After some thought on the scheme of the Four Valleys, the following is an interpretation based on some time spent musing.
The Four Valleys seems to describe a few of the paths by which each soul may approach God. Since this approach is the fundamental concern of reality, it makes sense that multiple avenues are possible. This is adumbrated in the following Hidden Word:
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. Sweeter indeed is this to Me than all else, that its light may endure for ever.1
Here Bahá’u’lláh indicates that His Revelation should be written upon the tablet of the spirit; but if this is not possible to the believer, he may write it upon his heart; and if not this, then he may shed the blood of his material substance. All forms are given as acceptable, it being left to the seeker to choose which path lies within his power.
The Four Valleys seems to present a similar idea, laying out four avenues of faith, all of which lead to the purposed goal.
The Valley of the Intended One
The First Valley is for those who seek the Intended One (maqsúd). Here God is conceived of as a destination (maqsad), to be reached through the fulfillment of religious duty. Although this scheme places union with God at some indefinite point future – and thus embraces the concept of a long and arduous journey, never to be fully completed in this life – yet through consistent effort, the seeker will surely reach his goal.
Although at the beginning, this plane is the realm of conflict, yet it endeth in attainment to the throne of splendor.2
Further, since the journey is one of gradual attainment, it upholds the concept of a “self” – since only the self can “acquire” virtues:
On this plane, the self is not rejected but beloved; it is well-pleasing and not to be shunned.
The course of this Way is given in the following verse:
“O Abraham of this day, O Friend Abraham of the Spirit! Kill these four birds of prey,” that after death the riddle of life may be unraveled.
Which is: conquer the evil qualities in your self, until you come to reflect the Divine; then, after death, you will receive the merit of your deeds.
As the seeker moves forward in this plane, he constantly takes the measure of himself, to determine whether he is yet pleasing to God:
One must, then, read the book of his own self, rather than some treatise on rhetoric. Wherefore He hath said, “Read thy Book: There needeth none but thyself to make out an account against thee this day.”
The warning given in the First Valley is that the seeker not become too attached to these names and titles. When the Beloved is found, cast aside all that has been acquired, and accept him utterly.
The death of self is needed here, not rhetoric: Be nothing, then, and walk upon the waves.
And lastly, one cannot relax in this path, since the seeker’s forward motion comes from his constant devotion:
“And be ye not like those who forget God, and whom He hath therefore caused to forget their own selves. These are the wicked doers.”
The Valley of the Praise-worthy One
In the second valley, the duty of self-perfection is not the primary motivator, but rather the seeker’s fascination with the ways of God. To penetrate the wisdom of this path requires profound faith, since God’s doings are shrouded in impenetrable mystery. And because the mind cannot embrace Him, this Valley offers hours of confusion for every moment of clarity:
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.
However, as faith in the way of God develops, the seeker comes to appreciate the beauty of how well-ordered is creation. The sign of this station is that of the companions in the cave, whose faith was tested when God sequestered them there. Although they were in the cave, and could not see what transpired outside, they saw the sun rise on the right, and pass on the left. In a similar way, though the seeker does not understand how his prayers are answered, from the time he prays, until its answer, he has Faith that all events are toward his benefit. As Bahá’u’lláh writes elsewhere:
Whatsoever occurreth in the world of being is light for His loved ones and fire for the people of sedition and strife. Even if all the losses of the world were to be sustained by one of the friends of God, he would still profit thereby, whereas true loss would be borne by such as are wayward, ignorant and contemptuous.3
Therefore the task of this Valley is to purify the heart, and plumb for an ever-deeper understanding of things, that divine inspiration may take the place of ignorance:
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.
If the First Valley is focused on attaining qualities, this Valley is focused on attaining true vision. Attainment of either will conduce to right behavior. And although the course of the Second Valley is at first a source of frustration and confusion, afterward it leads to a faith well-grounded in knowledge (ma`rifat).
The Valley of the Attracting One
The Third Valley is the course of most mystics, since it is the plane of rapture and ecstatic devotion. Here the seeker aims to fall in love with God, until all aspects of his self are burnt away. He neither wishes for a respectable self, nor cares to understand. For him, thirst is what leads to true recognition of the waters of life.
These lovers of God throw everything into confusion, and often become a cause of upset to their fellow believers in the beginning:
These are a people who deem the lowest place to be one with the throne of glory, and to them beauty’s bower differeth not from the field of a battle fought in the cause of the Beloved.
However, they burn with desire to meet their Lord, and brook no delay. They need neither prompting, nor assurance, since their own condition propels them ceaselessly to seek the Beloved. They cannot rest without Him; they tolerate no substitute.
Effort in this Valley takes the form of burning devotion and mystic intoxication. His lovers seek Him anywhere, in every face, in every mind. Though at times they seem to lack discrimination, the true seeker on this path knows exactly Whom he seeks. He may enter places high and low, but he accepts naught unless he inhale therein the scent of his Beloved’s musk.
The Valley of the Beloved One
In the Fourth Valley, the seeker himself has no more significance. Here, God alone is the way, and the purpose. The seeker lives in God, or he dies in separation, for there is only He.
Verily, the wayfarer who journeyeth unto God, unto the Crimson Pillar in the snow-white path, will never reach unto his heavenly goal unless he abandoneth all that men possess…
Because there is no self here – existence being only through God – this Valley does not conceive of God as on the other side of a long journey. The seeker is always united with God, since he cannot possess separate existence. To him, “All things are of God, and every melody from Him.” Separation would be as inconceivable as vision without light.
Meditate on what the poet hath written: “Wonder not, if my Best-Beloved be closer to me than mine own self; wonder at this, that I, despite such nearness, should still be so far from Him.”… Considering what God hath revealed, that “We are closer to man than his life-vein,” the poet hath, in allusion to this verse, stated that, though the revelation of my Best-Beloved hath so permeated my being that He is closer to me than my life-vein, yet, notwithstanding my certitude of its reality and my recognition of my station, I am still so far removed from Him. By this he meaneth that his heart, which is the seat of the All-Merciful and the throne wherein abideth the splendor of His revelation, is forgetful of its Creator, hath strayed from His path, hath shut out itself from His glory, and is stained with the defilement of earthly desires.4
In this Valley, whatever He decrees is beloved, and is in fact seen as the essence of life: “He doth what He willeth, ordaineth what He pleaseth.” His will is perfection unalloyed, and likewise His creation:
Herein the high heavens are in no conflict with the lowly earth, nor do they seek to excel it, for this is the land of mercy, not the realm of distinction.
Even the lover desires something for himself, in the Beloved. Yet in this Valley, all desire is forsaken. Not even motivation is required, since no life is possible but through Him. Thus, the seeker’s only possession is his poverty before Him, and his only capacity, to acknowledge true powerlessness before the Divine decree:
Astonishment here is highly prized, and utter poverty essential. Wherefore hath it been said, “Poverty is My pride.” And again: “God hath a people beneath the dome of glory, whom He hideth in the clothing of radiant poverty.” These are they who see with His eyes, hear with His ears, as it is written in the well-known tradition.
These followers of the Beloved see in His decree their final goal:
See, our hearts come open like shells, when He raineth grace like pearls, And our lives are ready targets, when agony’s arrows He hurls.
Whoso hath inhaled the sweet fragrance of the All-Merciful, and recognized the Source of this utterance, will welcome with his own eyes the shafts of the enemy, that he may establish the truth of the laws of God amongst men.
These ways of treading the path of Faith are multiple, according to the differing temperaments of mankind. Another reference to this theme occurs in the Epistle to the Son of the Wolf:
At one time We spoke in the language of the lawgiver; at another in that of the truth-seeker and the mystic, and yet Our supreme purpose and highest wish hath always been to disclose the glory and sublimity of this station.5
In this verse the language used in each of the first three Valleys is mentioned. In another place, Bahá’u’lláh mentions that He uses up to nine different modes of discourse while presenting the Message.
Whichever language attracts the soul to God is the right one for him. A primary requisite for teaching is determining what form of the truth a person wishes to hear. Bahá’u’lláh quotes:
“Not everything that a man knoweth can be disclosed, nor can everything that he can disclose be regarded as timely, nor can every timely utterance be considered as suited to the capacity of those who hear it.”
The real task is piquing the soul’s interest, and using the terms it understands best. This is exactly how Bahá’u’lláh spoke to humanity, which can be seen in the way that Four Valleys itself relies so heavily on Sufi terminology and concepts. It only matters that we find God. Everything else is a means to that end.