Intensive Growth Programs
by Farzam Arbab2001-04-28
The original theme on which the Youth Committee asked me to speak at this seminar was "teaching". I suggested changing it to "intensive growth programs" in order to have a specific context within which I could discuss the subject. Over the past several weeks, a number of events related to the Five Year Plan have been held at the Baháâí World Centre, and last evening you heard an inspiring talk on the recent Ridván message as part of the seminar in which you are now participating. I feel safe to assume, then, that you are well familiar with the content of the various documents related to the Plan, particularly with the Ridván message and the 9 January message of the Universal House of Justice to the Conference of the Continental Boards of Counsellors. What I would like to do today is to help you explore the implications of some of the guidance contained in these documents for the life of an individual Bahá'í. I hope to achieve this by asking you to imagine yourself in a national community in a part of the world that has witnessed a fair amount of growth in the past and to reflect on the issues I will present to you in that context. The main question before you is what you should do in order to respond to the demands that the Five Year Plan makes on every individual believer.
One's contribution to the progress of a Plan can, of course, take many forms. Teaching, administration, public information, and social and economic development — these are all fields of service that require diligent attention. But since teaching was on the minds of the members of the Youth Committee when they asked me to speak on this occasion, I will focus on that aspect of your activity, in which you will undoubtedly be engaged no matter what other projects you undertake.
The Five Year Plan has a single aim, that of advancing the process of entry by troops. In fact, this is to be the aim of a series of Plans that will carry the worldwide Bahá'í community to the end of the first century of the Formative Age in 2021. The desired acceleration of the process of entry by troops is to be achieved through systematic activity on the part of the three participants in the Plan: the individual, the institutions, and the community. The question I am asking you to consider, then, is how to contribute to this aim through that area of your activity that you would categorize as teaching.
Let us define the context of your activities in some detail. We will assume that the national community to which you belong has already held a highly fruitful institutional meeting. In this gathering have participated one or two Counsellors, the Auxiliary Board members serving the various regions of the country, and the members of the National Spiritual Assembly, the Regional Councils and National Committees, as well as the members of the Board of the National Institute and its regional coordinators. Having studied and discussed fully the message of 9 January, the friends in this meeting have helped the National Assembly divide each of the regions under the jurisdiction of the Councils into a number of areas. Large cities by themselves constitute "areas," while the other clusters each consist of a few towns and villages, and in some cases a medium size city, the daily lives of whose inhabitants are naturally connected. These areas have then been placed into the categories mentioned in the 9 January message: those which are not yet open to the Faith, those that have a few isolated localities and groups, those with established communities gaining strength through a vigorous institute process; and those with strong communities of deepened believers that are in a position to take on the challenges of systematic and accelerated expansion and consolidation.
The national plan that the National Assembly has announced to the community calls for moving forward several areas selected from each category to their next stage of development. To everyone's surprise, none of the areas seems to be ready yet for an intensive growth program, but a few have enough strength that they could soon meet the necessary conditions if proper attention were devoted to them. In the eyes of the Counsellors and the National Assembly, preparing these areas for intensive programs has priority over most other requirements of the national plan.
Having become familiar with the provisions of the plan in a meeting held for consultation in your region, you reflect prayerfully on the various ways you can serve and consult with knowledgeable friends. Let us say for the sake of this exploration that you finally decide to begin your services in this fifth epoch of the Formative Age as a homefront pioneer. You have a few choices before you. You can go to an unopened area and teach until at least one community is established there. You can pioneer to an area where a couple of rather weak communities exist and dedicate your efforts to the expansion and consolidation of the Faith in those localities. Or you can go to one of the few areas designated as priority and participate in a focused effort to prepare it for an intensive growth program. Given the emphasis the National Assembly has placed on strengthening these areas, you decide to establish residence in one of them.
Since pioneering for you is something to do and not something to talk about incessantly, since you have made your decision firmly and not half-heartedly, and since you have turned to Baháâuâlláh placing all your affairs in His hands, doors immediately open for you. Perhaps you are able to enroll in a university located in the area to continue your studies. Or you might find a job opportunity during an exploratory trip you make to the area, or you are shown another of the myriad ways Bahá'u'lláh assists those who long to serve Him. You move quickly, you organize your affairs in your new place of residence, you receive the warm welcome of the Bahá'ís of the area, and you are ready to serve. What do you do?
Please understand that by describing for you a possible set of actions, I do not intend to offer you a formula for service. Such a formula does not exist and every believer has to make all kinds of choices at every step of the way as he or she walks a path of service. But thinking of oneself in a specific situation, typical although imaginary, does help one form a vision of the field of service one may wish to enter.
It is not possible, of course, to give an answer, no matter how general, to the question of "doing" without saying something about "being," to talk about action without considering thought. So allow me to say a few words about some of the attributes that I must assume characterize you in order for the story I am trying to develop to have validity. Actually I don't think my assumptions are wrong, for I know so many believers with these characteristics. If you decide that I am exaggerating your praiseworthy qualities, it will be only because of your own sense of modesty.
Let me begin by saying that you are a mature Baháâí. This maturity has several dimensions. Most fundamentally, it is reflected in your sense of identity. It is natural, of course, that the various aspects of our background — national, social, ethnic, cultural, educational, professional, and so on — should influence our patterns of thought and behavior. But a mature Bahá'í has learned to put these factors in the right perspective, never losing sight of the truth that the reality of his or her existence is his or her soul which is passing through this world to acquire the attributes it needs for the eternal and glorious journey towards God. Thus you are fully aware that the real source of your identity is servitude to Bahá'u'lláh. When you are asked "Who are you?", the first answer that springs to your mind is not "man," "woman," "white," "black," "Latin," "Persian," "American," "doctor," "engineer," "professor," "artist." Your highest aspiration is to be able to answer the question, at least within yourself, by such phrases as "The one who loves Baháâuâlláh," "The one who obeys the commands of Baháâuâlláh," "The one who serves Baháâuâlláh." And having the example of 'Abdu'l-Bahá always before you, you realize that this servitude has to translate into service to the loved ones of God.
Another aspect of our identity emerges from our roots in Baháâí history. An intimate connection with an eventful past, with the heroes through whose sacrifice the Cause has advanced, and an acute awareness of the workings of the cycles of crisis and victory — these help shape your true identity. Unlike so many souls whose connection with history is severed and who seek heroes and role models in figures who are themselves victims of a disintegrating society, you have no doubt that you are participating in the greatest drama in the history of humankind: the creation of a new race of men.
A strong sense of Bahá'í identity in turn leads to a strong sense of purpose. It gives rise to a feeling of urgency with which we all need to attend to our own spiritual growth. We cannot be passive observers of our own lives, hapless victims of society, shaped by political and commercial propaganda. Our lives on this earthly plane are too short, and the bounties of a pure heart capable of reflecting divine attributes too many, for us to become distracted by the passing attractions of a world lost in idle fancies. Thus you bend your energies purposefully towards acquiring perfections and refining your inner life.
But this is not all. Maturity implies that one is aware of the traps of self-centeredness. One cannot develop human virtues in isolation. Too great a focus on oneself, on one's potentials, on one's talents, distorts the very laudable goals of personal growth. The arena in which such growth occurs is service to humanity. The idolization of self-improvement, self-expression and self-satisfaction can easily create sentiments of either guilt or self-righteousness. Therefore, your sense of purpose is directed towards personal growth and at the same time towards service to the Cause and to humanity. Contributing to the transformation of society and to the advancement of a civilization to be built according to the teachings of Baháâuâlláh is your life's pursuit.
The forces that impel you in your endeavors are mainly your love for the Blessed Beauty, your yearning for true understanding, your inner drive towards excellence, and your deep concern for the well-being of humankind. Yet, there is an element of fear that also comes into play and ensures watchfulness. While you look upward and forward, you guard against the promptings of the lower nature. You fear falling into the condition that Baháâuâlláh has described in these terms:
Ye are even as the bird which soareth, with the full force of its mighty wings and with complete and joyous confidence, through the immensity of the heavens, until, impelled to satisfy its hunger, it turneth longingly to the water and clay of the earth below it, and, having been entrapped in the mesh of its desire, findeth itself impotent to resume its flight to the realms whence it came. Powerless to shake off the burden weighing on its sullied wings, that bird, hitherto an inmate of the heavens, is now forced to seek a dwelling-place upon the dust. Wherefore, O My servants, defile not your wings with the clay of waywardness and vain desires, and suffer them not to be stained with the dust of envy and hate, that ye may not be hindered from soaring in the heavens of My divine knowledge.As you pursue your twofold purpose, your most cherished moments are those spent in communion with God, for prayer nourishes one's soul, and without the strength that only it can generate, it is impossible to persist in one's high endeavors. Similarly, the study of the Writings is one of your primary occupations. This is not the mere reading of a few verses. There is a great deal of meditation on the meaning and implications of each passage as well as diligent effort to apply the teachings to achieve personal growth, to contribute to the development of the community, and in the final analysis to the civilization building process.
These are, then, the ways in which you define your identity, your purpose and your occupation as you arise to be a pioneer.
Another aspect of the maturity we are considering here is the nature of the expectations we have as we walk a path of service. Specifically, you will not have decided to become a homefront pioneer because of the mere excitement of it. This is not to say that you are not excited and that you do not derive happiness from the service you are rendering. But your moments of happiness as well as those of intense pain do not define the direction of your action. Underlying all your feelings is an inner joy that is not the result of passing circumstances but the quality of your soul. It is a fundamental condition of your heart, not an emotion resulting from outside influences. Being mature, then, implies that the immediate results of your activities are not what galvanize you, for you know that sometimes these will be encouraging and other times not. You are not overly affected by the criticisms of others, nor are you out for praise. You do not seek recognition for what you do, and do not burden the institutions by the constant cry: "Here I am, here I am. Why don't you use my great talent?" You are a humble yet effective participant in collective endeavor.
The joy you feel comes from having recognized Baháâuâlláh and from the knowledge that you are enfolded in His mercy. You draw satisfaction from the very act of sharing the message of Baháâuâlláh with others, from being engaged in discussion of and reflection on the Word of God, from partaking of the bounty of guiding souls to the shores of the ocean of His Revelation. As 'Abduâl-Bahá has stated:
If only thou couldst know what a high station is destined for those souls who are severed from the world, are powerfully attracted to the Faith, and are teaching, under the sheltering shadow of Baháâuâlláh! How thou wouldst rejoice, how thou wouldst, in exultation and rapture, spread thy wings and soar heavenward — for being a follower of such a way, and a traveler toward such a Kingdom.And again:
....ye must in this matter — that is, the serving of humankind — lay down your very lives, and as ye yield yourselves, rejoice.Note that this rejoicing is not in the self but in yielding oneself. Indeed the greatest source of joy in the field of service is not one's own accomplishments but witnessing the accomplishments of one's fellow believers. One of the statements in the 9 January message that has captured the imagination of many of the friends speaks of the need for encouragement. "Training alone," the statement reads, "does not necessarily lead to an upsurge in teaching activity. In every avenue of service, the friends need sustained encouragement." The question is then asked, "How do you encourage others?" Praise seems to be a popular answer. But praise can have the opposite effect when it is empty, following a series of steps according to some formula. Here, as in every other aspect of life, "doing" and "being" cannot be easily separated. To master the art of encouragement, it seems to me, one must battle against one's own self. A sense of accomplishment is a good thing, and we all need it every once in a while. But it is only when we rejoice in the accomplishments of others, achievements in which we have not necessarily played any part, that everything we say and do becomes a source of encouragement to them.
Yet another sign of your being a mature Baháâí is your understanding of the mystery of sacrifice. This means that you neither avoid the concept, nor use the word so often as to trivialize it. Of course, one can use the word in everyday life: "I sacrificed two hours of sleep in order to prepare for my exam." "I sacrificed the game this weekend in order to be with my sick friend." And, naturally, service to the Faith involves sacrifice in this sense. When we take part in a Baháâí activity, we will not be doing something else which may be quite enjoyable to us. But how can we call this a sacrifice when the Baháâí activity in question is actually a source of joy? How can one say that teaching is the greatest joy of my life and at the same time believe, for example, that it is a sacrifice to leave a television show to attend a fireside?
The reality of sacrifice, of course, is to renounce that which is lower for that which is higher. This applies not only to material things, but to thoughts, habits, and sentiments. In a life of service, one is precisely engaged in shedding the less valuable to receive the more precious. But one is attached to all that one possesses. It is painful to let go of them even when one is assured that what will be received is far better. But this pain is the bearer of joy not of sorrow; this sacrifice is done in gratitude to God for having bestowed on us the opportunity to serve. In this respect, 'Abdu'l-Bahá tells us that
Until a being setteth his foot in the plane of sacrifice, he is bereft of every favor and grace; and this plane of sacrifice is the realm of dying to the self, that the radiance of the living God may then shine forth.And He also says:
....nearness to God necessitates sacrifice of self, severance and the giving up of all to Him. Nearness is likeness.Another aspect of the maturity you have reached is your understanding of the nature of teaching and your attitudes towards it. In the message of 9 January the Universal House of Justice states:
When training and encouragement are effective, a culture of growth is nourished in which the believers see their duty to teach as a natural consequence of having accepted Baháâuâlláh. They "raise high the sacred torch of faith," as was 'Abdu'l-Bahá'ís wish, "labor ceaselessly, by day and by night," and "consecrate every fleeting moment of their lives to the diffusion of the divine fragrance and the exaltation of God's holy Word." So enkindled do their hearts become with the fire of the love of God that whoever approaches them feels its warmth. They strive to be channels of the spirit, pure of heart, selfless and humble, possessing certitude and the courage that stems from reliance on God. In such a culture, teaching is the dominating passion of the lives of the believers. Fear of failure finds no place. Mutual support, commitment to learning, and appreciation of diversity of action are the prevailing norms.You view teaching, then, as essentially spiritual in nature and avoid being trapped by mere technique. Teaching involves not only the actions we carry out, but also a state of being we each must attain. Giving is a requirement of our spiritual existence. We must share with others some of what we possess. Our most precious possession, of course, is our recognition of Baháâuâlláh, and it would be unnatural if we did not wish to share with others the knowledge we receive from His Revelation and the love and joy with which this Revelation fills our souls.
The enkindlement of which the House of Justice speaks in the passage I have quoted implies that the fire of love for Baháâuâlláh in your heart burns brighter and brighter each day, and as it grows it gives increasingly more warmth and light. This warmth attracts other hearts and helps create the necessary condition in which the spark of faith can be ignited in them.
In this state of enkindlement, you consider every opportunity to teach as a bounty from God. To be sure, you would never imagine that you are doing Him a favor by obeying His commandment to teach. On the contrary, you approach teaching with gratitude and reverence, as a sacred act, "sacred" referring to that which belongs to God. When we teach we are dealing with two very sacred things. One is the human heart which essentially belongs to God. Teaching, in fact, can be described as that spiritual act which results in the opening of the city of the human heart to Him. The other sacred thing with which teaching is concerned is the Revelation of Baháâuâlláh.
We teach in order to connect the heart to His Revelation, His greatest bestowal to humankind. You are surely familiar with these words of Baháâuâlláh:
That which He hath reserved for Himself are the cities of men's hearts; and of these the loved ones of Him Who is the Sovereign Truth are, in this Day, as the keys. Please God they may, one and all, be enabled to unlock, through the power of the Most Great Name, the gates of these cities.In another passage He states:
The things He hath reserved for Himself are the cities of men's hearts, that He may cleanse them from all earthly defilements, and enable them to draw nigh unto the hallowed Spot which the hands of the infidel can never profane. Open, O people, the city of the human heart with the key of your utterance. Thus have We, according to a pre-ordained measure, prescribed unto you your duty.And regarding His Revelation:
Say: This is the sealed and mystic Scroll, the repository of God's irrevocable Decree, bearing the words which the Finger of Holiness hath traced, that lay wrapt within the veil of impenetrable mystery, and hath now been sent down as a token of the grace of Him Who is the Almighty, the Ancient of Days. In it have We decreed the destinies of all the dwellers of the earth and the denizens of heaven, and written down the knowledge of all things from first to last.The fact that you approach teaching as a spiritual act touches on another dimension of sacredness. In teaching, the agent that brings about transformation is the Word of God. Baháâuâlláh uses the image of the "elixir," believed down the centuries to have the power to change copper into gold, to help us understand the power of the Word of God:
The vitality of men's belief in God is dying out in every land; nothing short of His wholesome medicine can ever restore it. The corrosion of ungodliness is eating into the vitals of human society; what else but the Elixir of His potent Revelation can cleanse and revive it? Is it within human power, O Hakim, to effect in the constituent elements of any of the minute and indivisible particles of matter so complete a transformation as to transmute it into purest gold? Perplexing and difficult as this may appear, the still greater task of converting satanic strength into heavenly power is one that We have been empowered to accomplish. The Force capable of such a transformation transcendeth the potency of the Elixir itself. The Word of God, alone, can claim the distinction of being endowed with the capacity required for so great and far-reaching a change.This is one of the spiritual concepts underlying the statement of the Universal House of Justice that "fear of failure finds no place" in the culture of growth that should characterize the Baháâí community. Why would you fear failure when you are confident that the Word of God is endowed with the power to transform hearts? It is the divine "Elixir," and you are but the channel through which it can flow. That you are merely a channel, of course, is not an idea that you repeatedly express because you have heard it so many times. It holds real significance for you. Every time you teach the Cause and adorn your utterance with the Words of Baháâuâlláh you witness their effect on the human heart and catch a glimpse of what it means to be a "channel of the spirit."
Before ending these comments on maturity, let me bring to your attention one very important related point. I would like to assume that your in-depth study of the guidance of the Universal House of Justice over the past few years has helped you move beyond the extreme statements and perceived dualities that sometimes paralyze Baháâí communities and stagnate growth. You are not, for instance, given to such pronouncements as "In teaching, love is enough," or "The only thing that matters in teaching is one's example," or "If we are spiritual, then things will just happen; there is too much talk of systematic plans," or "Baháâuâlláh tells us that we should first teach ourselves, so we should concentrate on our own perfection; teaching others will come later," or "The only way to teach is through firesides, teaching the masses in groups is undignified," or "This is the time for mass teaching; the time for individual teaching has passed."
A balanced view of teaching is built on the conviction that "being" and "doing" are intimately connected. Thus, for example, although we need to strive to increase our love for God and for our fellow human beings, love by itself is not enough in teaching. Knowledge is needed. The power of utterance is needed. Convincing explanations are needed that can lead to adequate knowledge and understanding in the seeker. Although enkindlement is essential, action is also necessary. One cannot achieve things without effort. Teaching involves a great deal of activity in order to find receptive souls, to win their confidence, to help them understand the fundamental teachings of the Faith, and to accompany them in the initial stages of their spiritual journey. To be systematic is not unspiritual.
On the other hand, teaching entails more than just saying and doing the right things. Without love, little can be accomplished. Without enkindlement, it is extremely difficult to ignite the spark of faith. And it is true that, in the name of planning and training, one can become so preoccupied with technique that the spirit is forgotten. The message of 9 January of the House of Justice to the Counsellors refers to planning in these terms:
The nature of the planning process with which you will be helping the friends is in many ways unique. At its core it is a spiritual process in which communities and institutions strive to align their pursuits with the Will of God. The Major Plan of God is at work and the forces it generates impel humanity towards its destiny. In their own plans of action, the institutions of the Faith must seek to gain insight into the operation of these great forces, explore the potentialities of the people they serve, measure the resources and strengths of their communities, and take practical steps to enlist the unreserved participation of the believers. The nurturing of this process is the sacred mission entrusted to you.This interconnectedness between "being" and "doing" also implies that we cannot wait to be perfect before we teach. We all have along way to walk on the path towards perfection, but we must be convinced that Bahá'u'lláh will assist every soul who arises to serve Him, no matter what his or her shortcomings. All we are required to do is to exert our utmost to fulfill our duty to teach. And, we should not be mistaken to think that we can teach by our example alone. It is the key of utterance that according to Bahá'u'lláh will ultimately unlock hearts. This is not to say that our behavior does not matter. A strong force of attraction is generated by good deeds and an upright character. We need to follow in the ways of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, who lived a life of such exemplary deeds, yet used the power of His utterance and spoke about the Faith whenever an appropriate occasion arose.
The balance that is a sign of maturity also pertains to the attitudes we adopt when carrying out our duty to teach. You will remember the words of the beloved Guardian that we should be neither too "provocative," nor too "supine," neither "fanatical nor excessively liberal" in our "exposition of the fundamental and distinguishing features" of the Faith. There are times when we should be "bold" and others when we should move forward cautiously. Sometimes we must "act swiftly," and on other occasions we should "mark time." There are instances in which the direct method is appropriate, and those in which the indirect method will work best.
As to the question of individual versus collective action, a mature teacher appreciates that a "diversity of action" is needed if a community is to grow. Proclamation is a valuable activity, but it cannot become the sole means of bringing the message of Bahá'u'lláh to the people of the world. Teaching involves far more than simply informing people about the Faith. To assist others to recognize Bahá'u'lláh, to systematically deepen them, to channel their energies into one or another of the many avenues of service are matters that have to be addressed both at the individual level and at the level of the community and its institutions.
With these ideas in mind, most of them related to "state of being," let us now go back to the question of "doing" and explore the nature of your activities in the context of the plan of action for the new area in which you reside. Let me remind you again that I will only be telling one imaginary story, which should not be taken as a recipe for every course to be followed.
Remember that, in our story, you have pioneered to an area being prepared for an intensive program of growth. In describing an area ready for such a program, the House of Justice has mentioned the following criteria:
....some basic experience on the part of a few communities in the cluster in holding classes for the spiritual education of children, devotional meetings, and the Nineteen Day Feast; the existence of a reasonable degree of administrative capacity in at least a few Local Spiritual Assemblies; the active involvement of several assistants to Auxiliary Board members in promoting community life; a pronounced spirit of collaboration among the various institutions working in the area; and above all, the strong presence of the training institute with a scheme of coordination that supports the systematic multiplication of study circles.If the program is to be initiated on a sound footing, it is also necessary to have, according to the House of Justice, "a high level of enthusiasm among a sizeable group of devoted and capable believers who understand the prerequisites for sustainable growth and can take ownership of the program." We will assume that the area to which you have pioneered enjoys many of these conditions, but that the operation of the institute requires further strengthening and that the core group of active believers needs to reach higher levels of unity of thought and arrive at a common vision of the program they hope to launch. This, everyone has agreed, can be achieved in a matter of a few months of systematic preparation.
Given the centrality of the institute to an area growth program, one of the principal goals set for this preparatory stage is the training of an appreciable number of tutors, say fifty, of the first few courses of the main sequence offered by the institute. The hope is that at least twenty of them will be able to establish study circles in the various localities in the cluster. Other activities called for are an initial survey of the communities in the area, monthly meetings of consultation among the believers willing to take on the challenges of accelerated expansion, the consolidation of some twenty children's classes, and the initiation of a few special study circles for junior youth, an endeavor never before undertaken in this specific area.
Within this context now, let us pose the crucial question once again: What are you to do to contribute to this plan of action? We have already mentioned that personal teaching initiatives and collective endeavors to ensure the expansion and consolidation of the Faith are complementary, and that both are necessary for sustained growth. Therefore, we are safe to assume that one of the first steps you take is to draw up your own individual teaching plan. Beginning with your university or your workplace, you become involved in the life of the society around you. You systematically seek out like-minded people and enter into serious discourse with them on spiritual subjects and the ideals of a new world order. As you detect receptivity, you offer them the truths enshrined in the teachings, attract them to the Faith, help them reach the stage of acceptance, deepen them, and accompany them in their initial acts of service until they are ready to walk on their own and teach others.
Experience all over the world is now showing that study circles can be instruments of expansion as well as consolidation. Numerous individuals, who sometimes know very little of the Faith, seem to be more than willing to participate in certain institute courses, especially those dealing with spiritual subjects, and often by the end of the first course they become Baháâís. We may assume, then, that the use of such a method is part of your individual teaching plan.
As to your participation in collective endeavors, let us say that although you have received some training to be a tutor of a few courses of your institute, you realize that you have much to learn before becoming truly effective. So you readily accept to attend the periodic tutor training sessions offered by the area coordinator for the institute. As your training as a tutor advances, you begin to visit a nearby village once a week where you form two study groups: one for the youth and young adults, and another for the junior youth.
Let me diverge here a little and say a few words about the nature of the Baháâí population of the kind of cluster to which, in my story, you have pioneered. During the decades of the sixties, seventies and the eighties, Bahá'í communities around the world grew enormously. Unfortunately, consolidation could not keep up with expansion and the process came to halt. As a result, the institutions of the Faith lost touch with many, many Baháâís. We can be fairly confident, then, that the locality you have chosen to visit would be found in a peculiar condition: There would be a relatively large number of people who accepted the Faith years ago and a good number of young people who in their childhood attended occasional Baháâí children's classes, all of whom have warm feelings towards the Faith but lack the enthusiasm of those years of large-scale expansion. The experience of recent years has shown that while trying to reanimate the entire community may prove difficult, the proposal to establish a study circle with ten or fifteen youth and young adults usually meets with great success. The work of earlier decades has not been in vain. A condition has been created that lends itself well to systematic action. What occurred during those three decades came to be known as mass teaching, and a penetrating analysis of that period of time is presented in the recently released document Century of Light. So important is that analysis for an understanding of the Five Year Plan — and the intensive growth programs for which it calls — that I would like to read a few paragraphs from the document for you:
As believers from urban centers set out on sustained campaigns to reach the mass of the world's peoples living in villages and rural areas, they encountered a receptivity to Baháâuâlláh's message far beyond anything they had imagined possible. While the response usually took forms very different from the ones with which the teachers had been familiar, the new declarants were eagerly welcomed....The document goes on to describe how the burst of enrollments brought with it equally great problems: sustained deepening of the new believers proved a formidable task and adapting to diverse cultures and new ways of thinking presented unprecedented challenges.
Initially, such problems proved stimulating as both Baháâí institutions and individual believers struggled to find new ways of looking at situations — new ways, indeed, of understanding important passages in the Baháâí Writings themselves. Determined efforts were made to respond to the guidance of the World Centre that expansion and consolidation are twin processes that must go hand in hand. Where hoped for results did not readily materialize, however, a measure of discouragement frequently set in. The initial rapid rise in enrollment rates slowed markedly in many countries, tempting some Bahá'í institutions and communities to turn back to more familiar activities and more accessible publics.
The principal effect of the setbacks, however, was that they brought home to communities that the high expectations of the early years were in some respects quite unrealistic. Although the easy successes of the initial teaching activities were encouraging, they did not, by themselves, build a Baháâí community life that could meet the needs of its new members and be self-generating. Rather, pioneers and new believers alike faced questions for which Baháâí experience in Western lands — or even Iran — offered few answers. How were Local Spiritual Assemblies to be established — and once established, how were they to function — in areas where large numbers of new believers had joined the Cause overnight, simply on the strength of their spiritual apprehension of its truth? How, in societies dominated by men since the dawn of time, were women to be accorded an equal voice? How was the education of large numbers of children to be systematically addressed in cultural situations where poverty and illiteracy prevailed? What priorities should guide Baháâí moral teaching, and how could these objectives best be related to prevailing indigenous conventions? How could a vibrant community life be cultivated that would stimulate the spiritual growth of its members? What priorities, too, should be set with respect to the production of Baháâí literature, particularly given the sudden explosion that had taken place in the number of languages represented in the community? How could the integrity of the Baháâí institution of the Nineteen Day Feast be maintained, while opening this vital activity to the enriching influence of diverse cultures? And, in all areas of concern, how were the necessary resources to be recruited, funded, and coordinated?
The pressure of these urgent and interlocking challenges launched the Baháâí world on a learning process that has proved to be as important as the expansion itself. It is safe to say that during these years there was virtually no type of teaching activity, no combination of expansion, consolidation and proclamation, no administrative option, no effort at cultural adaptation that was not being energetically tried in some part of the Baháâí world. The net result of the experience was an intensive education of a great part of the Baháâí community in the implications of the mass teaching work, an education that could have occurred in no other way. By its very nature, the process was largely local and regional in focus, qualitative rather than quantitative in its gains, and incremental rather than large-scale in the progress achieved. Had it not been for the painstaking, always difficult and often frustrating consolidation work pursued during these years, however, the subsequent strategy of systematizing the promotion of entry by troops would have had very little with which to work.
As the document explains, the three decades of trial and error and of learning constituted a significant period in Baháâí history:
The significance of these three decades of struggle, learning and sacrifice became apparent when the moment arrived to devise a global Plan that would capitalize on the insights gained and the resources that had been developed. The Bahá'í community that set out on the Four Year Plan in 1996 was a very different one from the eager, but new and still inexperienced body of believers who, in 1964, had ventured out on the first of such undertakings that were no longer sustained by the guiding hand of Shoghi Effendi. By 1996, it had become possible to see all of the distinct strands of the enterprise as integral parts of one coherent whole.Taking advantage of the insight gained during the previous decades, as the document tells us, the Four Year Plan focused the Baháâí world on the systematization of expansion and consolidation through the instrumentality of the training institute. The entire period is then put in historical perspective:
Throughout history, the masses of humanity have been, at best, spectators at the advance of civilization. Their role has been to serve the designs of whatever elite had temporarily assumed control of the process. Even the successive Revelations of the Divine, whose objective was the liberation of the human spirit, were, in time, taken captive by "the insistent self", were frozen into man-made dogma, ritual, clerical privilege and sectarian quarrels, and reached their end with their ultimate purpose frustrated.The reason I have read to you so many passages from the document Century of Light is twofold. One is underscore for you that the Five Year Plan has the generality of humankind in mind. In the 9 January message, the Universal House of Justice states:
The friends who participate in these intensive programs of growth should bear in mind that the purpose is to ensure that the Revelation of Baháâuâlláh reaches the masses of humanity and enables them to achieve spiritual and material progress through the application of the Teachings. Vast numbers among the peoples of the world are ready, indeed yearn, for the bounties that Baháâuâlláh alone can bestow upon them once they have committed themselves to building the new society He has envisioned. In learning to systematize their large-scale teaching work, Baháâí communities are becoming better equipped to respond to this longing. They cannot withhold whatever effort, whatever sacrifice, may be called for.The second reason is that the ideas set forth in the passages I have quoted must necessarily form part of a framework within which unity of thought on sustained growth can be achieved. Going back to our story, we have said that, along with the strengthening of the institute process, reaching this unity of thought among those who will initiate the intensive program in your area is a primary objective of the preparatory stage. Participating in the regular meetings organized by the Area Teaching Committee, the institute and the Auxiliary Board members for this purpose will be one of your highest priorities.
The concept of unity of thought requires some comment. It is built on two other degrees of unity that we can assume exist among the participants in the meetings you will be attending. The first is unity in love and fellowship, or, if you may, unity of the hearts. This is the most basic degree of unity. Without it, every other degree of unity is, at best, tenuous, if not impossible. It comes about as each of us strives to bring his or her life into harmony with the principle of the oneness of humankind, not only in terms of cognition and behavior but also at the level of spiritual dynamics.
An environment conducive to the cementing of hearts is fundamentally shaped by the interplay of our spiritual qualities. One quality of special importance in this respect is humility, a humility that must be matched by a strong sense of determination and perseverance. We need to look at ourselves humbly and accept that we are far from possessing the perfections that will eventually adorn our souls and then walk the path of perfection with constancy. The humility to which we are referring flows from humility before God. It is accompanied by fear of God and gives rise to the understanding that every one of us is indeed insignificant when compared with the majesty and glory of God's creation. It is through God's blessings and confirmation that we become worthy of any mention at all. It is the power of God that turns the gnat into an eagle. Heaven forbid that we should think our strength is our own. In the twinkling of an eye, the gnat will return to its original state.
The reason I am emphasizing this quality in the context of the meetings that will take place in your area is that, without humility, unity of the hearts, this most basic level of unity, is nearly impossible to achieve. Humility prevents us from becoming judgmental, from losing sight of our own faults, and from focusing on the shortcomings of others. Without it, we end up preaching exalted principles at others — "We should do this," or "This is the way things should be done" — rather than striving to reach unity of thought. This humility is a requisite, then, of the posture of learning that everyone participating in an intensive growth program needs to assume.
You, of course, know well that the love that characterizes this basic degree of unity is a reflection of our love for Baháâuâlláh. The foundation on which such a unity is built is the Covenant we have made with Baháâuâlláh, of which He speaks thus in His Book of the Covenant:
The aim of this Wronged One in sustaining woes and tribulations, in revealing the Holy Verses and in demonstrating proofs hath been naught but to quench the flame of hate and enmity, that the horizon of the hearts of men may be illumined with the light of concord and attain real peace and tranquility.With our eyes fixed on 'Abdu'l-Bahá, the Center of Baháâuâlláh's Covenant, we stand firm in our efforts to live according to His teachings and to create the civilization He has envisioned. We are ever conscious of the promise we made to Baháâuâlláh to love one another, for in 'Abdu'l-Bahá we see the perfect example of one who loves. By reflecting on His life, we learn what it means to uphold justice and to be generous and forgiving. Above all, we remain aware of our covenant with Baháâuâlláh that we will not allow the unity of His followers to be broken and that we will work together as a united, worldwide community for the establishment of the oneness of humankind.
The next degree of unity, built on this love and fellowship, is unity of purpose. The consultative meetings you will be attending in the area will serve to strengthen the sense of purpose of the group preparing for an intensive program of growth. We should always remember that ours is a purposeful association. We have not come together merely to exist, to live happily in an environment of love and harmony, important as this may be. We are workers laboring in a common enterprise: to build a new world order, to establish a spiritually and materially prosperous world civilization. Our purpose, however, cannot be left at the level of generality. In the specific case of the plan of action in which you are taking part, the purpose is to prepare the area for an intensive program of growth. As for the program itself, its purpose will not be to create small communities made up of perfect Baháâís, or to provide charity to the masses of humanity, or to offer people something akin to a church service. It will be to foster growth, and all will need to identify themselves with this purpose.
The unity of thought which the group in your area needs to reach, then, is on the nature of this growth and on the way it will be brought about. It implies having a common understanding of the role of various components of action, of how to integrate diverse endeavors, of the balance to be maintained between individual initiative and collective action, and of the style of administration that will bring coherence to a wide range of activities, but will not control their every detail. In this process of reaching unity of thought, a common understanding of the characteristics of an intensive program of growth mentioned by the House of Justice will be achieved:
1. The multiplication of study circles and the implementation of campaigns to generate and maintain enthusiasm for institute courses.
2. The implementation of teaching campaigns to increase the number of believers.
3. The deepening of the majority of the friends by those who are benefiting from the institute's program.
4. The education of children, beginning with Baháâí children's classes and gradually working towards the establishment of schools where necessary.
5. The promotion and establishment of the Nineteen Day Feast.
6. The strengthening of the Local Spiritual Assemblies in the area.
7. The establishment of Local Funds and the education of the friends on its significance.
8. Proclamation to officials and leaders of thought in the area, and so on, and so on.
The unfoldment of these lines of action will be very much connected to the learning taking place among the population of the area. As the believers go through the sequence of courses offered by the institute, they will learn how to carry out acts of service of increasing complexity, will acquire a growing sense of responsibility for the progress of their area, and will assume a greater and greater role in determining the direction in which the communities will move. As you can imagine, then, unity of thought is not something achieved once and for all. It is part of a larger, continuous process of action, reflection on action, and the study of the Writings to shed light on the issues that arise. The House of Justice tells us:
Throughout the endeavor, periodic meetings of consultation in the area need to reflect on issues, consider adjustments, and maintain enthusiasm and unity of thought. The best approach is to formulate plans for a few months at a time, beginning with one or two lines of action and gradually growing in complexity. Those who are actively involved in the implementation of plans, whether members of the institutions or not, should be encouraged to participate fully in the consultations. Other area-wide gatherings will also be necessary. Some of these will provide opportunity for the sharing of experience and further training. Others will focus on the use of the arts and the enrichment of culture. Together, such gatherings will support an intense process of action, consultation and learning.Thus, the meetings in which you will be participating will not end once the program has been launched. They will continue throughout its implementation and will help those taking part in it to reach higher and higher levels of unity of thought.
Let me say a few words now about the most powerful instrument for building unity of thought: Baháâí consultation. The purpose of Baháâí consultation is not for us to express our opinions with the hope of winning others over to our side. Nor is it to negotiate the truth. Its aim, rather, is the earnest investigation of reality. Reality is very complex, each one of us seeing some aspect of it. We come together to consult precisely to see aspects of reality from other people's perspective. Having done so, we discover a more complete picture of that facet of reality we are examining and act accordingly. We do not even claim that our decision after consultation is the correct one. We simply do the best we can and we are willing to learn. 'Abdu'l-Bahá has described consultation in this way:
The purpose is to emphasize the statement that consultation must have for its object the investigation of truth. He who expresses an opinion should not voice it as correct and right but set it forth as a contribution to the consensus of opinion, for the light of reality becomes apparent when two opinions coincide. A spark is produced when flint and steel come together. Man should weigh his opinions with the utmost serenity, calmness and composure. Before expressing his own views he should carefully consider the views already advanced by others. If he finds that a previously expressed opinion is more true and worthy, he should accept it immediately and not willfully hold to an opinion of his own. By this excellent method he endeavors to arrive at unity and truth. Opposition and division are deplorable. It is better then to have the opinion of a wise, sagacious man; otherwise, contradiction and altercation, in which varied and divergent views are presented, will make it necessary for a judicial body to render decision upon the question. Even a majority opinion or consensus may be incorrect. A thousand people may hold to one view and be mistaken, whereas one sagacious person may be right. Therefore, true consultation is spiritual conference in the attitude and atmosphere of love. Members must love each other in the spirit of fellowship in order that good results may be forthcoming. Love and fellowship are the foundation.There is not much more that I can say about the program of growth in the area to which you have pioneered. It has to be the fruit of the consultative process. So I will end our story here. Let me just offer one final, brief comment. I apologize for the fact that it can be categorized as an admonition.
There is such a thing as "the good life," built around the concept of comfort. Any lifestyle chosen by a Baháâí, of course, will only include behavior that is in accordance with the teachings. But even so, when comfort is the motivating force, one's lifestyle begins to show great deficiencies that lead to stagnation. When life is not purposeful enough, when it is too centered on the idea of fun and entertainment, when it places too much value on enjoyment, it becomes unproductive. An intensive growth program in an area is not possible if those who take part in it are not engaged intensely in service. We are all familiar with these words of 'Abdu'l-Bahá:
....look at me, follow me, be as I am; take no thought for yourselves or your lives, whether ye eat or whether ye sleep, whether ye are comfortable, whether ye are well or ill, whether ye are with friends or foes, whether ye receive praise or blame; for all of these things ye must care not at all. Look at me and be as I am; ye must die to yourselves and to the world, so shall ye be born again and enter the kingdom of heaven. Behold the candle, how it gives light. It weeps its life away drop by drop in order to give forth its flame of light.And in the Tablets of the Divine Plan, He calls upon us:
....rest ye not, seek ye no composure, attach not yourselves to the luxuries of this ephemeral world, free yourselves from every attachment, and strive with heart and soul to become fully established in the Kingdom of God. Gain ye the heavenly treasures. Day by day become ye more illumined. Draw ye nearer and nearer unto the threshold of oneness....