Tuesday, February 15, 2011

An open letter to Bahá’í artists. (which anyone can read, of course. And answer…)

Baha'i songwriter Mama Anita of Ntobo, Equatorial Guinea

As some of you are aware, many years ago I began a study of the Nineteen Day Feast*.  My goal was to understand its purpose and to see if I could lend a hand in the strengthening of this Divine Institution.  My feeble understanding of the “foundation of the new World Order” as Shoghi Effendi called the Feast, led to some feeble projects and, naturally, some feeble results.  This is not something I am any longer surprised by, as the efforts of any one person, however well intentioned or well informed, do not channel the same power as consultative efforts.   

My study of the Feast did prepare me for many of the aspects of what we now see as the Institute Process, and thinking about these aspects brings me to you, the artists who have been working over a lifetime to hone talents and skills as a gift fit to lay on the Sacred Threshold.  

“Even though the observance of the Feast requires strict adherence to the threefold aspects in the sequence in which they have been defined, there is much room for variety in the total experience.  For example, music may be introduced at various stages, including the devotional portion; ‘Abdu’l-Baha recommends that eloquent, uplifting talks be given; originality and variety in expressions of hospitality are possible; the quality and range of the consultation are critical to the spirit of the occasion.  The effects of different cultures in all these respects are welcome factors which can lend the Feast a salutary diversity, representative of the unique characteristics of the various societies in which it is held, and there fore conducive to the upliftment and enjoyment of its participants.”  Para 4, 27 August 1989 letter of the Universal House of Justice on the Nineteen Day Feast

We artists are good at individual initiative.  Indeed, it’s the one thing we have completely mastered.  We see a project, fit it to our skill set, figure resources, call in helpers according to the scope of the project and bang and hammer our way to a wonderful end we hope will justify a sometimes nervous and dicey means.   We wonder that others, who may have good ideas in consultation, do not seem able to carry them out.  We wonder that others do not articulate their needs or ideas very clearly.  We wonder that Assemblies or committees do not call on us for advice on any of the many things we have thought about or done.  We often feel like lovely objet d’arts, brought out on special occasions for the occasional delight of the community and then neatly tucked back into our special compartment.  We ARE sensitive to the slight digs and the seeming cold shoulder.  We DO accurately feel the undercurrents of angst around us.  And it really is easier just working alone, usually. 

“In a letter to his brothers written in December 1817, poet John Keats described a state of being which he called “negative capability.”  It is, he wrote, a state when “man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”  from Ways of the Heart by R. Romanyshyn p 135 

Artists live in comfortable uncertainty when it comes to our art, but for some reason we crave certainty when it comes to working in community.  

“Wert thou to ponder in thine heart, from now until the end that hath no end, and with all the concentrated intelligence and understanding which the greatest minds have attained in the past or will attain in the future, this divinely ordained and subtle Reality, this sign of the revelation of the All-Abiding, All-Glorious God, thou wilt fail to comprehend its mystery or to appraise its virtue. Having recognized thy powerlessness to attain to an adequate understanding of that Reality which abideth within thee, thou wilt readily admit the futility of such efforts as may be attempted by thee, or by any of the created things, to fathom the mystery of the Living God, the Day Star of unfading glory, the Ancient of everlasting days. This confession of helplessness which mature contemplation must eventually impel every mind to make is in itself the acme of human understanding, and marketh the culmination of man’s development.”  (emphasis mine) Gleanings of the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh

Perhaps it is time to do an end run around our past experiences and really do what we do best:  that is, to re-imagine the world. 

We don’t have to come up with a new world whole cloth.  Our Lord has given us full-page descriptions of newness, has bathed us daily in a new light, has shown us a new window opening onto a new horizon.  We have been working heroically at looking at this new vision with our old eyes.  We have tried to describe what we see (even though we sometimes can’t help but to see slant) to ourselves and then to the world.  It works, sometimes, doesn’t it? 

Our hardest effort will not be in the writing, or the painting or the dancing or the act of creation.  Our new hardest effort will be this:  to work in community with everyone, even those who don’t know how much they love us.

How will this happen, this working in community?  How do we, the sensitive, the creative, the lightly-tethered, the holders of the keys—how do we work in community with the engineers, the actuarials, the slow-to-change, the ones who bring us clean water and keep airplanes from falling out of a blue, blue sky? 

I’ve had thoughts on the answer, they all involve lots of prayer, and overlooking faults and admitting our own.  Nothing new.  I’d like to open this up to some discussion, but would request that your comments not just be a laundry list of problems.  What solutions have you tried that have worked to really integrate the arts into your community life?  I await with eagerness the result of your own thoughts. 

*  Baha’is come together every 19 days to worship, consult and “bind the hearts together” through fellowship and fun.  It is primarily a feast for the spirit, and because we are such a young religion, and because we don’t have clergy, we are learning together as a global community what is being asked of us so sweetly.    My note today on the use of the arts in community is one part of a larger, ongoing dialogue about walking a path of service. 
The Feast may well be seen in its unique combination of modes as the culmination of a great historic process in which primary elements of community life—acts of worship, of festivity and other forms of togetherness—over vast stretches of time have achieved a glorious convergence.  The Nineteen Day Feast represents the stage in this enlightened age to which the basic expression of community life has evolved.”  From the Universal House of Justice letter dated 27 August 1989

For information on the Baha'i Faith


  1. Sister-Love, how I adore and admire your ablility to cling to that gossamer tether.
    Your words are that needed playful tug that aligns my marionette mind back to the stage of our age.

  2. This post is an education in the best sense of the word: it just quadrupled my grasp on what the Feast is and can be. Pray. Love. Eat. We have much to learn and to do!

  3. For awhile I was doing devotions which included poetry, with encouragemnt to others to bring their own poetry, song, or whatever. It brought people out of the woodwork and made for a rich exchange. The gatherings were small, though I have no doubt they would grow if we picked it up again. Actually I would like to try something similar with story. Maybe I should try that out at Feast.