A Way of Life
For while Bahá'ís are encouraged -- indeed, it is considered a religious obligation -- to pray and meditate every day, they are also expected to be wholly engaged with the world at large. In particular, Bahá'u'lláh asks that Bahá'ís view service to humanity as among their highest priorities.
In this regard, Bahá'ís outwardly appear to lead a life that is in many respects not much different from their friends and neighbors: they work, raise families, participate in community affairs and enjoy such modern social activities as watching movies or television, attending or competing in athletic games, and taking part in festivals and other general cultural events.
On another level, however, those who have become Bahá'ís find that their inner lives, their outlook on life, as well as the nature and quality of their personal relationships and social interactions, all change rather dramatically over time, leading to an entirely new sense of purpose, a new vitality in the approach to challenges and difficulties, and an overall feeling of well-being, even in the face of obstacles. It is, many Bahá'ís will tell you, exactly the sort of spiritual rebirth that is promised by all of the world's great religions -- but one which is wholly compatible and consonant with a modern global society.
Whether one is born into a Bahá'í family or a new declarant, the spiritual growth that one strives for as a Bahá'í becomes a life-long process. Whether in terms of spiritual practice, moral behavior, social activism or community participation, Bahá'ís seek to continually improve themselves and the world around them.
The Inner LifeLike the Messengers of God that have come before Him, Bahá'u'lláh explained that prayer is among the most important ways to cultivate spiritual growth and development. Bahá'u'lláh wrote thousands of prayers. There are prayers for general use, for healing, for spiritual growth, for tests and trials, for marriage, for community life, for children and for humanity itself.
Bahá'u'lláh also said that although the supplicant may at first remain unaware of the effect of prayer, the grace of God "must needs sooner or later exercise its influence upon his soul."
Bahá'u'lláh also provided instructions on how to pray. He asks that Bahá'ís pray daily, and He specifically asks that Bahá'ís choose one of three "obligatory" prayers for recitation each day. The shortest of these obligatory prayers is just three sentences long, and says much about the relationship between God and humanity. It reads:
I bear witness, O my God, that Thou has created me to know Thee and to worship Thee. I testify, at this moment, to my powerlessness and to Thy might, to my poverty and to Thy wealth. There is none other God but Thee, the Help in Peril, the Self-Subsisting.
Other spiritual obligations include meditation and fasting . Bahá'u'lláh asked that His followers spend some time each day reading the Word of God and reflecting on its meaning. Bahá'ís understand that the writings of Bahá'u'lláh are the Word of God for this age, and that such reading and meditation has a transforming effect on the soul.
Bahá'u'lláh did not, however, specify a particular format for meditation. Instead, each individual is free to choose his or her own form of meditation. For some Bahá'ís it may be enough to spend a few minutes contemplating the meaning of a passage in the Bahá'í writings each day. Others may incorporate more rigorous forms into their daily routine. One important practice, however, is to reflect on the day's events each evening, to consider the value and worth of one's deeds.
The obligation to fast occurs yearly, a practice which is common among virtually all of the world's religions. For Bahá'ís the Fast occurs every March, for nineteen days from the 2nd to the 20th. During this period, Bahá'ís abstain from food and drink from sunrise to sunset, about 12 hours each day. It is considered to be a time for deep reflection and spiritual renewal. However, for those who are ill, pregnant and/or nursing, traveling, or over 70 years old, the Fast is not obligatory.
In all of the Faith's spiritual practices, there are essentially no rituals. The only time Bahá'ís are obligated to pray in a congregational manner, for example, is in praying for the dead. Nor is there a priesthood or a clergy. The individual is, accordingly, responsible for his or her own spiritual growth. All forms of superstition are eschewed, and people are not reliant on rituals or clergy for their spiritual progress.
The Outer WorldBeyond the essentials of prayer, meditation and fasting, Bahá'ís view good deeds and service to humanity as the most important elements of spiritual training and progress.
The principles which guide Bahá'ís in their interactions with the outside world are the same high moral values that have been taught in all of the world's major religions: love , compassion, courtesy, charity, faithfulness, honesty, trustworthiness, and humility.
In the concept of service, all of these values come together. Whether in terms of family relationships, where the goal is to serve one's spouse, children and parents, or in terms of the community at large, where one is to promote the well-being of others either through their profession, trade, business or volunteer community projects, Bahá'ís understand that it is through service to others that we can best develop our own selves -- and reach the highest levels of human happiness.
"I say if you want to change the world, you have to serve others," said Shahnaz Daghighi-Maher, a 53-year-old general practitioner in Angers, France, who, since 1991, has travelled alone three times a year to Albania, where, at the sacrifice of a lucrative private practice in France, she has established a free clinic in the southern city of Korcha. "The first goal is to help the world."
When in Korcha, she stays with a local family in a simple, single room in their home. From there, she travels daily to some 16 outlying villages, setting up her "clinic" out of her medical bag and a few boxes of carefully packed medicines.
During her visits, she also gives talks, speaking of preventive health care and also of basic social principles, such as the equality of women and men. And she finds, too, that these meetings draw more women than men.
"I think it is important for women to go and do this kind of thing," said Dr. Daghighi-Maher. "Because, at least in my area, it always seems that men are doing the humanitarian work. And as a Bahá'í, I take action."