The beauty of things

As I look around at the world, I find many things to admire. Certainly there is more misery than joy to be found, and I know few people who bath in happiness for any great length; but there is also so much good… Enough that sometimes I get excited enough for my friends to laugh at me.

Last night I was regaling a friend about the tastiness of fried plantains (which, by the way, you have just got to try). I buy them at the store here in Grenada every time I visit, and in fact just finished another plate of them. But it’s not the plantains themselves that get me excited; it’s the indefinable quality of them, a quality of goodness that to my eyes seems universal of all good things.

For I think the world represents the greatest secret ever told, but that it takes a lifetime to unravel what is just before our eyes:

How strange that while the Beloved is visible as the sun, yet the heedless still hunt after tinsel and base metal. Yea, the intensity of His revelation hath covered Him, and the fullness of His shining forth hath hidden Him.1

The real question I want to bring up today is: why are the most religious of people sometimes the most dour about life? I would think that the more a person falls in love with God, the more their life would be full of… well, love, peace, joy, happiness. Instead, religiosity seems to sharpen the eyes of criticism when regarding this crude plane of dust. The more in love with perfection people become, the more distasteful they find the imperfections of the world. Until at last they simply long – with day following interminable day – for their release from this fleshly prison.

I can’t really fault them for this, seeing as how the Earth is not held up very highly in Scripture. When referred to, it is “the dustheap of this mortal world”. Or: “… but a show, vain and empty, a mere nothing, bearing the semblance of reality. Set not your affections upon it.” Or even: “… the whole world, in the estimation of the people of Bahá, is worth as much as the black in the eye of a dead ant…”.

Ok, so I’m not arguing this point and it would be foolish to try. The world is just an amalgam of matter-formed energy with no apparent value beyond what human beings make of it. Only we, in our poetry, eulogize the moon and the stars and the sun above. The animals are content merely if their bellies are full. And clearly we’re the only ones who think that gold has any value whatsoever.

What I want to argue is the difference between intrinsic and applied value. I agree with the sentiment that the Earth is a ball of dirt. I myself am made from the dust of stars. When Bahá’u’lláh refers to me as a “moving form of dust”, it sounds exactly right.

However, the Prophets themselves came to us in these forms of dust. They did not appear in the guise of angelic beings made of light – however much this may characterize their inward nature. Rather, they appeared as dust so they could speak to dust, using the language of dust. Yet I know of no pilgrim who, in the presence of His Shrine in the Holy Land, would declare to me that dust alone was buried there.

Consider likewise the example of ink and parchment. Parchment is the dried skin of animals, such as goats or sheep. Ink is (or was) oxidized iron dust mixed with water. It doesn’t get much cruder than that. When the Holy Word was written down at the time of Jesus Christ, it was fixed on animal skin using watered dust. If that’s all we thought of it, would anyone have paid attention?

It wasn’t the medium itself that had value, but the Message. The medium was crude enough to be disgusting when you think about it, while the Message was beyond all hope of words. That which is godly and divine was fixed upon a point of crude matter. And this was done so we could have access to it, and translate it into concepts and forms that made sense.

I think the world around us is no different. It practically sings with the mention of God – however much it may be, in itself, a ball of dirt. It’s the Message that’s key.

Then why do the Scriptures emphasize and re-emphasize this point, over and over, that the world should not be esteemed? I think it’s because humans have a tendency, over time, to revere the Messenger beyond the Message.

Take the example of parchment and ink again. When something like the Qu’rán is written on it, the parchment becomes a relic by virtue of its content. And the older it is, the more revered, until at some point, people make pilgrimage to it just so they can see it and be near it.

But what if the One Whom it foretells as coming after should arrive at that place of homage and set the book aflame, declaring that the time of the old laws had ended? How would the people react? Muhammad did something similar when he went to the Ka`bih in Mecca and destroyed all the sacred idols of his forebears, claiming that idolatry was forbidden by God. Here He was, the One charged with the Message of God, destroying the objects of veneration of His own people. And this because crude matter, in the form of idols, had come to mean far more than it should.

There is a constant danger of this kind of misplaced veneration in praising what is good about the world, for fear that people will mistake the world itself for what is being praised, rather than the Good reflected from it. Human beings do the same thing when they imagine themselves to be beautiful; and yet they, themselves, only manifest Beauty for a while; they are not the home wherein it dwells.

But with that aside, neither can we throw out the baby with the bath-water. If we held that all parchment was only the dead skin of animals, the word of God could never reach us! If we avert our eyes from the world, thinking it to be dust alone, how can the rays of Beauty reflect from it and reach us? What medium of the Good will ever be acceptable to us, if we judge it solely by the good of the vessel alone?

How can we long for God to reach us if inwardly, in that place where we long for spirit and perfection alone, we unconsciously ask that He not appear to us in mortal forms? If we deny the functional value of the world at the same time that we deny its inherent value – if we persist in this demand – how can we ever understand Who Bahá’u’lláh, and the other Prophets, really were?

They stood in relationship to God as the world does to His attributes. Each is a Messenger bearing a divine Message. It’s up to us not to confuse the two.

Even as the sun, bright hath He shined,
But alas, He hath come to the town of the blind!

  1. Bahá’u’lláh