As a person of faith, I have always believed that all of us are – as French philosopher, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin so succinctly put it – not human beings having a spiritual experience, but rather, spiritual beings having a human experience. It is this duality of existence that has given rise to some of the questions that countless individuals have grappled with over the course of civilizations.
What is my purpose in this world? How do I survive the harsh realities of life and attain comfort and security for myself and those who depend on me? And how do I do all this while also abiding by lofty ideals and higher principles of justice and compassion? What does it mean to live a life that is grounded in reality and pragmatism while also honouring the nobility of the human spirit?
If you are reading this blog, it is likely that these are questions that you too struggle with from time to time. That’s why this time of the year – the days spanning the Baha’i observances of Ayyam-i-Ha, the Fast and Naw-Ruz – are some of my favourite in the year.
In this short span of 25 days, we are provided with numerous opportunities to exuberantly celebrate (and share with others) all the joys that life has to offer, while also contemplating the spiritual mysteries of our existence.
Ayyam-i-Ha, the Fast and Naw-Ruz
If you’re not Baha’i or don’t have many Baha’i friends, you may not be familiar with what Ayyam-i-Ha, the Fast or Naw-Ruz is, so here’s a quick 101.
Naw-Ruz, is the Baha’i New Year, celebrated on the day of the spring equinox in the northern hemisphere. It also marks the end of the 19-Day Fast which is, as you might have deduced, the period of 19 days leading up to Naw-Ruz, in which Baha’is abstain from food and drink between sunrise and sunset. And before all of that, you have Ayyam-i-Ha, a period of four or five days of joy and celebration dedicated to hospitality, generosity and charity.
To me, each of these three observances has its own unique feel, in the same way that each season of nature has its own distinct mood.
Ayyam-i-Ha, to me, is a time of joy – a time to be happy and to share happiness with others.
The Fast, in contrast, is a period of restraint and sacrifice – an opportunity for contemplative reflection and self-improvement.
And finally, Naw-Ruz, which ushers in spring, is a symbol of renewal and new beginnings.
Unity and Service in the Baha’i Faith
The Baha’i Writings are filled with reminders of the paramount importance of unity.
We are taught that religion must be the cause of unity – that a religion which fails to do this cannot be considered true religion, and that if a religion should become a source of disunity, that it would be better to have no religion at all. In one of His talks in Paris, Abdu’l-Baha taught:
Religion should unite all hearts and cause wars and disputes to vanish from the face of the earth; it should give birth to spirituality, and bring light and life to every soul. If religion becomes a cause of dislike, hatred and division it would be better to be without it, and to withdraw from such a religion would be a truly religious act. For it is clear that the purpose of a remedy is to cure, but if the remedy only aggravates the complaint, it had better be left alone. Any religion which is not a cause of love and unity is no religion.1
Similarly, we are reminded of the importance of being of service to our fellow man. The way I see it, service and unity are one and the same. Service is merely an expression of unity – a natural consequence of understanding that we are all one. Baha’u’llah has said:
Ye are all the leaves of one tree and the drops of one ocean.2
Again in The Hidden Words, Baha’u’llah tells us:
O Children of Men! Know ye not why We created you all from the same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the other. Ponder at all times in your hearts how ye were created. Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest.3
I find these concepts of unity and service so fascinating because I think that they are instrumental to helping us achieve a balance between our material ambitions and our spiritual obligations.
When we live lives that are devoted to building unity and being of service to others, we are doing two things. Firstly, by honouring the spiritual truth of our essential oneness and living in accordance with that principle, we are fulfilling our individual spiritual destinies. Secondly, when we each selflessly work for the wellbeing of those around us, we realize our collective potential and create societies which progress and thrive, attaining material security and comfort for each of its members.
The three observances of Ayyam-i-Ha, the Fast and Naw-Ruz – each possessing their own unique mood and character – are united by these two central themes in the Baha’i Faith: unity of mankind and service to humanity.
Over the course of the varying “spiritual seasons” of Ayyam-i-Ha, the Fast and Naw-Ruz, I find myself reflecting on concepts which come back to these two central themes.
The Joy of Ayyam-i-Ha
In The Kitab-i-Aqdas, Baha’u’llah tells us:
It behooveth the people of Baha, throughout these days, to provide good cheer for themselves, their kindred and, beyond them, the poor and needy, and with joy and exultation to hail and glorify their Lord, to sing His praise and magnify His Name; and when they end—these days of giving that precede the season of restraint—let them enter upon the Fast.4
At Ayyam-i-Ha, we are told to cultivate joy for ourselves and others. The directive to “provide good cheer” as a spiritual practice reminds me that being happy – and sharing that happiness with others – is praiseworthy and an act of service. Abdu’l-Baha tells us:
I want you to be happy…to laugh, smile and rejoice in order that others may be made happy by you.5
This is a reminder to us that spirituality is not about asceticism. On the contrary, it is about partaking in and celebrating the joy and beauty of the lives we have created for ourselves and others – but to do so in a way that is conducive to our spiritual growth. in The Light of Divine Guidance, Shoghi Effendi tells us:
God has created all the good things in the world for us to enjoy and partake of. But we must not become attached to them and put them before the spiritual things.6
At Ayyam-i-Ha, the focus on creating joy for others and on being of service to them is the perfect reminder of how to balance our material ambitions with our spiritual duties: we are meant to strive for happiness and “all the good things in the world” but should be doing so with the aim of sharing what we have with others.
The Fast and Spiritual Awakening
Abdu’l-Baha tells us:
Fasting is the cause of awakening man. The heart becomes tender and the spirituality of man increases. This is produced by the fact that man’s thoughts will be confined to the commemoration of God, and through this awakening and stimulation surely ideal advancements follow.7
Abstaining from food and drink during the Fast is a symbol of mastery over our human desires. If you’ve fasted before, you know what it feels like to be acutely aware of the fact that you are experiencing, and yet entirely disregarding, your pangs of hunger. It is a conscious decision you are making numerous times a day to continue fasting even though it goes against your natural inclination to satiate your hunger.
This internal struggle, which we experience for 19 days is a reminder of the effort we will need to exert over the course of the year (once the Fast is over) to constantly re-calibrate our thoughts and attitude to align more closely with the principles of the Faith.
Take, for example, what the Writings teach about the importance of constantly cultivating thoughts of love, peace and unity. Abdu’l-Baha tells us:
I charge you all that each one of you concentrate all the thoughts of your heart on love and unity. When a thought of war comes, oppose it by a stronger thought of peace. A thought of hatred must be destroyed by a more powerful thought of love. Thoughts of war bring destruction to all harmony, well-being, restfulness and content. Thoughts of love are constructive of brotherhood, peace, friendship, and happiness… If you desire with all your heart, friendship with every race on earth, your thought, spiritual and positive, will spread; it will become the desire of others, growing stronger and stronger, until it reaches the minds of all men.8
This isn’t an easy thing to do.
We have to constantly and actively fight the thoughts of disunity and pessimism that dance through our minds each day as we manage tensions with our family, friends, colleagues and neighbours. It’s only natural to have these thoughts.
However, if we can oppose these thoughts and fight the urge to let those thoughts dictate our actions (the same way we valiantly ignore our growling stomachs for 19 whole days during the Fast), what a powerful effect that will have: not just on our own lives, but growing and influencing the hearts and minds of all around us!
Naw-Ruz: The Spiritual Springtime
And finally, Naw-Ruz, is the promise of renewal and change. Abdu’l-Baha describes it in these words:
Soon the whole world, as in springtime, will change its garb. The turning and falling of the autumn leaves is past; the bleakness of the winter time is over. The new year hath appeared and the spiritual springtime is at hand.9
This promise gives us reason to remain hopeful, in spite of all the ills of the world that we witness on the news each day. It gives us the strength to keep putting one foot in front of the other as we aim to contribute to the betterment of humanity, refusing to believe that our efforts are in vain. It is the celebration of faith which rejuvenates us as we enter a new year, with courage to serve even more than before.
These words by Abdu’l-Baha capture the boldness of this promise:
Do you know in what day you are living? Do you realize in what dispensation you are alive? Have you not read in the holy scriptures that the consummation of the ages there shall appear a day which is the sun of all the past days?
… This is the day when the East and the West shall embrace each other like unto two lovers. This is the day in which war and contention shall be forgotten. This is the day in which nations and governments will enter into an eternal bond of amity and conciliation. This century is the fulfilment of the Promised Century.
The East shall become illumined, the West perfumed and the children of men shall enter beneath the all-embracing canopy of the oneness of the world of humanity.
The foundation of divine religion is love, affinity and concord. Praise God that this cycle is the period of illumination! Minds have made great progress; intelligences have been unfolded; the means of unity and agreement are brought about; communication between the races of men is rapidly established. Now is the time that all of us may embrace the law of peace and treat each other with honesty and straightforwardness. Let the religious prejudices be wiped away. Let the law of racial supremacy be discontinued. Let political expediences be done away with. Let the love of country be superseded by the love of the world. Let us all deal with each other with infinite kindness.
… A new era of divine consciousness is upon us. The world of humanity is going through a process of transformation. A new race is being developed. The thoughts of human brotherhood are permeating all regions. New ideals are stirring the depths of hearts and a new spirit of universal consciousness is being profoundly felt by all men.10
Happy Ayyam-i-Ha and happy fasting, dear friends! I hope these coming weeks, and indeed, the new Baha’i year, will be a time of joy, spiritual awakening and renewal for you and all those around you.
- Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks [↩]
- Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah [↩]
- Baha’u’llah, The Hidden Words [↩]
- Baha’u’llah, The Kitab-i-Aqdas [↩]
- Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace [↩]
- Shoghi Effendi, The Light of Divine Guidance, Vol. II [↩]
- Abdu’l-Baha,cited in Star of the West, vol. 3, p. 305 [↩]
- Abdu’l-Baha, cited in Baha’u’llah and the New Era [↩]
- Abdu’l-Baha, Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha [↩]
- Abdu’l-Baha, Star of the West, Volume 4, p. 120. [↩]