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On one night in February of 2005 at about 3:00 am, I was awake saying my Baha’i prayers, when I had several thoughts and images overlap in a single moment.
At the time I faced an excruciating challenge of feeling love for another person. Our pure friendship and discourses had been such a relief, like breathing spiritual air after having no oxygen for a long time. But I was preoccupied and mixing up what fulfillment in spiritual love would be, with my expectations of that other person.
My anguish over this had felt overwhelming for some time. I wanted to somehow be liberated from it. I realized that I needed to become detached, to actually change how my mind and heart perceived. In this point of my prayer it occurred to me that I could transform my misplaced attachment by trying to shift my focus to serving humanity and illumining their hearts, as the Baha’i writings recommend:
Ye must shine forth like the lightning, and raise up a clamouring like unto the great sea. Like a candle must ye shed your light, and even as the soft breezes of God must ye blow across the world. Even as sweet breaths from heavenly bowers, as musk-laden winds from the gardens of the Lord, must ye perfume the air for the people of knowledge, and even as the splendours shed by the true Sun, must ye illumine the hearts of humankind.
Then I had the sudden awareness that I didn’t actually love service to humanity in the depth that I should. Thankfully, along with that painful awareness came the understanding that with help and effort, I could actually transform this, this thing that felt like a very deep spiritual human love for one person, into a greater love for all people. With diligence, I realized, I could somehow transform my understanding of reality. Then came a rush of longing, pleading – my heart flared in that moment of prayer, as I felt my own powerlessness to transform.
In that moment a lightning bolt exploded in the back yard, together with a tremendous clap of thunder that reverberated through the house and into my very bones. The children startled awake: first May woke up, then Martha and Enoch. I had to stop my prayers to comfort them.
The next day my then brother-in-law came over for a visit and as we drank tea he changed course in the conversation and said, “I’ve just remembered the time when beloved Dr. Ugo Giachery was flying out of Sydney on his way to Samoa. A friend called me late at night and suggested that I come to the airport to see him off, as nobody else knew that he was visiting and it would be a chance to spend some brief moments with him alone. He was an amazing man. Now why did I just remember that?”
I felt those words were meant for me. As he spoke I remembered that in 1988 I had read the book Shoghi Effendi: Recollections by Dr. Giachery, and I had written a letter to him to express my admiration for his love and devotion in having risked his life in arranging one-of-a-kind building materials to be brought out of Italy during World War II. These materials were used for the superstructure of a Baha’i Shrine and the International Archives building in Haifa, Israel.
I had ended my letter to Dr. Giachery by asking him to feel no need to write me back, because I knew he was very ill. Some weeks later a letter arrived from him, penned in his own hand, slanted across the page as he wrote it from his hospital bed. He had written profoundly tender words, so loving and generous that I felt as if I was one of his own grandchildren. He passed away shortly after sending me that letter. I would often recall his words and loving connection and hope that I might do things in this world that would bring joy to his heart in the next world, even though I felt it beyond my capacity.
I remembered Dr. Giachery’s letter and felt a coincidence of my brother-in-law’s memory occurring the day after that lightning bolt had responded to my nighttime communion. I excused myself and went to pray to ask for guidance that might lead me to deeper meanings.
There are infinite ways to ask for guidance, the main point being that whatever way we ask, we create a space for slowing down in our lives and listening with trust. I believe, as Abdu’l-Baha pointed out in this speech he gave in London, that those in the next world are then able to interact with us — not in any overt way, but in a spiritual sense:
In prayer there is a mingling of station, a mingling of condition. Pray for them as they pray for you! When you do not know it, and are in a receptive attitude, they are able to make suggestions to you, if you are in difficulty. This sometimes happens in sleep. But there is no phenomenal intercourse! That which seems like phenomenal intercourse has another explanation. …we hear voices clearly in dreams. It is not with the physical ear that you heard; the spirit of those that have passed on are freed from sense-life, and do not use physical means. It is not possible to put these great matters into human words …
The point isn’t so much the form, but the focus, intent, and humility of asking. So whether your preference for seeking response to prayer is through nature, or music, or listening to children, these are all potential means of interaction with the spiritual realm when done in a good spirit.