When my six-year-old son asked me for life’s rule book, I instantly realized that I had stumbled into one of those important parenting moments. It happens that way sometimes—things go along in the regular way, proceeding at their normal speed—and then suddenly, almost randomly, an unexpected window of opportunity opens wide. I’ve learned. when that happens, you better get ready to jump through the window.
Two things occurred to me simultaneously when he asked me about life’s rules:
- This could have a lifelong impact, and guide my son to a path that would eventually make him a happy and healthy adult, if I don’t get it wrong; and
- I better not get it wrong.
So I went to the Baha’i writings, which provide an enormous and inexhaustible reservoir of wisdom, and found a letter Abdu’l-Baha wrote to a woman who had asked for a “rule whereby to guide thy life.” In the second sentence of his answer to her, Abdu’l-Baha advised:
Be thou severed from this world, and reborn through the sweet scents of holiness that blow from the realm of the All-Highest. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 26.
What did he mean, I had to ask myself, when he said “Be thou severed from this world?”
This happens to me all the time. I’ll read a passage from the Baha’i writings or from the holy books of other Faiths, and the passage brings up more questions than answers. I’ll think about the passage, meditate on its meanings and ponder it at length, but sometimes that’s not enough. So I’ve learned to seek context and meaning by searching for other, more explanatory passages on the same theme.
When I did that for the concept of severance from the world, I found this quote from one of Abdu’l-Baha’s talks during his trip to North America in 1912. This one, given in New York City at the end of his eight-month journey, centered on the mystery of sacrifice. If we want to progress spiritually, Abdu’l-Baha said, we have to sacrifice the “imperfections of nature” so we can “manifest the perfections of the Kingdom.” In other words, whoever assimilates the divine perfections, Abdu’l-Baha said, would pass beyond the confines of the physical world and ascend to the spiritual world:
Man must sever himself from the influences of the world of matter, from the world of nature and its laws; for the material world is the world of corruption and death. It is the world of evil and darkness, of animalism and ferocity, bloodthirstiness, ambition and avarice, of self-worship, egotism and passion; it is the world of nature. Man must strip himself of all these imperfections, must sacrifice these tendencies which are peculiar to the outer and material world of existence.
On the other hand, man must acquire heavenly qualities and attain divine attributes. He must become the image and likeness of God. He must seek the bounty of the eternal, become the manifestor of the love of God, the light of guidance, the tree of life and the depository of the bounties of God. That is to say, man must sacrifice the qualities and attributes of the world of nature for the qualities and attributes of the world of God. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, pp. 451-452.
Sacrifice and rebirth, Abdu’l-Baha’s counsel recommended. The second part of his advice—to be “reborn through the sweet scents of holiness that blow from the realm of the All-Highest”—reminded me that all of us have a physical birth and a spiritual one. Our inner essence can awaken, if we follow its spiritual instincts and promptings and those “sweet scents of holiness.”
These concepts, I thought as I read them and thought about them, have tremendous resonance for me—but will they make sense to my six-year-old? How do I explain severance and detachment and spiritual rebirth to a young boy?
I found my answer in the same talk Abdu’l-Baha gave, when he used this apt analogy:
If you plant a seed in the ground, a tree will become manifest from that seed. The seed sacrifices itself to the tree that will come from it. The seed is outwardly lost, destroyed; but the same seed which is sacrificed will be absorbed and embodied in the tree, its blossoms, fruit and branches. If the identity of that seed had not been sacrificed to the tree which became manifest from it, no branches, blossoms or fruits would have been forthcoming. Christ outwardly disappeared. His personal identity became hidden from the eyes, even as the identity of the seed disappeared; but the bounties, divine qualities and perfections of Christ became manifest in the Christian community which Christ founded through sacrificing Himself. When you look at the tree, you will realize that the perfections, blessings, properties and beauty of the seed have become manifest in the branches, twigs, blossoms and fruit; consequently, the seed has sacrificed itself to the tree. Had it not done so, the tree would not have come into existence. Christ, like unto the seed, sacrificed Himself for the tree of Christianity. Therefore, His perfections, bounties, favors, lights and graces became manifest in the Christian community, for the coming of which He sacrificed Himself. – Ibid., p. 451.
A few days after he and I read this passage together, one of my son’s baby teeth fell out. “Look, Dad,” he said, “it sacrificed itself so the adult tooth could grow.” I knew then that he understood the concept.
Next: Be Kind to All the Human Race—and the Animals, Too