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You’ll find the term ‘beauty’ oft-repeated and oft-emphasized in the Baha’i writings, with even Baha’u’llah himself being referred to as the ‘Blessed Beauty.’
But why is beauty so important to Baha’is? Its use seems to be far greater than of a mere noun or adjective, more than a word used to explain. Could this be another of those spiritual lessons hidden in plain sight?
Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Baha’i Faith, obviously understood the essential role of beauty in the Baha’i gardens–hence his response to the query about the steepness of his garden paths as explained by his wife, Amatul-Baha Ruhiyyih Khanum:
Many times Shoghi Effendi said: ‘I will always sacrifice utility to beauty.’ We would do well to deeply ponder this statement.
There is, I firmly believe, a relationship between this policy of Shoghi Effendi and a deep truth revealed in all God’s creation, but particularly emphasized in this Dispensation of Baha’u’llah. That truth is that beauty is a precious reality of this world and in the realms of the spirit. …We will never understand the Guardian of the Baha’i Faith, nor, indeed, that Faith itself, until we ponder the significance of such words as these.” – Ruhiyyih Rabbani, The Completion of the International Archives, The Baha’i World Volume XIII, p. 422.
The beautiful gardens at the Baha’i World Centre in Haifa, Israel attract visitors from all over the world. Similarly, Baha’i Houses of Worship on every continent on Earth offer gorgeous gardens to everyone.
So, what role does beauty play in a Baha’i garden that seeks to uplift the spirit and nurture spiritual sensitivity–such as those gardens created by the Guardian? Could that beauty possibly have an impact on our inner development? What might be the mechanism of this tool, available for the benefit of all? Can a garden lend itself to spiritual awareness?
First perhaps we need to consider what we mean by beauty: those qualities present in say, a garden, that give intense pleasure or deep satisfaction to the mind–usually via the agency of our senses–such as a shape, color, pattern, texture or sound; viewing harmonious colors; the subtlety of a plant composition or the perfect contrasting of textures that might seize our attention and give us pleasure.
Beauty can serve as an attractant as well as an agent of distraction, capable of making us forget all else and transporting us to another frame of mind. It broadens our view by offering us an expanded understanding. This attraction helps us to appreciate deeply the things around us–things other than ourselves. Perhaps we are responding to the harmony of what we observe, and momentarily reflecting that harmony within ourselves.
Distraction is also useful, as it helps us to ‘break off the shackles of this nether world,’ allowing us to draw closer to spiritual perception:
It is natural for the heart and spirit to take pleasure and enjoyment in all things that show forth symmetry, harmony and perfection. For instance, a beautiful house, a well-designed garden, a symmetrical line, a graceful motion, a well written book, pleasing garments–in fact all things that have in themselves grace or beauty are pleasing to the heart and spirit… – Abdu’l-Baha, quoted by Lady Blomfield in The Chosen Highway, p. 167.
In the quote above Abdu’l-Baha is talking about beauty as it is expressed in the arts. The Baha’i teachings encourage us to share with others the expressions of beauty mentioned by Abdu’l-Baha, rather than just wanting to possess them for ourselves. He also explains that beauty uses the physical senses–those which inform the spiritual senses as long as covetousness does not get in the way. This is how we can learn through our physical senses for spiritual growth – using the mechanism of the physical senses communicating with the spiritual senses.
To be beautiful, a garden must have harmony between the elements involved, although other tools, such as contrast and asymmetry, can be used to enhance harmony. This beauty must seem harmonious to the observer, often through senses other than just sight, otherwise it soon loses its attractive power. In this way, nature too can be perceived as beautiful because natural systems seem to have a built-in way of ‘rejecting’ disharmony and systems that clash between the types of plants, the textures, the organisms, the colors, and the animals.
They have all developed symbioses, or interdependent harmonies, which occur between the different elements and organisms involved. These harmonies (and thus nature’s beauty) are ever-changing and evolving–but always have a completeness, an harmonious system and yes, reveal a beauty in their operation and methods, and a seeming ease in the way they function. This in-built dynamism is also why the world of nature responds to development and refinement, is never static and exhibits great resilience.
With a garden most of us can say what is beautiful – what it is we like. But few of us can explain why it is beautiful to us, or even how it impacts us. This is the barrier that a spiritual person can become capable of breaching.
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Well done - another valid connection made. Abdu'l-Baha synthesises the 'mechanics' of creation in the term love:
"Love is the secret of God’s holy Dispensation... Love is the cause of God’s revelation unto man, the vital bond inherent, in accordance with the divine creation, in the realities of things."
Another point comes to mind from your gardening: The Baha'i teachings tell us that work performed in the spirit of service is the same as worship.