Growing up as a Christian child, I used to think that angels sat around all day in heaven plucking and strumming their celestial harps. I thought they had nothing better to do!
Obviously, popular Christian ideas about paradise had influenced my childhood. Other than a vague notion of the afterlife, I didn’t know much else, to be frank. After all, the point of being “saved” by Jesus was to get into heaven, and especially to avoid hell! I was confident that once I got into heaven, everything would be fine – that all would be bliss.
But I had absolutely no idea what purpose I would serve in heaven, if I even got there in the first place.
When you’re young, the answers to such ultimate questions can wait, with still a lot of time left to live. Now that I am in my golden years, however, life’s silver lining faces the stark, ironclad guarantee of eventual death, so I’ve become more interested in the prospect – and hopefully the certainty – of an afterlife. I’m sure that others also have an interest in this important topic, which has direct relevance to our purpose and destiny in this earthly life as well.
In the previous two articles in this series on the world beyond this one, we got a few glimpses into that afterlife, based on a remarkable dream reported by Abdu’l-Baha. This dream, taken as metaphorical, was interpreted by means of the “law of correspondences,” in which objects in the physical world symbolize their corresponding counterparts in the next world. For instance, food (beautifully described as a banquet), in its physical sense, offers nourishment and fulfillment. In its spiritual sense, food becomes a metaphor for spiritual nourishment and enrichment. In this article, we’ll explore some of the activities that could take place in the afterlife, especially by way of service to others, as described in the Baha’i teachings.
This idea of service represents a powerful, unifying concept of the nature and purpose of our actions in this world and in the next, and is squarely based on a statement in this famous Baha’i prayer known as the Tablet of Ahmad, a prayer Shoghi Effendi characterized as “invested by Baha’u’llah with a special potency and significance …” – Bahá’í Prayers, p. 209. The Tablet of Ahmad culminates with this remarkable promise, given at the very end of the prayer:
Learn well this Tablet, O Ahmad. Chant it during thy days and withhold not thyself therefrom. For verily, God hath ordained for the one who chants it, the reward of a hundred martyrs and a service in both worlds. These favors have We bestowed upon thee as a bounty on Our part and a mercy from Our presence, that thou mayest be of those who are grateful.
By God! Should one who is in affliction or grief read this Tablet with absolute sincerity, God will dispel his sadness, solve his difficulties and remove his afflictions.
Verily, He is the Merciful, the Compassionate. Praise be to God, the Lord of all the worlds. – Baha’u’llah, The Tablet of Ahmad, Baha’i Prayers, p. 212.
Here, “a service in both worlds” represents a key concept. Although the Baha’i teachings clearly point out that there infinite “worlds of God” exist, through which we will traverse in the course of our journey in the afterlife, the expression “both worlds” indicates a certain immediacy and connection between this earthly life and the world beyond. When the Baha’i teachings tell us that our actions in the afterlife will involve some sort of service, what does that really mean?
We can find answers and insights in various Baha’i descriptions of the “Concourse on high.”
When I first became a Baha’i, this seemed like an unusual term. I had never heard it before. I soon began to understand that what I formerly thought of as “angels” in heaven (playing harps!) could now be thought of as the “Concourse on high” – the denizens of the world beyond, those souls who had passed on to the afterlife and now had an influence on those still on the physical plane of existence. Which led to even more questions: What do they do there? What service do they engage in? What’s the connection between the world beyond and this world here on Earth? Researching the Baha’i writings, I came up with some insights.
1. Watching Over Us and Guiding Us: First, like guardian angels, the Concourse on high watches over us and guides us: “The Concourse on high is watching over you and the Blessed Beauty [Baha’u’llah] will reinforce and guide you.” – Shoghi Effendi, High Endeavours: Messages to Alaska, p. 6.
So how does the Concourse on high watch over us and guide us? Through inspiration, by which the Concourse on high influences our thoughts and decisions.
2. Inspiration: That the Concourse on high will inspire us is conveyed by Abdu’l-Baha in this beautiful message to Baha’i youth:
O young trees and plants, matchless and tender, that grow in the meadows of guidance! O ye newcomers to the Fraternity of Truth!
Although now ye be learners, the hope is that through showerings from the clouds of grace, ye will become teachers; that ye will flourish even as flowers and fragrant herbs in the garden of that knowledge which is both of the mind and of the heart; that each one of you will grow as a tree rich in yield, fair, fresh and strong, heavy with sweet fruit.
May the hidden confirmations of God make each one of you to become a well-spring of knowledge. May your hearts ever receive inspiration from the Denizens of the Concourse on high. May the drop become as the great sea; may the mote dazzle as the shining sun. – Abdu’l-Baha, From a tablet translated from the Persian.
3. Empowering Us: Activity requires energy. The Concourse on high energizes and empowers us, when each of us arises to perform some kind of noble service. For instance: “The Concourse on high watches their actions, and stands ready to bless and reinforce their labours.” – Shoghi Effendi, Dawn of a New Day, p. 135.
4. Interceding for Us, Extolling our Names, Glorifying our Noble Actions: In this remarkable passage, addressed to the wealthy, Baha’u’llah encouraged assisting the poor, which will thereby attract divine favors:
If ye meet the abased or the down-trodden, turn not away disdainfully from them, for the King of Glory ever watcheth over them and surroundeth them with such tenderness as none can fathom except them that have suffered their wishes and desires to be merged in the Will of your Lord, the Gracious, the All-Wise. O ye rich ones of the earth! Flee not from the face of the poor that lieth in the dust, nay rather befriend him and suffer him to recount the tale of the woes with which God’s inscrutable Decree hath caused him to be afflicted. By the righteousness of God! Whilst ye consort with him, the Concourse on high will be looking upon you, will be interceding for you, will be extolling your names and glorifying your action. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, pp. 314–315.
5. Assisting Us in Teaching and Promoting Spirituality: The Concourse on high also assists anyone and everyone who arises to proclaim and promote the noble moral and social principles of the Baha’i Faith, and who thereby teaches and inspires others to become more spiritual and to make this world a better place. For those who do so, the following promises of assistance are in store:
By the righteousness of God! Whoso openeth his lips in this Day and maketh mention of the name of his Lord, the hosts of Divine inspiration shall descend upon him from the heaven of My name, the All-Knowing, the All-Wise. On him shall also descend the Concourse on high, each bearing aloft a chalice of pure light. – Ibid., p. 280.
Verily, We behold you from Our realm of glory, and shall aid whosoever will arise for the triumph of Our Cause with the hosts of the Concourse on high and a company of Our favoured angels. – Baha’u’llah, The Most Holy Book, p. 39.
6. Inspiring “the Arts and Wonders of the World”: Illumined souls can also inspire masterpieces of art and great scientific discoveries:
Thou hast, moreover, asked Me concerning the state of the soul after its separation from the body. Know thou, of a truth, that if the soul of man hath walked in the ways of God, it will, assuredly, return and be gathered to the glory of the Beloved. By the righteousness of God! It shall attain a station such as no pen can depict, or tongue describe. The soul that hath remained faithful to the Cause of God, and stood unwaveringly firm in His Path shall, after his ascension, be possessed of such power that all the worlds which the Almighty hath created can benefit through him. Such a soul provideth, at the bidding of the Ideal King and Divine Educator, the pure leaven that leaveneth the world of being, and furnisheth the power through which the arts and wonders of the world are made manifest. Consider how meal needeth leaven to be leavened with. Those souls that are the symbols of detachment are the leaven of the world. Meditate on this, and be of the thankful. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 161.
Since space is short, this list of services that the Concourse on high provide, as presented above, is suggestive, not exhaustive. Suffice it to say that, just as the Concourse on high watches over us, guides us, inspires us, empowers us, intercedes for us, extols our names, glorifies our noble actions, assists us in teaching and promoting spirituality—and, from time to time, inspires masterpieces of art and great scientific discoveries—so will we when, in the world beyond, we join the Concourse on high.
So I no longer think, as I did as a kid, that the angels in heaven sit around all day, plucking their celestial harps. They have much better things to do!
This essay is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Udo Schaefer (1926–2019), who passed away on August 30, 2019, and whose noble services to the Baha’i Faith and whose rich and insightful scholarly publications will continue to inspire and edify generations to come.