In my last entry, Rendering assistance to God, I ended by saying that I'd found a way through my paralysis over the seeming pointlessness of good deeds given God's omnipotence. I had also described in earlier entries the trap in using deeds as snares to manufacture a desired outcome. I languished for months between these two positions until last week when a mixture of questions I'd had for ages all found an answer in one place. It was a great moment!
One of those questions I've long been wondering about is what exactly is the houri who appeared to Baha'u'llah and spoke to him? Some years ago, I read the excellent article "Daena-Den-Din: The Zoroastrian heritage of the 'Maid of Heaven' in the tablets of Baha'u'llah" by Kamran Ekbal (in Moojan Momen (ed): Scripture and Revelation, pp125-169) and this gave me an idea of the relationship between the houri and good deeds. Then, just recently, I finally read the first chapter of Alessandro Bausani's Religion in Iran, and between that and the Ekbal article, I began to see how the houri concept worked, and to my surprise and delight, recognised that it also answered my question about the place of good deeds in our spiritual life.
As the Ekbal article explains, the houri concept that the Baha'is are familiar with has its origins in Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrianism is hugely complex due to the fact that it is ancient - at least 1000 BCE - and therefore added to and altered for millennia until you get the version of today. But both Ekbal and Bausani are clear that the idea of Daena, a houri figure, is fundamental to Zoroastrianism and is found in the earliest extant texts of that religion, the Gathas, which are in the first person and are considered Zoroaster's voice (Ekbal, 134).
The concept of Daena is complex, with several aspects to it that work together to create the whole meaning. I don't feel qualified to attempt a definition but have to for the sake of this blog entry. For me, the way I first got a handle on the concept was when I read the Zoroastrian texts that used it and described how it works. But I'll attempt an explanation first.
Bausani explains that the concept has three meanings, which are all interlinked: religion in the wide sense of revelation, the soul's double, and a maiden (Bausani, pp53-4). My understanding of how these work is that each person creates within themselves, by means of their soul, a spiritual world, energy or garden (however you like to conceptualise it), which is made up of their actions, thoughts, words, conscience and the like. This individual spiritual world, substance, or personality takes on in the spiritual realm a unique form - hence the idea of our soul's double - and in Zoroastrianism, this form is said to be that of a maiden. The idea is that if our deeds, thoughts and words are good, then our maiden double is beautiful, but if our deeds, thoughts and words are evil, then our 'daena' is an ugly old woman. A useful way to look at it is via the concept of revelation - just as Baha'u'llah produced a revelation, which took the form of the houri he describes, we also produce a revelation through the activity of our selves and this also produces the image of a houri or daena unique to us.
I always suspected, but could not argue cogently why, all humans have a 'houri' and not just Baha'u'llah - although Baha'u'llah's houri is The Houri, as John Walbridge once said, and we are all reflections of his archetypal form. It is also consistent with the teaching that ordinary humans are made in God's image, and it also works when you consider statements such as this one in AHW 59, "Thy spirit is My place of revelation; cleanse it for My manifestation."
But here is a classic example from Zoroastrian scripture about how the houri is at work in our lives:
"When the just man's soul passes over that bridge (Chinvat) it becomes as wide as a parasanga (about 6kms), and the just man's soul passes accompanied by the pious Srosh. Then the good works he has accomplished advance towards him in the form of a maiden who is more beautiful and good then any maiden in the world. The just man's soul says: 'Who are you, for in all the world I never saw a more beautiful and better maiden than you?' The form of the maiden answers: 'I am not a maiden, I am your righteous actions, O young man of righteous thought, of righteous words, of righteous actions, of the righteous religion! For when - in the world - you saw someone sacrificing to the demon you, instead, started adoring God; and when you saw someone carrying out violence and robbery and afflicting and despising good men and gathering their substance with evil actions you, instead, avoided treating creatures with violence and robbery… And when you saw people give false judgments and allow themselves to be corrupted with money and commit perjury you, instead, undertook to tell the truth and speak righteously. I am your righteous thoughts, your righteous words, your righteous actions, thought, spoken, done by you. For, although I was already esteemed you made me even more esteemed, and though I was already honored, you made me even more honored, and though I was already splendid, you rendered me still more splendid." (quoted by Bausani, pp52-3)
Perhaps because I am a gardener, I tend to think of my houri as taking the form of a garden. You invest in a garden by planting seeds and seedlings and you nurture it with water, food and sunshine and by keeping weeds away, and gradually you build up a garden that is a source of wealth. It has good loamy soil and feeds you through good times and bad. With this, I now think of Baha'u'llah's houri as taking on the form of the Garden of Ridvan. And this fits with the fact that the Arabic word for garden, janna, also means paradise.
Another useful way of looking at the houri is as a spiritual bank account. You invest in your spiritual account by placing in it good thoughts, words and deeds and, as it sits there over time, it attracts interest and accumulates. After a time, you find you have assets and so you can rely on it to support you later in life and you can use it to 'buy' things you need to achieve your goals in life. My experience also is that the richer your spiritual bank account is, the more Providence seems to work in your favour. Finance people will tell you that money attracts money and I think it works exactly the same way with our houri. I think of a spiritual bank account when I read the passage in Matthew 6 about storing up treasures in heaven.
"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." Matthew 6:19-21
And a little further on in that chapter, Christ tells the disciples not to worry about things like food and clothes because God knows they need those things and will provide them. Instead, he says in verse 33, they should first seek the Kingdom and God's righteousness, and then God will given them what they need.
I hope it is coming clear how these new insights have got me through my impasse. I think now that the purpose of acting in the world isn't to snare an outcome and isn't to help God, who doesn't need help, but to grow a garden, build up a spiritual bank account, or paint a beautiful houri. This asset becomes a spiritual resource from which God provides for me and, if there is enough in the account, God will also use the resource to aid me in serving God and influencing others. Now I believe that this idea was intended when Christ managed to feed the five thousand - he had a huge spiritual garden - an unlimited one, from which he could have feed the whole world.