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Around the world, in numerous forms, religion teaches that the life of the soul is more important than the life of the body.
Every culture and background, validates this pattern, as do the genuine teachings of the major world religions’ founders. But let’s not make the mistake of thinking that the life of the body is irrelevant or useless to spirituality. It’s quite the opposite. In the Baha’i teachings the beauty of the soul reveals itself through the life of the body. An awareness of this fact can help elevate our interactions with others to a higher spiritual level.
The soul of man is the sun by which his body is illumined. – Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 155.
In another place Baha’u’llah writes about the connections between the life of the soul and the processes of the body:
As thou dost observe, man’s power to comprehend, move, speak, hear, and see all derive from this sign of his Lord within him. It is single in its essence, yet manifold through the diversity of its instruments. – Summons of the Lord of Hosts, p. 154.
I’d like to draw two spiritual lessons from these ideas. First, we can express spiritual qualities using our bodies—for example, with the body language we use around others. Those spiritual qualities can show themselves in how we allow ourselves to be moved by prayer or made happy and peaceful by meditation. They can emerge in the way we employ the arts, especially dance, to publicly express spiritual concepts and pure joy. Spirituality can take place as a physical experience in many ways.
Second, we need to pay attention to how people’s bodies express the spiritual within them. This can help us recognize and respect the things that other people find meaningful and important. It can help us see beyond superficial appearances and become better attuned to peoples’ feelings and needs. Well-honed spiritual perception can foster the kinds of personal connections vital to nurturing meaningful friendships.
With all of that said, I want to share a story from the life of Baha’u’llah’s son, Abdu’l-Baha, which illustrates these concepts beautifully. During the latter part of Abdu’l-Baha’s life, two American women traveled to the Holy Land to visit him. Here, they describe what happened after they arrived and first met him:
He came at once, the joyous ring of His voice reaching us before we saw Him, calling, “Welcome! I am glad you are here!” And adding to His warm strong hand-clasp, the greater welcome of His wonderful eyes and heavenly smile. He made us sit down with Him and immediately asked about the American believers… When we mentioned those who had sent Him special greeting, His beautiful face beamed with happiness. –Vignettes from the Life of Abdu’l-Baha, Annamarie Honnold, p. 132.
These two women speak glowingly about Abdu’l-Baha’s spirit. But in order to be specific, they write about his voice, his hand-clasp, his eyes, and his smile. They tell us about us his soul by talking about his body. To use Baha’u’llah’s metaphor, his soul illuminates his body. This recollection about Abdu’l-Baha illustrates that spirituality in this world doesn’t happen independently of the body. It finds expression through the body. Even if I am alone having some kind of abstract spiritual experience in my head, my solitude and my head are irreducible physical conditions of my experience.
The other side of this is how his visitors perceive Abdu’l-Baha. They don’t just see him as a mere instance of a Persian man or of a person of Muslim background. They interact with him as a unique human being. They see him as a bearer of spiritual qualities. They look beyond his physical features to the spirituality that animates his body. Their love for each other, experienced in the context of a physical encounter, derives from the life of the soul, not just from superficial appearances.
In short, Abdu’l-Baha shows us how to present ourselves, and the two American pilgrims show us how to perceive the presence of others.
The body, capable of expressing the activity of the soul, acts as its outer garment. Our compassion, generosity, wisdom, justice and other spiritual qualities largely appear in our gestures, our tone of voice, our movement or stillness, the faces we make, etc. When we interact on this spiritual level, we come to see each other for who we really are, and on that basis we form deeper and more uplifting friendships—friendships of the soul.