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.