Prophets have always spoken metaphorically. The prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith, Baha’u’llah, has given us a body of sacred writings rich in deep, beautiful metaphors.
One of the most notable examples of one of Baha’u’llah’s extended metaphors is found in The Seven Valleys, a richly allusive and highly imagistic discussion of the pathway to spirituality.
Written in the form of a mystical treatise (similar in structure to The Conference of the Birds, by twelfth-century Sufi poet Faridu’d-Din Attar), The Seven Valleys employs as its organizing principle a journey through seven symbolic valleys as a metaphor for seven stages in the process of spiritual development:
The stages that mark the wayfarer’s journey from the abode of dust to the heavenly homeland are said to be seven. Some have called these Seven Valleys, and others, Seven Cities. And they say that until the wayfarer taketh leave of self, and traverseth these stages, he shall never reach to the ocean of nearness and union, nor drink of the peerless wine. – Baha’u’llah, The Seven Valleys, p. 4.
When Baha’u’llah wrote The Seven Valleys, the idea of life as a journey or of spiritual ascent as a path or pilgrimage was not new in itself. Chaucer used a literal pilgrimage to symbolize the spiritual journey to the “New Jerusalem,” and John Bunyan depicted salvation allegorically as a journey in The Pilgrim’s Progress.
Nevertheless, Baha’u’llah’s application of this symbolic frame is particularly useful as an allegorical device. For example, for the first several valleys there is a symbolic “steed” to carry the wayfarer—for the Valley of Search it is the steed of Patience, for the Valley of Love it is the steed of Pain, and so on. Each horse, of course, symbolizes the primary capacity or attribute that the seeker must possess in order to traverse the valley successfully. Within each valley Baha’u’llah employs elaborate analogies and allegorical anecdotes, the most familiar of which is the story of Majnun and Layli. He also alludes to various traditions, poems, Qur’anic verses, and a variety of other poetic devices to describe the essential nature and purpose of each stage in the spiritual ascent:
The steed of this Valley is patience; without patience the wayfarer on this journey will reach nowhere and attain no goal. Nor should he ever be downhearted; if he strive for a hundred thousand years and yet fail to behold the beauty of the Friend, he should not falter. … In their search, they have stoutly girded up the loins of service, and seek at every moment to journey from the plane of heedlessness into the realm of being. No bond shall hold them back, and no counsel shall deter them.
It is incumbent on these servants that they cleanse the heart—which is the wellspring of divine treasures—from every marking, and that they turn away from imitation, which is following the traces of their forefathers and sires … – Ibid.
Baha’u’llah advises everyone to “turn away from imitation” and conduct their own spiritual search.
In a more subtle utilization of metaphorical technique in his writings, Baha’u’llah will often employ a predominating image in his revealed prayers. For example, the morning prayers, while certainly appropriate to recitation during the literal morning time, also employ the repeated image of the morning time as a period of spiritual awakening during the early stages of the dispensation of a prophet. For the same reason, the early Babis were designated “Dawn-Breakers.”
Metaphorically, the morning prayers play off the symbolic notion of sleep as a state of spiritual decline or obliviousness. For example, in one of the Hidden Words Baha’u’llah addresses the “Bond Slave of the World” over whom “many a dawn hath the breeze of My loving-kindness wafted” and “found thee upon the bed of heedlessness fast asleep.” – p. 33.
Each “dawn” can also represent the successive appearance of the prophets, signifying that those attached to the mundane world have been oblivious to the coming of more than one messenger from God. The sun, of course, represents those messengers. The light represents the truth they bring, and the cycle of the day stands for the prophet’s dispensation.
Having established some of the possible meanings of “dawn” as a metaphor, we can discover a deeper level of meaning to a morning prayer by penetrating its literal surfaces. For example, let us see what happens in two paragraphs from the following “morning” prayer of Baha’u’llah’s if we approach the words with these symbols in mind:
I give praise to Thee, O my God, that Thou has awakened me out of my sleep, and brought me forth after my disappearance, and raised me up from my slumber. I have awakened this morning with my face set toward the splendors of the Daystar of Thy Revelation, through Which the heavens of Thy power and Thy majesty have been illumined, acknowledging Thy signs, believing in Thy Book, and holding fast unto Thy Cord.
I beseech Thee, by the potency of Thy will and the compelling power of Thy purpose, to make of what Thou didst reveal unto me in my sleep the surest foundation for the mansions of Thy love that are within the hearts of Thy loved ones, and the best instrument for the revelation of the tokens of Thy grace and Thy loving-kindness. – Baha’u’llah, Prayers and Meditations, p. 248.
The prayer continues, but this passage is the heart of the metaphoric use of morning time. To interpret the prayer on a literal level would seem to imply that we should try to recall something about a dream we have had—and, in fact, Abdu’l-Baha does admonish us to pay attention to our dreams. But probing beneath these literal surfaces we find another and perhaps more significant level of meaning.
If sleep is a state of our own heedlessness, we are praising God for having made us spiritually aware. But how can we assume that we are aware? Of course, the fact is that we are praying the prayer—why else would we be praying unless we were aware? As we pray, we may literally be facing the point of the sun’s rising, but we are figuratively turning our attention to the “Daystar of Thy Revelation,” Baha’u’llah himself.
Furthermore, the speaker, by acknowledging that he has “disappeared,” implies that he had been awake before but had gone to sleep again, a possible allusion to the fact that most of us fail to maintain absolute constancy in following the light of truth. Even at our best, we have good days and bad days. Therefore the articulation of our own return from our “disappearance” is an affirmation of our determination to do better than we have been doing.
With a morning prayer it may be the same thing that has awakened us—our sense of obligation to pray. But if we are praying and struggling to attain spiritual growth, something has aided us to arrive at that condition, and whatever it might be has revived us and renewed our awareness of the metaphorical morning time in which we live.