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During the holiday season we just went through, like most holiday seasons, more people think about religion and spirituality perhaps than they might usually do. Did a spiritual thought cross your mind?
Supposedly, more people attend church at Christmas than at any other time of the year, including some 60 percent of Americans, according to one source.
My husband is Catholic, and I grew up in the Baha’i Faith, but I often like to attend Christmas Eve Mass with him. Whatever the venue, I love the opportunity to shift the focus from seemingly endless materialism to humanity’s much deeper, but often long-forgotten, spiritual heritage.
Abdu’l-Baha, the son and successor of Baha’u’llah, the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith, demonstrated this truth often, attending varied religious services in mosques, churches, synagogues, and temples throughout his life. At a talk he gave at All Souls Christian church in Chicago in 1912, he said:
The divine religions were founded for the purpose of unifying humanity and establishing universal peace. Any movement which brings about peace and agreement in human society is truly a divine movement; any reform which causes people to come together under the shelter of the same tabernacle is surely animated by heavenly motives. At all times and in all ages of the world, religion has been a factor in cementing together the hearts of men and in uniting various and divergent creeds. It is the peace element in religion that blends mankind and makes for unity. Warfare has ever been the cause of separation, disunion and discord.
Consider how Jesus Christ united the divergent peoples, sects and denominations of the early days. It is evident that the fundamentals of religion are intended to unify and bind together; their purpose is universal, everlasting peace. Prior to the time of Jesus Christ the Word of God had unified opposite types and conflicting elements of human society; and since His appearance the divine Teachers of the primal principles of the law of God have all intended this universal outcome.
In this beautiful spirit, and in a world where formal religious affiliation has been trending downwards, I am still fascinated by what I consider the world’s divinely-inspired literature. I have studied, among others, religious holy books and the works of Catholic saints, Roman philosophers, Asian sages, Islamic scholars, inspired mystics, and the rich and original scriptures of the Baha’i Faith. The most remarkable part of this interfaith journey is the consistency of the messages — and how often we seem to forget the instructions.
Drawing closer to God as the ultimate purpose of our lives, however you define that entity, is at the center of many of these traditions, of course, but there are some other common takeaways. Most of the world’s great prophets and other wisdom keepers, as I like to call them, say that we are spiritual beings temporarily residing in a human body. Our time here is akin to being in a school where we are called to subdue our ever-present ego and to develop our higher or better natures — not only for us to lead richer and more purposeful lives in this human realm, but also to prepare our souls for the next part of the journey.
The Greek philosopher Plato, in dialogues attributed to Socrates, said:
Let a man be of good cheer about his soul, who having cast away the pleasures and ornaments of the body as alien to him … has arrayed the soul, not in some foreign attire, but in her own proper jewels, temperance, and justice, and courage, and nobility, and truth — in these adorned she is ready to go on her journey.
Many philosophical and faith traditions constantly emphasize the importance of developing beneficial rather than baneful qualities, courtesy of a rich and long history in many sacred texts about such spiritual character development. Our souls will progress in both this life and the next, say many divine educators, if we pursue qualities like compassion versus indifference, self-control versus anger, generosity versus greed, fidelity versus disloyalty, honor versus dishonor, altruism versus selfishness, and humility versus pride. This is just a sample, but we all have a long list of potential virtues to consider and acquire — not only for our own development, but to advance the life of society.
I like this quote from the Bible on that subject:
Make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.
In a world that seems far more filled with hatred today than love, I am reminded too of some wise words on this theme from the Buddha: “… for not by hatred do hatreds cease at any time in this place, they only cease with non-hatred, this truth is surely eternal.”
Despite some long-standing guidance, we seem to keep losing the thread of these foundational principles.
Take, for example, generosity vs. greed. “The darkness of greed and envy becloudeth the radiance of the soul even as the clouds obstruct the light of the sun,” say the Baha’i writings. This passage addresses greed at the level of the individual, but take it up a notch and it’s easy to see how greed manifests as corruption and its many dire consequences in the world. This corruption will only get worse, I fear, if we don’t understand the moral foundations upon which any thriving civilization is ultimately based.
When you think about it, we’ve had the Creator’s input for a very long time on those points. Zoroaster – one of the earliest prophets to promote monotheism – advanced teachings on individual responsibility and choosing good thoughts and deeds some 3,000 years ago. He helped transform a society that, in his time, had social disorder, moral decadence, war, and corruption. “The reward of happiness is given to those who serve the community with their deeds of good mind and promote the divine plan of wisdom through communal righteousness,” he said. Interestingly, Zoroaster is little known today, but many of his teachings and stories made their way into the Bible and were a source of inspiration for subsequent Greek and Roman philosophers.
This is just a small part of humanity’s rich spiritual heritage. Ultimately, everyone is on their own spiritual path and life here, in so many ways, is a testing ground. The Buddha’s teachings, for example, focus a lot on both the causes and cessation of suffering. No one said the journey was easy, but perhaps it would go just a little smoother if we tried to follow the instructions.
A different version of this essay appeared in Interfaith Magazine, and can also be found on Zarrín Caldwell’s website: www.thesoulsalons.com