Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Paragraph 59

Likewise, reflect upon the state and condition of Mary. So deep was the perplexity of that most beauteous countenance, so grievous her case, that she bitterly regretted she had ever been born. To this beareth witness the text of the sacred verse wherein it is mentioned that after Mary had given birth to Jesus, she bemoaned her plight and cried out: "O would that I had died ere this, and been a thing forgotten, forgotten quite!" (Qur'an 19:22) I swear by God! Such lamenting consumeth the heart and shaketh the being. Such consternation of soul, such despondency, could have been caused by no other than the censure of the enemy and the cavilings of the infidel and perverse. Reflect, what answer could Mary have given to the people around her? How could she claim that a Babe Whose father was unknown had been conceived of the Holy Ghost? Therefore did Mary, that veiled and immortal Countenance, take up her Child and return unto her home. No sooner had the eyes of the people fallen upon her than they raised their voice saying: "O sister of Aaron! Thy father was not a man of wickedness, nor unchaste thy mother." (Qur'an 19:28)

This is the second theme in a series of paragraphs describing some of the various tests that God has given us over the ages. And all of this falls under the general category of "the powers of the earth shall be shaken", in this context referring to the earth of men's hearts.

Baha'u'llah has just described the test of Moses being seen as a murderer, and is now moving forward to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Once again, He is moving forward chronologically. When the Guardian said that we needed to understand the methods and arguments Baha'u'llah used in this Book, this is one of them. He is not bouncing around randomly. He is moving forward methodically, step by step, making it as easy as possible for the reader to follow His train of thought.

He is also connecting two very different stories that we don't normally put together. And while this story seems like it is about Mary, isn't it really about the test that many faced when trying to accept Jesus? Isn't it really about us, and how we feel when we face these tests, too?

We could talk about Mary and what she went through, but really, she is an exceptional case. Instead, let's turn this back to ourselves, and see how it describes us.

Baha'u'llah uses many powerful words in this paragraph, words that evoke deep and unsettling emotions: perplexity, grievous, bitterness, regret, bemoaned, consternation, despondency and lamenting. And all of this was caused not by anything she did, but by the censure and the cavilings of others. Are these not what we feel when we are faced with these potentially overwhelming tests? Here Baha'u'llah is reminding us of Mary, and how she faced them. Mary, who is so highly regarded, faced all these issues. She was innocent, and yet judged harshly. She wept with bitterness, but arose with such magnificence.

Could Baha'u'llah be calling on us to do the same?

At the very beginning of this paragraph, He asks us to reflect upon her "state and condition", her inner being and her external circumstances. She comes from a good background, and everything seems to be in her favour, but her current condition is seemingly the exact opposite. She appears to be on the verge of a breakdown, and is crying out. Yet, she is still the Virgin Mary. She arises to the station of a saint.

No matter what external tests we face, we can still call to mind Mary's tests and remind ourselves that there is nothing she could have said to silence her critics. So what did she do? She took up her Child and went back home.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Paragraph 58

And now ponder in thy heart the commotion which God stirreth up. Reflect upon the strange and manifold trials with which He doth test His servants. Consider how He hath suddenly chosen from among His servants, and entrusted with the exalted mission of divine guidance Him Who was known as guilty of homicide, Who, Himself, had acknowledged His cruelty, and Who for well-nigh thirty years had, in the eyes of the world, been reared in the home of Pharaoh and been nourished at his table. Was not God, the omnipotent King, able to withhold the hand of Moses from murder, so that manslaughter should not be attributed unto Him, causing bewilderment and aversion among the people?

This is the second of two paragraphs here talking about Moses. As we know from the previous paragraph, Pharaoh is not sitting atop the throne of certitude and peace; God is. In the previous one we were given the story. Here we are asked questions about it, and told to ponder about it in our heart.

Specifically, we are asked to note the commotion. What commotion was this? The reaction to the murder? Probably. And the commotion could refer to refer to the populace calling for the trial of a murderer, and it could also refer to Moses' fleeing. That was also a commotion, mostly in His heart. There was also the commotion within Pharaoh. Remember, they were raised as brothers, so for Pharaoh to ask Moses, "Are thou not he..." is showing a distance that has arisen between them. Of course he would recognize Moses. How could he not? So this seems to show that there was some commotion within his own heart.

Then we are told to reflect. And what is it we are to reflect upon? The "strange and manifold trials". What does that mean? Well, it means that they are not your typical tests. They are odd, unusual, weird. They are also manifold, which means many and diverse. Here Baha'u'llah lists three. Moses was "guilty of homicide". Moses "acknowledged His cruelty". He was also "reared in the home of Pharaoh", which, for many who are suffering under the yoke of poverty, can also be a big test. They would presume that anyone raised in such luxury could never relate to them. All of these are tests for the people, and you have to admit, they are a bit odd.

Now comes the question: Couldn't God have stopped this? Of course He could have. But why would He? These are tests, veils if you will, to ensure sincerity upon the part of the believers. A teacher in school could avoid giving a test at the end of the term, but then they would never really know who learned the material.

In some ways, tests can be seen like tilling the soil. We have often heard reference to the "earth of men's hearts", so let's go with that. Why do farmers till the soil? For many reasons. It helps aerate the soil, which makes it easier for the farmer to plant the seeds deeper. It also makes it easier for the plants to grow their roots further down. It helps mix up the various nutrients, moving the compost deeper while bringing other nutrients closer to the surface. It also exposes pests that live deeper down, allowing birds to eat them or the weather to kill them. All of this can be seen within the metaphor of tests and the human heart. When someone is under a test, those "pests" within their character show more clearly. They are, perhaps, more likely to be irritable if that is their tendency, or maybe more cruel if that is their bent.

Here, in this example, Moses did kill someone. And this was a test for many people. it caused, as Baha'u'llah said, "bewilderment and aversion". Not only did it make things confusing, but it also caused an intense dislike towards Moses for many people. They did not necessarily want to follow someone who professed to have been cruel and even went so far as to kill someone, either intentionally or not.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Paragraph 57

Were men to meditate upon the lives of the Prophets of old, so easily would they come to know and understand the ways of these Prophets that they would cease to be veiled by such deeds and words as are contrary to their own worldly desires, and thus consume every intervening veil with the fire burning in the Bush of divine knowledge, and abide secure upon the throne of peace and certitude. For instance, consider Moses, son of Imran, one of the exalted Prophets and Author of a divinely-revealed Book. Whilst passing, one day, through the market, in His early days, ere His ministry was proclaimed, He saw two men engaged in fighting. One of them asked the help of Moses against his opponent. Whereupon, Moses intervened and slew him. To this testifieth the record of the sacred Book. Should the details be cited, they will lengthen and interrupt the course of the argument. The report of this incident spread throughout the city, and Moses was full of fear, as is witnessed by the text of the Book. And when the warning: "O Moses! of a truth, the chiefs take counsel to slay Thee" (Qur'an 26:19) reached His ears, He went forth from the city, and sojourned in Midian in the service of Shoeb. While returning, Moses entered the holy vale, situate in the wilderness of Sinai, and there beheld the vision of the King of glory from the "Tree that belongeth neither to the East nor to the West." (Qur'an 24:35) There He heard the soul-stirring Voice of the Spirit speaking from out of the kindled Fire, bidding Him to shed upon Pharaonic souls the light of divine guidance; so that, liberating them from the shadows of the valley of self and desire, He might enable them to attain the meads of heavenly delight, and delivering them, through the Salsabil of renunciation, from the bewilderment of remoteness, cause them to enter the peaceful city of the divine presence. When Moses came unto Pharaoh and delivered unto him, as bidden by God, the divine Message, Pharaoh spoke insultingly saying: "Art thou not he that committed murder, and became an infidel?" Thus recounted the Lord of majesty as having been said by Pharaoh unto Moses: "What a deed is that which Thou hast done! Thou art one of the ungrateful. He said: 'I did it indeed, and I was one of those who erred. And I fled from you when I feared you, but My Lord hath given Me wisdom, and hath made Me one of His Apostles.'" (Qur'an 28:20)

Ahh yes, here we are again. "Meditate". Were we to meditate upon the lives of the Messengers, then we would easily come to understand Their ways. Doesn't this just seem to bring us all the way back to paragraphs 7 - 17? This time, though, Baha'u'llah doesn't go all the way back to Noah. He begins with the story of Moses, one that we all know very well. But once again, He doesn't tell it in quite the way we tend to think of it. He emphasizes certain points to make it even easier for us to see. And He continues to do this over the next few paragraphs, with Mary and Jesus, too.

But what exactly is it that stands out here? Well, there is the fact that Moses fled from the threat of execution, but then, later, saw the Burning Bush. After that encounter, He came back and confessed to His crime. He had formerly feared Pharaoh, but no longer does. He now relies upon God.

So we presume you are familiar with the story, and you have just read this paragraph, so we don't need to go into any of that. Instead we want to talk a bit about some of the odd phrases that stand out to us.

There seems to be this repetition of movement here, beginning with the veils of desire leading to the fire of divine knowledge, and ending up at the throne. Then we get the main part of the story, and end up with a similar movement afterwards. Moses is in the wilderness, and sees the fire, which He is to use to shed the light of guidance. The people are to move from the shadows of the valley up to the meadows of delight. They are to cross the river Salsabil, sometimes referred to as a fountain, and up to the peaceful city. From the fire to the throne. The peaceful city, by the way, is a literal translation of the name Jerusalem. So, in a sense, this can also be seen as a retelling of the entire story of the Exodus and the Jews. The Jews moved from the Pillar of Fire and across the Red Sea. They were lost in the wilderness for 40 years before crossing the river to the Holy Land, in which we find Jerusalem, the city of peace.

All of this can also be seen as a metaphor for the journey of the soul.

Now, another thing that stands out for us is the very end in which fear and wisdom appear to be contrasted. Moses says he feared Pharaoh, but God gave Him wisdom. He so feared Pharaoh that He ran off at the threat of execution. But later, when He saw the burning Bush, He truly understood fear. I mean, look at this. He freaked out over the thought of Pharaoh, runs to the desert, ends up following this sheep later on, and sees this burning Bush. Wow. He is now so far beyond fear it's ridiculous. "Take off your shoes", says the mighty Voice. "Okay." His shoes are off. "This is holy ground", says this Shrub. "Okay, I'm on my knees." Anything that He feared before this now just pales in comparison. Pharaoh? Pfah. He's just this guy. He ain't got nothing on this shrubbery.

It brings to mind this verse from Words of Wisdom, "The essence of wisdom is the fear of God..." And again He says, "Know ye that true wisdom is to fear God, to know Him, and to recognize His Manifestations." In Proverbs, 9:10, it also says, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom..."

Now wasn't that easy? All right maybe not. Perhaps Baha'u'llah's definition of what is easy is a bit different from ours. Maybe we just need to meditate a bit more.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Paragraph 56

Were you to ponder, but for a while, these utterances in your heart, you would surely find the portals of understanding unlocked before your face, and would behold all knowledge and the mysteries thereof unveiled before your eyes. Such things take place only that the souls of men may develop and be delivered from the prison-cage of self and desire. Otherwise, that ideal King hath, throughout eternity, been in His Essence independent of the comprehension of all beings, and will continue, for ever, in His own Being to be exalted above the adoration of every soul. A single breeze of His affluence doth suffice to adorn all mankind with the robe of wealth; and one drop out of the ocean of His bountiful grace is enough to confer upon all beings the glory of everlasting life. But inasmuch as the divine Purpose hath decreed that the true should be known from the false, and the sun from the shadow, He hath, therefore, in every season sent down upon mankind the showers of tests from His realm of glory.

This series of paragraphs, all the way up through paragraph 65, take a look at some of these tests that have tried the peoples of the past. And while the uncle of the Bab was probably most familiar with the one just mentioned, the changing of the Qiblih, he was no doubt aware of the other test that Baha'u'llah will bring up in the next few paragraphs.

Once again, just like when He was looking at the lives of some of the Messengers, He begins with what is most familiar to His audience. He talks about those stories that are very familiar, but recasts them in a new light. He shows how these stories were there to test the believers of the time.

And again, after making such a bold claim, such a strong assertion, He asks us to ponder. He does not, however, ask us to consider these things with our mind, for then the veils of education and habit can get in the way. He recognizes that we may have the very natural reflex of thinking what we had previously thought was right, and therefore rejecting something new out of hand. He asks us to ponder these things in our heart.

He also goes into some nature metaphors. He talks about the breeze, which as we know is so very refreshing in the springtime. He mentions the ocean, from which all life has sprung. He also brings up the sun, which casts its life-giving rays upon the earth. And then He mentions the seasons, and the showers. Continuing with the spring theme, these showers are what revive the barren earth of winter and give forth the plants that will grow and blossom.

Earlier, in paragraph 53, He mentioned the earth of pure and illumined hearts and distinguished them from the perishable and barren soil. So, once more, He brings up this whole idea of the earth of men's hearts and what can grow out of them.

Even given all of this, there are still two other things that stand out for us in this paragraph: the promise that we would "surely find the portals... unlocked", and the warning about the "prison-cage of self and desire".

Way back in the opening paragraphs, we made mention that there was an element of luck involved, gleaned from the words "haply" and "perchance". Here, though, it is different. This is a solid promise. But it is a promise that can be missed. He promises us that if we truly ponder these ideas, the doors or understanding will be opened, and knowledge will be unveiled before us. However, there is still a question. If the door is unlocked, will we walk through it? If the veil is removed, will we study what is beneath it? The possibility of understanding is there, but we must still embrace it.

Of course, many of us do not embrace new knowledge because we somehow think that if we do, it is an admission that we were wrong before. This is tied up with all sorts of ego things, and can be an incredible veil to understanding. We only need to see how people in the science community have reacted to those great minds like Einstein, or Newton, or Darwin, when they first proposed their new ideas. Why would we think the religious community would be any better?

Here Baha'u'llah refers to this sense of ego, this "self and desire", as a prison-cage. He says that these tests from the Messengers occur only so that we may be released from this cage, and presumably like a bird take flight.

We are struck here by the contrast with modern society, in which we are taught to be self-reliant, self-confident, thinking of ourselves as somehow special. Of course, if everyone is special, then that is normal, and nobody is special. But if we recognize our own individual talents and use them to the betterment of society, working with those around us, helping each other out in a selfless way, then we all are special. The key here is being selfless, free from that prison-cage.

In our own work with this blog, we have found an example of this. One of us finds writing more natural, while the other finds the pondering more natural. By talking regularly about this text, the writer is better able to capture the thoughts of the ponderer. Neither of us could do this on our own, but together, by sharing our specific skills, we are able to do something that would otherwise not be possible for us. And neither of us can take the credit, for that would spoil the whole process.