Heavenly teachers

October 29, 2008 - One Response

My little niece Rhiannon started school recently, and she loves it. What a contrast it was to my first days at school, when I was so terrified I wouldn’t let go of my mother. But thanks to a great teacher who I adored, I finally settled in – until it was time to move up a class. No amount of encouraging words about the new teacher could convince me to change class. I wanted to stay with my first teacher, – and that was that!

During my early schooldays I went through many traumas of changing teachers, until I realised that it was a necessary part of growing up. 

The metaphor of school is often used by Bahá’u’lláh, Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, to describe the spiritual progress of humanity throughout history.

He compares humanity’s progress to that of children growing up, who need different teachers for their education. In the same way, humanity needs different divine teachers for its spiritual education over the centuries – and these teachers are the Founders of the world’s religions. But unlike teachers at a school these divine teachers didn’t all appear together.

For example, Moses, Christ and Muhammed all appeared at different times with divine guidance to meet the requirements of their time.

According to Bahá’u’lláh, this ongoing process of Divine Teachers appearing through the ages to educate people is called progressive revelation.

When I first came across this idea of progressive revelation, it explained a question I’d had for years – why there are so many different religions in the world. In the Bahá’í view, all the different religions are progressive stages in just one Faith, like chapters in a book, written by the same author.

Any differences between them are to do with their social teachings, but the spiritual teachings remain the same. The world’s religions, Bahá’u’lláh said, have “proceeded from the same one Source and are the rays of one Light.”

But what about us, the followers of these religions? For me as a Bahá’í, I feel like a student in the school of spirituality – and I love all of our Divine Teachers.

Mind travel

October 28, 2008 - One Response

Recently, as I watched some amazing images coming from Mars, one of the scientists was asked if he had discovered any little green men. No, he said, looking a bit annoyed, they’d found big red women! Everybody laughed.

The reason the scientist was annoyed, was because people always ask about little green men on Mars. But we can’t help being curious about faraway places.

Fortunately, we don’t have to go to Mars to discover far away and alien things. There are plenty of remote and strange places right here:  – in our minds, in fact. So I’d like to take you on a budget tour, somewhere far away, in our minds.

Let’s start this journey somewhere near, say at home with our family. It feels great to be in comfortable and familiar surroundings.

Now, to the far away place, somewhere not so comforting or familiar, say a village in Africa.  Physically, it’s just a plane ride away.

But how far is Africa in our hearts and minds? I mean, could we stretch our minds to viewing people living in Africa as members of our own wider family? I’m not so sure. Perhaps in our minds the poor people of Africa live in a world very different to ours.

After all, we do actually call it the Third World; a world perhaps even further away in our minds than Mars.

It sounds ridiculous doesn’t it? Here we are, living in one world, with scientific proof that we’re all members of just one race. And yet in our hearts and minds, we’re still worlds apart.

It’s 150 years since Bahá’u’lláh, Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, addressed kings and rulers of the earth, raising the call of unity. Bahá’u’lláh said peace and justice are impossible without unity. After all, a strong, united family won’t tolerate half of its members dying from war and hunger.

Perhaps this far away and alien place that we need to visit in our minds is Unity. Imagine what it would be like live in unity.

It would be life  – but not as we know it! So, to boldly go where no man has gone before. One thing’s for sure. We have a better chance of finding unity on earth, than finding little green men on Mars.

Investigation and immersion

October 27, 2008 - 2 Responses

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! 

Stumbling from disaster to disaster

October 26, 2008 - Leave a Response

Frank Spencer is never far from our television sets and the show, Some Mothers do ‘ave em, was always a favourite of ours when I was growing up. 

The programme had a reliable formula – Frank would weave himself into a ridiculous situation  and then try to get himself out of it. He stumbled into everything without thinking, with no idea of the disastrous consequences of his actions. This formula worked well for Frank Spencer, and 30 years on, the repeats are as popular as ever.

But the formula of stumbling across disasters without knowing where they came from is repeated somewhere else on TV – on the News, in fact. As the world stumbles from one disaster to another, it seems there’s a bit of Frank Spencer in all of us – but nobody’s laughing.

For example, think about the disaster scene of a billion children living in poverty around the world. It seems that most of us are shocked and surprised to find the world in such a mess. But world poverty isn’t an accident created by someone else that we can ignore  – it’s a consequence of what we the people of world have done, or have failed to do. So what have we been doing that has caused such terrible consequences?

Perhaps we feel we haven’t sent enough money to the poor countries of the world.

But according to Bahá’u’lláh, Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, the problem isn’t lack of money, but lack of unity. The fact that we don’t see the earth as one country, Bahá’u’lláh said, has made us tolerate the extremes of wealth in one corner of the world, and extremes of poverty in the other.

In the middle of the 19th century, Bahá’u’lláh wrote: “The earth is but one country and mankind its citizens.” Unfortunately, 100 years on, the idea of world unity is still not very popular. Certainly there aren’t any TV programmes about it, whether drama or comedy.

One thing is for sure, unity mightn’t make for very exciting comedy, but it would take some of the tragedy out of our news programmes.

All the right moves

October 25, 2008 - Leave a Response

A few years back I had to move house three times in one year. During that summer we rented out our home in the Midlands and moved to another town for work. Five months later we were on the move again and then when we finally decided to buy a house we were on the move yet again.

All this struck me as being in sharp contrast to a lady who lives near my parents in Northern Ireland.

She’s in her 60s and has been living in the same house since the day she was born. Not only that, but it’s the house where her parents and grandparents lived before that. And what’s even more surprising is that it hasn’t changed since the day it was built. There’s no electricity, no running water, no gas, no phone, no central heating – no modern luxuries whatsoever.

The lady is a keen local historian and has a passion for preserving the past. Her home has captured the attention of  television and radio producers and she has become a home-grown celebrity.

It’s amazing to think that the house is exactly the same as it was 200 years ago.

While it’s fascinating to preserve things of the past, the same may not be true in every case. Take for example, the major part tradition plays in our lives – and the pressure we’re often under to conform.

In some countries, a blind attachment to tradition and the stubborn refusal to try new things has caused much suffering. In Northern Ireland too we saw how clinging to some religious and cultural traditions have hampered progress in our search for peace.

Bahá’u’lláh, Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, taught that fears and suspicions we have of our fellow human beings is “blind imitation” of the past. He proclaimed that in this present day we should see all the peoples of the world, of whatever race or religion, as members of one human family, and “the subjects of one God.”

Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings on this subject are in sharp contrast with some age-old beliefs about people of other races and religions. When it comes to century-old traditions that give way to conflict and prejudice, it’s a case of which traditions we keep, which ones we leave behind and which new ideas we buy into.

It’s like that 200-year-old house. It may be fascinating to visit it, but I’m not sure how many of would like to live there.

Diving for pearls

October 24, 2008 - Leave a Response

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.

The Olympic ideal

October 23, 2008 - Leave a Response

This summer I was inspired by the Olympic Games. And how relieved I was to learn that only eight competitors in the games tested positive for drug use. In previous years, my enjoyment of the Games had been marred by so many allegations over the use of performance enhancing drugs. There was a general feeling of disappointment that the Olympic movement had fallen short of its ideals.

It’s a mark of our times that ideals aren’t working as they once did. Political ideologies, religious movements, even the ideals of the United Nations have left behind a bitter taste too.

The result of these disappointments has been that we daren’t cling on to ideals, just in case they fall short of their promise. But that’s a shame, because it means we daren’t believe in a future that’s more fulfilling than the present.

Perhaps that’s why we are increasingly living only for today, as we spend, buy and consume, now, as if there is no tomorrow.

But doesn’t everyone needs some kind of ideal, whether political, religious, economic or whatever? But how do we avoid the disappointment of seeing these falling short of their promise?

Experience shows that divisive ideals such as political ones cause the most disappointments. They divide people up into opposing camps so that one person’s idealism becomes another person’s fanaticism.

For me, anything that isn’t divisive and has universal appeal has a more promising future.

And this is how the ideals of the Olympic movement have survived as long as they have. They enjoy universal support despite their many problems, challenges and failings.

So much so, that it’s difficult to think of anything with a more universal appeal across the 6 billion population of earth.

Take the idealism represented in the gathering of sports men and women at the centre of the stadium at the opening of the Olympic Games. The mass of different colours worn by the representatives of over 200 nations, showed what can be achieved: Unity in Diversity.

Bahá’u’lláh, founder of the Bahá’í Faith said: “It is not for him to pride himself who loveth his own country, but rather for him who loveth the whole world. The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.”

We’ve tried divisive ideals for too long. Perhaps now it’s time for those ideals that are universal. Unity would be a good start.