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In the first part of this series of essays, called The New Spirituality, we looked at the growing movement toward personally-responsible, independently-investigated belief systems. In this continuation of that series, we’ll explore how to translate those “spiritual-but-not-religious” beliefs into actual behavior.
If you think of yourself as a devotee of the interior life, a lover of the spirit, someone who actively contemplates meaning and soul and existence, you’ve likely wondered: how do my inner thoughts and beliefs become real? How can I activate my highest ideas and ideals? What will it take to translate my noble principles into noble deeds?
The Baha’i teachings have an app for that.
First, let me give you a little background. When Abdu’l-Baha travelled to the West in the early part of the 20th Century, he spent a considerable amount of time in Paris. He gave a public talk there on November 9, 1911, as the guest speaker at a large conference sponsored by a French society called the “Alliance Spiritualiste” (the Spiritual Alliance). Abdu’l-Baha treated the audience to a remarkable description of the Baha’i view of the human soul and the primary role it plays in our spiritual lives. This address, so beautifully explanatory, gives a simple but not simplistic description of how to turn spirituality into reality—how to apply the spiritual to the material. For that reason, I’ll quote Abdu’l-Baha’s talk in its entirety over the course of the next two essays in this series:
I wish to express my gratitude for your hospitality, and my joy that you are spiritually minded. I am happy to be present at a gathering such as this, assembled together to listen to a Divine Message. If you could see with the eye of truth, great waves of spirituality would be visible to you in this place. The power of the Holy Spirit is here for all. Praise be to God that your hearts are inspired with Divine fervour! Your souls are as waves on the sea of the spirit; although each individual is a distinct wave, the ocean is one, all are united in God.
Every heart should radiate unity, so that the Light of the one Divine Source of all may shine forth bright and luminous. We must not consider the separate waves alone, but the entire sea. We should rise from the individual to the whole. The spirit is as one great ocean and the waves thereof are the souls of men. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 83
Abdu’l-Baha’s striking metaphor—that our souls make waves in one great ocean of spirit—leads him next to an explanation of the New Jerusalem, that holy place envisioned by the prophet Ezekiel in the Old Testament. The capital of the Messianic Kingdom and the meeting place of all the nations in that new Era, the New Jerusalem represents a “shining city on a hill,” a loving, fear-free and unified place where the world will come together in peace—which Abdu’l-Baha equates with the Baha’i revelation:
We are told in the Holy Scripture that the New Jerusalem shall appear on earth. Now it is evident that this celestial city is not built of material stones and mortar, but that it is a city not made with hands, eternal in the Heavens.
This is a prophetic symbol, meaning the coming again of the Divine Teaching to enlighten the hearts of men. It is long since this Holy Guidance has governed the lives of humanity. But now, at last, the Holy City of the New Jerusalem has come again to the world, it has appeared anew under an Eastern sky; from the horizon of Persia has its effulgence arisen to be a light to lighten the whole world. We see in these days the fulfilment of the Divine Prophecy. Jerusalem had disappeared. The heavenly city was destroyed, now it is rebuilt; it was razed to the ground, but now its walls and pinnacles have been restored, and are towering aloft in their renewed and glorious beauty.
In the Western world material prosperity has triumphed, whilst in the East the spiritual sun has shone forth. I am very glad to see such an assembly as this in Paris, where spiritual and material progress are met together in unity. – Ibid., pp. 83-84.
Abdu’l-Baha—hailed in Paris as the newest true exemplar of the spirituality of the East—constantly urged people from all parts of the world to fruitfully combine material and spiritual progress to achieve a civilization, and an inner state of being, that reflected the attributes of the New Jerusalem. One kind of progress could not go forward without the other, he told everyone.
In the same way, his talks in Paris asserted, physical and spiritual progress go hand in hand for each person’s own individual development:
Man — the true man — is soul, not body; though physically man belongs to the animal kingdom, yet his soul lifts him above the rest of creation. Behold how the light of the sun illuminates the world of matter: even so doth the Divine Light shed its rays in the kingdom of the soul. The soul it is which makes the human creature a celestial entity!
By the power of the Holy Spirit, working through his soul, man is able to perceive the Divine reality of things. All great works of art and science are witnesses to this power of the Spirit.
The same Spirit gives Eternal Life. – Ibid., pp. 84-85.
We are souls, not bodies, and our souls transmit the power of the spirit into “all great works of art and science,” Abdu’l-Baha said. This striking view of spirituality, so different from the prevailing views and theories of that time, and of this one, gave Abdu’l-Baha’s message a unique and powerful thrust. In another, later talk in Paris, he explained that the Baha’i teachings ask us to advance each day in the growth of our spirituality:
I pray to God that daily ye may advance in spirituality, that God’s love may be more and more manifested in you, that the thoughts of your hearts may be purified, and that your faces may be ever turned towards Him. May you one and all approach to the threshold of unity, and enter into the Kingdom. May each of you be like unto a flaming torch, lighted and burning bright with the fire of the Love of God. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 75.
Next: How the Soul Governs Our Humanity