Walking a Spiritual Path
The following article is from bahai.org.
The Bahá’í teachings emphasize that each person is in charge of his or her own spiritual development. While institutions exist to guide and release energies, and Bahá’í community life is to be characterized by an atmosphere of cordial consultation and encouragement, the responsibility for spiritual growth ultimately rests with each individual. Indeed, there is no clergy in the Bahá’í Faith; the Bahá’í community can neither be described in terms of a pastor and congregation, nor as that of a body of believers led by learned individuals endowed with authority to interpret scriptures.
The dynamics of walking a spiritual path is a theme that Bahá’ís, both individually and collectively, are constantly exploring in their activities and consultations. Certain aspects are clear: that simply focusing on oneself proves counter-productive; that the path is to be walked in the company of others—each giving and receiving love, assistance and encouragement; that the tendency to allow self-righteousness to take hold needs to be conscientiously resisted; and that humility is a requisite of progress.
No soul walking this spiritual path may make a claim to perfection. Yet, the kind of relativism that condemns adherence to clearly stated ideals and principles finds no place. Each Bahá’í is asked to make daily effort to progressively reflect in his or her conduct the standards described by Bahá’u’lláh, no matter how difficult to attain they may seem.
A much more thorough explanation of Bahá’í belief on this subject, including articles and topic collections on the human soul, prayer, meditation, and the development of spiritual qualities, can be found in the section titled “The Life of the Spirit” within the “What Bahá’ís Believe” area of the Bahai.org website.
The way we possess spiritual qualities is different from the way we own material things. When a mirror reflects the sun, one could say that it possesses the image of the sun. But, not in the same way that it possesses its own atoms and molecules. The Bahá’í teachings explain that spiritual qualities are gifts from God that we may receive by turning the mirror of our hearts towards Him. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá says:
The most important thing is to polish the mirrors of hearts in order that they may become illumined and receptive of the divine light. One heart may possess the capacity of the polished mirror; another, be covered and obscured by the dust and dross of this world. Although the same Sun is shining upon both, in the mirror which is polished, pure and sanctified you may behold the Sun in all its fullness, glory and power, revealing its majesty and effulgence; but in the mirror which is rusted and obscured there is no capacity for reflection, although so far as the Sun itself is concerned it is shining thereon and is neither lessened nor deprived. Therefore, our duty lies in seeking to polish the mirrors of our hearts in order that we shall become reflectors of that light and recipients of the divine bounties which may be fully revealed through them.
The light that reflects in a mirror is its wealth. Without the light, the mirror is worth little. Spiritual qualities, knowledge, and service to humanity constitute true wealth. Material possessions are necessary and acceptable, but only if they are used for the promotion of human virtue and happiness. Bahá’u’lláh says:
Man’s merit lieth in service and virtue and not in the pageantry of wealth and riches. Take heed that your words be purged from idle fancies and worldly desires and your deeds be cleansed from craftiness and suspicion. Dissipate not the wealth of your precious lives in the pursuit of evil and corrupt affection, nor let your endeavors be spent in promoting your personal interest.
To aspire to achieve excellence in all things comes naturally to the human being if the yearning is not deliberately suppressed. The ultimate force that drives the individual towards excellence is an ardent desire to achieve what God has ordained for each human soul. Shoghi Effendi states:
They should not content themselves merely with relative distinction and excellence. Rather they should fix their gaze upon nobler heights by setting the counsels and exhortations of the Pen of Glory as their supreme goal. Then it will be readily realized how numerous are the stages that still remain to be traversed and how far off the desired goal lies—a goal which is none other than exemplifying heavenly morals and virtues.
There are many expressions of love—for example, love for one’s family, friends, community, and country. But all such forms of love are limited. The only unlimited love is the love of God. His love is all-embracing. When hearts are pure and able to reflect His love, the result is unlimited and unselfish love for the entire human race. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá states:
This love is not of the body but completely of the soul. And those souls whose inner being is lit by the love of God are even as spreading rays of light, and they will shine out like stars of holiness in a pure and crystalline sky. For true love, real love, is the love for God, and this is sanctified beyond the notions and imaginings of men.
Faith and action
As we walk a spiritual path, we grow in faith and certitude. Faith springs from knowledge, not from ignorance. And as it takes root, it calls for action. Knowing the truth but acting contrary to it shows weakness of faith. Thus, faith is conscious knowledge expressed in goodly deeds. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá says:
Pleasing and acceptable as is a person of righteous actions before God’s Holy Threshold, yet deeds should proceed from knowledge. However matchless and exquisite may be a blind man’s handiwork, yet he himself is deprived of seeing it. How sorely do certain animals labor on man’s behalf, what loads they bear for him, how greatly they contribute to his ease and comfort; and yet, because they are unaware, they enjoy no recompense for all their pains. The clouds rain down their bounty, nurturing the plants and flowers, and imparting verdure and enchantment to the plain and prairie, the forest and the garden; but yet, unconscious as they are of the results and fruit of their outpourings, they win no praise or honor, nor earn the gratitude and approbation of any man. The lamp imparteth light, but as it hath no consciousness of doing so, no one is indebted to it. This apart, a man of righteous deeds and goodly conduct will assuredly turn towards the Light, in whichever quarter he beholdeth it. The point is this, that faith compriseth both knowledge and the performance of good works.
Faith helps us to be steadfast in the love of God and ready to abide by His Will. Yet, our knowledge of God’s spiritual and material creation is limited, and it is impossible for us to know what will happen from one day to the next. Thus, hope is needed so that we may anticipate the outpourings of God’s bounties, trust in His mercy and be able to receive His blessings. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá avers:
If the heart turns away from the blessings God offers how can it hope for happiness? If it does not put its hope and trust in God’s Mercy, where can it find rest? Oh, trust in God! for His Bounty is everlasting, and in His Blessings, for they are superb. Oh! put your faith in the Almighty, for He faileth not and His goodness endureth for ever! His Sun giveth Light continually, and the Clouds of His Mercy are full of the Waters of Compassion with which He waters the hearts of all who trust in Him. His refreshing Breeze ever carries healing in its wings to the parched souls of men!
To acquire heavenly perfections, one must be willing to sacrifice. Yet, the concept of sacrifice can be easily misunderstood. Its true meaning is to give up something of lesser value to receive a thing of greater worth. The blacksmith’s iron is grey, cold and hard. It must give up these properties in order to acquire the qualities of fire—become red, hot and fluid. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá counsels:
Therefore, we learn that nearness to God is possible through devotion to Him, through entrance into the Kingdom and service to humanity; it is attained by unity with mankind and through loving-kindness to all; it is dependent upon investigation of truth, acquisition of praiseworthy virtues, service in the cause of universal peace and personal sanctification. In a word, nearness to God necessitates sacrifice of self, severance and the giving up of all to Him.
Service lies at the heart of the spiritual life. Through service our longing for spiritual growth and desire to contribute to the transformation of society become united. In the Bahá’í writings, serving others is elevated to the level of worship. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá states:
Be ye loving fathers to the orphan, and a refuge to the helpless, and a treasury for the poor, and a cure for the ailing. Be ye the helpers of every victim of oppression, the patrons of the disadvantaged. Think ye at all times of rendering some service to every member of the human race. Pay ye no heed to aversion and rejection, to disdain, hostility, injustice: act ye in the opposite way. Be ye sincerely kind, not in appearance only. Let each one of God’s loved ones centre his attention on this: to be the Lord’s mercy to man; to be the Lord’s grace. Let him do some good to every person whose path he crosseth, and be of some benefit to him. Let him improve the character of each and all, and reorient the minds of men.
Walking the spiritual path is a joyful enterprise. This, despite hardships and recurring crises. Joy is a quality of the human soul and not a mere emotional response to outside influences. A state of joy can accommodate times of happiness and times of sadness; for joy and sorrow may embrace each other. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá spoke thus of His time in prison:
I myself was in prison forty years—one year alone would have been impossible to bear—nobody survived that imprisonment more than a year! But, thank God, during all those forty years I was supremely happy! Every day, on waking, it was like hearing good tidings, and every night infinite joy was mine. Spirituality was my comfort, and turning to God was my greatest joy. If this had not been so, do you think it possible that I could have lived through those forty years in prison?