I love language. I love the way words can move the spirit—how a perfect turn of phrase can touch the human heart, ravish the soul, and elevate our consciousness.
The many books I read as a restless high school student trying to pass the time during long train rides through New York City during the cellular-free 1980’s sparked a fascination in me for the alchemy of language.
The mystical truths of Hafez; the timeless relevance of Shakespeare; the astonishing love poems of Emily Dickinson and Pablo Neruda; the searing prose of Toni Morrison and James Baldwin; all reveal the arresting capacity of words—their ability to evoke the spectrum of human emotions. This codified collection of signs and symbols, these mediators of meaning, can elevate, but they can also degrade. They can inspire, but they can also demoralize. They can compel us to act with virtuous intent, but they can also feed the baser dimensions of human personality.
The latent potential of language to shape perceptions, evoke emotion, and influence behavior, invests it with extraordinary power—a power which the central figures of the world’s great religions have leveraged to revitalize human society and recast the character of humanity.
When I began to investigate the Baha’i teachings some twenty five years ago, the power of the words of Baha’u’llah, the prophet and founder of the Faith, first attracted me. Phrases such as, “Regard man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value” sent ripples through my consciousness and echoed in the core of my being.
The feeling felt familiar to me. I had experienced similar sensations when I read the teachings of Muhammad, Christ, Buddha, Zoroaster, and Krishna, a quiet recognition deep within the heart, commingled with an awe-inspiring wonder. You’ve probably experienced it yourself—that unavoidable response when one confronts an elemental truth.
This capacity to unmask the mysteries of reality, so common to the writings of the messengers of God, distinguishes them from the accumulated history of human letters. Great writers, be they of poetry or prose, give us an intimation or impression of reality. They may point in the direction of what is true, and we may be moved by their mastery of language, allegory and metaphor, but ultimately literature represents a singular vision, told from the perspective of one artist. Its scope and reach, however majestic and enthralling, has limits. Inherent to this understanding is the essence of humility, the basis for regulating the destructive voice of the ego. The celebrated writer or poet is free to enjoy the rewards great talent can bestow, always mindful that something greater than oneself exists, a station above one’s own. Some depths even the pens of our most accomplished writers cannot penetrate. As the Baha’i teachings say, truth can transcend mere words:
How great the multitude of truths which the garment of words can never contain! How vast the number of such verities as no expression can adequately describe, whose significance can never be unfolded, and to which not even the remotest allusions can be made! How manifold are the truths which must remain unuttered until the appointed time is come! … Of these truths some can be disclosed only to the extent of the capacity of the repositories of the light of Our knowledge, and the recipients of Our hidden grace. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 176.
When Shakespeare’s Hamlet contemplates the nature of man he says:
What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?
Hamlet poses a powerful question here—one he realizes he is incapable of answering. His dilemma, so exquisitely rendered by the great bard, constitutes the universal dilemma of human existence: “who are we?”
Baha’u’llah answered Hamlet’s universal question when he wrote:
O My servants! Could ye apprehend with what wonders of My munificence and bounty I have willed to entrust your souls, ye would, of a truth, rid yourselves of attachment to all created things, and would gain a true knowledge of your own selves—a knowledge which is the same as the comprehension of Mine own Being. Ye would find yourselves independent of all else but Me, and would perceive, with your inner and outer eye, and as manifest as the revelation of My effulgent Name, the seas of My loving-kindness and bounty moving within you. Suffer not your idle fancies, your evil passions, your insincerity and blindness of heart to dim the luster, or stain the sanctity, of so lofty a station … – Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, pp. 326-327.
Baha’u’llah makes a declarative statement here. He is not asking a question. His descriptive rendering of the spiritual nature of man as intrinsically linked to the Creator is not stated as a theoretical supposition. It is a proclamation of fact invested with the dynamic force of authority; an authority exclusive to the station of God’s holy messengers.
Man contemplates reality, ponders and reflects on the nature of existence, and asks the questions. The manifestations or messengers of God—the “sanctified mirrors” who reflect God’s love and are charged with the task of educating the human soul—provide us with answers:
These sanctified Mirrors … are one and all the Exponents on earth of Him Who is the central Orb of the universe, its Essence and ultimate Purpose. From Him proceed their knowledge and power; from Him is derived their sovereignty. – Baha’u’llah, The Book of Certitude, pp. 99-100.
One of the key objectives of the Baha’i core activities—a community based program for spiritual and material growth and development—is the study of these sacred texts. In core activity gatherings, occurring in communities around the world, participants engage in a focused analysis of the writings of the central figures of the Baha’i Faith, and consider the impact these teachings can have in their individual and collective lives. But this is not a book club, or a scholarly lecture on creative writing. What we are after here, what we are seeking, is a deeper understanding of and a greater appreciation for the transformative power of the living word of God; the essential prerequisite for the regeneration of human civilization.
In the next article in this series we’ll examine the relationship between word and deed, in the context of America’s most challenging issue—the issue of race. Can we really know if we embrace the essential oneness of humanity until we are tested? Let’s explore together.