removing the dross

Preparing for a room inspection yesterday I stumbled onto a small insight into why religion periodically needs to be refreshed. (Or see Isaiah here and here.)

I was wiping out the microwave with a paper towel, and then turned to the place where I keep my Kitab-i-Aqdas, my Quran, and my Bible. Although I had only used one side of the paper towel, I laid it aside and tore off a new one, rather than simply turning it inside out and continuing to clean. This was hardly a thought, just one of my many little rules for how I deal with the books of Scripture — yet in it lay the seed of exactly the kind of superstition and love for ritual that can drive people away from religion.

There are, I should be clear, absolutely no laws laid down in the Kitab-i-Aqdas (or anywhere else that I know of in the Baha’i Writings) for how to handle to Holy Books. Nonetheless, I have adopted my own set of moderately elaborate, some might say obssessive-compulsive, rituals for cleanliness and respect. This is probably not a complete list:

  • Scripture will not be read on the toilet. To include books likely to contain scholarly excerpts from Scripture. (This is why I am still only 100 pages into Muhammad and the Course of Islam, despite its being quite lively and interesting.)
  • Scripture will not be read while eating. This one is slightly less strict than the toilet rule — for example, if I am updating the Handsome Camel while eating dinner, it’s acceptable to continue doing online research. But if I’m sitting down to be edified, I’ll read without eating.
  • Scripture, if appearing in a stack of books, will rise to the top. Mundane books will not be stacked on top of it. Moreover, there is a mental order of precedence, so the the Kitab-i-Aqdas cannot be placed under any other book (it is, as its name states outright, the “Most Holy Book”); other books of Baha’u’llah and the Bab are next, followed by Scriptures of other religions, followed by books of Abdu’l-Baha. Books of Shoghi Effendi and compilations of letters from the House of Justice need not be on top of a stack of secular books, but should be treated deferentially. Obviously, this system creates quandaries — is a prayer book, full of Scripture by several Authors, more holy than a Ruhi Institute workbook, which quotes liberally from the same Authors but also has many passages of ordinary man-made analysis? (Yes, by a kind of “percentage-holy” ranking.) What about Lights of Guidance, which is a compilation of quotes from the Writings as well as letters from the Guardian and the House of Justice, both authoritative but neither considered the Creative Word? (Tricky, but I say it goes below the prayer book — 100% Creative Word — but above the Ruhi book, which after all has many non-authoritative sections.)
  • The Holy Books will be cleaned whenever they or the three-drawer chest upon which they are sitting becomes visibly dusty, to include the photo of Abdu’l-Baha nearby and the unique bookends a non-Baha’i friend made me for Ayyam-i-Ha last year featuring the ringstone symbol and the nine-pointed star.
  • As noted above, they will be cleaned with a fresh rag or paper towel, not one that was just used on something else.
  • I am ambivalent about marginalia, underlining, and folded corners. I am ambivalent about this because, on the one hand, it seems a little disrespectful to treat Scripture like an organic chemistry textbook, and on the other hand, these books are clearly meant to be studied, taken apart, memorized in part or whole, quoted from, argued from, used. Moreover, these books may not always be mine — and just as I love to come across my mother’s margin jottings (“bread=word,” “His declaration”) in our family Bible, someone, someday, might like to know what I was thinking while reading the Creative Word. To satisfy my more compulsive and ritualistic side, I have two copies of some well-frequented works, such as the Kitab-i-Aqdas, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, the Quran, and the Bible — one “working copy,” and one pristine copy.
  • Papers, such as computer printouts, with selections from the Writings on them, must be torn into several pieces before being put in the garbage. Kind of like cutting the stars from a flag before burning it.
  • Scripture will not be placed on the floor, nor on any surface which is not fairly clean. My standards for this are probably totally erratic, as I’m fairly sure I’ve sat some Holy Book on a picnic table at some point.

All of which is only my own idiosyncratic set of methods to ensure that I feel, personally, that I am adequately respecting what I believe to be the most holy objects in my life and my greatest gift from God, and if it stopped there this might be nothing more than the endearing quirk of a mostly-sincere believer. But once, a few years ago, the subject happened to come up in a small gathering of Baha’i friends, and two of us compared lists. We agreed on a suprising number of items, independently arrived-at and in no way derived from genuine Baha’i law. But, more importantly, it was from him that I got the no-eating rule. That is to say, merely by talking about the subject with another believer, without any reference to the Baha’i Writings or any kind of actual rule given by the Manifestation of God, I changed my behavior.

Moreover, one of the things I look forward to most in my life, if it comes to pass, is raising my own child in the Faith and trying to convey to her the joy of loving God and serving humanity. But I will inevitably put my own stamp on this — probably overtly, and absolutely by example, I will teach my child how to behave around Scripture, just as my parents, for example, taught me to be quiet while people are praying.

I can remember being five or six (couldn’t have been older, because we still lived in the old house), and coming down the hall from the bathroom into the living room during feast. Someone was reading a prayer, and I distinctly remember being stopped dead in the doorway by a dreadful look from my father. I stood meekly on the threshold until the prayer ended, at which time he released me with another look, and I came in and sat down on the floor. My father was always very loving and generous about religion, which is a large part of why I am still a Baha’i today, but I learned, without having to be told, never to walk around or enter the room while people are praying — something I am still loathe to do today.

My father’s sense of courtesy on this point was entirely reasonable — the reader and the assembled friends were all concentrating on the prayer, and it would be rude to make noise or disturb them. But there was, in addition, another layer — a devotional layer, a sense that humility before the Word of God demands that one wait before entering the place where it is being spoken. And that devotional sense tends to transform the practice into something beyond mere respect or good manners — something more like a spiritual duty.

Likewise, I am sure that it may be entirely reasonable of me to expect of my future children that they treat our Baha’i books respectfully and keep them clean. But will I add to that (or will they themselves add) some sense of spiritual obligation? Surely this is how restrictive and ridiculous doctrines accrete onto religion, adding unnecessary ideas to the pure message of the Manifestation.

And this is not by means of any narrow-mindedness or bad intent on the part of us early believers who start these practices. On the contrary, we create them out of a sense of awe and devotion. Yet even without wickedness, even without snakey Sin sneaking its way in and corrupting religious practice, it seems almost impossible that these kinds of practices should not eventually cling to the entire surface of a religion, requiring some sort of occasional divine purging.

Baha’u’llah makes reference to these kinds of accretions, and abolishes them, here and here.

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One Response to removing the dross

  1. amy says:

    interesting – when the kids turned 15, our LSA gave Ehrick an Aqdas and Libby a prayer book. I thought it would be nice if the LSA inscribed the flyleaf, but there was disagreement – some members felt that was disrespectful. So they wrote a nice card that can be kept in the book, instead.

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