It's the final day of the annual 19-day fast, a time during which Baha'is worldwide abstain from food and drink between sunrise and sunset. I have just breakfasted with my sister and her husband, and then we gathered together for prayers. We are looking forward to this evening when we will join fellow Baha'is and their friends in breaking the fast and greeting Naw Ruz, the New Year, with celebration, music, dancing, and of course, breaking bread together (or in our case, potluck). It's a time of reflection for me. There have been explanations to those who are unfamiliar with the idea and purposes of fasting, although most people know about Christian practices like Lent, or Muslim ones like Ramadan, so are familiar with the ACT of fasting. Fewer seem to have a context for it, however; in these days of health crazes galore, and what I think of as "the cult of the body," fewer people I encounter seem to comprehend the motivations of those of us who willingly give up sleep, food, and water for twelve hours a day, replacing them with...prayers?
I thought I might share some of the more personal aspects of this time of year, the mysterious and truly nebulous elements of the gifts of the spirit, about which it is more accustomed to be private, or perhaps reticent. I am going out on a limb: it's very un-Canadian to be public about your spirituality. Conversation about what is happening to one on a spiritual basis is not your garden-variety talk in most situations; for me, as a school-teacher, I am somewhat careful about how I phrase my faith within the professional world. I can tell stories, of course, of the transformative nature of travel...most people who have travelled can relate...but I can't really convey the depth, for example, of what it meant to go on Baha'i pilgrimage in 2007 with my family.
How can I explain how it felt, as we entered the sanctum of Baha'u'llah's gravesite at Bahji, near Haifa, with other pilgrims, and as we were about to approach that spot, sacred to us, my husband whispered to me, "Let's go together," took my hand, and joined me in unity as we offered our prayers, heads bowed, to the Lord of Ages? How can I convey the moments outside the sacred buildings, looking towards the Qiblih (point of adoration to which we direct our prayers in the same way as a Muslim facing Mecca) from right outside it, surrounded by the scent of frangipani in bloom, knowing that every time I turned to this point in the future, I would recall this place, those trees, that gorgeous scent? To go on such a pilgrimage, in the company of your loved ones, is a bounty beyond retelling with the limitations of language, even for a poet, though surely many have tried. Perhaps, in this secular world, the most eloquent has been the Persian poet of the past, now read widely, in the west in translation: the mystic dervish, Rumi, who reminds us, "When you find yourself with the Beloved, embracing for one breath,/In that moment you will find your true destiny./Alas, don't spoil this precious moment/Moments like this are very, very rare. "
I think that's what fasting is about: it's a way of seeking the rare and precious moment, in turbulent times, of spiritual embrace, our 'true destiny'. To find those moments of connection to the Divine, that which is beyond expression through our own abilities to speak and reflect, and meditate upon them, share them with others as best you can when the moments arise: this is, perhaps in part, what is meant by the desire for "elevated conversation", reiterated in a recent message to the Baha'is of the world. It's one of the reasons that Baha'is are grateful that Baha'u'llah and 'Abdu'l-Baha gave us so many of their own prayers to say and to listen to: there's a litany of spirit embedded within these words, even in translation, that is capable of transporting a soul to another place, beyond the "changes and chances" of the daily moments which risk routine and mediocrity.
One of the gifts of fasting is that you can have opportunities to offer such prayers in the company of loved ones: my husband's favourite prayer during the fast, revealed by Baha'u'llah, has a chant through its many verses, which names and re-names some of the virtues or qualities of the Creator: "Thou seest me, O my God, holding to Thy Name, the Most Holy, the Most Luminous, the Most Mighty, the Most Great, the Most Exalted, the Most Glorious..." The sheer incantatory experience of repeating this phrase over a dozen times during the course of the prayer is a reminder to ourselves of the source of our lives. I know of few joys greater than hearing my beloved's voice chanting these names of my Beloved. It's not my own personal favourite prayer, but it's a joyous time to listen to him saying it.
Another gift of fasting is that the prayers themselves tell us that this is a powerful time: "Thou hast endowed every hour of these days with a special virtue...Thou hast, also, assigned unto every soul a portion of this virtue..." One of the things which intrigues, no, comforts me about these statements is that there is a holism there: you don't have to be any particular religion or faith to enjoy the spiritual mysteries inherent in the fast. "Every soul" receives a portion of the bounty of our Lord through the blessing of its time. It's one of the reasons I feel that when I utter the name of a person for whom I am praying, maybe the angels will carry him or her special blessings. It's a gift to be able to offer a prayer on behalf of anyone, but to be able to do so, to say their name out loud into the universe, to imagine what Baha'u'llah calls "the scattering angels" coming to pick up the words of the prayer and take them to the recipient, wherever he or she may be, in this world or the next: well, there's a particular joy in that, too, in just naming their name and wishing them blessings.
Our souls are not bound by the physical limitations of the world: I am sitting here, reflecting onto the page, on an overcast day on 14th Street East in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, temperature hovering around 0 C., still in my red housecoat, looking at a painting my sister made when she was at my house. The painting is an impression of a winter scene looking over the prairies from my front windows, and the power of thought and imagination allows me to be there and here at the same time; my mind can be where it prefers, in any given moment. How much greater than the mind is the human spirit! Prayer and fasting, we are told, are "twin pillars" in our spiritual practice; times to be reminded of why we are alive.
So I can look left and see the words of a prayer for children which adorns my sister's desk (she's an educator): "O God! Educate these children. These children are the plants of Thine orchard, the flowers of Thy meadow, the roses of Thy garden..." and revel in the metaphors of joy created by these words and images... I can look at my prayer book and think of the people around the world for whom I said this prayer this morning (some of you know who you are...so I hope you can feel the blessings!):
"O Divine Providence! This assemblage is composed of Thy friends who are attracted to Thy beauty and are set ablaze by the fire of the Thy love. Turn these souls into heavenly angels, resuscitate them through the breath of Thy Holy Spirit, grant them eloquent tongues and resolute hearts, bestow upon them heavenly power and merciful susceptibilities, cause them to become the promulgators of the oneness of mankind and the cause of love and concord in the world of humanity, so that the perilous darkness of ignorant prejudice may vanish through the light of the Sun of Truth, this dreary world may become illumined, this material realm may absorb the rays of the world of spirit, these different colors may merge into one color and the melody of praise may rise to the kingdom of Thy sanctity. Verily Thou art the Omnipotent and the Almighty!" 'Abdu'l-Baha
Assembled around the world today, anticipating the feast of Naw Ruz, (or in some time zones, already enjoying it!) are people, millions of people, who through Faith, Fasting, and Friendship are focusing all of their hopes, actions, and dreams on the ability to see beauty, to become angels, to speak eloquently, to have the courage of "resolute hearts," to be strong and merciful, and this, the ultimate purpose of faith, "to become...promulgators of the oneness of mankind and the cause of love and concord in the world of humanity." Last night I had a long visit with a new friend, here at my sister's home, and we found, in the course of our conversation, how small the world really is; we found that we were jointly committed, each in our own unique way, to removing "the perilous darkness of ignorant prejudice." The prayer acknowledges that the world is "dreary"...but implicit within 'Abdu'l-Baha's words are the ideals that we humans are not limited to that dreariness. Today is gray outside, but I do have faith that this being the prairies, the sunshine will soon return. Spring IS coming: if you trust the calendar, pretty soon!
Well, I do live in Saskatchewan, so I am not expecting the physical springtime by the equinox...but I have the evidence of memory to imagine the future, and to believe that this future is not too far away. I believe that the Divine Springtime will arrive. Similarly, I can envision, in "my mind's eye," that "radiant morn" when the spiritual destiny of humanity will be transformed to something more angelic. We all have the ability to change into angels: not the kind that fly around on large white bird-wings (we are not earth-bound versions of Big Bird!) but the kind that use the impetus of spirit to work, every day in the world, to serve the goals of unity in diversity.
It's as good a reason as any for fasting: to remind ourselves of the possibilities of spiritual practice to overcome physical limitations.
One of the fasting prayers has the person uttering the prayer say, "Do not bring our fasts to an end with this fast." I don't think that's just asking to stay alive in the world until next year's fast, although that's what I thought for several years. It occurred to me, this fast, that it's a prayer asking for the constancy implied by the covenant we accept when we make the decision, as consciously as possible, to commit ourselves to a spiritual life. I think that for many of us, every day offers small and larger opportunities to re-visit the reasons for our belief, the thoughts and feelings that brought us to this place of dedication to God, however puny we are in the eternal scheme of Creation. Asking to be granted the privilege of another fast is not only asking for the health to be able to do so, and the life to be able to do so, but for the certitude to be able to do so. Every day is a mystery, before its beginning, and every moment, one can find reasons for vacillation. There are no guarantees; we must constantly return to our spiritual centre. The opportunity to pray, the opportunity to fast, the opportunity to serve, to do good works, to try and become one of those 'earthbound angels', is given through carrying our spiritual selves into the dailiness of the world. So this is the last day of this year's fast, and I am grateful.
I am grateful to have been offered the privilege of fasting; to ask for mercy and forgiveness for the past, for joy in the presence, and for constancy in a future that is arriving every second. I am grateful for candlelit breakfasts with Bernie and prayers shared with Andrea, for stories from our daughter about the blessings she is finding in her fast and opportunities to try and explain to friends why I am fasting, and finding that they honour such attempts at developing a spiritual life. I am grateful for conversations with new friends, telephone chats with old friends, my sister's birthday on the first day of the fast, my dad turning 81 during this particular fast, and all the attendant celebrations of loved ones who share the spiritual sustenance of this incandescent time. I am, again and again, grateful.
Happy Naw Ruz, friends. Joy, light, and love to each and every one of you, now, and tomorrow.
"Praised be Thou, O my God, that Thou hast ordained Naw-Ruz as a festival unto those who have observed the Fast for love of Thee.... He Who is Thy Branch and all Thy company, O my Lord, have broken this day their fast, after having observed it within the precincts of Thy court, and in their eagerness to please Thee. Do thou Ordain for Him, and for them, and for all such as have entered Thy presence in those days all the good Thou didst destine in Thy book. Supply them, then, with that which will profit them, in both this life and in the life beyond." Baha'u'llah
May God abundantly supply you with "that which will profit" you, mind, heart, and spirit. God bless.