Archive for June, 2008

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Curtains to Curtains! The New Path

Rend the veils asunder in My name and through the power of My sovereignty that ye may discover a path unto your Lord. Bahá’u’lláh, Baha’i writings

Had you wished to travel to a cutting edge event in the summer of 1848 – 160 years ago – where would you have gone? To California to cash in on the beginning of the gold rush? Perhaps to one of the European countries that were swept up in political revolution. Unlikely choices would have been a tea party in Waterloo, New York and a conference in a Iranian garden. You would have probably dismissed both as ordinary and unpromising as harbingers of world change.

Only five people attended the tea party and they were all women. The garden event had rather more people – 81 – but very few women, by all accounts. The people attending one event probably knew absolutely nothing about the other event. But they shared a common problem: curtains.

The conversation at the tea party, held on 13 July, centred on the situation of women in the relatively new republic of the United States. One guest was Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a 32 year old housewife, mother and activist who had spent her honeymoon at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London. There, she and the six other women delegates were denied their seats and prevented from speaking. They had to sit behind a curtain in the visitors’ gallery and listen while the London credentials committee explained that they were `constitutionally unfit for public and business meetings’. And things were no better in the United States, Stanton complained to the others at the tea party. Even in this new country dedicated to equality women played no significant role in governance or decision-making.

Her friends agreed. The could have continued to grumble about things. Instead, they decided to hold a convention. And why wait? They could do everything in a week. One of the party was Lucretia Mott, a Quaker in the American abolitionist movement, who was also annoyed by the lack of women’s rights. She could be the featured speaker. So they put an ad in the local paper and planned the conference.

On the other side of the world, another young woman, Fatimih Baraghani, was having trouble with curtains too. Born into a Shi`i Muslim family, her father, a cleric, was enlightened enough to educate her but she had to sit silently behind a curtain to listen to the discussions of the other – male – students. Her father often regretted that she was not a boy, so that she could have succeeded him. As was the custom, she was married at the age of 11 to her cousin and they had three children.

Fatimih’s life changed, however, when she read the works of a scholar who was teaching that a new revealer of God’s word was about to appear who would revolutionize the fortunes of humanity with a revival of the great spiritual teachings and new social principles. Secretly she began to correspond with him and, very soon, she was converted. She journeyed to meet him only to discover that he had died only a few days before her arrival. But he had left instructions for his students to search for the new teacher from God and Fatimih fasted and spent her nights in prayer vigils to be guided to Him. One night she dreamt of a young man wearing a black cloak and a green turban who was standing in the air, reciting verses and praying. She memorized one of the verses and wrote it down in her notebook when she awoke.

Some time later, Fatimih read a section of a longer text written by the Bab, who claimed to be the promised new teacher from God, and she came upon the verse which she had noted down from the dream. Recognizing it immediately, she accepted that the message of the Bab was true. She threw her lot in with His followers and began vigorously – though from behind a curtain – to teach the new religion to all who would listen.

Back in the United States, Cady Stanton and her friends drafted a `Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions’ based on the American Declaration of Independence. The Declaration stated that, `all men and women are created equal’ and `are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights’ which belonged to women and men. Among the injustices perpetrated against women they enumerated were that women were denied access to higher education and to the professions, that they did not receive equal pay for equal work and that married women had no property rights and even no right of custody of their own children. A key injustice was that women were denied the right to vote. Basically, Cady Stanton and her friends wanted to get rid of the curtains that prevented women from advancing and using their talents and potential.

In Iran, just a few weeks before this, in June of 1848, the followers of the Bab faced major challenges. The Bab was imprisoned by the government for spreading His teachings; the first to believe in Him was also in difficulty. Fatimih’s fiery talks from behind the curtain had aroused the fury of the clerical leadership and she was persecuted by them. She had even been accused of killing an uncle who had opposed her new religion and she had spent much time under arrest. The Bab sent out a message for his followers to gather at a conference to move things forward: it was time to establish the religion of the Bab independently of its Islamic roots, to proclaim its new laws and to embed its new principles.

Baha’u’llah, at this time the foremost among the followers of the Bab, made the arrangements. He rented three gardens – one for Himself, one for Quddus (a prominent Babi leader) and one for Fatimih. On or about 26 June 1848, 78 other Babis pitched their tents in the field between the three gardens and the 22-day conference of Badasht began.

Although the meeting in New York was being organised by women for women, it was a step too far to have a woman chair it, so Lucretia’s husband, James Mott, agreed to do so. On the first day of the two-day Seneca Falls Convention, 19 July 1848, some 260 women and 40 men turned up. On the second day, after hours of speeches and debate, 68 women and 32 men signed the final draft of the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions. The women’s movement was born.

In Iran, a very different convention was unfolding. Every evening, Baha’u’llah, Quddus and Fatimih met to discuss plans. Every day one of the Islamic laws was abrogated; every day a new law was promulgated. Every person received a new name from Baha’u’llah. Fatimih’s name was confirmed as Tahirih, the Pure One, a name originally given to her by the Bab.

One day Baha’u’llah becamel ill. Quddús went to Baha’u’llah’s tent and expected Tahirih to come as well. But Tahirih sent message saying that owing to Baha’u’llah’s illness, Quddús should visit her garden instead. Quddus firmly invited her to Baha’u’llah’s garden.

So Tahirih left her tent and went towards the tent of Baha’u’llah, shouting aloud: `The Trumpet is sounding! The great Trump is blown! The universal Advent is now proclaimed!’ However, it was not her words that drew attention – it was her face. More daring than Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, who had given over the chairmanship of their meeting to a man, Tahirih had throw off the veil she had worn all her life when in the presence of men to proclaim in a dramatic and unforgettable way that in this, the new age, women were the equal of men.

This act is akin to a woman standing on the steps of St Paul’s cathedral in London in the nude and proclaiming that Christ has returned. As you can imagine, the believers gathered in the tent were panic struck. One cut his own throat with a razor, while some fled, and each one asked himself, `How can the Law be abrogated? How is it that this woman stands here without her veil?’

Tahirih delivered a fiery speech to the remaining Babis: `I am the Word which the Qa’im is to utter, the Word which shall put to flight the chiefs and nobles of the earth.’ Baha’u’llah ordered the Surah of the Inevitable be read: `When the Day that must come shall have come suddenly . . . Day that shall abase! Day that shall exalt! . . .’ A new religious dispensation – and a new movement of women – was born.

Have we yet achieved what these women set out to do 160 years ago today? The British government this week announced that it will take even firmer measures to give equal pay to women – they currently receive 87 per cent of what a man earns for doing the same job. The legislation was enacted 50 years ago.

And let’s see, in Tahirih’s homeland, what is the status of women? Are they sitting behind a curtain, are they still veiled?

Almost 160 years to the day after the beginning of the Conference of Badasht, on 20 June 2008, the international governing council of the Baha’i community, the Universal House of Justice, wrote to the Baha’is in Iran – persecuted, imprisoned, denied access to education and unable to practice their beliefs – and told them this:

Surely there are many pressing issues that preoccupy your fellow citizens as they strive to promote the prosperity and well-being of your nation. Foremost among these is, no doubt, the critical need to remove the barriers hindering the progress of women in society.

For you, the equality of men and women is not a Western construct but a universal spiritual truth about an aspect of the nature of human beings . . . It is, above all, a requirement of justice . . . As `Abdu’l-Baha explained: `The world of humanity has two wings — one is women and the other men. Not until both wings are equally developed can the bird fly. Should one wing remain weak, flight is impossible. Not until the world of women becomes equal to the world of men in the acquisition of virtues and perfections, can success and prosperity be attained as they ought to be. ‘

In this matter you are particularly qualified to be of assistance.

Tahirih, that peerless heroine of Iranian history, courageously advocated the emancipation of women in 1848, at a time when activity related to this principle was only beginning to gather momentum in parts of the world. From that time on, you have raised generation after generation of your children — both boys and girls — to value and express in every facet of their lives this
fundamental tenet of the Faith. In 1911, nearly a century ago, you founded the Tarbiyat School for Girls in Tihran, thereby making an indelible mark on society by providing to girls of all backgrounds the opportunity for education and enlightenment. For almost half a century now, Baha’i women have participated fully in all the administrative affairs of your community at the local, regional, and national level. And decades ago, you effectively eliminated illiteracy among Baha’i women under the age of forty.

Yet you are keenly aware that you cannot be content with your achievements to date and must continue your efforts to transcend those cultural practices that impede the progress of women. The goal of true equality is not easily attained; the transformation required is difficult for men and women alike. To this end, we warmly encourage you to continue to enhance your understanding of this principle and to strive to uphold it more fully in your families and in your community. You can, in addition, draw upon your experience to discuss with your friends, neighbours, and co-workers challenges and effective solutions and participate in projects that have this same worthy aim . . .

That is – curtains to curtains!

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Refugee

Be thou a light to every darkness, a dispeller of every sadness, a healer for every sick person, a quencher for every thirst, a shelter for every refugee, a refuge for every captive. `Abdu’l-Bahá, Bahá’í writings

We have just ended Refugee week here in Bedfordshire. I attended two activities: `The Asylum Monologues’ (Google it in, you will be amazed) and a showing of the film `Turtles Can Fly’.

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Asylum Monologues

`The Asylum Monologues’ is a dramatic reading using the words of three asylum seekers here in the UK, telling of the persecution and torture they were subjected to in their own land and the prejudice, suspicion and injustice they have had to face here. I emceed the event and it was so powerful I was overcome. Adults and children are beaten and tortured in their home countries and when the come here for asylum, they are detained, sometimes for years, in prison-like conditions, while they wait to discover whether the government here considers that they are `genuine’ and can stay or `failed’ without a legitimate reason to be here and must go home or even that is `safe’ to go back to their country. They have little or no contact with anyone apart from their lawyers and the detention centre staff. There are a few brave `befrienders’ – not nearly enough. Their lives are pointless and boring and hopeless.

`Turtles Can Fly’ is located in a real refugee camp for Kurds in the north of Iraq. Reportedly the first Iraqi film made after the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the toppling of Saddam Hussein, the story is a `fictionalized’ account of the life of the orphaned children living in the camp among the landmines and artillery shells. The main `actors’ were all physically damaged in some way – one had lost both arms, another a leg, and so on. The psychological and spiritual damage was even greater. Again, a very powerful and moving film.

Both the monologues and the film made me angry at the injustice of it all. What are we – thinking, prosperous, educated adults – doing? How did we let this happen? How did we make it happen? This is the 21st century!

These presentations brought to mind all the evils and injustices that we are wreaking on each in so many parts of the world – and the damage that we are even doing to the earth itself!

They also brought to mind the suffering of Bahá’u’lláh. He Himself was, of course, an exile. He did not flee injustice, persecution and prejudice but was sent away from His homeland as persona non grata, together with His family, including very young children. Before His exile, He had already been tortured and imprisoned on more than one occasion, His children vilified in the streets.

The journeys of exile – there were four – themselves were dangerous, lengthy and either freezing cold or blazingly hot. It took them three months to walk from Tehran to Baghdad – right through the dead of winter. Shoghi Effendi compared this forced journey to the migration of Muhammad, the exodus of Moses and the banishment of Abraham. You can read about them here.

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In many cities to which they were exiled, but particularly when they lived in `Akká, Bahá’u’lláh and His family suffered many of the challenges of urban life that today’ refugees and asylum seekers face — poor water supply, overcrowding in the homes they were assigned, lack of sanitary conditions, the unavailability of fresh food, lack of employment, ineffective government. Bahá’u’lláh and His family were also victims of other features of poor quality urban life — prejudice, disinformation, lack of concern for others, fear. Stones were thrown at the nine-year-old `Abdu’l-Bahá by children whose hatred of the Bábís had been aroused by those who were ignorant and feared them. Bahá’u’lláh’s family and many believers were the victims of injustice, arbitrary and corrupt government and inequality. Human rights abuses against Bahá’u’lláh and His family, and hundreds of other Bahá’ís, were legion. In Iran today nothing has changed for the Bahá’ís. The human rights abuses, the harassment, the imprisonment, continue.

Like many people today, Bahá’u’lláh Himself, His family and large numbers of Bahá’ís were made homeless as a result of the persecution directed against them. Bahá’u’lláh knew what it was to have His home seized by others and then destroyed, to have all His possessions taken, to lose everything, to have nothing. His children understood poverty. `Abdu’l-Bahá recalls that after Bahá’u’lláh’s arrest in Tehran the family was so destitute that there was no food to eat. `I was hungry’, He said, `but there was no bread to be had. My mother poured some flour into the palm of my hand and I ate that instead of bread.’

Bahá’u’lláh and His wife Navváb knew what it was to watch their children become ill and have no medicine to give them. Three of their six children died in early childhood, their last-born dying in Baghdad at the age of two.

Bahá’u’lláh was the victim of an arbitrary, corrupt and unjust judicial system. He knew what prison was like, what conditions in prisons do to people. His family, too, suffered imprisonment, and watched their friends die from ill treatment.

There were no social services in Bahá’u’lláh’s time, no welfare system, nowhere to go for material aid. Indeed, the Bahá’ís were, in many ways, the providers of the social services themselves. Both Bahá’u’lláh and Navváb were concerned for the homeless and the poor and were known as the `Father of the Poor’ and the `Mother of Consolation’ well before Bahá’u’lláh’s vision in the Síyáh-Chál told Him that He was God’s promised teacher for this age. `Abdu’l-Bahá was virtually a one man social welfare system in `Akká. Not only did He feed the poor, clean people’s houses, give them clothes (distributing coats each year) and take care of the ill by paying for doctors and medicine, He stockpiled food against times of famine and even took people into His own house to protect them and give them shelter. He was well-known for His alms-giving to the urban poor of `Akká, His distribution of money to the homeless of New York and other cities of America, His concern for those to whom the provision of health and welfare in the cities did not reach. Bahíyyih Khánum, Bahá’u’lláh’s daughter, Shoghi Effendi tells us, `freely dispersed’ food, money, medicine and clothing to the `famished men, women and children’ who besieged the house of `Abdu’l-Bahá in Haifa during the first world war seeking assistance. `All these,’ he says, `had their share in comforting the disconsolate, in restoring sight to the blind, in sheltering the orphan, in healing the sick, and in succouring the homeless and the wanderer’.

If Bahá’u’lláh and His family could, as exiles themselves, serve with love the very people who harassed them and made their lives a misery, how much more could those of us who are `free’ do for those who are seeking refuge in our countries. The ultimate resolution of these problems is, of course, that the people of the world turn towards Bahá’u’lláh and put His teachings into practice. The very purpose of Bahá’u’lláh’s own suffering was to free humanity

The Ancient Beauty hath consented to be bound with chains that mankind may be released from its bondage, and hath accepted to be made a prisoner within this most mighty Stronghold that the whole world may attain unto true liberty. Bahá’u’lláh

While we are waiting for that ultimate freedom, perhaps we can take some small steps towards it by personally acting as Bahá’u’lláh’s family did: serving others, standing up for justice, being a `a shelter for every refugee’.

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Final Journey

A friend asked: `How should one look forward to death?’ `Abdu’l-Bahá answered: `How does one look forward to the goal of any journey? With hope and with expectation. It is even so with the end of this earthly journey.’ `Abdu’l-Bahá, Bahá’í writings

On Wednesday I was the Bahá’í speaker at a conference arranged by our local Sue Ryder Care palliative care hospice at St John’s Moggerhanger – my topic, `Spirituality and Spiritual Care from the Bahá’í Perspective’.

The conference `Spirituality and Spiritual Care’ drew hospice and healthcare workers from across the country, as well as hospice chaplains and local volunteers serving at St John’s Moggerhanger. A team of psychologists and healthcare professionals working in a Sue Ryder hospice in Poland, which with St John’s is twinned, also attended, as well as Rev. Piotr Krakowiak, National Chaplain of Hospices in Poland, who oversees more than 500 hospices and home care units in that country (you can find him in Wikipedia!) and who spoke on the Hospice Movement in Poland. He was terrific!

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Other speakers included Ramesh Pattni, Chair of the Hindu Forum of Britain, who spoke on `Spirituality and Spiritual Care from the Hindu Perspective’.

It was a fascinating day and I learned much about the hospice movement, how others understand spirituality and also some practical tips for being with people who are dying. We all agreed with the statement of Teilhard de Chardin that `We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.’

My talk was very well received and elicited much discussion and many questions. Here are some of the things I said:

`Spirituality’, the Bahá’í writings state, is the `essence’ of the human being (Shoghi Effendi, 1945). The Bahá’í scriptures provides this definition or description of spirituality:

Know, O thou possessors of insight, that true spirituality is like unto a lake of clear water which reflects the divine . . . (`Abdu’l-Bahá in London, p. 107).

Spirituality is linked to the human being. Other orders of God’s creation – animals, plants, minerals – may have some degree of `spirit’, in that they reflect certain of God’s qualities but they are unconscious of this fact and have no free will in the matter. Human beings, however, are the locus of all the qualities of God:

Upon the inmost reality of each and every created thing He hath shed the light of one of His names, and made it a recipient of the glory of one of His attributes. Upon the reality of man, however, He hath focused the radiance of all of His names and attributes, and made it a mirror of His own Self’ (Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings, p. 65).

Humans, as distinct from rabbits or carrots or diamonds, have a rational soul and are able to make a choice as to whether to turn towards God or away from Him. You could say that spirituality is the condition of turning oneself towards God and reflecting ever more closely the attributes of God.

What Does it Mean to be Human? The Nature of the Human Being

The Bahá’í Faith teaches that a human is a spiritual being temporarily living in a physical body. The spiritual being is eternal and, indeed, is already living in eternity.

Bahá’u’lláh teaches that humanity was brought into being as an act of love on the part of God and that God has imprinted upon the human soul the potential to reflect all of the attributes of God.

Bahá’u’lláh uses the image of the heart of the human being like a mirror which reflects the light of the sun:

The world of creation, the world of humanity may be likened to the earth itself and the divine power to the sun . . . The most important thing is to polish the mirrors of hearts in order that they may become illumined and receptive of the divine light . . . Therefore our duty lies in seeking to polish the mirrors of our hearts in order that we shall become reflectors of that light and recipients of the divine bounties which may be fully revealed through them (`Abdu’l-Bahá, Bahá’í World Faith, p. 217).

According to Bahá’u’lláh, every single person has the capacity to reflect the qualities of God. It is the nature of the soul to recognise God and to draw nearer to Him. Further, each individual has his or her own particular capacities, gifts and talents, which can be identified, drawn out and developed through education:

Regard man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value. Education can, alone, cause it to reveal its treasures, and enable mankind to benefit therefrom (Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings, p. 259).

For Bahá’ís, the spiritual qualities are not fluffy ideals. Rather they are hugely practical qualities that are essential to living day to day in the 21st century, e.g. trustworthiness, honesty, generosity of spirit and of pocket, confidence, hopefulness, love, justice, a humble posture of learning, recognition of the essential oneness of all people, which enables us to recognise that the poverty or suffering of one person diminishes the prosperity, well-being and happiness of all and restricts the potential of everyone. Not only are these spiritual qualities useful in this life but they are all we take into the next.

Illness, Health and Healing

The Bahá’í teachings recognise that the body is subject to illness and deterioration and that physical illness and disorders require physical treatment while mental illness requires appropriate medical attention, `for medicine is but the outward and visible means through which we obtain the heavenly healing’ (`Abdu’l-Bahá, Paris Talks, p. 19). `Take for instance, a cut hand,’ `Abdu’l-Bahá says, `if you pray for the cut to be healed and do not stop its bleeding, you will not do much good; a material remedy is needed’ (`Abdu’l-Bahá in London, p. 65).

At the same time, Bahá’ís recognise the very powerful effect of prayer and the role of a spiritual environment on healing: `Physical healing cannot be complete and lasting unless it is reinforced by spiritual healing’ (Shoghi Effendi, Letter of 23 May 1935).

The Bahá’í writings state that physical or mental illnesses are not an indication of the state of a person’s soul or his spiritual health. Further, Bahá’ís do not see physical or mental illness as a punishment from God or as the result of sin.

There are, however, what the Bahá’í teachings label as `spiritual illnesses’. These are the agitations of the soul that come about through lack of attention to the development of spiritual qualities and are easily recognisable to others as hatred, prejudice, anger, jealousy and so on, along with such habits as backbiting, gossip and lying. These respond best to spiritual treatment – `prayers offered . . . to God’ and `turning to Him’ (`Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections, p. 151) and the development and maintenance of a healthy spiritual environment.

Spiritual Care

Not only is the person who is ill the bearer of the spiritual qualities discussed earlier, but so are all those who care for and come into contact with him or her.

Each person has the responsibility to admit and defend the nobility and dignity of every human being, to act in ways that will protect each person from dishonour and to create an environment in which each person’s spiritual qualities can develop and flourish. At bottom, this comes down to the golden rule, found in every religious tradition: treat others as you yourself would expect and like to be treated. While as adults we must each take responsibility for our own selves, yet we are social beings who live in communities and there is, according to the Bahá’í teachings, a collective responsibility for the welfare of all the individuals in the community.

This is particularly true when people in our community fall ill, grow frail or old, or are edging towards the end of their lives – a time when they are least able to care for themselves and are most vulnerable. The spiritual qualities of selflessness, service, compassion and love are essential characteristics of those who care for and come into contact with the ill and dying. A positive attitude on the part of doctors and carers can be a great assistance to one who is ill.

Bahá’u’lláh requires Bahá’ís who are ill to seek the advice of a competent doctor and to follow it. In turn, the doctor should be both skilled and himself or herself seek spiritual assistance. At the same time, Bahá’ís believe that, if the person who is ill wishes it, they should be visited by their friends and family.

Preparing for Life after Life

For Bahá’ís, life on this earth is but one leg of a long journey of the spiritual self. The first stage is the life in the womb of one’s mother, when the body itself is formed and the physical faculties – unnecessary in that world but essential in this – are developed. There we grow eyes, fingers, hearing and legs – all fairly useless there. In fact, as the baby grows, the room in the womb becomes very small indeed to accommodate these. However, when the baby leaves that world – `dies’ from it, as the baby itself might describe that journey, and is born into this world, it becomes obvious what these limbs and eyes are for and the child gradually begins to develop their use.

Similarly, our task in this world is to develop the spiritual qualities which are needed for the next stage of our journey. Although these qualities have a definite purpose in this world as well, nevertheless their full value will be understood in the next. When we `die’ from this world, we are born into the next.

The Bahá’í writings state that the next stage of our development after this life, `the next world’ is one in which the body plays no role. It is a wholly spiritual world where the spiritual self will be developed further.

Understanding the transition from one stage of life to another helps to reduce fear and to face the journey with courage.

When the body dies, the soul continues its life:

Know thou of a truth that the soul, after its separation from the body, will continue to progress until it attaineth the presence of God, in a state and condition which neither the revolution of ages and centuries, nor the changes and chances of this world, can alter. It will endure as long as the Kingdom of God, His sovereignty, His dominion and power will endure (Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings, p. 155).

An image used in the Bahá’í writings for the death of the body is that of a gardener transplanting a plant. `Abdu’l-Bahá wrote to the mother of a child who had died:

It is as if a kind gardener transfers a fresh and tender shrub from a narrow place to a vast region. This transference is not the cause of the withering, the waning or the destruction of that shrub, nay rather it makes it grow and thrive, acquire freshness and delicacy and attain verdure and fruition. This hidden secret is well-known to the gardener, while those souls who are unaware of this bounty suppose that the gardener in his anger and wrath has uprooted the shrub. But to those who are aware this concealed fact is manifest and this predestined decree considered a favour (`Abdu’l-Bahá, Bahá’í World Faith, p. 379).

With this vision, carers of those who are near the end of their physical lives can assist them to face their illness and future bravely, enable them to pray for strength and to wait on the mercy of God.

There are no end of life rituals that Bahá’ís must perform. However, they often wish to have Bahá’í writings and prayers read to them as they are dying. This may also be true of other people, who take comfort and find joy in the word of God. Carers should facilitate this. A prayer many Bahá’ís like to say is this:

`O my God! O my God! Verily Thy servant, humble before the majesty of Thy divine supremacy, lowly at the door of Thy oneness, hath believed in Thee and in Thy verses, hath testified to Thy word, hath been enkindled with the fire of Thy love, hath been immersed in the depths of the ocean of Thy knowledge, hath been attracted by Thy breezes, hath relied upon Thee, hath turned his face to Thee, hath offered his supplications to Thee, and hath been assured of Thy pardon and forgiveness. He hath abandoned this mortal life and hath flown to the kingdom of immortality, yearning for the favour of meeting Thee.

`O Lord, glorify his station, shelter him under the pavilion of Thy supreme mercy, cause him to enter Thy glorious paradise, and perpetuate his existence in Thine exalted rose garden, that he may plunge into the sea of light in the world of mysteries.

`Verily, Thou art the Generous, the Powerful, the Forgiver and the Bestower’ (`Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections, p. 196).

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Travelling Companions

Their purpose must be this: to become loving companions and comrades and at one with each other for time and eternity. `Abdu’l-Bahá, Bahá’í writings

Most of the journeys we make in this life are along familiar paths. We walk to school along the same pavements day after day. We drive to work along the same roads. We make our way to the same shops to buy our food and clothes.

When we leave these roads to go to a new place, we consider that we are embarking on an adventure, something challenging but also, perhaps, exciting and fun. We might take maps or sat navs if we do not know the new route at all; if we are going for a long time, we might pack suitcases with clothes and food. Occasionally we set out on an unknown path, not knowing exactly how to prepare for the journey or how long it will take or where it will end but knowing we will never return along that same route.

The road of our life is like this. We are embarked upon it before we know anything about it and we do not even get to choose our first travelling companions!

At some point, if we are lucky and we live in a society that allows choice, we may be able to choose a person to travel with. For Bahá’ís this is a free choice and then, to create the unity necessary for the journey to proceed without a hitch, all the parents must agree.

Bahá’ís know that choosing a travelling companion out of love and for his or her spiritual qualities, good character, moral behaviour and ability to live a practical life with high ethical principles – as well as being attracted to his or her appearance and sense of humour! – is central to whether the journey will be pleasant or a misery. The other side of this is being all these things oneself!

Having found a travelling companion, we then set out on this unknown path. There is a general map across the terrain and some guideposts as well as lots of advice from people who have set out – successfully or unsuccessfully – on a similar route. Knowing which map to trust is key! But in fact the road is a completely new one that no one has trod before and it is necessary for us to find our own way along it.

It helps to know how to read the general map, of course, and to follow the guideposts where they exist. Bahá’ís, for example, use the map provided by the Bahá’í writings which shows that the way forward is a path of service to humanity linked to a love of God and adherence to His laws.

Many of the guidelines for a safe journey are found in the Bahá’í writings: love, justice, equality, non-violence, consultation, respect, trustworthiness. There is a section on crossing the badlands: love, consultation, faith, consultation, hope, consultation, perseverence, consultation, patience, consultation, more love, consultation . . .

Many travellers on this journey are joined at some point by younger travellers they have to guide along the path for some way. Interestingly, in this connection the guidelines contain a big section on mining – for gems – and another on sustainability and yet another on building bridges.

As they travel the companions may well discover they can improve the condition of the road if each works to create the conditions and environment in which the other can do his or her best work.

The guidelines acknowledge that while it may seem that most of the journey is uphill, this is better than going downhill. These Bahá’í guidelines also point out that if the travelling companions walk hand in hand along the road – admittedly they sometimes have to drag each other along it – then their unity will make walking easier.

An unusual characteristic of this particular journey is that the farther the companions travel together, the more energy they get, probably because their relationship is a `gleaming out of the love of God’.

As they go along, the path becomes wider but they get closer and closer together so that sometimes it appears as if they are just one person. When this happens, they are `aglow with the same wine, both are enamoured of the same matchless Face, both live and move through the same spirit, both are illumined by the same glory’. Because the bond between them is a physical and a spiritual one, `it is a bond that will abide forever’.

So far, as of today, I have been walking this uphill path with my husband for 37 years. As I write, he is in Israel and I am in Italy but somehow we are closer than ever and the road seems to stretch ahead of us forever.

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