Tuesday, 25 December 2007

The Covenant: dissolving the hierarchy

(A nice academic-style title - phrase, colon, phrase - just for a change.)

Yes, this one is about the Covenant (with a capital C). What on earth is it? Administration Baha'is talk about it all the time and say it's vitally important. I agree it's important, but view it through a different lens.

The subject came up because Steve found a love song, which I'll tell you about, whose lyrics, for me, are all about the Covenant. And I wanted to share the song with you, plus my interpretation of it. Soon after I discovered the song, Steve was in conversation with a guy called Jonah, who is an ex-Baha'i and now Christian, who was telling Steve the following:

"My site is more openly opposed to the Faith than Alison Marshall’s is, but hers is from a Bahai perspective more insidious and dangerous, because she is working to dissociate in people’s minds the Faith and the Covenant. I don’t know if that’s how she sees it, but that is the upshot of her site: that working counter to the Covenant is consistent with being a good Bahai. But the Covenant is whole reason for the Faith’s existence. Without the Covenant, the Faith can’t bring unity, and the world is lost." From a comment to the article "Moojan Momen is right" on the blog "Baha'i-Catholic Blog"

Fascinating, isn't it? He's no longer a Baha'i, but still has the adminstration-Baha'i discourse and worldview firmly implanted in his mind and heart. It just shows that, even if you change your religion, you don't necessarily change yourself. You can take with you the previous community's views and prejudices.

When Jonah accuses me of separating the Faith and the Covenant, what does he mean by "the Covenant"? Notice, that isn't spelled out. Of course, it doesn't need to be. Everyone knows that what "the Covenant" is: it's the hierarchy: God - Baha'u'llah - Abdu'l-Baha - the Guardian - the House of Justice. That's the Covenant! And you need only go to Alison's website to see it "condone an anti-administration viewpoint". That's how she separates the Faith from the Covenant; you can't have Baha'u'llah without the administration.

All right, now that we know what administration Baha'is think the Covenant is, I'll share my take on it. In a nutshell, the Covenant, for me, is a love affair. It's a love affair between the individual and God/the Manifestation. This means that the Covenant is first and foremost an experience of the Eternal God in the soul. It's all very well to talk about the hierarchy, but unless it is underpinned by an abiding and sustaining experience of eternal love within, it is just an intellectual concept. And the Covenant cannot be reduced to an intellectual concept or an agreement that, above all, demands obedience, any more than a marriage can. You see, I don't reject the hierarchy outright; I just don't think that the Covenant can be reduced to a formula without losing everything that's meaningful about it. (You won't find a 'houri of inner meaning' (Iqan, para 78) in the hierarchy no matter how much you dig - it's no wonder there's no women on the House! :-))

Persian Hidden Word 19 is about the Covenant. Abdu'l-Baha has explained that the gathering described there is the spiritual call of Baha'u'llah in the hearts of the people (Taherzadeh: "The Revelation of Baha'u'llah" (1974) p81):

"O MY FRIENDS! Have ye forgotten that true and radiant morn, when in those hallowed and blessed surroundings ye were all gathered in My presence beneath the shade of the tree of life, which is planted in the all-glorious paradise? Awe-struck ye listened as I gave utterance to these three most holy words: O friends! Prefer not your will to Mine, never desire that which I have not desired for you, and approach Me not with lifeless hearts, defiled with worldly desires and cravings. Would ye but sanctify your souls, ye would at this present hour recall that place and those surroundings, and the truth of My utterance should be made evident unto all of you." (Baha'u'llah: PHW 19)

We can see from this that the Covenant originates in a primal or pre-existent call that the Manifestation makes to our hearts. The call never stops - it has been going since the beginning of eternity and will continue on into eternity. Deep within our souls is a 'memory' of this call and the Hidden Word tells us that our job is to "sanctify [our] souls" so that we can recall that sacred place and hear the call.

Now for the really tricky part: how do we sanctify our souls so that we regain access to that 'place' and can hear the call again? As the text suggests, it has everything to do with the soul (and, by inference, nothing do with anything else). 'Sanctify your souls' suggests a real engagement with what's inside us and a process of cleaning it out. This journey inside is at the heart of my concept of the Covenant. As I said, it is first and foremost an experience.

The good news is that I have discovered a person who has been through this experience (not that it ever ends), and who has a blog in which he describes it and the issues involved. I was delighted to discover his site because this is an area that I'm not good at describing. His name is Bob Charnes. He is Baha'i and his blog is called "Authentic Sprituality".

Bob has his unique and accessible way of describing the process of sancifying the soul and finding the sacred home inside. He argues that, deep within us, is what he calls our "core wounding". This is the thing inside us that craves things like love, comfort, forgiveness, recognition, understanding and rest. He talks about these feelings being placed within us by God. I interpret these feelings to be caused by our memory of the sacred gathering. We have these needs within us because we desire to get back to that place and find all that we crave.

But, to get back to that place, we have to eye ball the needs within. Understandably, we don't do this because it causes pain, which we avoid at all costs. Who needs it? Bob beautifully describes how we devote our whole lives to avoiding this pain by creating a false self that is designed to trick ourselves and others into believing that we are powerful, successful and in control:

"So you see there is great resistance to experiencing pain. When one can allow himself to actually feel pain or shame or heartache, it is a step away from falseness. It is an act of bravery. It breaks the rigid fear that comes from constantly repressing one’s feelings in the name of trying to look good. We think this ‘looking good’ and ‘keeping up appearances’ helps others and sets a good example, but we just teach others to be fake and superficial, without real humility, and leaving no room for growth. It is actually selfish, because we are afraid to feel the inner shame and emptiness that comes when we realize we have been fake our whole lives and that we don’t know what reality is.

If we’re busy upholding an image for others, we cannot grow or transform. If we cannot feel insecurity, we cannot turn to God for security. If we’ve acquired knowledge, house, family, job, religious and secular titles and positions, relationships, possessions, and received our security and identity from these things, then there is no room for God, no way to realize that God is the only Comforter and Provider. If our heart is attached to the comforts of this world, how can we experience God as the one who bestows the joy and peace? How can we seek peace if we cannot feel the struggle inside us? If we are constantly appeasing our struggle with the pleasures and securities of this world, how then can we let God into our hearts? Even religion and our religious friends serve as worldly comforts, which perpetuates our attachment to this world. We actually use religious meetings and religious knowledge as objects to possess, which serve to build up our personal power and give us worldly security, in order to shield against feeling our inner emptiness, shame, fear, and insecurity.

We need to dig deep into our life, and recognize that we have feelings of fear, insecurity, shame, inadequacy, and this makes up the greater part of our inner self. And we’ve been conditioned to attach ourselves to our knowledge, family, job, position, house, etc., in order to prevent us from experiencing these feelings. But those inner feelings don’t go away—they just get covered up. And then we become superficial, materialistic, intellectual, and unspiritual. Then comes the creation of the false shell which may imitate spirituality, or at least imitates what the mind thinks is spirituality. True spirituality may not look like what you imagine it to be--because you can’t have true spirituality without authentic recognition and experience of that which is not spiritual—the untransformed ego self. After the arduous process of letting down the defenses against your unwanted ego self, you can spiritualize that very self, and apply the remedy of the Writings, and enter the battle with ego. After awhile, you will see that the struggle, the battle, the pain, the selfishness, is all part of God, it is all good, and it all issues from His grace. But these are just concepts until you first get real with yourself, and feel your pain and your inadequacy, instead of talking about it in your head from a safe distance." essay on Spiritual Transformation, part 1

In the last paragraph, Bob alludes briefly to what we experience once we have stared down our fears. We discover to our amazement and delight that all the things we were craving for are given to us by the grace of God. "After awhile, you will see that the struggle, the battle, the pain, the selfishness, is all part of God, it is all good, and it all issues from His grace." We find ourselves independent of all save God and floating in an ocean of abundance. Baha'u'llah's Hidden Word on the meaning of 'wealth' comes to mind here:

"Yet to be poor in all save God is a wondrous gift, belittle not the value thereof, for in the end it will make thee rich in God, and thus thou shalt know the meaning of the utterance, "In truth ye are the poor," and the holy words, "God is the all-possessing," shall even as the true morn break forth gloriously resplendent upon the horizon of the lover's heart, and abide secure on the throne of wealth." (AHW 51)

But my purpose here isn't to focus on the experience of eternal life. I'm wanting to go back to the issue Bob raises - that of creating a false self in place of making the real journey. Bob makes the important comment that: "We actually use religious meetings and religious knowledge as objects to possess, which serve to build up our personal power and give us worldly security, in order to shield against feeling our inner emptiness, shame, fear, and insecurity." This is where the hierarchy conveniently comes in. It's an intellectual construct. It's an idea people can readily assent to without having to venture inside themselves. 'God - Baha'u'llah - Abdu'l-Baha - the Guardian - the House of Justice - sounds right and it's real easy to understand and promote. All I need to do now is turn off my brain and I've made it!' Adopting this covenant construct brings deep feelings of righteousness and security, and worldwide social validation.

The three processes Baha'u'llah describes in the Hidden Word above are interpreted accordingly:

  1. "Prefer not your will to Mine" becomes "do not prefer your will to that of the House".
  2. "Never desire that which I have not desired for you" becomes "never desire what the House doesn't desire".
  3. "Approach Me not with lifeless hearts, defiled with worldly desires and cravings" becomes (oh dear, doesn't quite fit, but it's something like) "joyous, instant and exact obedience".

However, from the point of view of the journey into the soul, here's an alternative interpretation: Do not create a false self against the reality of your vulnerability, which I have placed in your hearts. Never desire the things of this world to the exclusion of me. Do not turn to me in prayer, when you actually believe you have no need of me.

Which brings me to the song. It's about a man who has faced his vulnerabilities and errors before his beloved, and is now travelling toward her with a determination that will never fail. That is what I think of as 'firmness in the Covenant'. The song is called "I will not let you down" and it's sung by Kiwi singer-songwriter, Don McGlashan (although, he didn't write this one). As luck would have it, there's a video of it on YouTube, so you can listen to it. I've put the lyrics below.

I will not let you down (by Sean Donnelly)

You must try to believe
That I will be coming through
I have burnt every bridge that I've crossed
There's no bridge from here to you

So I row to your isle
All that distance reconciled
Should my arms, shoulders fail
Put my trust in wind and sail

I need you to believe
That I will be coming through
I have carried my cross at each step
Upon my neck for you

Cause I will not let you down
I will not let you down
That's for sure
I will not let you down
I will not let you down
Any more

There's a tear in my eye
And an ocean of swallowed pride
There's a heart here that beats like a drum
As I sing the waters by

Ties that comfort
Ties that bind
There's a temple in my mind
With an altar
Set for you
So you know my word is true

And I will not let you down
I will not let you down
That's for sure

I will not let you down
I will not let you down
That's for sure

I will not let you down
I will not let you down
Any more

http://www.donmcglashan.com/lyrics.php#IWill

Plenty of houris of inner meaning in that video, eh? :-)

I love the way this song captures a sense of continuous motion toward the beloved. The movement is powered by an unfailing commitment. This has grown out of the decision to destroy all paths leading back ("I have burnt every bridge that I've crossed") and to come to terms with hardships, vulnerabilities and errors (the "ocean of swallowed pride"). There's no false self here; that's all been blown away. What's left is a simple, genuine sincerity. Running through this are the ties that comfort and bind, which to me are the ties of the Covenant. They guide me forward, out of my illusions and into the divine reality. And there's the altar I have created for Baha'u'llah in my mind, at which I face him and find the resolve to say: "I will not let you down. That's for sure." Those words don't come easily.