Friday, November 21, 2008

All in the Panorthosic Family

More on Family in Jan Amos Comenius's "Panorthosia, or Universal Reform"

By John Taylor; 2008 Nov 21, 18 Qudrat 165 BE


A Prayer for the Home, by George Townshend

"This home is a garden, O Lord, which Thy hand has planted in the world, and the hearts of these children are Thy flowers. Do Thou tend them and nourish them.
Pour down the rays of Thy truth upon them. Breathe Thy Holy Spirit upon them at every breath. Let Thy mercy descend on them like refreshing rain.
So shall these flowers of Thine mature, and bloom in beauty, and shed afar the fragrance of Thy love and remain thine to their lives' end." (George Townshend, The Mission of Baha'u'llah, #25, p. 135)


As I write, headlines are declaring that NATO is caught up in yet another spy scandal. A mole was caught, its dirty mouth full of secrets. The question that should be in everybody's mind is: why are there secrets at all in this day and age? The one bold attempt to give the human family a single government declared the first essential of a stable peace: open covenants, openly arrived at.

This Wilsonian directive -- rejected then as it still is today -- was based on a basic spiritual principle set up by Jesus Christ Himself in the parable of the lamp. Do not hide your lamp under a bushel, keeping all your light to yourself and to blazes with everybody else. Better a single large lamp in the middle of the room, so everybody can benefit and that the light of justice will illuminate all of our dealings.

The Prophet Muhammad had a longer Mission involving in the end political as well as spiritual leadership. He took this spriritual principle to the next level by initiating the constitution of Medina, the first open, written covenant of its kind. On this blog I have been considering an early proposal by Jan Amos Comenius for an open covenant to be promulgated within the family. This covenant would enable households to earn for themselves a stamp of approval to openly display on their portal, both their physical door and their virtual portals, such as family websites, galleries and blogs. In a world of open systems this emblem would coordinate with similar emblems on every level, from individuals to the world governing body. In the last words of the chapter Comenius suggests what the family emblem should say:

"THIS IS THE DWELLING PLACE OF VIRTUE, ORDER, AGREEMENT, AND GOD AMONGST MEN! Therefore let nothing that is evil ever enter it!"

This emblem is earned, it is not mere cant. Only by following the set of rules in an openly promulgated constitution can a family earn the right to sum it all up, without blot, in those two sentences. Last time we looked at Comenius's proposed family rules based on what worked for decades in his own home.

A reader, Marion, commented on the last essay in this series, which was called, "A Household Constitution,"

"Very interesting concept. Though I don't know if I would want to be part of a family following these rules strictly (e.g., the last 2 rules!)..."

These two rules were directed at junior members of the household, asking that they avoid getting waylaid from the task at hand.

"If anyone is sent to do some special duty, he should concentrate on the purpose of his mission ... without wandering off elsewhere and dealing with things that are none of his business. On your return, you must report promptly ... and then go back to your work. (see "A Household Constitution," November 18, 2008, at:

In order for such rules to make sense, we have to imagine what the family was four hundred years ago -- and I am writing about Comenius because I think we should consider swinging the pendulum back that way again in order, among other things, to revivify the family and better adapt to challenges of our time, like pollution and global warming.

Comenius's 16th Century home must have been, by today's standards, a very large, varied and busy enterprise offering many distractions to young minds. No need to use the television as a babysitter! It was closer to a family business than our isolated nuclear families; many services had not yet been offloaded to governmental social service bureaucracies or to the main rival today of family, the private corporation. We think of our over-housed, small families as "independent," but that is a deceptive misperception. In reality the extended family of that age was comparatively stable, efficient and very environmentally friendly. Like all high density housing arrangements there were economies of scale in infrastructure; the ecological footprint per person was far lower than today.

Comenius's family household suffered challenges unimaginable to us; he lost two wives to the Black Death that was sweeping Europe at the same that the gross religious violence of the Reformation ravaged his native land. The family had to flee ethnic cleansing every bit as horrendous as the holocausts of the 20th Century, if not worse. After several exiles, Comenius ended up in Holland. He was head of his church as well as a family household, but his concern went beyond that to encouraging the peace negotiations between Holland and England, as well as enthusiastically following of the new science, as laid out in the writing of Francis Bacon. He was well aware of the flaws of his time, but his optimism about our perfectibility went against it; his example still inspires today.

One thing I have learned going through the suggestions in the Panorthosia for reforming the family is that there are two pillars holding up the management of a household, not one. The first is the obvious paternal headship (in a Baha'i household paternalism is replaced by a diarchy, including maternal as well as paternal leadership; this is also called "symmetrical marriage"). The other ruling factor I forgot to consider: seniority. Comenius suggests that supervisory jobs be doled out according to seniority as well as merit.

Now that I think of it, Baha'u'llah in the Seven Valleys did give family seniority attention -- indeed assigns it profound mystical significance -- when discussing the "cosmology" or evolution inherent to the perpetuation of both individuals and families,

"Although a brief example hath been given concerning the beginning and ending of the relative world, the world of attributes, yet a second illustration is now added, that the full meaning may be manifest. For instance, let thine Eminence consider his own self; thou art first in relation to thy son, last in relation to thy father. In thine outward appearance, thou tellest of the appearance of power in the realms of divine creation; in thine inward being thou revealest the hidden mysteries which are the divine trust deposited within thee. And thus firstness and lastness, outwardness and inwardness are, in the sense referred to, true of thyself, that in these four states conferred upon thee thou shouldst comprehend the four divine states, and that the nightingale of thine heart on all the branches of the rosetree of existence, whether visible or concealed, should cry out: "He is the first and the last, the Seen and the Hidden...." (Qur'an 57:3) (SVFV, 26-27)

This tie of seniority rules natural selection, evolution, and the beginnings and ends of the universe itself, and its model in our mind is seniority in the family. This seniority extends to the laws that all respect and obey parents, even when they retire from active management of the household. In old age grandparents play a role like what corporations call consultants or chairs of the board of directors. I noticed lately that Baha'u'llah said something to the effect that the good pleasure of God now and forever is dependent upon our "loving-kindness" to parents. This seems to be looking at the time when seniors, as their faculties weaken, pass out of management completely. In that case -- just as Baha'u'llah speaks of "kindness to animals" rather than Peter Singer's "animal rights" -- their frailty is subject to the compassionate action mandate central to the principle of the oneness of humanity. In this way the conflict-causing question of rights and wrongs does not arise, and any growth of elder abuse or ageism is eradicated.

Let us continue with the chapter we have been dealing with in the Panorthosia. After laying out Comenius's old family rules (this book was his last, written when his health no longer permitted him a management position in the household). In the seventeenth paragraph he returns to the always vexed question of punishments and rewards. Like Baha'u'llah, He emphasizes the greater importance and effectiveness of reward over punishement.

"But punishment must be imposed on anyone who ventures to default, and those who are specially trustworthy and industrious should be recommended for a reward, bearing in mind that children or even servants should occasionally be allowed to have fun and games and parties, particularly if they have diligently performed the serious duties falling to them, for example, at the time of the harvest or the vintage."

This brings up several points. Setting aside reward and punishment for a moment, notice that Comenius gives family a responsibility for making its own entertainment and recreation. Especially since radio, television and video entered homes, families are used to being entertained, not entertaining themselves. He is suggesting a more active, do-it-yourself approach to family entertainment. Plus, he suggests linking it to rewards and punishment. Entertainment, then, is conditional, a privilege, not an inalienable right, and it serves serious educational and occupational purposes as well.

Anybody who has seen the portraits of the Dutch masters knows how dour and serious culture was in Comenius's age. He is advocating a relaxed attitude, a rejection of Puritanism that we now take to an extreme. Our preoccupation with home entertainment would have seemed utter frivolity to anybody of his age, or any other age for that matter. The need to relax together and celebrate seems obvious now that entertainment and recreation are pretty much the sole occupation of most family members in most of the time they spend together. I imagine Comenius coming back and hearing about the TED conference (TED stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design). He surely would protest: "Entertainment? Why not call it "Technology, Education and Design?"

But I notice another thing about the family diversions that Comenius suggests. They are tied to the natural cycle of the seasons. Families in every age except now were much more involved in agriculture, and their relaxation was synchronized to the plants that keep us all alive. The only remnant of this is Thanksgiving, which comes after the harvest, oblivious as we are to that reason for the season.

We should definitely go back to this traditional direct link of family to nature. We should reintegrate modern households with the jobs of growing fruits and vegetables, minding livestock, etc., even in the most urban neighbourhoods. This would have untold benefits; it would not only reduce our carbon footprint by encouraging local consumption, it also would reduce SAD and other types of depression, increase the robustness of children’s' immune systems, teach us about our dependence on agriculture from an early age, and so forth. If our entertainment were connected to the earth in this way, we would surely tend to be less materialistic and hedonistic. We would be celebrating not for the sake of celebrating but because, to use Comenius's example, we just brought in the vintage and have grapes to make grape juice with.

That is why George Townshend's prayer that we started off with, comparing a family to a garden, is so appropriate to today's theme. Townshend followed a favourite analogy of Abdu'l-Baha; visiting Paris, for instance, He compared it to a garden sown with new seeds of spiritual growth. So let it be with all our families and households.

John Taylor



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