Monday, July 16, 2007

I'm a Little Worried

Quite a few friends and acquaintances from my Bahá’í past still don’t know I’ve withdrawn from the Faith. I haven’t withheld anything from them; we are just out of touch. The ones who matter the most to me are in Indonesia. I went there as a high-school exchange student before I’d ever heard of the Faith and went back on a year off from college to do service with the Bahá’í community. Internet connectivity is low there, so maybe I can still evade discovery by hiding behind the access disparity.

I’m afraid they won’t love me anymore, or they’ll love me with baffled pity for my wayward soul. I imagine that if I went back I could jump right into supporting whatever Bahá’í projects they had going. But could I really, even Ruhi? And why do I imagine it anyway? What am I trying to prove, at least in my own head? That I’m not, as one friend protested on my behalf, “a fallen leaf”?

How did it happen? I joined the Bahá’í Faith in part because I felt drawn to its transcendent affirmation that humanity is one people, various and diverse but somehow still one. And I liked working in practical ways to dissolve the boundaries that unnecessarily divide people. But gradually a new division was scored into my own consciousness. Crudely put, it was the division between Bahá’ís—those who get it—and non-Bahá’ís—those you’re trying to recruit, or at least supposed to be trying to recruit. From this point of view, leaving the Faith is becoming the wrong kind of person, someone who doesn’t get it. Or worse, you’re entering a third, rarely mentioned category—those who’ve lost it.

Leaving the Faith was extremely hard, and this Bahá’í/non-Bahá’í division made it feel like I was stepping out of the small circle of light and grace. I don’t know if I would ever have done it or how long it would have taken if I hadn’t had to leave for my own spiritual/psychological survival. Perhaps the remnant of this division in my consciousness is the reason why I fear the possibility of it in those friends from my past.

Me with youth costumed for a holy-day performance. I am fourth from left in front.

I listened recently to a recording made for me as a going-away present by the youth and kids I worked with in Indonesia. Before listening, I wondered how it would feel now, as an outsider to the Faith, to hear all these Bahá’í songs sung by beloved people. I was surprised to find that one song in particular, one of the best, had gained new meaning by the passage of time and my withdrawal from the Faith. It’s called “Karena Bahá’u’lláh,” which means “Because of Bahá’u’lláh.” A loose translation of the part that moved me goes something like this:

Because of Bahá’u’lláh we came together.
Because of Bahá’u’lláh we are family.
Because of Bahá’u’lláh we are one.

The words have more of a ring to them in Indonesian. And the melody—lifted I think from a popular song—is very memorable. I enjoyed the song then, but mostly I loved the people. Listening to it now, the literal meaning of the words is potent for me. It is true that because of this particular 19th-century Persian man who has come to be known as Bahá’u’lláh, I met the particular people who sang this song and gave me a tape of it, and the other Bahá’ís connected to them. (You can hear the audio by clicking the Play button on the MP3 player widget at the end of this post.)

Since discovering the discussions and the resources on the Web related to the Faith, I’ve been absorbed in a critical reexamination of the Bahá’í Faith. It was sweet to have a little respite from that thinky occupation and just give thanks for the very real gift of connection to dear people that I would not have had except for the life of this man called Bahá’u’lláh.

I believe I was good for the people I worked with and for there, and I know they were good for me. It pains me now, though, to reflect that some of them, particularly those who were youth then and are now mostly married with children, might expect me to be disappointed with them, the choices they have made, how their lives have unfolded. There would be grounds in what they knew of me to hope for better, but I’m sorry to say there would also be grounds for such a fear. My time there was the apex of my devotion to the Faith. I gave everything… everything I had, and even what I didn’t, and my body has never been the same since. But I could wish that I had given, particularly to the youth, more room for their doubts and for the uncertainties in their individual lives. I could wish that I and the other adults caring for them had done less of demanding incessant activity from them and had been more ready to receive their ability to just be.

For in this world it is not good to be too eager for the achievement of any, even of the best of ends; and one who knows by experience that God is always present everywhere and always ready to make Himself known to those who love Him, will not quickly prefer the uncertain value of human activity to the tranquility and certitude of this infinite and all-important possession.
Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 274.

I don’t think I knew by experience then that God is always present everywhere and always ready to make himself known to those who love him, though I’m sure I would have given my verbal assent to the statement. I was still trying to earn God’s love. I hadn’t yet discovered that I could simply open my hands and receive.