Working at a coffee shop in Asheville, North Carolina a decade ago, a colleague stopped me in my tracks by inquiring about my observance of the 19-day Baha’i Fast. He asked “What have you learned?”
I’ve been on the enthusiastic end of the spectrum in regards to fasting since the age of 15, when I became old enough to observe it. (Baha’is don’t fast until they reach that age.)
I believe my enthusiasm came in part from associating the Baha’i Fast with exciting “grown-up” prerogatives—like going to work! But it wasn’t until my colleague’s question that I began to reflect on how the Fast affected me. Since then, I’ve embraced the opportunity to be more mindful and intentional about the Fast; paying greater attention to my inner experience, striving to make the most of those heightened 19 days each year with prayer, and seizing the opportunity to connect more meaningfully with others.
Along these lines, I initiated an online project last year called 19 Days of Inspiration; art and devotional emails every day of the Fast. Each message contains a Baha’i quote, an image of my artwork and a brief personal story. The purpose is to offer nourishment to help “feed our spirits” (and take our minds off food) for a few mindful, meditative minutes each day.
The Fast can feel like a solitary experience when colleagues and the world around us meet for coffee and eat lunch together. For five years in a row I traveled extensively for work, and it always coincided with the Fast, including the period of celebration leading up to it called Ayyam-i-Ha. I dearly missed a sense of community during this time.
Thus on a gloomy winter day in a hotel room over 2000 miles from home, the idea for the project emerged as a way to meaningfully connect and share the experience of fasting with others regardless of physical location.
Creating a sense of accompaniment forms the foundation for 19 Days of Inspiration. Each daily email reminds us that an entire world—the global Baha’i community and its friends and supporters—embrace spiritual connection during this special time of year. Not only do Baha’is and their friends around the world observe the month of fasting together, but a growing virtual community reflects on the same passages and artwork every day.
The images I share are all handmade works—mostly mixed media on canvas—so I like to think this adds another level of human connection to the experience. I try as much as possible to use digital media simply as the vehicle for that meaningful connection.
When I started 19 Days of Inspiration my intention was to offer art as a catalyst for personal reflection—in other words, to invite the potentialities of pairing artistic, sometimes abstract visuals with profound concepts as a means to spiritually stimulate hearts and minds in new ways. I took encouragement from Abdu’l-Baha, the exemplar of the Baha’i Faith:
All art is a gift of the Holy Spirit. When this light shines through the mind of a musician, it manifests itself in beautiful harmonies. Again, shining through the mind of a poet, it is seen in fine poetry and poetic prose. When the Light of the Sun of Truth inspires the mind of a painter, he produces marvellous pictures. These gifts are fulfilling their highest purpose, when showing forth the praise of God. – quoted by Lady Blomfield in The Chosen Highway, p. 167.
What I did not realize at the outset was how this process of sharing many facets of myself would come to represent ideas of cohesive living for others. We commonly separate spiritual life from work life, from home life, from social life, and so on. With 19 Days of Inspiration I’m sharing my devotional character and love of my faith, personal stories, and artwork—both my pleasure and my profession—with the intention of sparking a unique sense of spiritual community.
Some of my favorite feedback on the project has come from individuals I’ve never met:
… this year, for 19 joyous days, I anxiously arose each morning and feasted on your emails, and that wonderful feeling of oneness with you and Baha’is all over the world. Your beautiful visuals, personal reflections, and perfectly chosen selections from the Holy Writings echoed throughout my day.
I received emails from those who struggle with the physical effects of the Fast, like this college student in Texas:
I read them in the morning, when I was a little groggy or not very motivated… those emails were so enlightening and refreshing; they honestly helped me reconnect spiritually when all I could think about was sleep or food. Seriously, they made me smile in the mornings and I am NOT a morning person.
19 Days of Inspiration has deeply intensified my sense of oneness with others—and has inspired my artwork! This year the project will continue, with an emphasis on trust, joy and fulfilling our spiritual purpose.
As to my colleague’s question a decade ago: Well, I’m glad to have many Baha’i Fasts ahead of me, so I can continue to explore the possibilities for growth during these blessed 19 days every year. The Fast gives us all an incredible time to connect more deeply with our own spirit and Higher Power—and the more we accompany each other through this process, the richer our experience.