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The improvement of the soul through the metaphorical intake and dramatization of spiritual attributes is hardly a new idea.
For ages the allegorized fable has been employed in almost every culture as an effective teaching device. Such fables are particularly important in tribal cultures, where oral narratives in the form of myths are used to convey moral precepts of courage, generosity, obedience, and trustworthiness.
In the medieval era in Europe the “morality plays”—a form of allegorical drama—was used to teach an predominantly illiterate populace the essential doctrines of their faith. In fact, virtually all theater, including classical Greek tragedy, derives from religious origins and the attempt to express abstract spiritual concepts in memorable dramatic form.
The fact that allegorical storytelling and drama have a long and widespread history does not imply that all metaphorical devices function in exactly the same way. But all do share essentially the same ingredients and occur according to a similar pattern:
- First, the audience comes to understand the nature of an abstraction (a virtue or vice) by observing it in physical action.
- Second, the audience realizes that every action has a similar capacity—to give dramatic form to an internal condition.
- Third, the audience begins to understand that this same process can be employed to acquire a virtue (by responding to reality according to a certain positive pattern of behavior) or, if one is not careful, to acquire a vice (by acting in an ignoble manner repeatedly—the message of tragedy).
- Fourth, the audience comes to realize over time that when a course of action (good or bad) is pursued with intention repeatedly, the response becomes habituated, instinctive, and assimilated into one’s essential character.
As we acquire an understanding of how these patterns of metaphorical action beget change in character, we can employ this methodology to alter our own character by degrees.
Of course, such change comes about only with daily vigilance and persistent effort. But the end result can be immensely satisfying, not merely because we have brought about some incremental change in our essential nature, in our soul itself, but also because we realize that with this process of assimilating attributes through our own willful action, we have the capacity to take control of our own lives and to foster and fashion our own spiritual development.
In short, the Baha’i teachings say, we have the possibility of molding ourselves into the noble personage we aspire to become:
God has created man lofty and noble, made him a dominant factor in creation. He has specialized man with supreme bestowals, conferred upon him mind, perception, memory, abstraction and the powers of the senses. These gifts of God to man were intended to make him the manifestation of divine virtues, a radiant light in the world of creation, a source of life and the agency of constructiveness in the infinite fields of existence. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 351.
But there is still more to learn about the application of this process. Once we recognize a spiritual attribute in action, we are capable of becoming attentive to the same attribute as it is reflected in ever more elaborate, ever more inclusive forms. This enhanced perception or understanding of the attribute can then be employed in reverse—we can conceive of inventive expressions by which we ourselves can apply this attribute to our daily lives.
In this manner we assist our soul to progress by degrees in the acquisition of virtues without ever reaching a final or finished stage of expression of a single virtue, let alone the infinitude of all attributes:
This is the wisdom of the appearance of the Prophets: to educate humanity … And after the noblest stations in the world of humanity have been attained, further progress can be made only in the degrees of perfection, not in station, for the degrees are finite but the divine perfections are infinite. – Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, newly revised edition, p. 273.
Physical reality thus functions metaphorically during our earthly lives as an integral and inextricable part of our efforts to achieve spiritual development—by providing both the means whereby we can begin to recognize spiritual attributes, and the tools with which we can express and acquire attributes in ever more complete or expansive ways.