Mysticism is often a confused term. To many people it conjures up thoughts of the magical and fanciful. However, most mysticism is concerned with experiencing the ultimate truth in life. There have been mystics from many different religions. Some have used the term “God” to signify the ultimate reality while others have used other terms such as the Absolute, Brahman, Nirvana, the Tao. But what seems to underlie all mysticism is the transcendence from everyday experience and attainment of a higher state of being.
Let me say from the outset that I’m certainly no mystic. At best I’m a mystical aspirant, a mystical wannabe. My investigations into the topic are not based on my own personal experience; they are my reflections on the Bahai Writings, which I strive to put into practice. So, I’d like to share my thoughts on the place of mysticism in the Baha’i Faith.
Initially, people might assume that there is little place for mysticism in the Baha’i Faith because it has a very strong emphasis on engagement with the world and service to others, and not on living in seclusion as monks or hermits might do. While taking time to commune with God alone is an essential part of Baha’i life, Baha’is should also spend much of their time out in the world (even if that engagement is virtual, such as many of us have experienced during this coronavirus pandemic). This might make it seem that there is no transcendental dimension to the Baha’i Faith. But I don’t think that is the case. Not only is mysticism a part of the Baha’i Revelation; it is central to it.
According to Shoghi Effendi, “the core of religious faith is that mystic feeling which unites Man with God.”1 This unambiguously shows that not only is mysticism a part of the Baha’i Faith, it actually stands at its core. Not only that, it is the essence of religion itself. What I think is important to remember is that although we see different religions in the world, Baha’u’llah explained, that really there is only one religion: “the Ancient Faith of God”. Baha’u’llah and the Bab, both taught the concept of progressive revelation, that God reveals Himself progressively throughout history through all the Manifestations of God. But what this also means is that because each Manifestation essentially expounds the same spiritual truths from the same God, there is essentially only one religion. And at the core of this one religion is the mystical connection between the individual believer and God.
So, what is unique about the Baha’i approach to mysticism? Perhaps two of the most significant things are the notion of “union with God” and the emphasis on service. In many forms of mysticism throughout the world and throughout history, many mystics have claimed to have achieved complete union with God. According to them, their individual consciousness completely melded with God – they became God. From what I’ve read, Baha’u’llah has explained that God is unknowable and beyond the reach of anyone’s understanding:
Immeasurably exalted is He above the strivings of human mind to grasp His Essence, or of human tongue to describe His mystery. No tie of direct intercourse can ever bind Him to the things He hath created, nor can the most abstruse and most remote allusions of His creatures do justice to His being. Through His world-pervading Will He hath brought into being all created things. He is and hath ever been veiled in the ancient eternity of His own exalted and indivisible Essence, and will everlastingly continue to remain concealed in His inaccessible majesty and glory.2
This means that no matter how high we reach, we can never reach the essence of God. Even the Manifestations can never access His Essence, so how could anyone else? Baha’u’llah explains that union with God is essentially recognition of the Manifestation and submission to His counsels because the Manifestations are the only direct channels to God.
But this does not mean that we cannot experience any of the spiritual wonders that other mystics have experienced. By recognizing the Manifestation, Who is the complete embodiment of all God’s perfections, we are able to perceive those qualities, and hence develop them within us, and hence perceive them in ourselves, in others and in the world around us. God’s spiritual light is manifested throughout creation, and by encountering that light in the Manifestation, the spiritual seeker is able to see it manifested everywhere:
In this station he pierceth the veils of plurality, fleeth the realms of the flesh, and ascendeth unto the heaven of unity… He looketh upon all things with the eye of Unity, and seeth the effulgent rays of the Sun of Truth shining from the dayspring of the Divine Essence upon all created things alike, and beholdeth the lights of Unity reflected upon all creation.3
The other important aspect to mysticism in the Baha’i Faith is its emphasis on action. God created the whole universe for our spiritual training. While it is a mere shadow in comparison to the spiritual worlds of God, it is not a complete illusion. What this means to me is that we should not shun the things of the world. We should engage in the world but with spiritual perception. We should see that essentially the world is spiritual at its core.
One important task we have in this life is to make the world a better place. Baha’u’llah says: “All men have been called into being for the betterment of the world.”4 God did not create the world in its final form. He gave some of that task to us as a way of preparing us for the world to come, where our souls go when we die. So, by helping others, caring for animals, and protecting the planet, we are both helping to build the kingdom of God on earth and developing our own souls for the next world and in so doing we can also experience the spiritual bounties and wonders of God.
What I think is important to remember is that while we engage in service to the world, there must also be a deep sense of devotion that accompanies it. If we only focus on doing things in the world, we are not really serving God because our efforts are not directed at Him. Baha’u’llah says, “It behoveth every soul to arise and serve his brethren for the sake of God.”5 To ensure this, service must be accompanied by prayer, reading the Sacred Writings and meditation. Each morning and evening we need to really delve deeply into our connection with God so that our “actions day by day may be beautiful prayers.”6 If we do this, we can live in the ultimate mystical state, a state of prayer. This is the state that Abdu’l-Baha lived in. He didn’t only pray while He was seated with His eyes closed. Every action of His was a prayer, every word He uttered, every gesture He made. This is why it was said of Him, “Abdu’l-Baha will surely unite the East and the West, for He walks the mystical path with practical feet.”7
All in all, we can see that not only is mysticism a dimension of the Baha’i Faith; it is an integral and indispensable component which everything else is centered around. As Shoghi Effendi explained,
The Baha’i Faith, like all other Divine Religions, is thus fundamentally mystic in character. Its chief goal is the development of the individual and society, through the acquisition of spiritual virtues and powers. It is the soul of man which has first to be fed.8
This shows how important our mystical connection with our Maker is: it vitalizes not only our own inner lives but also our connection with others and the planet itself.
- Directives from the Guardian, p. 86 [↩]
- Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 318 [↩]
- Baha’u’llah, The Seven Valleys, ¶35, The Call of the Divine Beloved – Selected Mystical Works of Baha’u’llah [↩]
- Baha’u’llah, The Tabernacle of Unity, 2.42 [↩]
- Ibid, 2.42 [↩]
- Abdul-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 81 [↩]
- Baha’i World News Service, 100 Years ago, Historic Journeys Transformed a Fledgling Faith [↩]
- Directives from the Guardian, pp. 86, 87 [↩]