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So far in this series of essays we have discussed the major principles that constitute the keys to living a more meaningful life.
These include the knowledge and love of God; the acceptance of His messenger for today; the refinement of character and spiritual life through prayer, meditation, and obedience to divine teachings; love for humanity and service to others; and the development of a world-embracing vision.
The path to true fulfillment requires day-to-day effort as we face the challenges of managing our private lives, our family relationships, our careers, our interests, and our interactions with others. The Baha’i teachings shed light on all of these issues, helping us to obtain a correct and healthy perspective on life’s complexity. Those teachings and principles can serve as essential guidance in our lifelong spiritual growth.
Baha’u’llah teaches that all of creation exists for our benefit. During our sojourn in this physical existence we are to begin the process of developing spiritual qualities and investigating spiritual reality—a process that will continue in the next world. All things in creation potentially serve this end.
Abdu’l-Baha says that everything in the universe has a counterpart in the spiritual world. He often uses analogies taken from the natural world to explain spiritual truths. For example, in this world all creatures depend upon the sun for heat and light. Without the sun, life would be impossible. The spiritual counterpart of the sun is the messenger of God, who we depend on for spiritual life. Just as the physical universe has laws that govern its operation, so does the spiritual world. Just as we find order, relationships, grades of distinction, and so on in physical reality, so do we also in spiritual reality.
The Baha’i writings contain many analogies and metaphors drawn from the physical world to describe spiritual laws and realities. The analogies and metaphors are not mere poetic inventions; rather, they are doorways to understanding profound spiritual truths. In The Book of Certitude Baha’u’llah describes the attainment of such spiritual insight as the result of sincere and determined effort to draw closer to God. When this is achieved, the seeker begins to look upon the things of this world with new eyes:
Only when the lamp of search, of earnest striving, of longing desire, of passionate devotion, of fervid love, of rapture, and ecstasy, is kindled within the seeker’s heart, and the breeze of His loving-kindness is wafted upon his soul, will the darkness of error be dispelled, the mists of doubts and misgivings be dissipated, and the lights of knowledge and certitude envelop his being. At that hour will the mystic Herald, bearing the joyful tidings of the Spirit, shine forth from the City of God resplendent as the morn, and, through the trumpet-blast of knowledge, will awaken the heart, the soul, and the spirit from the slumber of negligence. Then will the manifold favors and outpouring grace of the holy and everlasting Spirit confer such new life upon the seeker that he will find himself endowed with a new eye, a new ear, a new heart, and a new mind. He will contemplate the manifest signs of the universe, and will penetrate the hidden mysteries of the soul. Gazing with the eye of God, he will perceive within every atom a door that leadeth him to the stations of absolute certitude. He will discover in all things the mysteries of divine Revelation and the evidences of an everlasting manifestation. – Baha’u’llah, The Book of Certitude, p. 196.
While living in Baghdad in 1854, Baha’u’llah revealed a treatise that describes in metaphorical language the stages of progress in the journey of the soul towards God. That book, The Seven Valleys, was addressed to a follower of Sufi mysticism. As the title implies, Baha’u’llah employs the metaphor of a wayfarer who must traverse seven successive valleys, each leading closer to the goal. In one, the valley of knowledge, the wayfarer progresses to the point where the signs of God’s love are evident in all created things.
It is clear from many passages in the Baha’i teachings that the material world is not intrinsically evil, but good. God desires us to enjoy the material benefits of this life, which to some degree are necessary for happiness.
The problem occurs if we allow material things to come between ourselves and God. If we become preoccupied with material pursuits, we forget God and neglect our spiritual side. The result is selfishness and a lack of spiritual awareness, the consequences of which affect not only ourselves but others as well.
The key, then, is not to become so attached to material things that they become more important to us than spiritual things. Baha’u’llah describes such attachments as “veils” or “barriers” between the human heart and God. It is essential to remember that material things are only temporary, whereas the things of the spirit are eternal. True wealth consists in the attainment of spiritual virtues, including love and the knowledge of God. Abdu’l-Baha wrote:
… the happiness and greatness, the rank and station, the pleasure and peace, of an individual have never consisted in his personal wealth, but rather in his excellent character, his high resolve, the breadth of his learning, and his ability to solve difficult problems. – The Secret of Divine Civilization, pp. 23-24.
Baha’u’llah teaches that there are many kinds of barriers, in addition to material possessions, that can prevent us from drawing near to God. Excessive pursuit of pleasure can be a barrier. Other potential barriers are excessive pride in one’s own knowledge or attachment to tradition, both of which can prevent one from recognizing and accepting the prophet of God. Such attitudes are also a form of materialism, for they are founded upon human judgment rather than divine knowledge. This kind of lower attachment, according to Baha’u’llah, is especially dangerous, and he warns people not to allow themselves to be deceived by their own illusory notions.