Unique Features of Bahá'í Service
IntroductionIt is conventional to begin one's talk by expressing pleasure at being able to participate in such a gathering. Tonight I do so with rather mixed feelings: on the one hand, I'm very pleased to be here; on the other hand, as you can imagine, those of us who are serving in the Holy Land were most reluctant - any of us - to leave it at this time when there is a disturbance with missiles from Lebanon. However, the Universal House of Justice felt it important that one maintain as normal a schedule as possible during this time of disturbance, so it very explicitly told those of its members, including myself, who had planned to take vacation during this period that we should continue to do so. In that sense, I am reluctantly obedient to the House of Justice and continuing on pre-determined plans and therefore very happy to be here and meet with the friends this evening.
Empty SpaceI begin my talk by drawing attention to one of the most mysterious aspects of the universe in which we live, a subject which is under study by astrophysicists and the like, with the study far from complete. I refer to the mysterious nature of empty space. Empty space has been a subject of intensive study by physical scientists over many, many decades and that study becomes even more mysterious with the passage of time. From a simple perspective, empty space is exactly what the name suggests: there is nothing there. In fact, it has become clear to scientists that empty space has a lot going on within it. Not only are there various fields - gravitational fields and electromagnetic fields - but it is clear there are some very strange things in empty space such as vacuum fluctuations of particles and anti-particles, with a ‘zero point energy' within a vacuum indicating that even if you have a perfect vacuum there is an energy field, quite mysterious and quite distinct from gravitation or electromagnetics.
We know also that in empty space there are all kinds of particles, alpha particles and neutrinos and cosmic rays and other things going through what seems to be empty space many, many times a minute. And there's a lot of speculation in present day astrophysics about the existence of odd quantities called ‘dark matter' and ‘dark energy' which may be the solution to some unsolved problems about the way the universe functions. These are all things that we know very little about. When I taught electromagnetic theory at the University of Michigan, I was sometimes scheduled to teach the first undergraduate course in electromagnetics and this was always a very difficult experience. Graduate-level courses were easy; you came in, put Maxwell's equations on the board, introduced vector algebra, and off you went with no problem. However, undergraduates - particularly first-year undergraduates and undergraduates with no previous experience - asked awkward questions. I would want to take refuge in mathematics, and they'd stop me short and say, "Hey, what is electricity?" and I'd say, "Well here, here's Coulomb's law" They'd say, "No, no, no, no. What is it? What is positive charge? What is negative charge? Why does a neutron have no charge?" and things like that. Well, these are impossible questions. We don't know. What we learn are aspects of it. We know how to describe these things phenomenologically in terms of what they do and don't do. We accept them as having a reality, and we go from there.
Spiritual Forces in the UniverseI mention these subjects because the Bahá'í Faith teaches us that there are spiritual energies infused throughout the whole of creation. We distinguish ourselves from the materialistic perspective by our firm belief, based upon the teachings of our religion, that the whole of the universe is permeated by an even more mysterious quantity than the things I have mentioned, which is spiritual force, energies infused with spirit. This is a radical idea to present-day students of the sciences or of the nature of the universe, but it is fundamental to our religion. I want to point out to you that this is what sets us apart from a whole lot of other people in the world today. Our belief in this mysterious power of spirit and its existence as an integral element of our universe leads us into behaviors which are essentially irrational from a material perspective. A consequence of the fact that we believe in this strange and almost indefinable quality of spirit is that is our teachings call upon us to behave in ways which are strange to the society around us.
Let me say a few words about what I understand to be the Bahá'í concept of spirit. As best I understand it, our Writings speak to us of three aspects to the spiritual powers that permeate the universe. The first aspect is that the whole universe is permeated with spirit. ‘Abdu'l-Bahá says in one place, "The greatest power in the realm and range of human existence is spirit - the divine breath which animates and pervades all things..." — not just human beings, but all things — "...It is manifested throughout creation in different degrees or kingdoms." There is another statement of ‘Abdu'l-Bahá about spirit which is even more interesting but even more incomprehensible. He said - He refers to spirit as the "...existence of an unseen Reality that embraceth all things, and that existeth and revealeth itself in all stages, the essence whereof is beyond the grasp of the mind."  On one hand it's totally incomprehensible; on the other hand, that's all right because He says it's totally beyond the grasp of the mind. Be that as it may, He tells us that whatever this thing is, it embraces all beings; exists and reveals itself in all stages.
So we know that our universe has within it not only the experience of physical things — gravitation, electromagnetics, and particles or anti-particles or whatever it is — but in addition to that, as a fundamental aspect, it has this spirit that permeates the whole of creation.
‘Abdu'l-Bahá talks about it in many other ways and relates to it as the power of attraction and to love. We know from what the Writings tell us that this mysterious — essentially indefinable — quality of spirit is associated with attraction, with cohesion, with animation and motion, as well as with the motivational energy that human beings manifest. That's one aspect of spirit. The second aspect — even more strange — is that our Writings tell us that there is a tremendous infusion of an increased amount of spirit with the coming of the Báb and Bahá'u'lláh. The Guardian refers to a "God-born Force" and he says, "...as the Báb has written, it ‘vibrates within the innermost being of all created things,' and which, according to Bahá'u'lláh, has through its ‘vibrating influence,' ‘upset the equilibrium of the world and revolutionized its ordered life...'." This God-born Force, as the Writings seem to indicate to me, is a tremendous additional infusion of spirit with the termination of the Prophetic Cycle and the coming of Bahá'u'lláh as the Promised One of all Ages and the Inaugurator of the Cycle of Fulfilment. The Guardian describes this spiritual force as this ‘injection' of a tremendous amount of spirit with the coming of the Twin Manifestations. He describes it in remarkable terms. He says it is "irresistible in its sweeping power, incalculable in its potency, unpredictable in its course, mysterious in its workings", and he tells us again that this spiritual force is working among all peoples of the world, and he says it is the basic cause of what he describes as "sundering the age-old ties which have held together the fabric of civilized society". These are very ominous words.
The power released with the coming of the Báb and Bahá'u'lláh, as distinct from the statements of their teachings and the actions of the Bahá'ís, this spiritual power vibrating throughout the entire universe is ‘sundering the ties which have held together for centuries the fabric of civilized society.' Now, some might say that doesn't seem a very useful or constructive thing to do. However, it's only half the story. The other half of the story is that this spirit is ‘unloosing the bonds that have fettered the still unemanicipated Faith of Bahá'u'lláh'. It is giving rise to the processes of decline and integration which are spoken of at great length in the Writings. There are many other passages in the Writings which refer to this second characteristic of spirit — the tremendous infusion with the coming of the Twin Manifestations and its effect in the world. The Guardian speaks in one place of the "a fermentation in the general life of mankind designed to shake the very foundations of a disordered society". There's a really beautiful statement of ‘Abdu'l-Bahá when he refers to this infusion of spirit. He says, "The Call of God, when raised, breathed a new life into the body of mankind, and infused a new spirit into the whole creation. It is for this reason that the world hath been moved to its depths, and the hearts and consciences of men been quickened." That's the second aspect of spirit.
The third aspect is that associated with actions taken by believers following the Law of God in this age, actions which attract an even greater measure of spirit to themselves. This attraction of a greater measure of spirit is also associated with the collective actions of the Bahá'í community. For example, when it achieved the goals of its plans, the Guardian would say that the achievement is attracting a greater measure of spirit; with the construction of sacred edifices, he said that accomplishment draws a greater measure of spiritual fervor. The Guardian has in one place referred to opposition to the Cause, and he says when the Faith is opposed and attacked, the believers galvanize their resources, stand firm against the oppressor; that action of standing firm attracts a greater measure of spirit to them, they overcome their oppressors, go on to great victories, which in turn raise up new antagonists who attack them. The cycle repeats itself: the Bahá'ís stand firm, attract an even greater measure of spirit, raising up new enemies and so on, and it continues until the opposition to the Faith is entirely vanquished.
The Writings speak to us of the actions we are called upon to carry out individually as believers, and they seem to indicate that the fundamental reason for our obedience to the prescriptions in our Writings is simply the fact that if we do what the Writings tell us to do, we attract to ourselves as individuals a greater measure of spirit. We become energized; we are fulfilled and we are able to achieve our purpose in life through the attraction of that spirit.
The Writings use the analogy of the magnet to explain to us this mysterious concept. We find, for example — and I'll just read a few passages almost at random — "Faith is the magnet which draws the confirmation of the Merciful One." Referring to prayer, ‘Abdu'l-Bahá says, "The commemoration of God attracts confirmation and assistance like unto a magnet." He says in another place that unity and harmony is a magnet which draweth down the confirmations of God. These and many other passages refer to the fact that our actions taken in obedience to the Law of God attract to us as individuals a greater measure of this tremendous spiritual power vibrating throughout all dimensions of the universe associated with the coming of the Báb and Bahá'u'lláh.
There are many other examples. In another place ‘Abdu'l-Bahá says, "Today, as never before, the magnet which attracts the blessings from on high is teaching the Faith of God." Again, the same point: that by following divine prescription, we as individuals attract spiritual powers. Of course, if one was to develop this theme further one could also show that there is a negative side to this, that actions we take which are in violation of divine law repel the spirit from us; for example, backbiting and fostering disunity, or a knowing violation of Bahá'í law. The basic problem of all these behaviours is not the essential effect — although that is destructive — but fundamentally the fact that we repel from ourselves spiritual powers just as positive obedience and following divine law attract to us spiritual powers.
So our whole concept of life and our purpose in life, the daily actions we take, the kind of world we live in, where we're going and so on, is radically different from that of society around us simply because we are conscious that we are living in a world infused with spirit. This spirit is vital to our motivation, our accomplishment, our purpose in life, and that we should do all that we can to attract it to us.
That, in a very brief sketch, is what I understand to be the Bahá'í view of our model of the universe. It is a world-view, the kind of world we see ourselves living in — a world not only of gravitation and all the other force fields in the world but fundamentally a world which is infused with spirit, with spiritual power and the injection of an additional measure of power with the coming of the Twin Manifestations associated with the revelation of teachings which enable us to attract that spiritual power to us.
The Conventional Reaction to the Bahá'í World-View
What is the reaction of most of society around us to this worldview?
Generally, you'll find that this worldview of the Bahá'ís is ridiculed. It's regarded as very strange, a return to medieval superstition, totally unscientific and associated with a primitive view of the universe. Anthropologists could have a field day describing us as having turned back the clock thousands of years to the mysterious world of primitive society with its concern around force fields, angry gods and human sacrifice. Despite that sense of ridicule, that sense of the absurd, one cannot avoid the fact that this is what we believe. It's part of our religion; we believe it's true because Bahá'u'lláh said so, and it has been interpreted for us in this way by ‘Abdu'l-Bahá and the Guardian. Because we are living in a society which does not believe in this spiritual concept and in the existence of spiritual powers vital to the activities of our daily lives, we are vulnerable to being influenced by this lack of belief unconsciously and to behave in ways in which the rest of the society is behaving. This is only to be expected. Everyone around us is going in that direction. We're like the salmon seeking to swim upstream but we end up going downstream with everyone else because that's what the society around is doing. This happens from time to time; it happens to us as individuals as we struggle to retain our vision of the teachings while surrounded by people whose values are of a different kind.
It even happens to our Bahá'í institutions from time to time. I have before me a passage from a letter of a National Spiritual Assembly in Europe engaged in the Nine Year Plan from 1964 to 1973. Things were not going very well, and in 1971 that National Spiritual Assembly reached the point of panic. Two years before the end of the Nine Year Plan they were miles behind in their goals. It looked impossible. They carried out a very detailed analysis of their situation, of their resources, the number of Bahá'ís they had, the kind of free time that people had, the capabilities of their community. They added it all up and they said, ‘We're not going to make it.'
So they decided that they needed to write to the Universal House of Justice and said, ‘We hate to have to tell you, but we're not going to make it.' The House of Justice wrote back, and the passage I want to read is from a letter of the House of Justice Secretariat of January 1971, and they said that the National Assembly of that country needed to carry out a re-evaluation of their resources. They said, "The first is a greater realization of the power of Bahá'u'lláh to reinforce the efforts of those who serve you, of His promise to do so, and of the impotence of all our deeds without this divine assistance. Any evaluation of a situation is entirely misleading if it does not take this supreme power into consideration." They, very gently and very quietly and as courteously as they could do, said to the folks, ‘Your evaluation was wrong. You happened to miss out a major factor.' I mean they were much more polite than I am, but that's basically what they were saying, that any evaluation is wrong if you don't take into account the power of Bahá'u'lláh to reinforce the efforts of those who serve you. So even if an institution as exalted as a National Spiritual Assembly is capable of falling into the trap of going the way the world is going rather than the way the teachings tell us to go, how much more are we likely to do so?
What this means is that we are called upon to continually refresh and renew our understanding of this vital abstract concept. It's difficult because of its abstraction. We can't answer the most basic questions about what is spirit and issues like that, but we know it's a vital concept. We need to refresh and renew our consciousness of this concept. How do we do that? By the use of prayer, which requires a formal belief statement. If we read a prayer that says ‘Thou art the All-Knowing, the All-Wise' this reinforces our belief. It speaks to us as well as to God. If we recite, ‘I bear witness that Thou hast created me to know Thee and to worship Thee,' that reinforces our own belief as well as being the expression of a formal statement of worship. We need to continually, as we are told, read the Writings each day so that the worldview is refreshed. By this means we re-focus on what we really believe because in the hurly-burly of daily activities it can slip away from us - our vision can be lost.
It's useful to associate with like-minded believers. It doesn't mean we do that entirely, we're not a closed society, but association with people who believe the same types of things is refreshing, renewing; it helps to pick us up when we're down somewhat. We're part of a community of people who believe the same kinds of things, who follow intrinsically the same worldview. A sustained effort to practice the teachings rewards us with spirit by the magnetic principle that I have mentioned, and the reward of that spirit is to reinforce the strength of our vision and understanding. Nevertheless, it is a difficult life-long task for us. In these early days of the Formative Age, we are facing the life-long task of maintaining a vision of the Bahá'í worldview in the face of a largely unbelieving society. It requires courage; it requires great determination to persevere in views that are contrary to the prevailing views.
There are a few instances where our teachings call upon us to do things which from the perspective of the world appear to be somewhat irrational. I want to take the time to mention three examples of aspects of the Bahá'í practice enjoined in our teachings which are intrinsically irrational from a non-spiritual perspective to illustrate my point.
The Principle of Huqúqu'lláhThe first one I want to mention of the three examples are the Bahá'í teachings about Huququ'llah. Let me begin by fairly quickly reviewing what I believe to be its fundamentals, and that will enable me to make the point I'm aiming at. We know, of course, from the Writings that it is a ‘Mighty Law'; it's unique in religious history — it's not really like zakat in Islam or tithing in Christianity or similar material offerings and injunctions in other religions. Our Writings tell us that Huququ'llah is indeed a great law. Bahá'u'lláh says "It is incumbent upon all to make this offering; because it is a source of grace, abundance, and of all good."
There are five basic characteristics to it as far as I understand. The first is what I've mentioned — that it is an obligation on all who are eligible to pay it. Let's not get lost in the mysteries of mithqals and 19 per cent and all that kind of detail. We know that whatever the dimensions work out to be, it's an obligation on all who are eligible to pay it. Secondly, it's a private matter with the highest possible confidentiality and not enforceable by any kind of sanction. That in itself makes it unique. We're told we have to do it, but it's very, very private. No one knows whether you paid it or not, and if they do find it, they can't do anything about it because it's not enforceable with any sanction.
Thirdly, and this is even more strange — this is where things get really appear irrational — we're told that the individual has the freedom to evaluate the amount on which the Huqúqu'lláh is calculated. He or she can determine what is the amount on which this computation is carried out. He or she deducts from it those things which are necessary expenses. You and I will have different views about what is a necessary expense. People ask me, "What's necessary for you?" I can say, "Well, what's necessary for me is to have Caspian Sea caviar with my eggs every morning! That's necessary for me. You don't have any right to criticize me." It's between me and God. If I sincerely believe then I can reconcile with my conscience a necessary expenditure on Caspian Sea caviar with my omelet each morning, that's a necessary expense to me. Obviously I would have a problem with conscience, but that's my spiritual problem. So here we have a binding law in which the individual has a high discretionary role, subject to conscience, in determining the amount to be paid and how it's to be calculated.
The fourth feature is you're not allowed to ask anybody to pay it, and even beyond that, the representatives of Huququ'llah or those who receive it are not allowed to accept it if it's offered with the wrong attitude. For example, "...if someone, with utmost pleasure and gladness, nay with insistence, wisheth to partake of this blessing, thou mayest accept. Otherwise, acceptance is not permissible." Now we're in the furthermost reaches of apparent irrationality. Not only does the individual get to calculate how much is due, but he's not allowed to give it unless he or she offers it with radiance of spirit and insists on doing so. And finally, the most mysterious element of it is that it purifies one's possessions and attracts spiritual blessings, a new concept of giving. There is of course a level of profundity to all of this. It is — if we were to develop it further — the resolution of the eternal question of spirituality in relation to material possessions. People have wrestled with this for thousands of years. Devout people have given up all their material possessions and adopted a very simple life, lived in a cave and worn sack cloth and ashes, regarding mortification of the flesh and all sorts of extreme things as a means to spirituality. This eternal difficult question has been resolved through the law of Huququ'llah, the law of accumulating material possessions and purifying them.
Let us imagine that we were the government of the country who said to the poor suffering population of that nation: "We're going to tax you, but we're going to have an unusual law of taxation. Firstly, you decide how much is due. Secondly, we're not going to allow anyone to ask you to pay your tax. There will be no social penalty if you don't pay it, and we won't take it, we won't accept it, from you if you do it with a bad attitude." You can see we'd have a government running into bankruptcy in the first few weeks of its existence!
It is in that sense, examined only from a material perspective, the law of Huququ'llah is totally irrational. It rests upon our Bahá'í worldview of spirit, the attraction of spirit, the movement of spiritual powers, and without that it makes no sense. It is an example of what we mean by the fact that our Bahá'í view inclines us to behaviours which the world around us, having a different worldview, would regard as extremely strange. We know that Huququ'llah is a mighty law. It's a wonderful thing. It's offered to the Head of the Faith — in this case the Universal House of Justice — and it's used for the benefit of mankind. At present, in these early days of the Formative Age of the Cause, it is used by the Universal House of Justice for building the World Order of Bahá'u'lláh. The House of Justice makes no apology for that because the World Order of Bahá'u'lláh is the vehicle designed for the upliftment of humanity — the ultimate foundation for the peace of humanity, the basis of the unification and harmonization of the various peoples of the world — and so at this time the Huququ'llah is used for building the World Order of Bahá'u'lláh.
We can allow ourselves a moment or two of speculation. What will happen when the World Order of Bahá'u'lláh is built? As the Formative Age is completed, for what purpose will Huququ'llah be used? The Writings tell us that it will continue to be used for the upliftment and the benefit of human society. I want to share with you my own speculation about some of the things it could be used for. Please don't take this to be the view of the Universal House of Justice. I have no idea what the view of the House of Justice is on this subject. This is my own personal view. There are vast projects waiting to be carried out when humanity is unified, when peace is established and there isn't the destructive, wasteful use of resources that occurs at the present time. I think there are projects ahead that will take decades and probably centuries to accomplish, including the environmental cleanup of the earth and of the oceans; the reclamation of land that has either been poisoned by pollution or by misuse. Look at the Aral Sea in central Asia — what a mess that is, with the destruction of the resources around it and with the salt, and dust in the air, sweeping through central Asia. Close to home where we live, the polluted Mediterranean Sea with all the oil tankers emptying their ballast into it definitely needs cleanup, as do other waterways and lakes such as Lake Baikal and Lake Victoria.
The desertification of the world has to be reversed by the people of the world joining together. I can see Huququ'llah being used to get the desert to retreat. Look at the Gobi Desert, how it's advancing towards Beijing, so every year there are heavier dust storms in Beijing and surrounding areas. Consider how the Sahara Desert is coming down into central Africa and west Africa particularly. These are some of the projects which my speculation is Huququ'llah will be used when the world will join together all the resources of rich and poor nations to solve problems of mutual benefit to mankind. Other projects within this speculative view include the improvement of agricultural efficiency through education; massive recycling; new techniques and approaches for agriculture, including the use of saline water; mass education and the spread of literacy to embrace the whole of humanity. Only a small percentage now have access to literacy let alone education; we can envision mass programs for women's education in the future. The endowment of research institutes and facilities meeting; major infrastructure needs such as putting a bridge across the Bering Strait or the Strait of Gibraltar, or putting a major highway down through Panama to join North and South America, these are among the vast projects of the future that I can envisage. These are the kinds of things that, when the World Order of Bahá'u'lláh is built, Huququ'llah will provide the enormous resources for a unified world to solve these and other problems.
The Concept of Sanctification
The second the three examples I want to take is that of the Bahá'í teachings about sanctification. One of the distinguishing features of our religion is it has renewed the concept of sanctification. This view rests upon our concept of spiritual powers and spiritual force. It is simply what I see to be the aspect of our teaching which refers to spiritual powers being associated with certain locations, edifices and individuals. They become sanctified and acquire holiness. You can well understand that this concept of sanctified buildings and sanctified individuals and places can only rest upon a concept of spiritual powers associated with them in accordance with divine law.
We believe in the sanctification of our holy shrines and the holy houses in Shiraz and Baghdad. They are by definition places where spiritual power is concentrated. Shoghi Effendi refers to Mount Carmel as a holy mountain, describing it as the Mountain of the Lord. There is a privilege in serving at the World Centre in that for this period of our lives we spend our waking and sleeping hours dwelling on a holy mountain. It requires certain behaviours which respect the fact that we are on holy ground. This is a mysterious concept. People can't understand. The poor people from CNN and Fox News and Sky News who have been in Haifa for the last couple of weeks, covering the Lebanon war, are camped on top of the mountain because there's room for transmitter trucks with dishes connected to satellites. The reporters there give breathless accounts every evening about what's happened to Haifa in the past day and where the missiles have landed. That has rather lost its novelty over the last two weeks, so they've been searching around for additional news. They did the usual thing of interviewing each other, but even with that ran out. They started looking for more news, and they found to their total astonishment that there were 170 individuals who had come voluntarily to Haifa of all places in the midst of all this commotion, so they became the news. Perhaps you've seen the media reports interviewing a number of Bahá'í pilgrims; and basically from what I've seen from those interviews, they asked the question, "Why in the world did you come? Didn't you know what was going on?" One could tell that the reporters didn't understand the answer. They were reasonably polite in their responses, but you could see they were wondering "What's going on? Why are you crazy people coming to Haifa?" These ‘crazy people' seemed rational, and quite reasonable; they were not wild-eyed zealots — but civilized people who had come voluntarily. The Bahá'í people would explain that this is a holy place; we feel privileged to come to worship in our Shrines, to say our prayers and visit our holy places. They could just as well have been talking Swahili, for the degree of insight that the reporters got from it; the context was quite foreign to them.
That episode, more than anything else, illustrates to me how some of our concepts, such as that of sanctification of holy places, are so foreign to present-day society. From a material perspective, the reporters say you shouldn't come; get out of here immediately or something will happen to you. Yet the Bahá'í pilgrims were expressing gratitude and pleasure at being permitted to come even under what was clearly a hazardous condition. There are many mysteries to sanctification in the Bahá'í Writings. For example, you find that Shoghi Effendi in referring to the activities on Mount Carmel, in 1939 he moved the remains of the brother and mother of ‘Abdu'l-Bahá from where they had been interred across the bay in ‘Akká to be in the vicinity of the remains of the Greatest Holy Leaf on the slopes of Mount Carmel. Well, you can imagine why he did that. It was respectful to the members of the Holy Family to inter their remains in this beautiful location on the slopes of Mount Carmel, but the Guardian's message is mysterious. He said what he had done in putting the remains of the brother and mother of ‘Abdu'l-Bahá in that spot "incalculably reinforces the spiritual potencies of that consecrated Spot." What on earth does that mean? It reinforced the spiritual potencies of that consecrated Spot on Mount Carmel; it attracted a greater measure of spiritual power. It's this model we have of spiritual forces, magnets and things like that. Actions taken in conformity with divine will — or in the case of the Guardian because of his divine authority — incalculably reinforced spiritual power, and that can only be comprehended from this Bahá'í spiritual worldview. Along the lines of these mysteries is the Guardian's description of the Mashriqu'l-Adhkárs when, during the Ten Year Crusade, Houses of Worship were being raised in Europe, in Africa and in Australia, the Guardian referred to them as "three monumental Edifices, each designed to serve as a house for the indwelling Spirit of God..."
Now, what does that mean — a house for the indwelling Spirit of God? God's up there some place, not down here. I think this is an illustration of this principle of sanctification. These places become holy because they are built in accordance with divine prescription, so there is a concentration of spiritual power in the Mashriqu'l-Adhkárs, and this is a fundamental reason why we're building these things, why we're building the one in Chile. We are working to build Houses of Worship in accordance with divine prescription because each one is exactly as the Guardian describes – a house for the indwelling Spirit of God.
This concept of sanctification applies to us on a very personal level. You are all familiar with the beautiful statements of ‘Abdu'l-Bahá where He refers to how we sanctify our own personal dwelling by using it for meetings of prayer or what we call devotional meetings. These are meetings where the Word of God is taught and spiritual values are proclaimed. You may well be familiar with the passage of ‘Abdu'l-Bahá when He says, "Whensoever a company of people shall gather in a meeting place, shall engage in glorifying God, and shall speak with one another of the mysteries of God, beyond any doubt the breathings of the Holy Spirit will blow gently over them..." In another place He says, "We hear that thou hast in mind to embellish thy house from time to time with a meeting of Bahá'ís, where some among them will engage in glorifying the All-Glorious Lord... Know that shouldst thou bring this about, that house of earth will become a house of heaven, and that fabric of stone a congress of the spirit." Again, this principle of sanctification, of attracting spiritual forces in association with practice of divine teachings. Before I leave sanctification and move on to my final point, I want to refer to some of the statements in the Writings that I find very intriguing about individual sanctification. Of course there are many passages in the Writings that call upon us to purify our conduct and to become holy. We're all well familiar with those, but there is a mysterious element to it, illustrated clearly in Memorials of the Faithful.
I refer to a story of the great Afnan, Hájí Mirzá Muhammad-‘Alí and his coming to ‘Akká. He came from Haifa to ‘Akká, and in Memorials of the Faithful it tells us how ‘Abdu'l-Bahá is up on top of the caravanserai in ‘Akká pacing back and forth with some of His companions, and they look out — they can see over ‘Akká — and they see the bay and Haifa way, way off in the distance. They see a tiny spot — it's barely distinguishable because it's getting towards sunset — and that spot is a carriage coming along the coast from Haifa to ‘Akká. It's way, way off on the horizon. ‘Abdu'l-Bahá says to His companions, "I observed that a carriage was approaching." "Gentlemen," I said, "I feel that a holy being is in that carriage." The vehicle is way off on the horizon and ‘Abdu'l-Bahá, with His spiritual sensitivity, indicated that there was a spiritual being there. So, at ‘Abdu'l-Bahá's suggestion they all come down off the roof of the caravanserai, and ‘Abdu'l-Bahá with a few of them goes down to the ‘Akká land gate. They tell the keeper of the land gate that a friend is coming in a carriage but he won't get here before sunset; please leave the gate open and let him in. The gatekeeper is cooperative; they close the big gate but there's a little entrance way that remains open, and sure enough after sunset the carriage arrives. The visitor emerges and ‘Abdu'l-Bahá recognizes him, who it is: it is the great Afnan, Hájí Mirzá Muhammad-‘Alí, and he's greeted very warmly by
‘Abdu'l-Bahá. Let me read to you what ‘Abdu'l-Bahá says about him: "What a radiant face he had! He was nothing but light from head to foot. Just to look at that face made one happy; he was so confident, so assured, so rooted in his faith, and his expression so joyous. He was truly a blessed being." That's a sanctified individual.
‘Abdu'l-Bahá goes on to say, "He was a man who made progress day by day, who added, every day, to his certitude and faith, his luminous quality, his ardent love. He made extraordinary progress during the few days that he spent in the Most Great Prison. The point is that when his carriage had come only part of the way from Haifa to ‘Akká, one could already perceive his spirit, his light." I think it's a very significant illustration of the mysteries of the sanctified individual. It gives us something towards which we should and will of course aspire, to the ideal of a level of spirit that is discernible even at such a distance. There's a fascinating statement attributed to Bahá'u'lláh, which appears in Star of the West for May 1925. It's not authentic text, but it's attributed to Bahá'u'lláh saying that "if a person be quick and keen in his powers of perception and discernment, the moment a godly person enters his house he will perceive that the air becomes fragrant and the taste of his food and drink become delicious, pleasant and exhilarating." The corollary of that is "if an ungodly person enters, the air becomes oppressive and the victuals lose their flavour." That, I think, is a dramatic illustration of how the sanctified individual has such an ennobling and uplifting effect on those around him or her.
Use of the Power of the Creative Word
This brings me to the final point I want to make the third example I want to take to illustrate how the Bahá'í worldview of spirit and spiritual powers leads us to behaviours which are unusual or strange by the standards of present-day society is our use of the power of the Creative Word. There are certain elements to it which are most unusual. It is generally accepted, even by the skeptic, that the words of the Bahá'í Writings contain wisdom and guidance, and are important statements. It is not unusual for even those who believe in no particular spiritual power, to say, ‘He knew what He was talking about,' or ‘That seems a very good idea,' and the like. But what sets us apart is our concept of the Word of God. There are certain fundamentals which distinguish us from those around us. One is our belief, based on the Writings, that there is a mysterious spiritual power associated with the Holy Words. Bahá'u'lláh says in a very poetic way about the Word of God "...a single word of which quickeneth to fresh, new life the bodies of the dead, and bestoweth the Holy Spirit upon the moldering bones of this existence." In that and many other places, He refers to the mysterious power of the Holy and Creative Word.
That is a concept totally foreign to any generally accepted perception of the written word. Even more strange is our belief that there is no limit to the meaning one can obtain from the study and contemplation of the Word of God. That sets these Words apart radically from any other words. The faithful in a religion study the Word of God century after century, regard it as a Holy Book and derive limitless wisdom from it. Our religion is 160 years old — we're still in its early days — but nevertheless we have believers who spend their entire lives reading Holy Books, the Kitab-i-Iqan, the Kitáb-i-Aqdas or the Hidden Words, and feel they are only just beginning to understand some of the profundity, some of the depths of it. One of the greatest mysteries is that of the limitless understanding the Creative Word. I mention that because this is strange and unusual and is counter to any other written words. It is associated with the Holy Word, and I believe it is the foundation of the core activities to which the House of Justice is calling us in the last Five Year Plan, this Five Year Plan, and plans yet to come. Let me conclude by making a few comments about these core activities, which are essentially centered around the contemplation of the Creative Word on an individual and group basis. At present the Ruhi books are being advocated, not because they are necessarily perfect, but because they are available. We'll spend the whole five years using them. They have been battle-tested out in the field and they seem to work; let's use them and get going; and the time will come later for refinement and modification.
Our devotional meetings, our work with the junior youth, our children's classes, all are centered around the Creative Word, and all derive their significance and their impact from the fact that there is a spirit associated with these words and that limitless meaning can be gained from them. It means we don't have people saying, "That stuff's too simple," or "That's for people who don't know too much." Any one of us, irrespective of our knowledge, can join in the discussion and can study the Creative Word and get new meaning from it. Consider the Short Obligatory Prayer: "...Thou hast created me to know Thee and to worship Thee." The limitless meaning that can come from just that one sentence — we can literally spend a lifetime discussing and thinking about what it means to know God and to worship Him. It is this limitless meaning and power of the Creative Word.
The core activities, as I see it, have a certain basic significance. There are, I believe, two or three points. The first is that it is a vehicle to avoid the dichotomy of the active leader with a passive congregation that follows him. That problem has never been solved in religious history. Every religion that we know about has either started off or after a fairly short time settled down into the active leader, who is on the edge of a nervous breakdown because he is so busy, and the passive congregation that is expected just to sit there and do what it's told. Bahá'u'lláh has broken that dichotomy down to create an active participating community of believers from which administrators are elected or appointed for limited periods. We have a lot of work to do to break down this tendency of Bahá'í communities to fall into that pattern of super-active individuals who either are exalted or who exalt themselves, and the passive rest of us who do what we're told and try not to make too much trouble. We have to break that down as our teachings tell us it is not the right pattern.
We have a lot of work to do to absorb it within our bones, to make it an integral part of our functioning; it will take generations to do that. Our core activities rest upon the fact that we do not have any leader or guru who tells us what the words mean, but rather we rely on the power of consultation and understanding in order to develop a deeper vision of what the Creative Word is about. This is quite different from the elected Assemblies with their decision-making powers in the realm of action, and the appointed Counsellors and their helpers to provide advice, encouragement and counsel. Secondly, the core activities are a means of training us in the vital aspects of Bahá'í life. As we participate in the core activities we realize that what we are doing is paying homage to the concept that humans need spiritual food as well as material food. We are underlining the supremacy of the Creative Word for understanding and devotion. By the very act of our participating in core activities, we are affirming that the Creative Word is supreme. We are recognizing the legitimacy of individual understanding. If the study circle goes well, each individual opinion is given a legitimate degree of respect. We don't have people saying, "Oh, that's stupid. You don't know what you're talking about," or anything like that. We emphasize the legitimacy of the sincere expression of personal understanding. Through the mechanics of the operation of the core activities we don't have authoritative individuals who acquire a following; people don't hang on every word and say, "Well, I believe that to be true because I heard something he said and therefore it must be right." We don't have any of that. Rather, the Word is the authority. It gives us experience in consultation and in forming a sense of community in the study circle, which is generalizable then to the broader community.
Probably most important of all, the core activities are designed to inculcate in us a culture of learning. That culture of learning is fundamental to our religion because we are a religion of change. The central body of our Cause, the Universal House of Justice, is an institution committed to change, charged with the duty of change by virtue of the statements in the Will and Testament of ‘Abdu'l-Bahá, so intrinsically we are a religion of dynamic change rather than seeking a static ideal condition. That philosophy of change permeates all aspects of our religion, and change implies an attitude of learning. If you believe you are learning, then you are committed to continually changing and improving and developing, which is fundamental to our religion. Finally, there are, as in any other venture, certain hazards. They don't upset us too much, but there are certain hazards that we face in launching upon core activities and embarking on this new phase in the development of Bahá'í communities. One of these hazards is the extremism of zealots. We do have zealots, people who say, "If you're not going to engage in the core activities, you're highly suspect, perhaps something like a Covenant-breaker because you're disobedient to the Cause."
Now, we can calm everybody down, by referring to the message sent by the Universal House of Justice on 28 December 2005 addressed to the National Spiritual Assemblies. It makes the point that if you don't want to participate in the core activities, it's okay; you're not being disobedient to the Cause. If your orientation is that you want to do proclamation and that's all you want to do, God bless you. We need proclamation. If your orientation is you want to write beautiful poetry which will undoubtedly express Bahá'í values, go for it; we need that and it can be a powerful means of attracting people to the Cause. We need the richness and diversity of Bahá'í life. What we have to do is overcome the zealotry of people who are really enthused about this new direction and to re-channel their penchant to pressure other people. If there is any pressure, it lies in the authority of the text; it is not the zealotry of those who want to go to extremes. Another hazard that I noticed is the age-old danger of neglecting the long-term in favour of the short-term. We've been facing this for several decades. It generally expresses itself in the view that time is so short that we had better stop this long-term development we're doing, and concentrate on doing some short-term projects. Therein lies disaster. This is how companies go bankrupt, they focus only on the short-term and neglect the long-term. We are obviously not a commercial company, but we are an organization.
Any organization must have certain people who are focusing on the long-term; certain people who are focusing on the short-term and certain people who are focusing on the middle-term. It cannot be denied that time is short. The world is going to pieces. We do need believers to work very, very hard to help us get the 1500 intensive programs of growth in the Five Year Plan, but we also need lots of people who are focusing on the long-term needs of the Cause. We need poor souls who are committing themselves to getting PhD's because we will need a certain number of PhD's to order to help us in reaching various strata of society in the future, to strengthen the Bahá'í community and to help in the protection of the Faith. We need Bahá'ís to participate in business, and develop commercial enterprises because that will be of benefit to the stature of the Faith and the efficiency of its administrative functioning; it will indicate the uniqueness of the Faith, that it doesn't reject material possessions, and it will assist in providing much-needed material resources.
So, my point is that the short-term is important to us, but so also is the long-term, and it's an expression of zealotry to say, "Forget the long-term; only focus on the short-term." It is a confusion between priority and exclusivity. Our priorities are the objectives of the Five Year Plan, including these 1500 intensive programs of growth, but that's not exclusivity. We should maintain the richness of our diversity of Bahá'í expression and activity so that we are prepared for the distant future — 20, 30, 40, 50 years in the future — to meet the needs of the Bahá'í community at that time we have to prepare now by addressing the long-term as well as the short-term.
 ‘Abdu'l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p.58
 ‘Abdu'l-Bahá, Tablet to August Forel, p. 10
 Shoghi Effendi, The Advent of Divine Justice, p. 46-47
 Shoghi Effendi, The Advent of Divine Justice, p. 47
 Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, p. xi
 ‘Abdu'l-Bahá, The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh, p.169
 ‘Abdu'l-Bahá, Tablets of ‘Abdu'l-Bahá, Vol. I, p. 62
 ibid, p. 186
 ‘Abdu'l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu'l-Bahá, p. 83
 ‘Abdu'l-Bahá, The Compilation of Compilations, Vol. II, p. 223
 Bahá'u'lláh, Compilation on Huqúqu'lláh, No. 7
 Compilations, Huququ'llah, #9
 Shoghi Effendi, Messages to America, p. 32
 Shoghi Effendi, Messages to the Bahá'í World - 1950-1957, p. 119
 ‘Abdu'l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu'l-Bahá, p. 94
 ‘Abdu'l-Bahá, Memorials of the Faithful, p. 17
 ‘Abdu'l-Bahá, Memorials of the Faithful, p. 17
 Bahá'u'lláh, The Seven Valleys, p. 19