In the Devil’s Dictionary, the author, Ambrose Bierce, defines prayer as, “Asking that the laws of the universe be annulled on behalf of a single petitioner, confessedly unworthy.” The humor of this descriptive dialogue with God is based on the fact that we know there is some truth in the way we tend to project our limited and finite understanding of the infinite power and modus operandi of God -- i.e., we tend to create God in our own image. In trying to understand our relationship to God and live a spiritual life in a physical world, there has always been a struggle between the incongruity of worldly (material) and other-worldly (spiritual) aspirations. Let’s take a look at three “worldly” encounters as a sampling of life: wealth, work, and love and marriage; and turn to the teachings of the Baha’i Faith to find balance between the material and spiritual – i.e., a balance that enables us to walk the spiritual path with practical feet.
First topic: wealth. Wealth may be considered one of the most obvious worldly or material aspects of life. In fact, what does wealth have to do with spirituality? In the extremes, spirituality without practicality results in asceticism; and material pursuits of wealth without spirituality result in narcissism, greed, and miserly behavior. In the Baha’i Faith, true wealth is not an end in itself, but a means for service and virtue. Baha’u’llah, Prophet-Founder of the Baha’i Faith said, “Man’s merit lieth in service and virtue and not in the pageantry of wealth and riches…. 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. Be generous in your days of plenty, and be patient in the hour of loss.”
Second topic: work. Work is an activity that can and should be considered a duty and a privilege. But it is an activity that can easily get out of focus. One extreme perspective is to consider work as a means to procure enough money to obtain ease, luxury, and pleasure – i.e., a means to be relieved of the necessity to work. Another extreme perspective is to engage in work embittered because of discontent – always wanting what one does not have -- e.g., higher income, promotion, a more luxurious life-style, etc. In the former, the motive for work is self-gratification. In the latter case, the work ethic tends to result in doing the minimum to get by and reflects a lack of self-respect. In the Baha’i Faith, work is considered an act of worship when it is done with a striving for excellence in serving God. In her book, Prescription for Living, Ruhiyyih Rabbani says, “[Our] capacity … to do, to produce, is at once the spring of our health and, to a great extent, our happiness in life… A job well done … can produce a degree of contentment, a sense of buoyancy and fulfillment that practically nothing else can.” In order to bring work from the stage of being satisfied in a job well done to an act of worship, the attitude toward work should be to glorify God. Shoghi Effendi, one of the central figures of the Baha’i Faith said, “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 [God] as their supreme goal.”
The third topic, love and marriage, is a complex subject because there are so many variables. In simple descriptions of extremes, there are the priests, monks, Sufis, etc. that reject intimate relationships and seek a purely personal path to salvation, perfecting their egos through renunciation. Ruhiyyi Rabbani considers this approach tantamount to “Trying to swim against the stream of life, for the progress of the individuals comprised in any gregarious species is derived by interaction, cooperation, competition, stimulation, and the benefit of example.” Indeed, the way we treat others and react to the way they treat us, is a means to learn and develop our characters. At the other extreme, there are those that are idealistically romantic. If ultimate bliss is not obtained in a marriage, the marriage can be dissolved and new partners can be indefinitely pursued until their romantic ideal is achieved.
In the Baha’i Faith, marriage is considered the cornerstone of society. It is a means for producing children that will in turn grow to recognize and serve God. Indeed, the Baha’i wedding vow is simply, “We will all, verily, abide by the will of God.” At the core of a Baha’i marriage is love – a love that unites husband and wife, a love that unites the family, and a love that extends into humanity in general. Early twentieth-century Nobel Prize winner, Dr. Alex Carrel, said that “We have not yet fully understood that love is a necessity, not a luxury. It is the only ingredient capable of welding together husband, wife, and children. [It is] the only cement strong enough to unite into a nation the poor and rich, the strong and weak, the employer and employee. If we do not have it in the home, we shall not have it elsewhere.”
While we can find extremes in almost every aspect of life, walking the spiritual path with practical feet almost always comes down to taking a common sense approach to religious teachings. Because the Baha’i Faith is the newest of the world’s religions (174 years old), the teachings of the Baha’i Faith, while confirming the spiritual truths universal in all the world’s great religions, incorporates spiritual applications to the practicality of our current global society.
Jacque and Kerry Hart, Baha’i Faith