BOOK EXCERPT: Walking the Mystical Path with Practical Feet - Introduction

Mystical approaches to reality abound throughout the world’s sacred traditions. There are similarities and divergences between them all. Many of the most commonly known traditions exist within the framework of longstanding religions. There is also an abundance of “new age” spirituality that exists outside the walls of organised religion. This book presents the mystical approach to life of one of the world’s most recent religions, the Bahá’í Faith. It is hoped that this exploration will be insightful for both the Bahá’í believer and also the general seeker of truth who wishes to utilise the mystical approaches in this book.

What is the Bahá’í Faith?

The Bahá’í Faith is a world religion founded by the prophet Bahá’u’lláh, who was born in Persia in 1817. Previous to receiving His revelation, Bahá’u’lláh, then named Mirza Husayn-‘Alí, was the follower of another prophet, Siyyid ‘Alí-Muhammad, known as the Báb (the Gate), who had come to pave the way for He Whom God Shall Make Manifest, the Promised One. Imprisoned in a dungeon for His own belief in the Báb, Bahá’u’lláh reported receiving a revelation from God telling Him that he was indeed the One awaited who would usher in the long-promised era of peace. Of this experience Bahá’u’lláh has said:

During the days I lay in the prison of Tehran, though the galling weight of the chains and the stench-filled air allowed Me but little sleep, still in those infrequent moments of slumber I felt as if something flowed from the crown of My head over My breast, even as a mighty torrent that precipitateth itself upon the earth from the summit of a lofty mountain. Every limb of My body would, as a result, be set afire. At such moments My tongue recited what no man could bear to hear.1

After this revelatory experience, He was released from the dungeon and began a life of exile which would end in what is now Israel, where he died in 1892. Since then, His religion has continued to spread throughout the world.

Although some believe that the Bahá’í Faith is a conglomeration of different religions, it is in fact a unique religion with its own belief system and practices. One of its distinctive features is its concept of the oneness of God and humanity and the divine origin of all the world’s religions, which is perhaps why this mistaken pluralism sometimes arises. What is also interesting is that while Bahá’u’lláh revealed a “new” religion, which naturally has a new name, in another sense, He came to renew the one timeless religion, “the Ancient Faith of God”. This faith has existed for eons and can be divided into cycles so vast that at this time we are only aware of two of them: the Adamic Cycle, which began with Adam and culminated with Bahá’u’lláh, and the Bahá’í Cycle, started also by Bahá’u’lláh. Religion is seen as timeless, and every Manifestation or Prophet an expounder of the same Truth, but the current era is seen to have special significance, which Bahá’u’lláh has explained:

Although every day is associated with God, magnified be His glory, yet these days have been singled out and adorned with the ornament of intimate association with Him, for they have been extolled in the books of the Chosen Ones of God, as well as of some of His Prophets, as the "Day of God".2

This is the Day in which God's most excellent favors have been poured out upon men, the Day in which His most mighty grace hath been infused into all created things.3

The reason this Day is so significant is that it is the coming of age of humanity, the stage at which it can reach its maturity. Part of this maturity and the Faith’s uniqueness is the absence of clergy, the minimal use of ritual and the emphasis on the whole-hearted participation of every believer. Shoghi Effendi, who was the “Guardian” of the Bahá’í Faith for 36 years, provides a summary of some of the most unique features of the Bahá’í Faith:

… the Bahá'í Faith is above all a way of life. It is not a mere philosophical or social doctrine. It is a closely-knit and harmoniously functioning community, a worldwide spiritual fraternity that seeks to reform the world first and foremost by bringing about a deep inner spiritual change in the heart of individuals. To live the Teachings of the Cause should be the paramount concern of every true believer, and the only way to do so is to commune both in spirit and through actual concrete means with the entire community of the faithful. The Bahá'í Cause encourages community life and makes it a duty for every one of its followers to become a living, a fully active and responsible member of the world-wide Bahá'í fellowship.4

What is mysticism?

Mysticism is commonly associated with various spiritual phenomena: visions, a state of peace, euphoria, oneness, ecstasy, enlightenment. Sometimes it is described as momentary, sometimes as a permanent state of being. Whatever the case, what seems common to all of these experiences is the notion of transcendence from the material, human, mundane world. As Evelyn Underhill has put it, mysticism is a “way out” or a “way back” to a more ideal state of being.5 It could also be seen as going “higher” or “deeper”.
We could say that mysticism is the deepest aspect of religion, the spiritual core. Throughout history, this deeper dimension has been ignored by followers of various religions, and as a result, we may conclude, many wars have taken place, for people have held to the periphery of their creeds instead of the heart. However, there have always been some who have grasped that spiritual core, and these are the mystics of the world religions who in general have focused on the deeply spiritual aspects of religion despite the often superficial and superstitious mentality of the mainstream.

Mysticism in the Bahá’í Faith

After only an initial look at the outward expression of the Bahá’í Faith, one could assume that it had little connection to mysticism. The Faith is well known for its practical and social emphasis, its relationship with the United Nations, its focus on social action. And as Peter Smith states, “there is no distinctive school of Bahá’í mysticism.”6 Moreover, the absence of monasticism, which has commonly been associated with mystical training throughout history, seems to point to a religion with limited leeway for other-worldly aspirations. But as one studies the various dimensions of the Bahá’í Faith, they will see that mysticism, albeit in its own unique form, stands at the heart of the Faith, and from its own perspective, religion in general. As Shoghi Effendi explains:

… the core of religious faith is that mystic feeling which unites Man with God. This state of spiritual communion can be brought about and maintained by means of meditation and prayer. And this is the reason why Bahá’u’lláh has so much stressed the importance of worship. It is not sufficient for a believer merely to accept and observe the teachings. He should, in addition, cultivate the sense of spirituality which he can acquire chiefly by means of prayer. The Bahá’í Faith, like all other Divine Religions, is thus fundamentally mystic in character. Its chief goal is the development of the individual and society, through the acquisition of spiritual virtues and powers.7

Thus, it is clear that mysticism does have a place in the Bahá’í religion. In fact, it is central, which is why we could even call the Bahá’í Faith a “mystical religion”. With this in mind, and still cognizant of the absence of monasticism, all Bahá’í’s are called to be mystics in some sense since their religion is free of esotericism. Ninian Smart explains that throughout history there has often been a significant difference between mystical and prophetic religion.8 However, this disparity seems to have been eliminated by Bahá’u’lláh, Who, it appears, took the mystical element, which for millennia had been pushed to the fringes of religious practice, and placed it at the centre of religious life. To be more exact, He took away the preoccupation with elaborate rituals and doctrinal obscurities and unveiled the true purpose of all religion, which had been lying there unnoticed by but the few. So central is the mystical dimension of the Faith that the term “mystic” laces the writings of Bahá’u’lláh: mystic ocean, mystic roses, mystic way, mystic wayfaring, mystic knower, mystic wandering, mystic sun, mystic heaven, mystic tree, mystic paradise, mystic Wine, Mystic Bird, mystic mansions, mystic Flower… And indeed the list goes on.

We are told in the Bahá’í writings that throughout the ages, after a Prophet has appeared and revealed a new Dispensation, Their teachings are gradually corrupted after some time; the inner essence is forgotten. Instead, empty rituals are clung to and the teachings become mere dogma. As it has been said, according to the Bahá’í view, the inner essence of true religion is the mystical connection between God and the believer, so it is this element that is renewed at the outset of each Revelation and then gradually forgotten, but not completely. In most religions there is a mystical tradition which is often esoteric, at times considered heretical, at times considered heroic. It is the members of such sects who seek to continue or revive the mystical dimension of religion. As Glenn A. Shook rightly says, in some cases in history “the only spiritual light that radiated was from the lives of the mystics.”9 And the written works of these insightful people, such as Rumi and Meister Eckhart, have spiritually sustained many mystic aspirants and still do. At times, however, some mystics have disregarded important social and moral teachings in the process and become fixated on the mystical dimension to the detriment of the other aspects of religious life. Some have held claim to knowledge and experiences gained directly from the Absolute and have even claimed to have achieved complete union with that lofty reality. As we shall see, this contradicts the Bahá’í view of God and human capacity. It must be acknowledged that the Bahá’í approach is different to many forms of mysticism, especially those that promote the notion of complete union with the Divine. Bahá’u’lláh Himself explains this:

The conceptions of the devoutest of mystics, the attainments of the most accomplished amongst men, the highest praise which human tongue or pen can render are all the product of man's finite mind and are conditioned by its limitations… From time immemorial He hath been veiled in the ineffable sanctity of His exalted Self, and will everlastingly continue to be wrapt in the impenetrable mystery of His unknowable Essence. Every attempt to attain to an understanding of His inaccessible Reality hath ended in complete bewilderment, and every effort to approach His exalted Self and envisage His Essence hath resulted in hopelessness and failure.10

Nonetheless, just as the Bahá’í view of religion in general acknowledges a common authentic spiritual core, it would seem reasonable to believe that the mystics of various world religions have not been completely mistaken in their experiences and approaches to spiritual reality. It cannot be denied that their focus on the original mystic intention of the Prophet is a noble one. What is interesting in the Bahá’í Faith is that one’s focus should remain on both dimensions of religious life, the mystical and the social, for as we shall see, essentially they are aspects of one reality and should not be dichotomised. It was commented about ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, who was the eldest son of Bahá’u’lláh, the custodian of His Faith after His passing and the perfect exemplar for all Bahá’í’s to emulate, that “‘Abdu’l-Bahá will surely unite the East and the West, for He walks the mystical path with practical feet.”11

This present work then is an attempt at deciphering the various elements of this mystical path that is to be walked with practical feet so that the wayfarer, the spiritual seeker may tread that path with clear and firm resolve. It must be noted that while the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh are recognised in the Bahá’í Faith as the Twin Manifestations, the present work will focus on the mystical teachings which Bahá’u’lláh revealed, as well as the interpretations put forward by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi, who were the central figures of His Covenant with the authority to interpret His Word.

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