I am doubtful of the conventional Western attitude toward religion, that is hard, requires strenuous effort, and after all that just keeps getting harder.
This view tends to leave out everyone who is not strongly motivated by their sense of duty or shame. It makes it seems like this is all some herculean struggle between one part of myself and another, which only the best may participate in.
Contrary to this view, I have been developing the understanding that religion is actually the simplest of all things, and only keeps getting easier. Mainly this is because we rely upon God more, but there are other, more banal factors as well.
For example, telling the truth is much easier than telling a lie, because lies require maintenance whereas the truth stands by itself. The truth may be more painful, or difficult for our ego, but the act of doing it is easier.
And that is where I see the difficulty of religion: one must be willing to prefer the Will of God over one’s own will. Yet once this willingness is in place, pursuing it is easier than ordinary life.
A further example: truly religious activity is joyful and fulfilling. It gives one greater strength to continue. There are tests, but as one grows in spirit, these tests become an exciting challenge, full of reward. Whereas one who ignores spirituality, however easy their path may seem, it is constantly fraught with little frustrations, anger and dissatisfaction. Life becomes so short and impermanent, that one is constantly forced to hurry along, or deny the ever-present truth that life is flexible and inconstant.
Religion allows one to relax in the truth, in a sense, and to share the larger movements of eternity. At every point one must be willing to be a part of this – and this willingness can be hard – but difficulty lies in the choice, not the action.
Life needn’t be a constant battle with one’s self, always full of tension, opposition, and negativity. This hatred that develops of the spiritual side for the material, neglects the fact that spirituality is dependent upon material means, and that the two CAN work together harmoniously. It is a question of balance and placement, not superiority and control.
Perhaps because Western life desires control, we seek control over our own spirituality – a sense of possessing a consistent spiritual mode that will allow us to act and appear as we desire most. But the essence of this quest is to let go, and allow one’s self to become part of a vaster scheme, appreciating and acknowledging that our part is divinely ordained, although perhaps not as spectacular as we might wish.
What is harder than accepting that next to God, even the infinity of our nature is infinitely small? It’s a bitter pill to swallow, to believe that what we do matters less than the context in which we do it. If that context is not ripe, or changes, we must change. This is the nature of contingent existence, and is denies all hope of control over destiny.
And at the very same time that this view is hard for a Western mind, it is so much easier! Because it allows us to look to that context for guidance, to pray to God for assistance, to permit inspiration, rather than mere perspiration, to fuel our endeavors. It is hard in the essential sense – perhaps the most difficult thing in life – but easy in the actual sense. Because religion is joy, the soul finding home, a relaxation into the waiting, loving arms of God.
This is why I’d like to know if the Writings really depict life as constantly arduous – and then more arduous. If that is true, why would anyone seek refuge with us? The Bahá’ís I know are tired out, and always feeling more burdened. Most conferences I’ve been to (with the except of the Kingdom Conference!) drill in the message: “You’re not doing enough, you must work harder, this is no easy game, do more, be more, give more!!!!” In short, I leave these meetings depressed and anxious, fearful of my future Day of Reckoning. Life seems so bleak, so tiring. Weary of heart, it saps all my energy to continue.
Whereas when I listen to other speakers, who focus on love and possibility – such as Puva Merdi, in San Jose – I always feel uplifted, more aware of my awesome heritage. Instead of harping on duty and obedience, I am told that someone loves me. That this love is more important than what I do, and that my actions, should they share in such love, will be far easier to accomplish. It is like being in love; if your beloved asked you to help clean her house, or her car, you wouldn’t even remember doing it! The entirety of the act would be for her sake, and her perfume is all you’d remember.
We often mention the worthlessness of this world, and how we should be free of it. And yet, why focus on what we shouldn’t see? Pay attention to the giver, rather than the gift, and everything will naturally, easily, joyfully fall into place. Religion is the most natural state of all, since we are in fact spiritual beings.
Likewise, why focus on duty and accomplishment, instead of its purpose? We do all that we do to create an atmosphere of love and harmony for every human being; an atmosphere in which all peoples can know and love God without suffering, and in a spirit of brotherhood. Since the aim is brotherhood-through-recognition-of-divine-origin, then to actively realize this brotherhood is more important than whatever laws or institutions might exist in the Faith! Those laws and institutions may be necessary to achieve that goal, yet this does not mean that such laws are primary in importance. Spirituality ranks higher than the medium of spirituality. Here is a quote to clarify this:
Laws and institutions, as viewed by Bahá’u’lláh, can become really effective only when our inner spiritual life has been perfected and transformed. Otherwise religion will degenerate into a mere organization, and becomes a dead thing…1
Why wouldn’t this be true on a larger scale as well? That our Faith cannot become an effective refuge for humankind, until we perfect and transform the nature of our interactions, and achieve a station of love and amity which makes doing things together natural, easy and joyful??
It is my belief that mainly because we view as religion as hard, unnatural and difficult, that most of our own membership has no interest in Feast. I see this attitude as intricately linked with the difficulties we now face. Secular life seems so easy, because we believe it’s easier! But actually, secular life does not offer what people need, which is peace, love, true joy, happiness, security, etc. There is enough duty, shame and guilt to last the world for countless generations. Yet none of it comes from religion:
… all the sorrow and the grief that exist come from the world of matter – the spiritual world bestows only the joy!2
`Abdu’l-Bahá even said that material development is dependent on this love and amity:
Know ye, verily, that the happiness of mankind lieth in the unity and the harmony of the human race, and that spiritual and material developments are conditioned upon love and amity among all men.3
And from Secret of Divine Civilization:
It is certain that the greatest of instrumentalities for achieving the advancement and the glory of man, the supreme agency for the enlightenment and the redemption of the world, is love and fellowship and unity among all the members of the human race.4
Love and fellowship are easy to do! Making new friends may be hard, but associating with current ones is how I want to spend my time!! How can this fit with the view that religion is inherently difficult, when it is exactly such fellowship and unity that is the bedrock of religion??
From Vignettes of `Abdu’l-Bahá:
In 1909 Ethel Rosenberg made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Although He was free, the Master had not yet left
Akká to live in Haifa. Ethel asked Him what the friends could do to increase their numbers and to make their work more effective. He answered thatthe members of the little groups should love each other very much and be devoted friends. The more they loved each other, the more the meetings would attract and draw others, and the more they loved, the more their influence would be felt… I say also in English, that you may understand how much I mean it, that love is the foundation of everything…’
And lastly, from Shoghi Effendi, Directives from the Guardian (p. 41):
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.5
Now, I don’t know about you, but love feels good. Even if what happens is physically or emotional painful, the fact that it is done with love makes it easier to bear. Love lifts the burden of living from a sorrowed heart. Love and joy make our thoughts keener, our creativity more fluid, our inspiration plentiful. Isn’t religion the primary source of all love?
You must live in the utmost happiness. If any trouble or vicissitude comes into your lives, if your heart is depressed on account of health, livelihood or vocation, let not these things affect you. They should not cause unhappiness, for Bahá’u’lláh has brought you divine happiness. He has prepared heavenly food for you; He has destined eternal bounty for you; He has bestowed everlasting glory upon you. Therefore, these glad tidings should cause you to soar in the atmosphere of joy forever and ever. Render continual thanks unto God so that the confirmations of God may encircle you all.6
When I read these talks, and talk in this vein with other people, I feel relieved; I feel like the future peace of humanity is assured, and that I can do something about it; I see that religion is not some awful, dour, puritan torture machine. The focus is no longer on my spiritual station, or future deliverance. The entire aim is the unity and well-being of mankind, and this is the most joyful – and easy – condition of all.
Were men to discover the motivating purpose of God’s Revelation, they would assuredly cast away their fears, and, with hearts filled with gratitude, rejoice with exceeding gladness.7
The Great Being saith: O ye children of men! The fundamental purpose animating the Faith of God and His Religion is to safeguard the interests and promote the unity of the human race, and to foster the spirit of love and fellowship amongst men.8
O Son of Spirit! With the joyful tidings of light I hail thee: rejoice! To the court of holiness I summon thee; abide therein that thou mayest live in peace for evermore.
And so, although tests and trials may increase as we strive after truth, the increase in our joy and ease that comes from reliance on God will always outpace these difficulties. They become smaller and smaller, dwindling away, until the station is reached where Bahá’u’lláh says:
This station conferreth the true standard of knowledge, and freeth man from tests. In this realm, to search after knowledge is irrelevant, for He hath said concerning the guidance of travelers on this plane, “Fear God, and God will instruct thee.” And again: “Knowledge is a light which God casteth into the heart of whomsoever He willeth.”
Wherefore, a man should make ready his heart that it be worthy of the descent of heavenly grace, and that the bounteous Cup-Bearer may give him to drink of the wine of bestowal from the merciful vessel. “For the like of this let the travailers travail!”
Directives from the Guardian, p. 87↩
`Abdu’l-Bahá, Paris Talks, p. 110↩
Selections from the Writings of `Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 286↩
`Abdu’l-Bahá, Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 73↩
Shoghi Effendi, Directives from the Guardian, p. 41↩
`Abdu’l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 188↩
Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings, p. 175↩
ibid, p. 215↩