Archive for the ‘Spiritual life’ Category

Playthings of the Ignorant
November 4, 2008

Have you ever done what I was doing the other night – gone through an old photo album and been horrified at the clothes you were wearing?

What was I thinking? How could pink leg warmers ever have been attractive? Or pastel-toned lycra shell-suits? Not to mention the hairstyles!  What was that windswept Farrah Fawcett look doing on my head? Why didn’t anyone tell me how awful I looked?

The fact is everyone else looked just as awful! We were the dedicated followers of fashion as the song goes.

And what choice did we have? We bought what we bought because it was there – and there was no internet shopping. Now we can surf websites anywhere in the world and get what we want. And yet today, despite the choice, we’re still heavily influenced by those in the know about ‘what’s in’ and ‘what’s out’. I remember being teased at school because I was still wearing flares when everyone else had had their bellbottoms taken in to leg-hugging, spray-on tightness. Then, sure enough, in the late 1980s, flares were back. And then they disappeared. And then re-emerged, only to be replaced last year by skinny jeans, which – just as soon as you’ve laid on the floor and wriggled yourself into them – are out of date and now need to be replaced by turn-ups or some other such fad.

It’s funny isn’t it how we pride ourselves on our freedom of thought and our freedom to choose. And yet every one of us is influenced  by packaging on food, the reviews we read of books, the latest must-have gadget, and yes, the latest style of clothes.

Now I’m not decrying having nice things or making our lives more comfortable. It’s just that, in the Bahá’í teachings, we are told that we shouldn’t make ourselves the ‘playthings of the ignorant’. That’s an interesting phrase. Rather than being manipulated all the time into what others want us to be, Bahá’u’lláh’s advice is to adorn ourselves with good deeds and a praiseworthy character.

After all, when you look at a photo of a loved one from any era, what do you remember? The clothes they were wearing or the cut of their character?  

Physical and spiritual power
November 3, 2008

Have you ever forgotten something really important in your life? We may forget birthdays or anniversaries, but would anyone forget how much they have in the bank?

Our life is totally dependent on money, but only up to a point, because, as the saying goes, you can’t take it with you.

The Egyptian Pharaohs certainly didn’t take anything with them. They spent their lives accumulating gold and building magnificent pyramids, planning for an eternity of luxury. Imagine their disappointment when 3,000 years on, their gold, far from being of any use to them, is on display in museums all around the world. It wasn’t quite how they planned it.

Their staggering belief in the immortality of material things made them think they were building an eternal existence.  But in reality they were creating a material civilisation that soon perished.

Bahá’u’lláh, Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, suggests building a more balanced civilisation – a Divine Civilisation, which is made up using both material and spiritual means.

In the Bahá’í Writings we read: “For man two wings are necessary. One wing is physical power and material civilisation; the other is spiritual power and divine civilisation. With one wing only, flight is impossible.”

Imagine a bird forgetting to use one of its wings, flapping about on the ground using only one wing! Yet many of us live our lives using only the wing of materialism. No wonder we sometimes feel grounded!

For me, this is where religion comes in. Not the rituals and traditions that are passed down and blindly followed through generations, but a sense of the sacred and divine that lifts us when we’re feeling like a bird with a broken wing.

Bahá’u’lláh writes: “I am the Sun of Wisdom and the Ocean of knowledge. I cheer the faint and revive the dead. I am the Royal Falcon on the arm of the Almighty. I unfold the drooping wings of every broken bird and start it on its flight.”

I like the idea of a religion that instead of clipping your wings, inspires you to spread your wings and soar heavenward.

It’s wonderful
October 31, 2008

Philip was an elderly Bahá’í friend who passed away a few years ago. He was a colourful, larger-than-life American who made everybody laugh. One of his favourite expressions, which captures his life right to the end, was: “It’s wonderful.”

Even as Philip lay dying, his wife told me that he kept saying: “It’s wonderful” over and over again, until the moment he passed away. She said that she had felt like a midwife helping Philip’s soul to be born into the next world.

I thought the analogy of birth was such an inspiring way for her to view the death of her husband.

In describing Philip’s peaceful passing, and comparing it to a birth, she reminded me of how Bahá’u’lláh, Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, invited us to view life on earth – as a preparation for the world to come.

Bahá’u’lláh compares life in this world to that of a baby in the womb. There, the whole purpose of the baby’s existence is to develop its physical body, to prepare it for life in the physical world.

In the same way, the purpose of life in this physical world is to develop our spiritual side – our souls – to prepare us for our birth into the spiritual world.

According to Bahá’u’lláh, it’s impossible to try and understand the next world, because, He said: “The world beyond is as different from this world, as this world is different from that of the child while still in the womb of its mother.”

But, like the baby in the womb, we can, nonetheless, prepare ourselves for birth into the next world. And because the world we’re going to is a spiritual world, we need to develop our spiritual limbs and faculties here, in this life, to prepare us for the life to come.

Qualities such as love, faith, and truthfulness are some of the spiritual limbs we need in the next world.

My friend Philip certainly had many of these qualities – and a charming humour – in abundance. No wonder then that the words he uttered in his last breath were: “It’s wonderful!” And I am sure he is still saying it.

Suffering for perfection
October 30, 2008

A few weeks back, while reading a book by Somerset Maugham,  I was struck by a comment made by one of the characters about suffering. He said: “It’s not true that suffering ennobles the character; happiness does that sometimes, but suffering, for the most part, makes men petty and vindictive.”

Well, I have to say it got me thinking about whether or not that’s really the case. Does suffering ennoble the character, or make us petty and vindictive?

Image after image of human suffering went through my head – the starving mothers and children of Africa, HIV ravaged communities in developing countries, the wounded and dispossessed in war zones and the orphaned victims of man-made tragedies. Does suffering ennoble their character? I think you may come to the same conclusion I did.

But then I got to thinking about people whose suffering changed them from ordinary people going about their day to day lives, into extraordinary champions of justice and education. There are numerous examples here in the United Kingdom. Diana Lamplugh, the mother who became one of the country’s foremost experts on personal safety, after her daughter disappeared while working as an estate agent twenty years ago. Or what about Colin Parry who established a trust to help children learn peace-building skills after his son Tim was killed in the IRA bombing of Warrington?  And there are plenty of others.

According to the Bahá’í teachings, personal suffering shouldn’t make us petty and vindictive, but should be regarded as opportunity for spiritual growth.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá, one of the central figures of the Bahá’í Faith, was well qualified to speak about suffering, spending more than 50 years of His life as an exile and prisoner.

He wrote: “Men who suffer not attain no perfection. The plant most pruned by the gardeners is that one which, when the summer comes, will have the most beautiful blossoms and the most abundant fruit… Look back to the times past and you will find that the greatest of men have suffered most.”

There’s no doubt in my mind that the human spirit has a great capacity to turn despair into hope, tragedy into constructive action and grief into forgiveness and progress.

Investigation and immersion
October 27, 2008

I am often asked how an Irish Catholic girl ended up a Bahá’í. Well, I was always a questioning type, even to the point of being called a doubting Thomas. But that’s no surprise, since asking questions about your religion in Ulster can be seen as a lack of faith.

It’s sometimes assumed that religion is what you’re born into, where thinking and questioning don’t come into it at all. But this way of life wasn’t for me. I found blind following of anything, including religion, meaningless. It was much more interesting to ask questions than to sit passively and accept everything you heard in school or church.

In fact, years later I found that asking all those questions instead of weakening my faith had helped me develop faith, to a point that I could no longer view people of different religions as enemies, but as members of the same one Faith of God.

This simple idea that religions are all from the same source was enough attraction for me to the Bahá’í Faith.

But, being the questioning type, I couldn’t just accept the unity of religions as a fact. It was a claim that had to be fully investigated. And given the amount of wars that are blamed on religion, investigated urgently. The need to urgently seek answers reminds me of a story about a student who asked his teacher how should he look for truth.

Without answering, the teacher took the pupil to the water’s edge and thrust the student’s head under the water until he was struggling for breath.

Eventually the poor student was pulled out of the water and regained his breath.

The teacher then said: “That’s how we must seek the truth. With the urgency of a drowning man who seeks the life-giving air.”

But what kept my head above water was what Bahá’u’lláh, Founder of the Bahá’í Faith calls “independent investigation of the truth.”

Having lived in Ulster where communities are divided by old traditions, investigation of truth sounded like a breath of fresh air to me. And unlike that student’s experience it didn’t hurt me at all! 

Diving for pearls
October 24, 2008

A young graduate friend of ours has escaped the rat race for a few months and opted for life on the paradise island of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. He’s involved in a conservation project there and I’ve already received three postcards from him. These were no “wish-you-were-here” greetings – but in-depth accounts of his deep sea adventures.

He said he’d had the scare of his life when he surfaced after one of the dives and his boat was nowhere to be seen. He was stuck in the middle of the ocean with four of his friends blowing on whistles for 15 minutes before a boat came to the rescue. 

What I really loved about his last postcard was when he described the ocean itself: “I’m up at 5am,” he said, “to plunge into a different world and fly through the dazzling concert of fish and strange sea creatures.

“There was one spectacular dive where we were swimming through canyons and valleys of coral and our eyes weren’t big enough to take in the incredible beauty.”

Squeezed in at the very bottom of this postcard he said how spiritually enriching it was to be exploring the ocean.

The ocean appears as a powerful metaphor in the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, Who often refers to nature to put across some of His profound spiritual teachings. In one of these passages He compares the vastness of His words and their meanings to a billowing ocean, and says: “Immerse yourselves in the ocean of My words that ye may unravel its secrets and discover all the pearls of wisdom that lie hid in its depths.”

Bahá’u’lláh encourages us to plunge into this ocean, and not just to swim across its surface. Because, wonderful though swimming may be the most exhilarating thing is discovering all the life hidden in the depths of the ocean. This is why my friend travelled thousands of miles in the first place.

And what are the secrets we find when we get to the bottom of Bahá’u’lláh’s ocean? Again it’s like my friend’s diving stories. No matter how well he describes his experiences, you can’t truly appreciate it until you try it yourself.

For a coward like me who even avoids the deep end of the swimming pool, I think I’ll leave the deep-sea diving to the experts in Madagascar.

Instead, I’m happy taking the leap of faith by plunging into Bahá’u’lláh’s spiritual ocean and discovering some of those pearls of wisdom He has written about.

Grains of Wheat
October 21, 2008

I watched a programme on TV recently about an exciting discovery in an ancient tomb. In among all the gold and treasures, they also found some grains of wheat. And why are grains of wheat worth mentioning?

Well, as you can imagine, these were special grains. Not only were they two thousand years old, but scientists managed to grow them into wheat!

On the face of it, the TV programme was about a scientific discovery of how seeds were preserved all this time. But for me, an even more important point was that these seeds still had the potential to grow into wheat – even after two thousand years.

The reason they hadn’t grown was because they were deprived of the right environment – and a tomb filled with gold certainly wasn’t the right place for the seeds to grow. They needed soil, water and sun for their potential to be revealed.

And so it is for everything that grows in nature. Potential can only be developed in the right environment.

We humans develop our potential for physical strength in a gym, and develop our intelligence by attending school. But what about another potential – the potential to grow spiritually?

What spiritual potential you might ask? Surely it’s the power that motivates us to sacrifice for others, and expect nothing in return. And to doubt that we have this potential for spiritual growth is like seeing those seeds in the tomb, and saying What wheat?” Or seeing an acorn and saying “What oak tree?”

The fact is, that potential, by its very nature, is always hidden, and can only be developed in the right environment. Bahá’u’lláh, Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, uses the metaphor of hidden treasures to describe the potential within each human being. He wrote: “Regard man as a mine, rich in gems of inestimable value.”

What a shame if we don’t bother looking for these gems within us. But we better be quick in finding them in this fleeting life – because unlike those treasures in the ancient tombs, once we find these spiritual gems, they will stay with us forever.