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.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

The mirror of the soul

I have been reading the Qur'an over the last week. I opened it up because I reread Baha'u'llah's statement in the Kitab-i Iqan about the Surah of Hud:

"To them that are possessed of true understanding and insight the Surah of Hud surely sufficeth. Ponder a while those holy words in your heart and, with utter detachment, strive to grasp their meaning. Examine the wondrous behaviour of the Prophets, and recall the defamations and denials uttered by the children of negation and falsehood..." (Kitab-i-Iqan, pp5-6)

And so I opened the Surah of Hud and read it. Gracious, it was just as Baha'u'llah said: it was an account of how prophet after prophet came to earth and was rejected and how the disbelieving were therefore brought to ruin by God. I was struck with how the theme of the surah was exactly the same as that of the Iqan. I became enthralled and read on to other surahs and found them to be the same: Surah of Jonah and Surah of Thunder. I loved the Surah of Thunder; it is full of power, which I guess you'd expect from the name.

And it was a passage from Thunder that I wanted to discuss; specifically 13:28:

"Who have believed and whose hearts have rest in the remembrance of Allah. Verily in the remembrance of Allah do hearts find rest!" (Picktall)
"Those who believe, their hearts being at rest in God's remembrance - in God's remembrance are at rest the hearts of those who believe..." (Arberry)

When I read this, I thought, gee, this is very much like one of my favourite passages from Baha'u'llah in City of Radiant Acquiescence:

"Then know that your love for God is God's good-pleasure with you and your good-pleasure with him. This is the religious path that was ordained by the right hand of God's wisdom, and it shall not change with a change of prophets, nor is it renewed by the advent of a new messenger. Rather, all enjoin this upon the people, and it is a trust of God deposited in the hearts of the sincere. This is what suffices you above all else." City of Radiant Acquiescence, para 8

To me, there's a book of meaning in these verses. Essentially, it's about shifting the place where we locate God and the nature we assign to God - from a judgemental father figure outside us to a compassionate lover who experiences sympathetically all that we do.

As I understand Sufism, this shift from external/judgemental to internal/compassionate is the guts of what Sufism is about. The difference in perception is also at the heart of my differences with conventional Baha'is. From what I can make out, Baha'is have an external/judgemental view of God, which is projected onto the House of Justice and is behind why they revere the House so much, effectively making the House an associate of God. You can see it in Moojan's article for Religion. He writes as an unspoken representative of the House-god, standing in judgement over the evil-doers and detailing the dark inner workings of their souls.

But the verses of scripture above tell us that this kind of stand against others is the result of ignorance and distance from God, and is self-defeating. The verses tell us that the goal is for our hearts to find rest, radiant acquiescence and good-pleasure with God. The process of getting to that point takes place between ourselves and God only and entirely within our souls. It's a very private and personal thing. Each of us must sit down with ourselves and God and spend all the time it takes to work it out. Getting it worked out with God is what matters; the rest doesn't matter.

Now I can explain why I called this blog entry "The mirror of the soul". I understand Baha'u'llah to be saying that our good-pleasure with God is God's good-pleasure with us. So, if we sit down and work it out with God and fall in love with God as a result, that experience of contentment and love is contemporaneously God's experience of contentment and love with us. At that moment, what we are experiencing is exactly what God is experiencing. This is how we know God is pleased with us, because in all sincerity we experience love and good-pleasure with God. It's a contemporaneous mutual experience of affection. This is why Baha'u'llah says, for example, that he is closer to us than our life vein, that he sees through our eyes and hears through our ears and knows every thought we think. He is inside us experiencing us as we experience ourselves.

Given this, exhortations in the Hidden Words such as "see no evil, hear no evil" take on a whole new meaning. If we focus on the evil around us, we are forcing Baha'u'llah to see it too. And he's not interested. He's above all that. He's suggesting instead that we live in paradise with him. To do that, we need to focus our minds, hearts and senses on him: "Live then the days of thy life, that are less than a fleeting moment, with thy mind stainless, thy heart unsullied, thy thoughts pure, and thy nature sanctified, so that, free and content, thou mayest put away this mortal frame, and repair unto the mystic paradise and abide in the eternal kingdom for evermore." (PHW 44) When we fill our heart with love, not only do we experience love but Baha'u'llah experiences it with us, and at that moment we transport ourselves to paradise. The feeling and its fruit (existence in paradise) are contemporaneous. That is why the Qur'an and Baha'u'llah underline the fact that God is swift to reckon. Reckoning is instantaneous: the minute you fill up with resentment, you've lost it.

This is why I can't read, for example, Moojan's article. The language it uses and the horrible concepts it outlines - to me, it's a sin to think them at all - about anyone. I can't remain in paradise and run such ideas through my mind. I think this is what's behind the point about loving our enemies. It has nothing to do with whether our 'enemies' are deserving of our love or justice; their reckoning is with God and has nothing to do with us. It's about protecting our own hearts from falling victim to a strong negative reaction. The test evil poses is to stay the course and remain free from it internally. It takes extraordinary detachment, such as Baha'u'llah had, to be able to write about the evil others do without being drawn into feelings of dislike or worse and to say something that is truly equitable.

And so, what is judgement? It is a thing we bring on ourselves when we go to evil places within. "God changes not what is in a people, until they change what is in themselves." (Qur'an 13:11) Our reckoning is, as the Qur'an says repeatedly, what our soul earns. And what our soul earns is the internal states it chooses to go to. At each moment, God witnesses those states and takes us to them, hence our reckoning. Therefore, we don't earn paradise by writing essays pronouncing judgement on others (even if those others have actually done evil things). That activity only takes us to the place our feelings inspire within us when we focus on such things. We earn paradise by filling our hearts with love, forgiveness, forbearance, patience, and compassion. If we can maintain these states within, even in the face of provocation, we can then be said to 'live' in paradise.

Reckoning isn't an external, intellectual process that occurs outside of us. There isn't an external father figure who is standing over us with a perpetual disapproving look on his face. And that powerful father figure can't suddenly inhabit religious institutions such as the House of Justice or individuals with worldly power such as Counsellors and Aux Board members. Those people have as much right and power to judge as we do: none at all. The scriptures tell us that only God judges us and that this process takes place internally. It's not foreign, mysterious and unpredictable. It's actually directed entirely by us: we bring the reckoning on ourselves when we choose the inner states we welcome to inhabit our souls.

You find the idea about instantaneous reckoning in the Bible too. Jesus indirectly refers to it when he counsels his disciples not to judge others. "Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you." (Matthew 7:1-2)