Parrots, Penguins and the Definition of Religion
It is not a coincidence that Abdu'l-Baha, our spiritual leader, was interested in city planning, for spirituality and planning go together -- I learned this from Him. I get so frustrated when I hear these dime-a-dozen mystics and spiritual advisers who cash in on society's endless demand for counsel, whose tomes weigh down bookshelves everywhere.
"Such a condition as this is witnessed in this day when the reins of every community have fallen into the grasp of foolish leaders, who lead after their own whims and desire. On their tongue the mention of God hath become an empty name; in their midst His holy Word a dead letter." (Iqan, 29)
They inevitably presume to advise you alone, just you, in isolation from your social environment. Of course not, to mention surroundings and society introduces a chance they may err and lose their air of omniscience. That is why it is always about you.
But the whole point of spirituality is to prepare and condition the spirit for entering into consultation and group planning! The spirit is here to change the world, not to flatter people out of their money. It makes no sense ever to talk to the individual, for no man is an island; the spirit loves all, not just you or just me, all of us. Baha'u'llah says in the Iqan that if we washed out our eyes with the salve or eyewash of the knowledge of God, we would see these mavens gathered around like a pack of wolves tearing away at their kill, a caribou or moose, perhaps, ripping apart the flesh in a bloody display. They combine to assist one another (in the words of the Tablet of Ahmad, they do not unite, they combine) and then fight over the spoils of divided and conquered prey. And what is the prey? Nothing less than the souls of men and women. Okay, I will stop paraphrasing, here are the exact words:
"With all their power and strength they strive to secure themselves in their petty pursuits, fearful lest the least discredit undermine their authority or blemish the display of their magnificence. Were the eye to be anointed and illumined with the collyrium of the knowledge of God, it would surely discover that a number of voracious beasts have gathered and preyed upon the carrion of the souls of men." (Iqan, 28)
Actually, the original words are more severe, are they not? These beasts are feeding on carrion, so they must be scavengers, maybe hyenas or vultures. And that makes more sense, too, since each soul is its own master, responsible for its own salvation, until it gives itself over to the ways of death, until it imitates rather than originates from its own knowledge. In Baha'u'llah's vision here the inner eye beholds horrors while the outer eye sees only very prestigious, successful and wealthy spiritual advisors. Give up praying and planning and acting, and the soul rots. Meanwhile society starts to take on that imprint, it smells of rotting wrong.
Last night I watched the remarkable nature documentary, March of the Penguins; the DVD version has additional material showing the sorry fate of a colony blocked in their march to the nesting colony by a huge broken-off iceberg that re-collided back into the mainland. The commentators suggest that these may be the first victims of global warming. Seeing the dead and dying birds blocked in their march is heart wrenching, but as a Baha'i I know that Baha'u'llah predicts this and the imminent destruction of nature in the above passage.
First the souls of men, then the planet that depends completely upon human care and wisdom. The outer eye beholds proud and preening potentates and ideologues, and the inner eye sees same gathering and feeding on dead and dying human souls. It is now too cold for these beautiful birds to be preyed upon or scavenged in their nesting grounds, but as the planet heats up that will change. The emperor penguin surely will go extinct along with so many other species trying to live in a
These two young French filmmakers spent a year in the desert wilderness of Antarctica devoting a half hour each morning just to dress, putting on no fewer than seven layers of clothes to go out in air so cold (it averages 50 below in the sunlight) they could only stay exposed for four or five hours max. When I lived in Val Dor and went out in the wintry woods I thought I was being excessive putting on four shirts! It is a transformative experience for them, though. They are in awe at the icy formations, at the astonishing fortitude of birds that fast for four months while balancing an egg on their feet, at the savage purity of ocean, snow and sky. One writes home recalling the words of Shakespeare,
"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."
In his philosophy? In all of philosophy. When I heard those words uttered in this context I thought, "Yes! Shakespeare has given here a spot-on definition of religion." Here lies the difference between spirituality and philosophy; philosophy is what we know and think we know, and spirituality is the realization that both are inadequate. Religion goes even further and says, "Deal with it." Spirituality cannot become religion until enough people are conscious of their own inadequacy that they can rely upon one another to plan together. Spirituality is just a good feeling until it connects with self-denial, sacrifice in working and thinking and praying with others. As Baha'u'llah points out in a passage near what I just cited, the spiritual scavengers have "renounced renunciation," they think they are beyond the need to deny self. When He wrote the Pope he called upon him to sell the collected
"O people, blessed is the man whose own shortcomings keep him away from (looking into) the shortcomings of others, and also blessed is the man who is confined to his house, eats his meal, buries himself in obeying his Allah, and weeps over his sins, so that he is engaged in himself and people are in safety from him." (Ali b. Abi Taalib, Sermons)
Spirituality cannot become religion until we look into our own face and see the face of God, yes, that is what the New Age pundits say, but we cannot stop there. Spirituality alone cannot eject Adolph Nobody from his hegemony over the divine garden. Only religion can. Religion goes beyond inspiration and makes the self "safe" enough for reliable planning. Renunciation makes it a life's struggle to plan a world to reflect His image in the macrocosm. Which is why we need the Manifestation of God. Only He puts words of sufficient authority into enough mouths. Rumi compared this to how they train parrots to talk.
"The method is to place a mirror between the parrot and the trainer. The trainer, hidden by the mirror, utters the words, and the parrot, seeing his own reflection in the mirror, fancies another parrot is speaking, and imitates all that is said by the trainer behind the mirror. So God uses prophets and saints as mirrors whereby to instruct men, being Himself all the time hidden behind these mirrors, viz., the bodies of these saints and prophets; and men, when they hear the words proceeding from these mirrors, are utterly ignorant that they are really being spoken by `Universal Reason' or the `Word of God' behind the mirrors of the saints." (Mathnavi of Rumi, E.H. Whinfield, tr.)
Parrots, like us, have no idea what words are for but they can be trained to mouth their sounds by means of a mirror. We can only know of our own knowledge, but we can also pray to Him that His words and thoughts will become as ours. We will speak our words like the parrot, but they will not be ours. We will look into what we think is our own philosophy, and if we hear, obey and repeat His Words, the Manifestation will take in what is beyond, the "more things in heaven and earth." But none of this is done alone, only in groups. Only there is power safe and reliable.