Throughout the world’s mystical literature, Bahá’í and otherwise, there is a recurring theme of the soul’s journey toward God from this plane of existence. It is a great journey, of many stages and degrees, sometimes counted as having thousands of individual levels.
Yet in some of these books, this same journey of countless length is described as both accessible and immediate; a goal just one step away: closer even than our life’s vein.
In the Bahá’í Writings, many of those who asked Bahá’u’lláh about this journey were from a Sufi background, and the answers He gave in response were in the language of Sufism, retelling some of the stories of that culture – often with a new twist – and reusing their symbols and metaphors. One of these devices was “the progression of the divine worlds”: from the mortal, or human, plane, to the kingdom of the angels, through the Empyrean Heaven, and ending at the Heavenly Court.
Despite the recurring imagery of travel and movement, these journeys are in no way physical, and do not translate the soul from one location to another. Instead, they are explained as relating to degrees of vision, understanding, and recognition:
Thus it hath been made clear that these stages depend on the vision of the wayfarer. In every city he will behold a world, in every Valley reach a spring, in every meadow hear a song.
I would like to explore this idea of the divine kingdoms in the context of a different analogy, quite incomplete by itself, but intended to highlight how these kingdoms may be seen as marking gradations of spiritual recognition.
Imagine a community of waves, each moving along the surface of an infinitely vast and deep ocean. As in our own oceans, the individuals waves are innumerable in their various size, height, width, shape, and character. Every one is unique, but emphemeral.
One of these waves embarks on a journey toward full recognition of the ocean. At first, he can’t see it at all, because he’s too close and has no perspective. In a way, the obviousness of what he seeks is what hides it. Instead, all he sees are other waves, moving toward him or away from him. Some are taller, some broader, others shorter. Some are rising up and beginning their journey, others petering out and finishing theirs. Each has its own qualities, and can be clearly measured against its neighbors.
This first world that he first sees: where everything is bounded by time, is unique and distinct, and is never repeated exact the same way: this is the mortal world, the world of variation and distinction, the world of degrees. In Sufi terms it is the realm of Nasút.
Even though everything seen here in Nasút is nothing but the Ocean, yet the Ocean itself – in its own Reality – remains invisible. Instead of unity, there is manyness; instead of eternity, there is constant birth and death.
But as our sojourner reflects on the other waves, he notices that, although the tapestry is ever changing, certain qualities seem to recur and reappear. Never in exactly the same way, but possessing qualities remiscent of older times. For example, some waves are gentle and timid, while others are tall, strong, powerful. This power of itself invokes something in the other waves, and they instinctively praise and admire it. Even though every powerful wave must give way to death and decay, later another such waves rises to replace it. The concept of power takes on its own life, and these heroes become the subject of tales and legend.
In a sense, every powerful wave has two stations: its station as a wave, subject to the same limitations as all the rest; and its station as an icon of power, something that a only a few waves ever truly attain to, but that many generations have in common. To the extent that even when this qualities appears in a brand new wave, it is recognized as the return of something already known and cherished.
If the world of the waves and their individual limitations is Nasút, then the world of these recurring qualities – which in themselves are eternal and independent of the individual waves who manifest them – is the world of Malakút, the realm of eternal realities, and place of divine appearances. This is the world where the potential attributes of the ocean become manifested through the medium of the waves, since is from this Source that their power is born and appears.
As the wayfarer refines his sight, he begins seeing his fellow waves not only as their unique and individual selves, but also as participants in this higher reality of ideal forms. It becomes the role of virtue, then, to raise up those who are able to become the place of appearance of these qualities, to ennoble themselves so that what is limited may partake and share in what is eternal.
But still, even though he has seen past the time-bounded waves to these qualities that are universal and free from time, he has not yet seen the ocean. Even if he experiences the manifestation of some divine quality, still he recognizes his own mortality and that soon he will fade away. What shall become of him then? Was his only hope to touch the heavens for a brief moment before expiring, in the form of a manifested quality?
At some point, to move further the wave must realize that he does not actually exist: no more than the dividing line between two colors exists apart from those colors.