The purpose of religion

The soul’s aim

The purpose of ears is to hear. If the soul is a being of awareness, it exists to be aware of Something; and if mysticism is the art of awakening the soul, its focus must be to concentrate that soul on the Aim of its being.

I often hear the aim of religion expressed in terms of the self, and not God. For example, a statement from the mystic Siyyid Burhánu’d-Dín, a mentor of Rúmí:

It’s easy to flee from everything, but so difficult to flee from the self. The source of your woes is the self. Unless you become as naught and slay your self and your desire, you will not find release from your tribulations. Die before death and bury yourself in the grave of desirelessness and be happy.

The formulation here is common in mystical literature. It is also entirely negative. It does not mention God, or the purpose for becoming “selfless”. It somehow associates the condition of void with being happy. How? How can depriving one’s self of all desire lead to happiness?

If the purpose of ears is to hear, then it is true they need to be cleaned, concentrated, and freed from distraction. But they don’t exist to hear silence. Removing all sound from one’s environment and obstruction from the ear canal is only a preparation – and only worth doing if what you want to hear deserves such effort.

It is easy to say “religion is about God”, but hard to communicate. Love of God leads naturally to everything religion asks of man; while trying to acquire virtue through effort alone is like pushing lead uphill: your own nature will fight you every step of the way. When there is love for God and the soul sees God in all things, virtue proceeds naturally, the way a lover is infinitely patient and forgiving of the one he loves. The target of “effort” here is in finding the Beloved, and focusing one’s attention solely on Him. In that pursuit, for His sake, one should strain every nerve. Instead, we try to achieve selflessness by perfecting the self – and wonder why it seems impossible!

Mystical modes

There are two basic modes in mysticism: negative and positive. The negative strives to move away from self, and the positive to move toward God. There is a time when the negative is very useful, since it can clear away the obstructions blocking our sight. Here the effort is not acquiring virtue, but understanding the need for them. One cannot love God until he sees Him; so there will always be a time of pure effort when the soul is striving to find Him.

Once the seedling breaks through the soil, however, its focus must be on the, the Source of its energy. I see this state expressed in the following Hidden Word from Bahá’u’lláh:

O Son of Light! Forget all save Me and commune with My spirit. This is of the essence of My command, therefore turn unto it.

A letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi describes “true mysticism” as “communing with the souls of the Manifestations”. That is, it emphasizes consciousness of Their Spirit – and not the goal of “desirelessness”.

To show how pervasive the negative mode is, consider the way people view their religious activities:

Fasting: When the believers abstain from food and drink during the sunlight hours. Meditation: When a person sits quietly, and empties his mind and heart of all things. Holy Days: When a believer does not go to school or work. Chastity: When a person abstains from extra-marital sex. Pilgrimage: When a believer travels to visit their Holy Shrines and pay his respects to the cradle of the Faith.

These are quick answers I’ve heard numerous times; but is this what its really about? They describe the believer’s immediate praxis in terms of how his life is affected, but do they touch on the purpose of the activity? Is the period of fasting really about not eating or drinking during the day?

God is missing from the picture. In the description of most religious practices, I hardly hear Him mentioned at all. I asked a room full of people once what religion meant to them, and only two referred to God.

Humanity is self-obsessed, and because of this it evolves doctrines of self-denial to combat the problem – yet this approach is simply narcissism in another guise. We are so worried about the general lack of spirituality that we kill whatever spirit remains from sheer anxiety.

Emphasizing the self

Another example of this problem is when people worry deeply about their spiritual progress. They become so worried, that the sheer weight of the effort causes them to abandon the Path for long stretches of time – in the hope, I think, of gathering the energy they need to continue. I tell them, “Forget about where you are, think of God”, since the real reason for their sorrow is that God is missing from their lives; yet instead of turning toward Him, they respond by intensifying their awareness of His absence.

This dynamic continues to thrive despite such words as these, from `Abdu’l-Bahá:

… Look not on the degree of your capacity, ask not if you are worthy of the task: rest ye your hopes on the help and loving-kindness, the favours and bestowals of Bahá’u’lláh…

One must never consider one’s own feebleness, it is the strength of the Holy Spirit of Love, which gives the power to teach. The thought of our own weakness could only bring despair. We must look higher than all earthly thoughts; detach ourselves from every material idea, crave for the things of the spirit; fix our eyes on the everlasting, bountiful Mercy of the Almighty, who will fill our souls with the gladness of joyful service to His command “Love One Another”.

In both cases, `Abdu’l-Bahá turns us away from the self and toward the Beloved. He makes this point over and over again, Himself never dwelling on people’s weaknesses but always assuring them of the certainty of Divine assistance:

Look not unto thy weakness, but rely upon thy Lord, and He will then grant thee all thy desires and reveal to thee the answer without asking.

When a mirror turns toward the sky, it becomes as bright as the sun. It does not need to be perfectly clean to do this; even a dusty mirror will shine (though the cleaner the mirror, the more faithful its reflection will be). This brilliance comes from the sun, and not from the mirror. The mirror can burnish itself for a thousand years, but without turning to the Sun it can never shine. All transformation proceeds from orienting the self toward God – utterly, completely – and not from the efforts we make to perfect ourselves; those efforts simply make us ready for, and facilitate, such transformation.

The humble egotist!

I will give another, personal example that amuses me. Egotism is just one of the many failings of my character. It always has been and I’ve given up on “correcting” it. What’s funny is that several people in my community have called me humble. This makes me laugh, and I think, “What are they thinking?” Humble I am not! I don’t even try very hard. Viva la resistance!!

But why do they say this? Perhaps it’s because when people speak, I listen. Even if someone interrupts me during a presentation, I give them the floor. I don’t do this because I’m humble and don’t want to speak; I do it because I view people as emblems of the Divine: I never know when someone might be relaying a message from Him. For that reason, I listen to each word, trying to decode its secrets. Inwardly it expresses a relationship between me and my Goal; I am not thinking about myself, or other people. Outwardly, it is seen as deferring my position to whomever is speaking and being “humble” before them; in reality, I’m just a big ego fascinated by the Lord.

So what, then, is humility? Is it the self having no ego, or the ego momentarily disappearing in the presence of its Love? I’ve given up on the task of being humble – it is too hard; yet I am described as humble. I take this as proof that God has the power to transform even someone like me, and to make my behavior pleasing to others. In this way, I believe His beauty is capable of transforming all of humanity.

Back to the theme

Until a soul discovers God he must make tremendous efforts, never resting until he finds what will refresh his soul. Once this takes place, his attention should be focused on that Treasure, communing with Him always, until he sees Him everywhere and in all things. From this, virtue will proceed, and the failings of self, forgotten. But without the Beloved, religion is impossible. It only weighs people down with awareness of their imperfections. It requires a pure love for God to advance, in the same way that magnetism pulls bits of iron forward.

Neither the candle nor the lamp can be lighted through their own unaided efforts, nor can it ever be possible for the mirror to free itself from its dross. It is clear and evident that until a fire is kindled the lamp will never be ignited, and unless the dross is blotted out from the face of the mirror it can never represent the image of the sun nor reflect its light and glory.

Every religious activity can be defined in terms of this relationship – else why have religion at all? Likewise, I see the Writings of God like a love story telling us about the One we seek and how to find Him. What other purpose could they have? If the ears of the soul never hear the Divine Melody, what are they for? Are we simply to become “desireless”? or seek constantly to increase our desire for God!

Religion seems to oppose the natural inclinations of man, but I think it fulfills those inclinations in a higher mode: attachment to God, desire for God, taking pleasure in God, seeing God, falling in love with God, becoming greedy for His nearness. Perhaps everything we are has a positive fulfillment when God is the focus. Alone, our nature seems to frustrate our purpose, but when God is taken into account those same traits become the means of fulfilling it! It’s a matter of placing the self in a higher context – adoration for the Beloved – and not of reviewing it in isolation.

It all boils down to a single point: love for Him! Yet how can this be said properly when He and my words are two separate things? Then burn away all words, all thoughts, until only He remains…

How can feeble reason encompass the Qur'án,
Or the spider snare a phoenix in his web?
Wouldst thou that the mind should not entrap thee?
Teach it the science of the love of God! (Saná'í)