Jan 082012

If human reality is a mirror, then it only shines because of the sun appearing within it. A painting’s beauty is only revealed because of light within the room. The quality of anything derives from a Source other than that thing itself.

If we look to ourselves, what we find worthy of attention is Him; otherwise, alone, we would be like corpses without life. Life is from Him, and of Him, and a manifest sign of His handiwork.

In a sense, it means that the very act of contemplating God is to witness the agency of God, in the same way that being able to see and ponder a physical thing is to bear witness to the light which makes such vision possible.

Put another way, my human reality is a like lamp, which God has filled with oil. Now, in a dark room, devoid of light, my nature is indistinguishable from everything else. That is, by myself I have no visible existence. But then God kindles a flame within me. This is made possible because He has endowed human nature with certain potentialities.

Once I am lit, I manifest qualities which are not akin to my lamp-nature, but resemble Another nature: light, heat, illumination. These qualities, which originate from the Sun, are, to a reduced degree, apparent in me. In this sense God’s qualities appear with me, and I am “made in His image”.

If I look within myself, and see this light, then I am seeing Him, not myself; for of my own nature there is nothing to be seen. That is, I cannot exist without His light. If that light should go out, my being would vanish. We have no existence apart from Him, and so the appearance of our reality is a revelation of His. If we see ourselves in these terms, we should see God within us, for if He is Light, every lantern is His dawning place.

Another metaphor to describe what I’m aiming at is to compare ourselves with a painting. Alone, a painting is just paper and pigment. It has no beauty, no form. Only when the Master Artist takes up both, and reshapes them according to His Own design, does the painting achieve an exalted station. If the painting could then regard itself, it would see the hand of the Master evident upon it, and know the majesty of its Creator.

O Son of Spirit! I created thee rich, why dost thou bring thyself down to poverty? Noble I made thee, wherewith dost thou abase thyself? Out of the essence of knowledge I gave thee being, why seekest thou enlightenment from anyone beside Me? Out of the clay of love I molded thee, how dost thou busy thyself with another? Turn thy sight unto thyself, that thou mayest find Me standing within thee, mighty, powerful and self-subsisting.

To me, this Hidden Word is saying: Recognize the greatness of God’s having created man; perceive human reality with a clear eye, and witness how God has made him the dawning place of His names and attributes, and we are therefore the very means by which we know Him. Love, beauty, justice, grandeur: all these require human hearts, and human minds, to become known. He has created us to this end: that we be His mirrors in the world of creation. Thus we are both proof, sign and evidence; seeker and sought; end and beginning.

The material world is a scroll. We are ink, which God has traced upon that scroll, to reveal His intent. If, therefore, we look upon ourselves, we will see His Hand reflected there.

 Posted by at 6:31 am
Dec 312011

Religious truth can at times seem obscure and difficult to fathom:

  • Can detachment co-exist with caring about someone?
  • Does the Unity of God mean transcending the world’s variety, or relishing in it?
  • Would a perfected man savor life, or remain unmoved by its changes and chances?
  • If I’m human, and told to consider the needs of humanity, why am I also told to completely disregard my self? Aren’t I human too?
  • If the Covenant is just an agreement, why is it spoken of so much?

Despite these conundrums, I think that religious truth is something universal, which everyone not only can understand, but already understands. By the time a person has reached adulthood, no matter their culture or background, they have lived through certain, common experiences relating to each of the divine mysteries. The reason why these mysteries remain obscure is that we live those truths by a material context and have yet to translate them into a divine context. Doing so calls to mind Bahá’u’lláh’s words: “One must, then, read the book of his own self, rather than some treatise on rhetoric.”

By a material context, I mean that we understand these principles first in worldly terms, even if the same truth holds for eternal things as well. For example, anyone who has fallen in love knows what the love of God means, even if at first they only know it through loving another person or thing. The essential truth of love is the transcendant experience; but moving it beyond the physical is the job of the seeker.

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 Posted by at 7:22 am
Dec 232011

Can religion really satisfy human needs? Hasn’t it been the product of disorder and strife more often than not?

Religious organizations are run by human beings. Not everything they do should be described in the same terms as religion itself. One concerns the efforts of this world; the other, the teachings of an Ideal Realm. This is a main reason why religion recurs through history: to lessen the gap as humanity slowly matures.

The measure of genuine unity and virtue which can result from religion – despite the paucity of its resources and resistance from society — is not achievable by minds alone. It’s easy to rally a group of fanatics around a prophecy; but fanatics are notorious for their hatred of outsiders. True religion engenders unity not only within a group, but toward those outside it as well.

Religion should make of man a perfected being: upright, noble, renowned in virtue. He should become a lover of humanity — both the righteous and the rebellious — and behave as a servant and friend to all. Whether in peace or war, he finds contentment in the Will of God, and acts as a symbol of the Divine promise to all who encounter him.

When a person takes on these attributes, he finds the “fulfillment” the soul is longing for. Throughout history, people have sought it in wealth, fame, power, etc., but there is always something missing, as though we were “meant for something more”. Is Alexander the Great remembered for his joy at conquering the world? Or didn’t he weep when he realized there were no more rulers to overcome?

There is a real thirst in the soul, a hunger for things not of this world. I believe religion contains the blueprint to finding this Water and Bread of Life, but it’s not about simply assenting to what others have believed. Let the inaudible voice of the soul serve as a guide. Examine every idea with an eye to what satisfies your innermost longing.

If God has provided us with the means to find Him, we will if we are sincere; if He hasn’t, how can we be blamed if we fail?

 Posted by at 6:13 am
Dec 162011

I first met Ashley Alvis, I don’t know how — in that way things happen which are meant to happen. We spoke briefly over a few e-mails, and I recognized right away a soul who knew things by knowing them intimately. It was not enough for Ashley to ponder the depths of religious truth; his desire was to become truly and completely wet.

He was someone who knew ecstasy as a doorway to transformation: when the darkness of misery and despair must vanish before pure light. He became a beacon of joy, filling up with light until his very fullness became its own pain. For there were not many he could speak to, or share such states with. At such moments verse was his only companion, nodding its lines of assent beneath starred skies at his home in Georgia.

He wrote to me once that our Faith has need of a Hafez. Someone who will disregard all boundaries, and break all ties, that others may be prompted to do the same within themselves. There can be no room for stillness or movement, in the end, save the Beloved. And who can tread such impossibilities who has not courted the insanity of love, or been remade by knowledge, or been dissolved at once in the Divine Unity? Ashley was a trailblazer to such lands, who wrote of his travels. As he once wrote, “This is a sea of nothingness in which He cast His lure.”

Below are some lines I wrote to Ashley less than a week after we had created a mailing list together for our friends of the mystic persuasion. His passing brought an end to those discussions, and I have missed them — and him – ever since:

Open, my friend, your unseen lips  
  to carol a thousand lover's songs  
that time and fate may have wearied of --  
  though not our lonesome throng.

We await your foolish words,  
  that for fools are "full of meaning";  
and anticipate a screeching rent  
  in all these veils of seeming.

Like idiots, are minds are blanked  
  of all "seen and heard and understood",  
to gather in our Teacher's words  
  in the form of you, my Robin Hood:

Steal from the angels, and gift we poor!  
  Their heaven is too bright and dear,  
not to spare some bauble for us,  
  or the hope of drawing near.

  "No man that seeketh Us  
     will We ever disappoint,  
  neither shall he that hath set his face towards Us  
     be denied access unto Our court...." (Bahá’u’lláh)
 Posted by at 7:57 am
Dec 082011

Even though things are not as they could be, things at the present are as they should or must be. It doesn’t mean they will stay that way tomorrow, or even hours from now, but in the moment itself there is never any defect:

The wayfarer in this Valley seeth in the fashionings of the True One nothing save clear providence, and at every moment saith: “No defect canst thou see in the creation of the God of Mercy: Repeat the gaze: Seest thou a single flaw?”

Consider a child: Although they are not what they could be, in their state of being a child they are what they should be. Further, growth cannot be stopped! Appreciating the child as a child does not cause him to remain a child. Change is ineluctable.

We see faults in others because we look at what is in terms of what we think it should be. We reject it, reserving our love for another time, another day. This rejection is a form of hate. It is a willful denial of what is, an earnest wish that it were different. We are left tolerating the present in a state of inward revulsion, enduring it until our desired future comes about.

But in this state, how can we serve? Can we truly care for the people, the situations, that exist here and now? Like the child, loving the present as perfect in-itself does not preclude change. In fact, it assists change, is the best guide of change, because we are serving the person, not who we wish the person to become.

Relative to our potential, all things exist in a state of imperfection. So if God placed us here to learn how to love, that can only mean loving things in their “imperfect” state. If the world were suddenly transformed into its promised future, how could we develop the ability to love it, apart from its outward form?

 Posted by at 6:14 am
Nov 302011

An individual has two parts, his spiritual, or divine nature, and his self, or lower nature. His spirit is manifested by the soul, and his self, within the material body.

The aim of religious is to perfect the individual, but this means the whole person: where self becomes wholly subordinate to the spirit. If spirit is a light, then self is the cold and crude lantern which encases this light. It can also protect and nurture its flame; choice decides whether it will hide or reveal the inner realities.

Because the lantern is the tangible thing, so self is the most direct thing we can operate on. This can caused the goal of “perfecting the individual” to become “perfecting the self”.

For example, in the pursuit of knowledge, it seems most natural and accessible to increase the knowledge of the self, through discipline and learning. But this does not necessarily make the individual more wise. In fact, it can seem in every way to be like wisdom — to give every appearance of it — but it may still not be real wisdom.

The path of knowledge for the individual is to learn, as well as knowable things, also the immensity of the unknown, of mystery, of God’s inscrutable Will. This knowledge must increase until the self utterly abandons any feeling that it possesses real knowledge. At that point, knowledge comes from its acquiescence before God, and dawns in the heart through spiritual inspiration. “Fear God, and God will give you knowledge”.

So the individual is not perfected through enriching the self, even though it seems that the self can acquire virtue and learn humility. Instead, its humility must come from its awe of the Creator, and trembling before His majesty. Whatever it may seem to possess is as nothing, and this cannot be in thought alone. If he hold a cup full of water, he must contemplate the Sea at all times.

 Posted by at 6:59 am
Nov 232011

I think the spiritual world is real, but it is like a seeing man looking for the sun in a cave. Until he leaves the cave, no report, however accurate, will convince him that the sun is anything more than a description.

If it weren’t real, how to explain the dramatic changes in society that have taken place after each religion was founded? Christ walked around and talked to people, informally, for three and a half years. A carpenter, a son without a father, poor. And yet, not only did He utterly transform the Roman Empire, but His legacy remains world-embracing to this day.

How many philosophers have labored for decades to produce a change in the world’s affairs, only to end in futility, or be remembered for their thoughts without producing any actual change? Plato’s masterpiece, the Republic, has yet to create a single enduring city with even a passing resemblance to his hopes.

If wish-fulfillment alone were this powerful, how to explain the utter failure of millions of self-help books to alleviate the inner difficulties of the world? If the soul were so easily satisfied, religions should be popping up left and right. Who doesn’t want a piece of the pie that the Catholic church and the mosques rake in every day?

One man, for three and a half years, talking briefly to the people around him. Think about that. Another man, exiled from His home city, built up a band of Arabian followers and fought a few battles with them. So many generals have done more; why isn’t Aurelius — a devoted supported of Stoicism — as remembered?

And the Báb, who went on a pilgrimage, proclaimed Himself to be the Promised One, then spent several years in prison until He was executed. His ministry did not last seven years! And yet, look at the effect: tens of thousands not only went to their deaths, but laughed during torture, kissed the hands of their executioner, gave them money and gifts. When has blind fanaticism ever yielded such generosity of heart in the midst of suffering? When has it led to consideration for one’s enemies, to sacrificing one’s own life in order to honor the faith of his enemy?

If you look to the original history of each of the world’s religions, you will find a quality that no one has learned how to reproduce. Perhaps because there is something deeper involved? Because, although mystical experience can sometimes be explained in psychological terms, there is a truth involved that can’t be captured by description?

The whole point of seeking is to find. This is not an easter egg hunt in an empty field. The reason you bring up these questions — why so many people do – is because the question hasn’t been answered to your satisfaction. But why would God create such a hunger, and not provide the food? Every creature’s desire has a fulfillment: why would our souls be an exception to this rule?

 Posted by at 7:36 am
Nov 162011

Today’s entry is about a word that appears in the Bahá’í Writings: tawajjuh, or “attention”.

This word is still in common use, and means “attention”, “focus” or “turning toward”. The root it stems from is wajh: “face” or “countenance”. The form tawajjuh is a verbal noun with the literal meaning of “facing”. Thus, the meaning of “attention” comes from the idea of having one’s face directed at something.

Continue reading »

 Posted by at 6:08 am
Nov 082011

One of the things religion aims to teach people is how to appreciate God’s creation. In the Seven Valleys, Bahá’u'lláh says the purpose is “…that every man may thereby win his way to the summit of realities, until none shall contemplate anything whatsoever but that he shall see God therein.”

Since God is the best of all things: the most beautiful, most wondrous, most inspiring Reality one could imagine, then seeing him everywhere means becoming excited by life like a little child. Everything has some new meaning, some secret to be unwrapped.

This is the Kingdom of God. It is paradise, heaven, the apex of consciousness and understanding. And He created it for us, His children. He sent all His Messengers with their Glad-Tidings to summon us to that pure and perfect world.

Nor is it someplace near or far. It is all around us, within us. If we see God in people, we can love everyone; if we see Him in the things of the world, we will fall in love with life; if we see Him in ourselves — “behold Me standing within thee, Mighty, Powerful and Self-Subsisting” — we realize we are never, ever alone.

Christ said, “Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.” This is the life we were created to know. It is what our souls have longed for since the moment of conception. And the Path to that Reality can be found through the way of the Manifestations of God, in Their Writings and Their example.

O My servants! My holy, My divinely ordained Revelation may be likened unto an ocean in whose depths are concealed innumerable pearls of great price, of surpassing luster. It is the duty of every seeker to bestir himself and strive to attain the shores of this ocean, so that he may, in proportion to the eagerness of his search and the efforts he hath exerted, partake of such benefits as have been pre-ordained in God’s irrevocable and hidden Tablets.

 Posted by at 7:11 am
Oct 312011

At the end of the Seven Valleys, Bahá’u’lláh makes a statement about the furthering journeys of the spiritual wayfarer:

They who soar in the heaven of singleness and reach to the sea of the Absolute, reckon this city — which is the station of life in God — as the furthermost state of mystic knowers, and the farthest homeland of the lovers. But to this evanescent One of the mystic ocean, this station is the first gate of the heart’s citadel, that is, man’s first entrance to the city of the heart; and the heart is endowed with four stages, which would be recounted should a kindred soul be found.[^1]

Several authors have concluded that since Bahá’u’lláh wrote another text, titled the Four Valleys, not long after revealing the Seven Valleys, that this shorter book must be the missing presentation of the aforementioned “four stages of the heart”. However, it is my thought that this book considers a different theme than the Seven Valleys, and makes a separate, though related, point.

First, some background is necessary. Both of these books was written to a Sufi recipient, and uses the language of their mystical schools. Among that vocabulary lies a precise distinction between two stages of the soul’s progress toward its Creator: the journey “to” God, which begins with birth into this world; and the journey “in” God, which begins once that is completed. The pivot between these journeys is when the soul reaches the station of baqá, or eternal subsistence in God:

[T]he stations that follow (baqá, subsistence] may be said to be so many stations in the journey in God (fi’lláh) after the traveler has ended the journey to God (ila’lláh).1

Bahá’u’lláh states that the seventh valley — Absolute Poverty and Truth Nothingness — marks the moment when the believer enters into the station of baqá:

This station (maqám) is the dying from self (faná’ az nafs) and the living in God (baqá’ bi’lláh).

Another way to regard this transition is that the seeker ceases the task of searching after God, and commences a process of ever-deepening discovery.

In Gems of Divine Mysteries, which offers a description of spiritual progression comparable to the Seven Valleys, there is a depiction of two valleys beyond that of Nothingness (faná). As might be expected, the first of these valleys is the City of Immortality, which in Arabic is the “city of baqá”:

From this most august and exalted station, and from this most sublime and glorious plane, the seeker entereth the City of Immortality (madínatu’l-baqá), therein to abide forever (`apalá’u'l-baqá).

The reason I point out the pivotal nature of achieving baqá is that the Four Valleys is notably absent any mention of the subject. In fact, many of its statements concern aspects of the journey to God, and not the journey in God. For example:

[First Valley]: Although at the beginning, this plane is the realm of conflict (jidál), yet it endeth in attainment to the throne of splendor.

[Second Valley]: On this plane, the traveler meeteth with many a trial and reverse. Now is he lifted up to heaven, now is he cast into the depths.

In both of these statement, the wayfarer suffers torments which arise from the station of limitation (tahdíd), something which those who have realized the Divine Unity (tawhíd) are well beyond. Compare this with the station of Unity as described in Gems of Divine Mysteries:

They that dwell within this Ocean, they that ride upon this Ark, witness no change in the creation of God and behold no differences upon His earth.

How can one who has passed beyond Unity, and beyond Immortality, later be found in the “realm of conflict” or among those who “meeteth with many a trial and reverse”? Yet if the Four Valleys is placed after the Seven Valleys in sequence, this is exactly what is implied.

So what are the Four Valleys, and what is their intent? I do not believe its message is identical with that of the Seven Valleys at all. Whereas the Seven Valleys, and Gems of Divine Mysteries, recounts the soul’s progress through degrees in the journey toward God, the Four Valleys depicts alternates ways this journey may be conducted. And while it may appear that each method is more perfect than the last, they are all acceptable in the sight of God. This idea of “alternate fulfillment” is found also in the Hidden Words:

O Son of Man! Write all that We have revealed unto thee with the ink of light upon the tablet of thy spirit. Should this not be in thy power, then make thine ink of the essence of thy heart. If this thou canst not do, then write with that crimson ink that hath been shed in My path…

  1. Nasr, Seyyed Hossain. (1991). Sufi Essays. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, p.82. 

 Posted by at 6:28 am