For Baha’is around the world, October 2019 marks the beginning of a bicentennial year celebrating the birth of the Bab, the prophet-herald of the Baha’i Faith.
To befittingly prepare for this auspicious year, a handful of close friends have begun hosting a series of ten-day immersive retreats, where we take up the challenge of painstakingly studying the book The Dawn-Breakers, a historical narrative of the earliest days of the Babi and Baha’i Faiths written by the Baha’i historian Nabil Zarandi.
Together we carefully read the entire 600-page text, paying close attention to every factual detail while discussing together the significance of the story. Each month, the entire study program will be repeated – beginning on first Sunday of each month all through the summer and into the fall.
History as More than an Object Lesson
Nowadays we often have a rather dismal view of history, in line with Santayana’s gloomy aphorism that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” While certainly true, the Baha’i teachings suggest there is more to history than an object lesson, so perhaps we might humbly revise Santayana and say: “The purpose of knowing history is to be inspired to become part of history—that is, to play our role in the unfolding of the world’s great spiritual drama.” The Guardian of the Baha’i Faith, Shoghi Effendi, summarized the early history of the Baha’i Faith in exactly those terms:
We may vainly search in the records of the earliest beginnings of any of the recognized religions of the past for episodes as thrilling in their details, or as far-reaching in their consequences, as those that illumine the pages of the history of this Faith. The almost incredible circumstances attending the martyrdom of that youthful Prince of Glory; the forces of barbaric repression which this tragedy subsequently released; the manifestations of unsurpassed heroism to which it gave rise; the exhortations and warnings which have streamed from the pen of the Divine Prisoner in His Epistles to the potentates of the Church and the monarchs and rulers of the world; the undaunted loyalty with which our brethren are battling in Muslim countries with the forces of religious orthodoxy—these may be reckoned as the most outstanding features of what the world will come to recognize as the greatest drama in the world’s spiritual history. – The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 56.
A Mystical Doctrine of Angels
This materially-obsessed age doesn’t often discuss angels and martyrs. But maybe our souls need to do exactly that. After all, this world is like a school for newborn souls. We traverse the physical plane in a moment, after which our souls move on to eternity. It seems our souls are not designed to be satisfied with material reality:
… soar high toward the apex of heaven so that your blessed hearts may become illumined more and more … thus you may become incarnate light and personified spirit, become entirely unaware of the sordid matters of this world and in touch with the affairs of the divine world. – Abdu’l-Baha, Tablets of the Divine Plan, p. 50.
One of the most mysterious teachings of the Baha’i Faith says that even material progress in this world depends on the influence of the sanctified souls of those who have gone before us:
The light which these souls radiate is responsible for the progress of the world and the advancement of its peoples. They are like unto leaven which leaveneth the world of being, and constitute the animating force through which the arts and wonders of the world are made manifest. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 157.
This idea shines a completely different light on our study of history. Rather than a dry recital of facts and dates, instead we engage in a profound meditation on the great sacrifices and rebirths of inspired souls. These are those “angels” who “… reinforced by the power of the spirit, have consumed, with the fire of the love of God, all human traits and limitations …” Through understanding something of the lives of those heroes, we are really seeking to connect with what Baha’u’llah called the “supreme moving impulse in the world of being.” – Ibid.
Ignoring the Trend Towards Ever-Lower Expectations
If you think painstaking study of a 600-page book cover-to-cover sounds like a lot of work, you’re right!
These days it has become a bit of a fad in education to treat adults patronizingly like children and to dumb down content until it is, at best, entertainment. Our little study attempts to go in the opposite direction. We treat even youth participants as adults, fully engaging them in 8-10 hours of daily rigorous study. We disambiguate every reference, discuss every character, map every geographic location and cross-reference every possible detail.
As it turns out, everyone likes to be treated as an adult, even adults! Rigorous learning can actually be quite exciting. People love learning and love being challenged with higher standards and expectations. Youth especially seem to enjoy the rare satisfaction of actually completing a difficult task. While lowering standards may appear to be a shortcut, we believe an effort should be made to raise the standard of studies.
In fact, the original “Dawn-Breakers Challenge” came from Shoghi Effendi himself in June of 1932—that all Baha’is should “master” this “textbook” and “invaluable companion” and then “be able to explain its contents to others.” His expectation, written on 9 November 1932, was never that we should simply read the book, but rather to “master and digest the facts recorded therein as a basis for their future work in the teaching field, and as a sustenance to … spiritual life and activities in the service of the Cause.”
Clearly participants will want to uphold this high standard and continue pursuing it once they return home. We therefore encourage all participants to take up Shoghi Effendi’s admonition to read the book over and over again—and what better way than by accompanying others through their own initial reading? “Accompaniment” is a great way to make life’s big challenges just a bit easier—and few Baha’i challenges would benefit more from accompaniment than the challenging task of mastering The Dawn-Breakers.
An Invitation to Take the Dawn-Breakers Challenge
You’re invited to take the Dawn-Breakers Challenge! To alleviate the rigors of such an intensive study, we arranged for a very comfortable facility in the Sierra mountains of Northern California, including restful accommodations, cool mountain air, classrooms that feel more like living-rooms and food that is out of this world. To overcome the problem of too much good food, we have miles of wooded walking trails, a smiling meadow, a nearby river for swimming and a full-sized basketball court.
This type of intensive/extensive reading program will not be right for everyone, but if you feel up to a serious challenge, come join us for a session! We would love to share with you this profound spiritual experience. This bicentennial year of the birth of the Bab provides a perfect time to take up such a major life challenge.
Registration is on Eventbrite: http://badasht.org