Saturday, 31 December 2011

FEAST OF HONOUR

I spend the afternoon with the local Bahá'í friends, celebrating the Feast of Sharaf (Honour).

Due to my irregular work schedule, commitments to the children and so on, I'm unable to attend as many Bahá'í community activities as I should. This is the first time I've been able to come to two consecutive Feasts since goodness knows when!

I think it appropriate to provide a short extract from the Bahá'í writings here, relevant to the name and theme of this Feast and of the month in the Bahá'í calendar that it begins:
“The Almighty hath not created in man the claws and teeth of ferocious animals, nay rather hath the human form been fashioned and set with the most comely attributes and adorned with the most perfect virtues. The honour of this creation and the worthiness of this garment therefore require man to have love and affinity for his own kind, nay rather, to act towards all living creatures with justice and equity.” ('Abdu'l-Bahá)

Following the devotional section which comes at the start of every 19 Day Feast, there’s the opportunity to share news, discuss the present state of the community and make suggestions regarding future opportunities.

There's an interesting report from some of the friends who attended a recent conference in Watford sponsored by the Persian Society for Art and Letters, on the subject of Modernity. Many of the talks, panels and workshops held there were recorded, and we hope that those of us who didn’t go will soon be able to watch or listen to these.

I say a bit about the three  community celebrations of Chanukah I've been able to attend this month and on the activities I was able to join in around Christmas, through supporting Harry singing with the choir at St Thomas the Apostle Parish Church.

We also discuss upcoming opportunities to get involved in an event for International Women's Day to be held at the University of Leicester on Thursday 8 March and to take part in an event (as yet ill-defined) being organised in Leicester by the Occupy movement on the weekend of Saturday 24 and Sunday 25 March. In connection with the latter, while we’d have to be assured of the political neutrality of any such event before committing a more formal Bahá'í involvement, there’s certainly a lot that Bahá'ís can say and do that would be relevant. One of the principles of Bahá'í life is that we must work toward eliminating  extremes of wealth and poverty. Our belief in economic and social justice depend on that central factor in the Bahá'í programme. The Bahá'í Faith is no "pie-in-the-sky" religion that preaches we should accept our lot on earth for the sake of gaining reward in heaven. While it recognises that there's more to life than merely material well-being, it pulls no punches in stating that inequality and injustice are simply wrong, from whatever perspective we might take. This can be seen in the following statement, from a talk given in Paris by 'Abdu'l-Bahá a century ago:
A financier with colossal wealth should not exist whilst near him is a poor man in dire necessity. When we see poverty allowed to reach a condition of starvation it is a sure sign that somewhere we shall find tyranny. Men must bestir themselves in this matter, and no longer delay in altering conditions which bring the misery of grinding poverty to a very large number of the people. The rich must give of their abundance, they must soften their hearts and cultivate a compassionate intelligence, taking thought for those sad ones who are suffering from lack of the very necessities of life. 
There must be special laws made, dealing with these extremes of riches and of want. The members of the Government should consider the laws of God when they are framing plans for the ruling of the people. The general rights of mankind mankind must be guarded and preserved. 
The government of the countries should conform to the Divine Law which gives  equal justice to all. This is the only way in which the deplorable superfluity of great wealth and miserable, demoralizing, degrading poverty can be abolished. Not until this is done will the Law of God be obeyed.

And this, from The Promise of World Peace, a statement by the Universal House of Justice "to the peoples of the world" made in 1984, coinciding with the United Nations International Year of Peace:
However vital a force religion has been in the history of mankind, and however dramatic the current resurgence of militant religious fanaticism, religion and religious institutions have, for many decades, been viewed by increasing numbers of people as irrelevant to the major concerns of the modern world. In its place they have turned either to the hedonistic pursuit of material satisfactions or to the following of man-made ideologies designed to rescue society from the evident evils under which it groans. All too many of these ideologies, alas, instead of embracing the concept of the oneness of mankind and promoting the increase of concord among different peoples, have tended to deify the state, to subordinate the rest of mankind to one nation, race or class, to attempt to suppress all discussion and interchange of ideas, or to callously abandon starving millions to the operations of a market system that all too clearly is aggravating the plight of the majority of mankind, while enabling small sections to live in a condition of affluence scarcely dreamed of by our forebears.

Now, of course Bahá'ís don't have the monopoly on caring about and acting on issues of social justice. Anyone with a working knowledge of the faith communities that flourish in Leicester will be able to come up with practices, principles and quotations aplenty from each of them in support of equity and fairness. Hopefully, that will make it easier to get a wide range of support and help make the contribution of the faith communities distinctive and unified. Both these upcoming opportunities are linked for Bahá'ís via another core principle of their beliefs: the equality of men and women. It’s become clear that women are bearing the brunt of austerity measures arising from the financial crisis. Working for the improved status of women and girls throughout the world can’t be divorced from the wider call for fairness in the management of the economy.

And if, for some legitimate reason, it’s not possible for the Bahá'í community to be formally involved in one or both of these events, there's nothing to stop individual Bahá'ís from taking part and bringing a Bahá'í sensibility to the table. Notes of our discussion are taken and will be passed on to the Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of Leicester for further consideration and a decision about the degree of involvement.

In the Bahá'í calendar, the day begins at sunset; the month of Sharaf (Honour), the start of which is celebrated with this Feast, begins at sunset on 30 December. When I was a young Bahá'í in Glasgow in the late 1970s and early 80s, we used to incorporate appropriate aspects of a traditional Scots celebration of Hogmanay into this Feast. I’ll leave it to you, faithful reader, to imagine which aspects they might have been. One of the things that makes the 19 Day Feast such a vibrant element of Bahá'í community life is its adaptability. The three-fold framework (devotional period, consultative period, social period) should always occur (in that order) and there’s guidance aplenty for how each of those sections should go and how they should relate to each other. But there’s also room for the Feast to breathe and expand, according to its national or cultural setting and the make-up of the community celebrating it. The Bahá'í community has always been awash with travellers’ tales of how the 19 Day Feast is celebrated variously in a rural Indian setting, among indigenous tribes people in North Africa or in an Inuit village above the Arctic Circle. But right from the start of my involvement in the Bahá'í community, I was with people who asked why that same variety shouldn’t be appreciated and encouraged here at home. It was things like holding the 19 Day Feast on Hogmanay, reading the poetry and singing the songs of Robert Burns at it and sharing black bun and ginger wine (that’s non-alcoholic of course) with friends of diverse origins and backgrounds that helped affirm my identity as a Bahá'í – indeed, as a Scottish Bahá'í. If truth be told, it was only by seeing those aspects of Scottishness through a Bahá'í lens that I learned how to love my own country and culture.

If you'd like to know more about the Bahá'í calendar and its pattern of Feasts and Holy Days, check out the excellent article on Wikipedia.

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