Faced with a Puzzle

When I’m at Feast, I’m almost always with the “active” believers, people who come to Feast even if it’s not their favorite thing to do (the number of complaints I hear about Feast, constantly, underscores this). So I feel justified in thinking that “active” Bahá’ís are Bahá’ís whose sense of duty is strong enough to act as a sole motivator, at times when no other motivation exists (joy, gladness to be there, meeting friends, etc).

With these Bahá’ís – the only Bahá’ís I see in groups – I’ve often asked about how to spiritualize the community, how to make it a place that’s attractive to everyone. Because in the end, the Faith is attractive to everyone, although it’s outward appearance doesn’t always reflect its inner reality.

When I ask this question, these same Bahá’ís – for whom duty is so much a part of their life, that I don’t know if they’ve experienced other ways of relating to the Faith – make suggestions that really are only applicable to those of kindred spirit.

This past Feast, when asking this question, I heard four suggestions:

  1. Devotional gatherings (which has the potential to be fun, I admit)
  2. Study circles
  3. A service project for the community
  4. Creating committees and having the Assembly assign people to them, as a way for people to get to know each other by working together

These were suggested in such a way that I felt the “conventional” mode of each of these activities was being presented. The problem is, however, that these suggestions will only attract those who are already attracted to them! Yes, they are valuable, yes, they are even necessary to community health, but up to this point, the duty-driven sector of our community has focused on activities that appeal only to that same group.

I know that reading the Writings more cannot but help, and yet, this won’t work for those who are not attracted to reading more. They read perhaps a single phrase, and this IS sufficient, according to Bahá’u’lláh. So a different solution is needed, one that does not sound all-over-again like the dreaded message of “Do More”.

In my eleven years as a Bahá’í, the Faith in America has been very much a “do more” religion. At every conference, in every Feast, every letter, every message, every book, every person, when I boil down what they’re saying to me, it’s always “do more”. How do we attract inactive believers? Do more. How do we teach more people? Do more. How do I become more spiritual and loving? Do more.

At times, I feel I’ve joined a renewal of the Communist state, not the peerless Faith of God. A faith which, as `Abdu’l-Bahá puts it: “…should cause you to soar in the atmosphere of joy forever and ever.”

I am not soaring, when I hear this incessant command. It does not ease my burden, it does not lighten my spirit. God’s assistance should make life easier than living without Him, not more difficult! And I mean easy in the sense of lightening your heart, and enlivening your spirit – not just physically more easy.

Yet, in all these burdensome, joyless words, I sometimes find a precious gem of a human being who says something different. He or she says to me, “John, I love you even if you do nothing at all.” This acceptance warms me, and prompts me spontaneously to want to give something back to them in return! I find myself wanting to do things for them, to be around them. It fans the flame at the center of my being that had grown so cold before.

Then I turn to the Writings, and I find that same message there. That without love and harmony between the souls of the believers, no progress can be achieved. That this love and acceptance IS the foundation of the New World Order, it’s very life and breath. Then I realize that these people, by putting their love for me first, are going about things in the most pragmatic way, by healing my tired limbs before putting them to work – by addressing the illness before making further demands on my health.

I feel a deep, inner response to this message of love without having to think about it. The difference is like night and day. One meeting will make me feel like lead, another like spirit personified. So it must be that the latter is closer to God’s intent; it must be that this message of love is superior to the call of duty. For love begets loyalty, whereas duty without love is a tiring thing.

Then I turn to the community I live in, and realize my attitude toward them has to be the same as that person’s was toward me. It’s OK if my community does nothing, ceases all activity, stops moving. Only let us kindle love and joyfulness, centered around our devotion to God, and all things will grow from there. We have TIME in which to do this. As my Auxiliary Board member constantly reminds me, the Kingdom of God does not have to appear next year. Even Shoghi Effendi, in devising his plans, waited decades long for things to near fruition, before he would implement the next stage of his plan. He spent his whole life preparing the Administrative Order to be the foundation of the Universal House of Justice, but it took so long that he never saw the fruit of his labors with his own eyes.

So even with all his energy, and vitality, and urgency, still he did things in their proper order, and did not rush the growth of anything before its time. I’ve been learning a lot about this lately from the book “Planning Progress”.

So too in my community, we talk about having a center, study circles, devotional gatherings… but no one’s heart is really in it for the duration. Even when talking about devotional gatherings, one person said, “Well, it’s going to end up being just us coming anyway.” What is this about?? We’re tired, we know we’re tired, and we feel alone. The promise of world transformation is just around the corner, and yet it feels so far away.

To Ashley and Kathy, my only thought so far is to focus on building bonds of fellowship between myself and other members in my community, to the point that we feel like brothers and sisters. Then we’ll have fun doing things together, and the idea of serving can be exciting. I simply have to see these people outside of the “do more” philosophy – just to feel like they’re real human beings!!

Everyone seems so super-human most of the time, so unreal, that it’s like a fragile barrier has interposed itself between everyone. I never know that someone is having trouble in their marriage until it dissolves. I don’t learn that sometimes finds something I do irritating. I rarely hear about it when I hurt someone’s feelings. There is so much concern about creating a perfect world, rather than growing one from a foundation of candor, mutual respect and closeness.

Much of this stems from frustration, I feel. We know what we want, and what the world needs, so we’re trying to fashion it. Only, all this effort only helps the outward image of things. You can have study circles until you’re blue in the face, but I still don’t know who you are, nobody comes over to my house to say hello, no one calls me unless it’s to schedule a meeting. Is this religion a business, or is it a home for my soul? Home can get things done too, you know. There is no fault in putting fellowship before activity. How can a group of practical strangers expect to present a New World Order to the rest of humanity?

Recognizing that 90% of the people in my community really are strangers to me (we’ve never been angry at each other, never shared intimate experiences, never learned each other’s fears and hopes, etc), I see that this must be remedied before spirituality can spread, and before our plans will have life in them. I don’t want to be part of another study circle just to fulfill my duties. The state of affairs right now is: I do my duty and go home. That has got to end. The Faith has to BE my home before it can be anyone else’s home.

To be my home, I need to know everyone in that home just as well as I know my own family members. Is there time to get to know people AND do all these duties? Not to the same extent, no. So I’ve canceled it all, everything except explicit appointments, in order to save the rest of my time for getting to know people.

Which I want desperately. To some it may seem that I’m “abandoning the vision”, but when I read the Writings I see a different vision, a primary vision, that must come before all other things:

Turn to your Bahá’í brothers and sisters, who are living with you in the kingdom. Indeed, the believers have not yet fully learned to draw on each other’s love for strength and consolation in time of need. The Cause of God is endowed with tremendous powers, and the reason the believers do not gain more from it is because they have not learned to duly draw these mighty forces of love and strength and harmony generated by the Faith.1

E-mail is no way to really know people, so I can’t connect here like I can locally, hence my redistribution of time lately. Also, this is a SLOW process. I meet at most two different people in the course of each week. But so far it is working. At first we just played games, but now we start to discuss our thoughts and ideas too. We share our desire for joy, our hope for joy, our gladness to have someone to talk to. We start to feel impatient to spread this joy, and include others in our circle. A fire has begun to burn in my heart, in Ashley’s heart, in Kathy’s heart, everywhere. It is that essential fire which Manifestation brings every thousand years or so, a fire that spreads until it enflames the whole earth.

Edifices are built to serve and to fan this flame, but without regeneration from the hearts of the believers, it will lose all its fuel. We are the salt of the Earth, and it is in our very hearts – wherein dwells the love of God, the seat of His throne – that the future of humankind lies.

I think our task is to feed this flame however we can, whatever it takes, allowing the natural processes of maturation and guidance to direct blaze, slowly, into more and more effective channels. But the opposite does not work. Developing standards and then exhorting people without regard for the vitality of this flame only serves to quench it at its beginning, since such exhortation expresses only the voice of rejection, the voice of “you’re not good enough yet”, the voice of “do more”.

Armed with acceptance, may you relax, and breathe a sigh of relief. You’ve already reached the cherished goal. Bahá’u’lláh wrote that, “heaven is my Revelation”. I think once you notice this, you’ll grow anxious to explore that wonderful place, which in turn will lead to action, since action is the opposite of stillness. Then you’ll want to share what you find, which will intrigue or repel others, and they too will realize that perfection exists in the moment, right now! All of us, twirling together, reveling in this joy, forgetting our hatreds, dissolving falsehood through education and realization – I can’t see the Faith of God as intending anything else but this.

Were men to discover the motivating purpose of God’s Revelation, they would assuredly cast away their fears, and, with hearts felled with gratitude, rejoice with exceeding gladness.2

  1. Shoghi Effendi, Directives from the Guardian, p.41↩︎

  2. Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, LXXXVIII↩︎