is an enticing vision of what our goal is -- this almost reads like a description of the afterlife, rather than anything attainable in this one. But, I've just seen further down the page:

Know, moreover, that should one who hath attained unto these stations and embarked upon these journeys fall prey to pride and vainglory, he would at that very moment come to naught and return to the first step without realizing it.

Just what 'Abdu'l-Baha' said -- and the greatest temptation for any seeker, indeed for any religious person at all, is to take pride in what they've accomplished in their path. Who among us passes that test? Who among us doesn't think "Well, I've done really well at that, unlike those other guys who are really messing up big time"? We all like to think well of ourselves -- and then, we're back to pride. It's like tattle-taling at school -- the reason second-graders are such big tattle-tales is because they want attention for being good; they want Teacher to know that this other kid is being bad, which makes the tattler feel good by comparison. Children also take pride in knowing the "right" way to do things, which by second-grade they've gained some confidence in. Adults aren't so different; we're just more subtle about it.

Another interesting verse, down the page a bit: For were they to reach the ultimate object of their quest for God and their attainment unto Him, they would have but reached that abode which hath been raised up in their own hearts.

This journey is entirely internal, what we end up getting to know is the reflection of God in our own hearts -- God Himself being entirely unknowable and inaccessible. If we don't know God within ourselves, where else can we know Him?

Sunday, April 27, 2008

White Knuckles and Transformation

I recently read of someone who said of the spiritual path "I keep falling off the steed in the Valley of Search". O.K. kids, pop quiz: What is the name of that steed?

Almost everyone has had the experience of trying to quit a bad habit -- smoking, drinking and the like -- or trying to lose weight. We begin with a great burst of enthusiasm, but eventually stress overwhelms us into what I call the "Aw, the hell with it" moment when we backslide, and then we feel really bad about ourselves, and that low feeling saps our energy even further, to the point where we just don't have the gumption to begin again. For a loooong time.

Years ago, I went to a training session for teacher's aides that was discussing addiction, and they said it was quite possible for an addict or alcoholic to "white knuckle" it for a period of time, but more than will power is needed for long-term success -- they need to understand their addiction, its roots, the stressors that trigger it, etc.

In spiritual transformation, we aren't giving up a pleasure, we are seeking one -- we want to feel the presence of God in our lives. We are seeking paradise, as it were. But it's not easy -- if one message comes through loud and clear through the scriptures of the world is that the spiritual path is not easy. ("Narrow is the way, and strait the gate.") Except for the times when it is. ("My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.') Baha'u'llah says the same thing -- on the one hand he'll tell us that without effort we have attained the goal while those pious folks who have spent their whole lives searching have missed out, then on the other tell us a true believer is non-existent and lay out conditions for a true seeker that only a bona fide saint could live up to.

Trying to live up to the conditions demanded of us by our faith can bring us to a point of despair. If I remember my religious history, that's part of the reason Luther tossed out the notion that human effort had anything to do with salvation, and came up with his "faith alone" (sola fide) doctrine. That is, he was white-knuckling his spiritual life.

I don't think we can get very far with a grim determination to do "better" -- certainly not to be perfect. I think part of spiritual development is the ability to look honestly at our weaknesses, trying to understand the causes, and at times, admitting to ourselves that we aren't really all that ready to do anything about them. Admitting that we need God's help.

What I think is important is consistency and commitment. We need to have some "God time" every day. I don't think it matters especially what particular technique is used -- and there are a myriad ways of prayer and meditation to choose from. And whatever we choose, there are going to be days when we are rushed and forget, or we just plain aren't "into" it. (I find prayer is better than meditation on those days.) But we keep plugging away at it anyway. I'm a spiritual plodder -- I do it even on days when I don't think it's doing any good. Sometimes, my commitment to the quest is all I have to offer -- or one might even use the term "obedience". I'm there saying my noonday prayer because Baha'u'llah says to do it, which is one reason I can dredge up even if I can't think of any other reason.

So, why do it if you aren't feeling spiritual and maybe you aren't all that sure what you believe anyway? You're waiting. Big, dramatic, on-the-road-to-Damascus moments are few and far between. You wait for God. That's what my "God time" is; I'm just there waiting, faithful to the idea that if I keep showing up, so will He, eventually.

And I have found that, slowly, subtlely, changes begin to happen. Those "not into it" days are fewer, you start getting a handle on your weaknesses, days when you are doing better. Not a complete turnaround, just a little better -- then, a little better, then a slip, then back on track, and so on. Help comes to you eventually, and it really becomes easy, and something you wouldn't want to be without. Baha'u'llah tells us that even if the seeker should continue for a hundred thousand years and still find no trace, he shouldn't be discouraged. This isn't an achievement, trying to get a certain result or reward. It's waiting.

The steed of the Valley of Search is Patience.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Happy Ridvan!

Ridvan has always been a special holy day for me -- although once it was kind of bogged down by elections. Nevertheless, the story of Ridvan has, for me, a kind of mythic quality -- something that transcends actual historical events. There are a lot of memories associated with it:

*The song a dear friend wrote about it, that when you listen to it, you could practically see Baha'u'llah strolling the streets of Baghdad. "Beside the Tigris River, before the daystar rose . . ."

*The friend, now inactive, who declared on this day -- twenty years ago now, I guess. His favorite verse was "The beginning of all things is the knowledge of God . . ."

*How, on the ninth day, our community would have a storytime, each of us telling a story from one of the great world religions.

*In 1992, my daughter was born just hours before Ridvan, about 3:00 on the 20th.

*When I had the money, I would bring roses in honor of the day.

*Juan's article about how Ridvan is really a peace festival.

Rejoice with exceeding gladness, O People of Baha, as ye call to remembrance the Day of supreme felicity . . .

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Looking In, Looking Out

Over on Correlating there's a very interesting articleabout the Baha'i prohibition of asceticism.

Baha’u’llah tells us repeatedly not to follow the past in blind imitation, and to break off the shackles of learned knowledge. Doing that, being able to stand in a position where you can accurately see what parts of your beliefs match the Divine Word and what parts are culturally inherited it much more difficult than it might appear.Sociology would never frame the issue that way, as cultural versus Divine understanding, but the issue is ultimately the same – we see the world through our culture and that presents a dilemma. To describe the world we need language and concepts, categories and vocabulary, all of which are culturally derived. The very tools we have, in other words, to distance ourselves from our cultural understanding are the essence of that culture itself. Our culture is a web we can never fully untangle ourselves from.

I agree with this, and go even farther: Revelation itself comes to us filtered through a particular cultural lens. The Manifestation is human -- he speaks a particular language and lives in a particular time and place. If he wasn't, human beings would find him incomprehensible. There is no such thing as a "divine understanding" in this world -- everyone is going to view the revelation through a particular lens, bounded by their own culture, language, and experience.

However, the references in the Writings to "blind imitation" aren't really talking about "the past" in general, but mean the Shi'ih practice of taqlid, which is where a person chooses a particular cleric to follow, accepting his rulings on Islamic law without question. It is my understanding that, likewise, the knowledge that is condemned in the Writings is the result of clerical training, which can put a lot of weight into minutiae and tradition. It's a bit like Jesus condemning the Pharisees -- Baha'u'llah is warning against the excesses of religious specialists.

What David says about only having cultural tools to free ourselves from the culture we are in is interesting. I'd say that even whether or not we think it's a good idea to transcend our own culture is, to some extent, culturally bound. There's a lot of self-critique in the West, where anything and anyone is fair game for a challenge; I'm not that sure that's true of other places in the world. It would be a fascinating thing to look at -- how other cultures critique themselves, or even if they do.

I found this very interesting:

Knowing God, we are told by Baha’u’llah, comes about by acquiring God’s attributes – that is, we know and worship God by becoming more just, more compassionate, more merciful and so on. What I see as important here is that all of God’s attributes only have meaning in relation to other people. That is, there is no sensible way for me to talk about my striving to be more just that is decontextualized from concrete interaction with other people. Simply, God’s attributes only have meaning if they are attributes toward something. We say God is just because He is just toward us. Similarly we cannot speak of ourselves striving to be more just without grounding it in actual interactions, actual targets toward which we aim to behave more justly. How much we are being just or compassionate or any other attribute is understood and measured only in relation to our actions toward other people. On this level the ban on asceticism is straightforward – we cannot acquire attributes without other people because we need other people to be acting towards. The Guardian tells us that the center of religion is the individual’s mystic relationship with God, but even prayer and meditation center on the acquisition of God’s attributes. In solitude we pray to God for strength to become more merciful and we mediate, taking ourselves to account, for how merciful we have actually been.

The world's great mystics are known to us because they did, at some point, come out of the cloister and interact with others -- or even interacted with others within the cloister, which, after all, is a community. A person needs the solitude to reflect, to gain the perspective and detachment necessary to develop spiritually, but David's essential insight -- that divine qualities mean nothing outside of relationship -- is correct. We learn, both by experiences with others, and during the quiet contemplation of how those experiences have affected us.

Sen McGlinn has often discussed the duality theme found in the Baha'i Writings, particularly as reflected in the institutional structure, but I've always meant to write something up on how this duality reflects this looking inward(spirituality and worship) and looking outward(service and action). Maybe someday.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Karen Armstrong on Compassion

This speaks to one of those universal values where the Baha'i teaching on the unity of religion seems like a self-evident truth. Armstrong, both in this talk, and in her book The Great Transformation says that the founders of these religions were not so much concerned about belief (which is what we assume religion is about), but about putting their teachings into practice i.e., the way you really understand truth is not by an intellectual assent, but by the insight you gain by such practice.

I tried to embed this, but the long, complex code wasn't accepted by Blogger, and I'm not techie enough to fix it.

So, here's the page:

A Charter for Compassion

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Remover of Difficulties

When I was talking to Kimberly Winston the other day about Baha'i prayer beads, I happened to mention "Remover of Difficulties" as one of the verses that could be said with the prayer beads, and that reminded me of the importance of this prayer in my own life.

That wasn't always the case. It was one of the very first Baha'i prayers I ever saw -- it was on a teaching pamphlet, along with the Noonday prayer, and it struck me as rather odd. For one thing, it didn't seem like a prayer at all, since it didn't address God. Of course, before becoming a Baha'i, the very notion of having written prayers that are read or recited was kind of alien to me, and took a little getting used to.

Even as an enrolled Baha'i, it wasn't one of my favorites -- I rather preferred the Bab's "God sufficeth" prayer, although like all Baha'is I memorized "Remover of Difficulties" and would recite it during times of trouble.

Many years later, after I was unenrolled, I came across Denis MacEoin's Rituals in Babism and Baha'ism, where it talked about how this prayer, although there are no ritual instructions that accompany it, is used as Baha'is in a ritual manner -- we perform a "round", or we repeat it a specified number of times. MacEoin called this "an interesting example of popular ritual observance within a movement devoted to the principle of accepting only authoritative prescriptions in respect to devotional practice.'[p.45] I found that quite appealing -- here was a spiritual practice that was not laid down by any law, or approved of by any authority, but that naturally bubbled up from the grassroots. This is something that came from Baha'i hearts, not from any sense of obligation, but from their devotion to Baha'u'llah.

The practice stems from a story on p. 119 of God Passes By, describing Baha'u'llah's anger and disappointment with the Babi community in Baghdad, just before he left it to live as a solitary hermit in Sulaymaniyyih. He said to "bid them recite" the Remover of Difficulties verse "five hundred times, nay, a thousand times, by day and by night, sleeping and waking, that haply the Countenance of Glory may be unveiled to their eyes, and tiers of light descend upon them." Baha'u'llah recited this verse himself, as well.

This story struck me in a couple of ways: First, I identified with Baha'u'llah's feelings of sadness over the state of the community. After all I'd been through, I found comfort in the reminder that Baha'u'llah, too, had his moment of despair over the direction his religion was going. Secondly, I realized that the verse was not simply for hard times, or when you're feeling down, but for spiritual enlightenment. Finally, the way spiritual practice arose from a story reminded me of the Jesus Prayer, which evolved from the tax collector's prayer in Luke 18, and became one of the most common prayers repeated in Christian meditation.

I've felt myself more drawn to this verse for meditation ever since.

Is there any Remover of Difficulties save God? Say: Praised be God! He is God! All are His servants and all abide by His bidding.

Monday, March 31, 2008

The Inactive-Unenrolled Connection

It always drives me a bit nuts when someone says "99.9% of Baha'is believe X" or, even worse, "Six million Baha'is believe Y". These phrases used to come up a lot in debate, and my response is that one cannot make definitive statements like that when half (or more) of enrolled Baha'is are inactive in the Baha'i community. If you don't even have a current address, then you really don't know anything about what they think or believe -- and studies necessarily tend to overlook these folks. They are invisible and forgotten.

But one place where inactive Baha'is do become visible is in cyberspace; there are a lot of inactive Baha'is in the liberal online community. My statistics are incomplete, I'm afraid, since I don't insist that listmembers disclose their status, but my best estimate is that between 25-30% of the Unenrolled Baha'i email group subscribers are enrolled, but inactive, Baha'is. After all, inactive Baha'is have a lot in common with unenrolleds who have resigned from the Faith -- namely a belief in Baha'u'llah combined with disappointment with current conditions in the administrative community.

Now, I realize that this seems a bit on the negative side, on a blog where I said I was going to try to stay positive. But the outcome *is* positive. Inactive folks who haven't had anything to do with the Baha'i community for years, sometimes decades, find a place with us. We have no assemblies, no boring business meetings, none of the stresses that drove people away to begin with. Nobody's checking cards at the door. We offer support and understanding; sometimes, even deepening and mashriq. (I keep working and hoping for more of the latter.)

Now, obviously, there are some things missing. It isn't easy, creating community for unenrolled Baha'is -- and I definitely don't want to create a falsely rose-colored picture. But then it isn't easy getting an enrolled community off the ground, either -- I know, I've been there. It's strange, for all the put-downs about how insignificant the numbers of unenrolled Baha'is, I really feel like my community is bigger out here. I definitely have more Baha'i friends than I had when I was enrolled. For someone like me, who was isolated in a tiny, struggling real-life administrative community, the Internet community gave me wings.

Inspirational Video

I ran across this while cruising through the blogosphere. It's from Columbian singer Leonor Dely. Every once in while the idea comes up of doing an online mashriq -- I've even had a couple on my Unenrolled Baha'i list, although they tend to be hard to pull together. Something like this video would be great for an online devotional.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Prayers and Prayer Beads

Kimberly Winston has a website , and has written a book about prayer beads in the various religions. Her blog has a great deal about Catholic beads, but presumably she's planning on talking about the use of beads in other world religions -- and it seems like virtually all of them have some sort of prayer/meditation practice that uses beads. But she's starting with Baha'i prayer beads.

Besides the requirement in the Aqdas to recite "Allah'u'abha" 95 times, prayer beads can be used for a variety of repetitive meditations, to suit the devotee. There's the "Remover of difficulties", which Baha'u'llah has been reported to have told the friends to recite 500 times, or even more. There's the Quran verse 65:2-3, which Alison talked about on her blog. For a while the verse from the Kitab-i-Ahd: "Say: All things are of God" was popular among the cyberspace community. I have also, at time, borrowed from Muslim or Christian practice.

I got my prayer beads from Special Ideas. They are blue sodalite, which is one of the minerals composing lapis lazuli. According to folks who believe in the mystical properties of semiprecious stones, sodalite is supposed to represent "truth" -- an idea which I rather like to be reminded of as I pick my beads up.

All that being said, I actually prefer meditation without using prayer beads -- a kind of centering prayer focusing on Baha'u'llah. But He has left us with a great deal of latitude in our devotional lives; there's lots of room for experimentation.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Intone My Servant - Gems of the Mysteries

I've been meaning to do some looking at the Baha'i Writings here on Unenrolled Baha'i -- this is, after all, a religious blog, and a look at scripture now and then seems appropriate.

But I know myself well enough to know that if I have to pick a topic, and several quotes from different tablets, and put it all together in a logical essay, I'll never get around to it. Oh, I can do it alright -- it's just that my online writing tends to be spontaneous, and my disk drive is littered with would-be projects like that.

So, what I decided to do, in keeping with that spontaneous spirit, is about once a month or so, take whatever passage I read during my morning or evening devotions and talk about it a little bit. And, I'd call it "Intone My Servant", as kind of a column within the blog, because it comes straight from my devotional reading, rather than any intellectual point I'm trying to make.

I was planning on doing this around the first of the month, but as it happened, I was reading this today, from the Gems of the Mysteries, speaking on the Garden of Search:

In this journey, it is incumbent on the seeker to sever himself from all besides God, and to close his eyes to all who are in the heavens and upon the earth. His heart should contain neither hate towards any creature nor love for anyone, such as might prevent him from attaining the sanctuary of beauty.

That's from Juan Cole's translation, which I prefer. In case readers are using the official version:

In this journey, it behoveth the wayfarer to detach himself from all save God and to close his eyes to all that is in the heavens and on the earth. There must not linger in his heart either the hate or love of any soul, to the extent they would hinder him from attaining the habitation of the celestial beauty.[Gems of Divine Mysteries p.27]

This tablet sometimes reads like a combination of Seven Valleys and the Kitab-i-Iqan; it was written close to the same time, and covers the same themes. This instruction for travelling through the Valley of Search sounds much like what Baha'u'llah tells us in the Tablet of the True Seeker:

He must so cleanse his heart that no remnant of either love nor hate may linger therein, lest that love blindly incline him to error, or that hate repel him away from the truth.

This particular passage is associated with a happy memory. When I was a brand-new believer, I did a deepening on this theme, trying to answer the question of what kind of love would "blindly incline" us to "error". Oh, it was a big deal, and I took the group through the Bible (some Baha'is had never read Corinthians 13!), and the Upanishads, among other things. I know these good folks were wondering just what kind of fish they'd caught. It was the unity of religion, more than anything else that had led me to the Faith, and I think I was rather more enthusiastic about the concept than my audience.

But, the funny thing is, I don't remember where that search-oriented deepening took us i.e. what the answer was. And, I think, as in so many spiritual matters, the Answer (with a capital A) is not static; I think we always need to be asking ourselves if our love for something or someone is distracting us from God.

For those who approach sainthood (which doesn't include your humble blogger here), the love of God should so permeate us that we love all for His sake. Once Rabi'a was asked if she hated Satan, and she said that she was too busy with the love of God to bother about hating Satan. That's an ideal, and like all ideals it is probably literally unattainable, but we keep trying anyhow.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Godblogger Talks About Beating a Different Baha'i Drum

Umm Yasmin, over on Godblogger is an ex-Baha'i Muslim, but she has shared an article she wrote when she was a Baha'i, based on Scott Peck's idea about community, that I thought was worth reading.

God-inspired Organizations vs. God-inspired Individuals

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Unenrolled Miscellany

There are a couple of discussions going on about unenrolled Baha'i identity: One is on talisman9, where proofs of the growth of unenrolleds are being discussed. (You have to join to read it.) The other is Steve Marshall's blog article "No Assembly Required". Properly speaking, Steve is an inactive Baha'i, but he shares some of the same perspectives and motivations that ex-members have -- and, of course, his wife Alison is unenrolled, forcibly taken off the rolls by order of the House. (On second thought, "inactive" seems an inadequate description of the editor of Baha'is Online. We need a better word for an enrolled Baha'i that doesn't partipate in administrative matters, but is very involved with the Faith otherwise.)

I'm extremely shy of estimating numbers of unenrolled Baha'is -- I think that being unenrolled, to some extent, means getting away from the obsession with statistics that characterize the administrative Faith. However, I read one Baha'i scholar, who once worked at the National center, estimate the number of unenrolleds as around 10,000 in the U.S. -- and this included people who had a dual religious identity. He said that polls he participated in turned up Baha'is that National never heard of i.e. people who identified themselves as Baha'i but had never registered. But that number is still just an educated guess -- that's probably all we'll ever have.

What I see happening is that the *idea* of being an unenrolled Baha'i is growing -- people that at one time would have thought of themselves as ex-Baha'is who still retained an appreciation for Baha'i ideals are realizing that being off the membership rolls does not have to mean an abandonment of religious identity. Likewise, there are enrolled Baha'is who accept unenrolleds as fellow believers.

Sen McGlinn argues that this is a positive development in the religion -- that it marks an emergence from a sect-like structure. Think of any "cult" group you can name, and there is no distinction at all between membership and adherence, whereas one can run into Christians, Muslims, or Buddhists who do not belong to any formal organization. That is, having unattached adherents is a sign of maturity in a religion, not a sign of growing opposition, as it is sometimes described.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Unenrolled Baha'is and World Order

Question: Do you see yourself as a part of building the World Order of Baha'u'llah?

This is a very good question -- one which required me to do some thinking about the answer, which is "Yes". There is a tendency among Baha'is (not excepting myself) to identify the World Order of Baha'u'llah with the Administrative Order, but that's not really the case. There is more to the Baha'i religion than its administration, and more to the World Order of Baha'u'llah than just Baha'is. I see the World Order as having both the institutions of the Baha'i Faith, and non-Baha'i institutions -- in which Baha'is might participate, but they don't administer.

Then, looking at simply the Baha'i Faith, there are the administrative institutions, where membership and voting rights decide who participates, and the mashriq'u'l-adhkar and its auxiliary institutions, where being an enrolled Baha'i with voting rights doesn't matter. For the last couple of generations, the building of the administrative institutions has been the main focus -- to the point that the institutions for worship and service have sometimes been overlooked. (The recent creation of devotional meetings has been a wonderful reversal to this trend.)

There is a quote from 'Abdu'l-Baha' where he says that the heart of the believer is the mashriq'u'l-adhkar -- so it's a mistake to think of it simply as the physical House of Worship. The devotional groups many Baha'i communities have started since "core activities" became the rage are building the mashriq'u'l-adhkar. So are any unofficial Baha'i prayer groups. The mashriq is a worship community, and one's status as a voter in the administrative order doesn't matter there -- yet, the mashriq is a Baha'i institution. Unenrolled Baha'is are able to participate, both in local Baha'i communities, or in devotional groups they create, or singly -- worshipping God in the temple of the heart.

The same is true of the "service" part of the mashriq, which 'Abdu'l-Baha' said was essential. When your actions serve mankind, are you not building the World Order of Baha'u'llah? What is the difference if you feed the hungry at the direction of the LSA or you feed the hungry at a non-Baha'i soup kitchen? The hungry get fed through your service, either way -- and isn't the elimination of poverty so dire people lack food one of the aspects of the World Order? Did 'Abdu'l-Baha' wait for direction from an institution before he helped the poor? Yet, you cannot say he wasn't serving the goals of Baha'u'llah by doing that.

And finally, I don't believe in having too much emphasis on what the Baha'i future will look like -- all of our predictions will be wrong to some extent. We know what the goals are -- peace, race unity, religious tolerance, education, elimination of extreme poverty, equality of the sexes, etc. As far as I'm concerned, any activity that furthers those goals serves the World Order of Baha'u'llah.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Making Our Own Way

In spite of the corporate emphasis of the administrative Baha'i community, I've always felt that the Writings of Baha'u'llah were incredibly supportive -- indeed, they insist upon -- the individual's spiritual quest. I've found that this aspect of my Baha'i life has become even more important since I became unenrolled -- there are no assembly meetings, or plans, or any of that. There's just Baha'u'llah and me.

There are times I think being an unenrolled Baha'i is a matter of temperament. Some people are naturally introverted, others extroverted -- and they really don't understand each other too well. The extrovert sees the introvert "doing nothing", not knowing that the mind and the internal world can be very busy indeed. The introvert finds the rush of external activity a burden, and one that is often devoid of meaning. That doesn't make either way "right"; it's just a difference. For some, it would be very difficult to follow a spiritual path without having support, and face-to-face community. For others, tranquility and solitude are necessary to hear the still, small voice of God. If you can relate to the sayings "The kingdom of heaven is within you" and "Hell is other people", then being a Baha'i on your own probably doesn't seem like such a bad thing.

Baha'u'llah makes room for us. He absolutely forbids taqlid -- the blind following of clerical authority -- and exhorts us to "see with your own eyes". The Muslim congregational prayer is replaced by the individual choice of three different prayers, and such a light worship requirement that it is easy for the individual to create what works for him/her. Again and again, he exhorts us to "ponder and reflect", turning us in on our own hearts and minds.

In my evening devotions tonight, I just happened to come upon this: It is incumbent on one who journeys unto God and who emigrates for his sake to sever himself from all who are in the heavens and on earth, and to restrain his sould from all save him.[Gems of the Mysteries, Juan Cole translation] This, of course, is a theme that Baha'u'llah returns to again and again. And while may be possible to find detachment in the whirlwind of social affairs, I have a hard time seeing how.

One of my favorite verses about the power of individual contemplation is this: My friends, you are the wellsprings of my own discourse. In every spring, a droplet from the heavenly stream of divine meaning wells up. With the hand of certainty, cleanse these springs of the pollution of unfounded judgments and illusions. In this way, might you yourselves give convincing and unassailable answers to the sorts of questions that have been posed. In this greatest of dispensations, all must appear with branches of knowledge and sayings of wisdom.[Tablet of the Son, Juan Cole translation]

So, we are the wellsprings of His discourse -- we just have to work on cleansing the spring. And we have to do that ourselves.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Dealing with Opposition: Don't Apologize

It is impossible to take any stand, especially a religious stand, in public without provoking negative comment. Become known in cyberspace, and you're a mini-celebrity -- sometimes loved and sometimes hated. It took me a long time to figure out how to deal with this position wisely; I'm still not sure I always do. One of the temptations I struggle to resist is that of falling back into a defensive mode, arguing with the vicious and sometimes completely untrue things that are said.

When you're an unenrolled Baha'i, and you say so publicly, you make a whole lot of people unhappy. There are the fundamentalist Baha'is, of course, who flit between seeing you as a dark-souled enemy and looking down their noses in feigned pity. There are the anti-Baha'is, who seem to pretty much agree with the fundies in their rigid, acontextual view of Baha'i scripture, but view it all as bad and don't want anybody to be any kind of Baha'i, unenrolled or not. Then, there are the anti-religious, who think the whole bunch of us are completely ridiculous. When you get down to it, some people are going to keep pounding on you unless and until you see things their way.

If you don't allow others the freedom to decide what they want to believe -- and you aren't allowing for that if you speak of them harshly -- then you aren't treating them like human beings and have lost whatever moral high ground you think you've got. It's an easy trap to fall into, especially if you feel like you're under attack. I have mostly tried, in my years in cyberspace, to direct my criticisms towards specific issues and policies rather than individuals, although I've had a few exasperated moments that definitely disqualify me for sainthood. But I'm trying; I really am.

But today I was trying to turn my thoughts towards the people I am really talking to out here: Those souls who are moved by the Writings of Baha'u'llah, but who cannot find a place in the official Baha'i community. Their voices of encouragement are worth more than than all the rest of the fundies and antis put together.

I have always said that the only way to "win" -- if such a concept is really applicable at all -- is to be the best Baha'i you can be. Baha'u'llah's heart is open, even if others are not:

Every receptive soul who hath in this Day inhaled the fragrance of His garment and hath, with a pure heart, set his face towards the all-glorious Horizon is reckoned among the people of Bahá in the Crimson Book. Grasp ye, in My Name, the chalice of My loving-kindness, drink then your fill in My glorious and wondrous remembrance.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Infallibility: What Baha'u'llah Says

While I'm plugging other blogs, I notice that Alison has just posted a great essay on infallibility. This is a topic where misunderstandings have caused no small amount of harm.

One of the first things I was ever told when I was a new believer was that I should never believe anything other Baha'is told me about Baha'i teaching unless I could find it confirmed in the Writings -- and Alison goes straight to the source here.

Baha'i Thought

I've seen several stories on Baha'i Thought and Black America that I've been meaning to comment on, but somehow never got back to. So, I just decided to plug the whole blog. This is the kind of thing I meant when I said this blog is about Baha'i thinking that isn't administration-centered. Instead, Phillipe Copeland engages one of the most important Baha'i social principles and relates it to what's going on in the world. I sort of feel like I should contribute some intelligent commentary of my own here, but Phillipe does it better -- so check him out.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The Decision to Leave

The other day a friend emailed me, recalling that I had said that I never encourage Baha'is to leave the Faith and asking for a quote to that effect. I've said this several times, but in hunting down an actual quotes, I only found some on my Unenrolled Baha'i list -- which is for members only, and therefore not precisely a "public" statement.

So, here goes: I never encourage anyone to leave the Baha'i Faith. In fact, I'm not keen on telling others what they ought to do, period. On the UB list, what I hope to do is clarify issues and give the disillusioned Baha'i emotional support while they make their own decision.

It's strange that this is one area where both angry ex-Baha'is and Baha'i hardliners seem to agree -- both express a good deal of exasperation about the moderate, liberal, or unenrolled Baha'i for hanging on to the religion, seeing Baha'i fundamentalism as the "real" faith and anything else as just watered-down wishful thinking. To me this demonstrates not only an unwillingness to engage with the Writings of Baha'u'llah on their own terms, it is an uncharitable dismissal of the complex emotional and social factors that go into one's religious choices. One reason I never tell anyone what to do with regard to their official status is that I don't stand in their shoes. For some, getting out would be very difficult; for others, staying would be just as difficult.

And, there's a part of me that just feels like saying "It's none of your business what my religion is. Why do you care so much? It's no skin off your backside, after all."

That's why I tend to deal will folks that show up to my list with a light hand -- their choice is not really my business. I'll help folks with the emotional fallout, if I can, but it's not for me to argue with what they decide.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Where I'm Going with This

A friend of mine yesterday, when he discovered that I plan a blog on non-administrative aspects of being a Baha'i, thought that I was creating a devotional blog. And, I thought about that. Certainly, the devotional life is a big part of Baha'i life outside the administration, and I do plan on doing some writing along those lines -- although I already do a good deal of talking about the devotional life on Karen's Path, albeit strictly from the perspective of my own personal experiences.

I think I'd like to go a little broader than that. What I have in mind is connecting with Baha'i thought that isn't dominated by administrative matters and the limitations of official discourse. For example, I happened to run into a blog called The Baha'i Liberty Blog, which is written by a young man who is engaged in reconciling libertarian political thought with Baha'i teaching. Now, I don't necessarily agree with that, although I was very close to being a libertarian myself when I was young, and there are several of his points I could argue with. (In fact, I can just picture my liberal friends thinking I'm nuts for linking to this guy.) But I was struck by how radical this approach is, for a Baha'i to so brazenly identify himself with a political philosophy. Agree or not, it definitely represents an attempt at some original thinking.

This, to me, represents a huge change in Baha'i culture -- a change which is directly linked to the freedom allowed by the Internet. I've seen other young Baha'is make brief mention of political candidates, too. Now, when I was enrolled, this was strictly verboten -- more, I think, by peer pressure than anything the administration ever did. Once in a while somebody would make a comment about the current President and it was slightly embarrassing, a faux pas. Baha'is weren't supposed to talk politics, period.

In actual fact, Baha'is, throughout their history have gone through both engaged and distant periods where politics is concerned. Baha'u'llah did not forbid politics per se, but did not want Baha'is involved with subversive movements. "Abdu'l-Baha' and Shoghi Effendi sometimes forbade and sometimes approved engagement with poltical matters. For example, Baha'is were involved in the Civil Rights movement, with Shoghi Effendi's approval, because of the Faith's clear teachings on racial equality, even though he made some very strong statements about Baha'is avoiding identification with the Republican or Democratic parties.

Baha'is, for the most part, are intelligent people who are genuinely concerned about the world around them -- and engagement with that world can't help but be political from time to time, whether you're concerned about poverty, education, the environment, women's issues or world peace The alternative is taking an above-the-fray attitude, which renders all those great Baha'i social teachings rather meaningless, except as applied internally.

But I'm optimistic about the potential of the Internet to bring out a variety of ideas and approaches. It's easier to break out of the mold when you're writing at a computer than over tea and cookies, face to face.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Starting an Unenrolled Baha'i Blog

An unenrolled Baha'i is a believer in Baha'u'llah who is not an official member of the Baha'i Faith, nor affiliated with any of the small Baha'i splinter groups. Sometimes you hear the term "independent Baha'i". There's also a good argument for "unaffiliated Baha'i", since it does not define adherents in terms of membership of the mainstream Baha'i Faith. "Unaffiliated" is a term that's also used in polls and studies to describe people who have a set of spiritual or religious beliefs, but are not formal members of any religious community.

But I started with the term "unenrolled" -- and I didn't invent it. It was around long before I started writing, used to describe people who hung around the Baha'i community, even confessing that they believed in Baha'u'llah, but for one reason or another, never signed on the dotted line. There are also numerous unenrolled Baha'is in places like Bolivia, where remote villages have heard of the Faith from Baha'i radio, but have never been reached by travel teachers to get signed up and organized. I'd love to know how the Faith is developing in such places, but I suppose anyplace too remote for the administration is also too remote for researchers as well.

The second way that people become unenrolled Baha'is is that enrolled Baha'is become disillusioned with conditions in the Baha'i community, or policies of the Baha'i administration, and they leave voluntarily to go it on their own. They have become visible with the rise of the Internet -- although I think they've always been there. I run into people who've been out of the Faith for a decade or more, and still have an attachment to Baha'u'llah. I myself was an enrolled Baha'i for thirteen years and have been an unenrolled one for nine.

The third category of unenrolled Baha'is are those that have been forcibly removed from the membership rolls against their will. The UHJ has essentially created this category as a matter of policy since 1997, by removing individuals they hold to be unqualified for membership. Since a person just doesn't stop believing in Baha'u'llah at the stroke of a pen, a cluster of Baha'is outside the mainstream Faith is the inevitable result -- although I'm not at all sure that the House anticipated that.

In the years since I left formal enrollment behind, I've sought way to create community among unenrolled Baha'is. It's no easy thing. The mainstream Baha'i community itself is rather thinly spread -- as one wag put it: " Baha'is are everywhere,. . . and nowhere." That is, you can find Baha'is in nearly every corner of the globe, but each corner has so few that they aren't very visible and have little impact on the wider society.

Unenrolled Baha'is are fewer in number, and even more widely spread. I have heard that, in some places, small informal groups gather under the radar of the administration, but most of us find company on the Internet.

Which brings me to the point of this blog: This blog is about any and all things Baha'i -- except the administration. I want to talk about being a Baha'i, without getting tangled up in Baha'i politics. I cover that adequately in my general blog . Here, I want to try something different. Let's see how it works.