Wednesday, 11 February 2009

The one essential movement - the movement within

Among the jargon of the five-year plan is the term "two essential movements". The two movements intended by this term are, first, the movement of believers through the sequence of Ruhi courses and, second, the development of communities from C-stage clusters through B-stage clusters to A-stage clusters.

In this blog entry, I want to discuss what I'll refer to as "the one essential movement" and that is the spiritual growth that a believer experiences if s/he turns toward the inner spiritual world of Baha'u'llah that is 'located' within them - that is, in their heart, soul, spirit or inmost being; whatever you want to call it, it doesn't matter. I describe this one essential movement as 'the movement within'. From writings like the Seven Valleys, Baha'is are aware of the idea that they are supposed to be wayfarers on a spiritual journey; indeed, the Seven Valleys depict the stages of that journey. But Baha'is do not realise that the two essential movements of the five-year plan are not the same thing as the one essential movement within. In fact, it is possible to participate fully in the two essential movements of the plan and yet never take one step on the essential movement within.

Let's look then at the differences between the two essential movements of the plan and the essential one within. A basic difference is that they take place in different worlds. The two essential movements are to do with activities that Baha'i communities and individuals take part in in the outer, physical, world. They involve attending institute classes, carrying out the practical aspects of the courses and participating in the teaching work and core activities.

By contrast, the one essential movement is a spiritual journey that takes place in an invisible inner world - the goal of that journey is referred to, among other things, as the "paradise of the Placeless":

"Up from thy prison ascend unto the glorious meads above, and from thy mortal cage wing thy flight unto the paradise of the Placeless." (PHW 39)

The activities associated with the movement within are related to our personal devotional life: praying, reading the writings morning and evening, fasting and bringing ourselves to account each day. The purpose of these activities, as Baha'u'llah emphasises in the quote below, is to develop an understanding of the scriptures and an awe for the mysteries. In fact, if we don't achieve this when we read, he says, we are wasting our time:

"Twelve hundred and eighty years have passed since the dawn of the Muhammadan Dispensation, and with every break of day, these blind and ignoble people have recited their Qur'an, and yet have failed to grasp one letter of that Book! Again and again they read those verses which clearly testify to the reality of these holy themes, and bear witness to the truth of the Manifestations of eternal Glory, and still apprehend not their purpose. They have even failed to realize, all this time, that, in every age, the reading of the scriptures and holy books is for no other purpose except to enable the reader to apprehend their meaning and unravel their innermost mysteries. Otherwise reading, without understanding, is of no abiding profit unto man." (Baha'u'llah: The Kitab-i-Iqan, p 172)

Despite the clear differences between the two essential movements of the plan and the essential movement within, it is common for Baha'is to integrate them in their minds. Commonly, belivers get so caught up in their community endeavours that they never find the time, or even take seriously the obligation, to embark on the movement within. Oh sure, they may pray and read the writings and even fast, but this does not necessarily lead to a sincere inner journey. It is possible to have a conversation with God in prayer, but not actually communicate anything. And as for reading, Baha'u'llah makes clear above that it is possible for, effectively, a whole global religious community to completely miss the point, despite all the reading in the world.

The reality of our lives is that it is very difficult to make space for genuine, sincere devotion to God. It demands real chunks of time and space in which we are on our own and experience sufficient inner silence to concentrate on the scripture we are reading, take it in, meditate on it and allow ourselves to be transformed by its majesty. My experience - and I know I am not unique in this - is that I had to struggle very hard to push back the demands of the world and say to it: "Hey, this special devotional time takes priority and I don't care what else is going on, my duty to Baha'u'llah must be met'. You can't do this without putting out challenging messages about yourself such as: I am religious; I need to be alone right now; I have a personal devotional life that is separate from my community life; I have a personal experience that does not involve my spouse. This is where Baha'u'llah's concept of detachment comes in. When we do convey those messages to the world, take time out and make sincere efforts to advance on our inner journey, then we are displaying one important facet of the attribute of detachment.

There is another way to look at the differences between the two essential movements and the one essential one, and that is in terms of the covenant. I am grateful to Susan Maneck who has recently put up an excellent essay on the covenant on her new blog "A Baha'i Perspective of Islam". In this essay, she begins by pointing out the crucial difference between the Greater and the Lesser Covenants. She rightly states that, when Baha'is think of the covenant they "usually describe the chain of authority designed to maintain their unity", which of course is the passing of authority from Baha'u'llah to Abdu'l-Baha to the World Order of Baha'u'llah. However, this is only one aspect of the covenant; it is the Lesser Covenant. There is another aspect to the concept of the covenant and that is the Greater Covenant, which Susan describes as "the Covenant which God has made with all humanity, wherein He promises us continuing guidance through His Messengers, 'Manifestations' as Baha’is call them, while we are obligated to recognize and obey them..." She points out the relationship between the two aspects of the covenant, stating that the Lesser Covenant is "predicated on" the Greater Covenant. In other words, the details about how the religious community functions in the world do not come into play unless there is first a God who decides to be known and to make a covenant with humanity via the manifestation.

Susan's excellent essay is principally a discussion on the meaning of of the Greater Covenant. She traces its beginnings with Moses, and follows it through Islam and on into the Babi and Baha'i revelations. The Qur'an transforms the meaning of the Covenant from an agreement made with Moses on Sinai, to a metaphorical event that takes place in pre-existence, or outside time, in which all souls assent at once to the fact that God is their Lord: "Am I not your Lord? They said: Yea, verily. We testify." (Qur'an 7:172) Susan explains:

"A couple of things might be noted about this passage. First, it is an event that happens in the pre‑existence, an event in which we are all said to be present. Because we all given [sic] answer to this question, we all become partners to the Covenant thus created. That Covenant consists of an acknowledgment of God’s lordship, and of our willingness to submit to it."

As Susan goes on to explain, our part in the Greater Covenant is about responsiveness; for each of us it is our duty to actively respond to the question: 'Am I not your Lord?' But, in order to do that, we have to recover a memory of that agreement we made in the realm of pre-existence. Baha'u'llah gives us guidance on how to do that in this Hidden Word:

"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." (PHW19)

Baha'u'llah tells us that we'd remember the surroundings in which we made our agreement if we sanctified our souls. The memory of what happened in pre-existence is 'imprinted' on our inmost being. To find it, we have to undertake the journey in, clear out the obstructions and walk the path to find the sanctified realm of the Placeless. The fundamental importance of this journey is highlighted in this Hidden Word:

"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." (AHW 16)

In conclusion, if we compare the two essential movements of the five-year plan and the essential movement within in terms of the covenant, then their relative importance becomes clear. The one essential movement within is our primary and fundamental obligation under the Greater Covenant. This is why, for example, Baha'u'llah has made the obligation to read the writings morning and evening a requirement of the covenant:

"Recite ye the verses of God every morn and eventide. Whoso faileth to recite them hath not been faithful to the Covenant of God..." (Aqdas, para 149)

Our activities in pursuit of the two essential movements should be predicated on the one essential one. It isn't acceptable to say to ourselves that if we're participating in the work of the plan, we're fulfilling our obligation to God. We're not. Our primary obligation is to realise our ultimate purpose in knowing and then meeting our Lord; and then, secondly, to reflect that spiritual achievement to humanity through our good character and deeds. At its core, the revelation is a love story, not a work programme.

"O son of spirit! My first counsel is this: Possess a pure, kindly and radiant heart, that thine may be a sovereignty ancient, imperishable and everlasting." (AHW 1)


Jim Habegger said...

I like this.

Anonymous said...

I like this too. I agree with everything you say, though I do not agree that this is not already understood by the Baha'i community. I am writing a series of posts on misconceptions about the Baha'i community I gained from investigating online, and I willl address this topic in the first one.

I disagree a bit with how clear you think the delineation between community and personal devotional life is. For me, as a former atheist and a person who has struggles with metaphysical beliefs and mysticism in general, prayer is very difficult. I have rarely prayed in what could be called a "prayerful attitude", and I find the concept of prayer alien. For me I am able to appreciate it aesthetically, and I enjoy it as an exercise in experiencing beauty to consider the different "technical details" of the act and dynamics of prayer, but rarely "feel it". The time when I am most prayerful is when teaching children's classes. Hearing children pray, or make candid and unexpected theological or moral observations is when I feel the Divine immanence most, and learning for children as well as imparting advice is the most honest act of worship I know.

I think perhaps that a clear delineation between community actions and personal devotion is a matter of personal preference. I do not deny that they are separately important and cannot be conflated with each other safely without harming both, but I think the extent of overlap necessarily differs from person to person.

Farzin Barazandeh said...

Thank you for your insight and the depth you always offer. It is a fresh air.

1grahame said...

Hi Alison, You seem to be describing the difference between doing and being. As in I am doing the Baha'i thing or I am a disciple of Baha'u'llah. I hope I haven't mis-understood you.


1grahame said...

Alison, What you seem to be describing is the difference between doing and being. As in I am doing the Baha'i thing or I am being a disciple of Baha'u'llah. I hope I haven't misunderstood you.