(More) Thoughts upon studying a sacred book

Canadian Anemones
Canadian Anemones
Canadian Anemones. S. Ross-Lazarov.

(This post, along with my others, is not an official representation of Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings. It is only my current understanding as an individual person. I will amend it as I learn more! Thank you for learning with me.)

One of the ways I have been studying the Gleanings is to try writing a title for each passage. Gleanings is composed of 166 passages excerpted from books and tablets written by Bahá’u’lláh. Thus, I read over one of these excerpts, trying to figure out a main point for the passage, then I jot this title down in my little list. It’s like making my own personal table of contents for the Gleanings. To the extent that this strategy would work, I could then go to my list of titles – my table of contents – and find a passage I remember reading. Also, I could look at these brief summary statements, and possibly see the flow of ideas in the book as a whole – perhaps I could see the overarching argument that this book presents.

However, my strategy didn’t work – not like it usually does, anyway. I use my summarizing strategy often, to analyze many different books, and generally it works well. The authors’ ideas percolate upward through the summaries, and the main ideas and argument structures distill, becoming something that feels solid, static, finished, clear, and often simple.

But this didn’t happen with my study of the Gleanings. I am now halfway through my titling project – to passage #88. (This is halfway by word count. Halfway by passage count would be #83.) But I looked back over my list of titles, and knew, deep in my heart, that while my list of titles is somewhat functional, they don’t actually contain the meaning of the passages Bahá’u’lláh wrote. It was as though the sacred texts had morphed in the short time since I had created my titles, as though the passages had danced out of my grasping fingers, as though they had flown away, laughing with depth and warmth at my youthful but sincere search.

Bahá’u’lláh explains that this is the nature of His Writings. They are sacred text. These are the writings of a Manifestation of God – rare souls like Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, Moses, Bahá’u’lláh, and others. These Great Teachers’ words are creative. Their words contain a life force that writings by the rest of us do not.

One of the effects of this creative, living quality is that these texts interact with you as a reader in a uniquely creative way. Bahá’u’lláh explains that each word in a sacred text has many meanings, and the meanings of a sacred passage are infinite.

The inexhaustible meaning of sacred texts affects our experience of reading them in several ways. First, it means that each time we read a sacred passage, no matter how many times we have already read it, we can find new meaning in it. It also means that each person, upon reading a sacred text, will discern a meaning unique to him or herself. This natural flexibility is part of an organic vision: we grow, as individuals and as a collective, and our experience of the sacred text grows with us. (It can also be said that these creative texts cause us to grow…)

Each of us has our own relationship with the sacred words and their authors. It is important to respect this. We are each entitled to our own understanding – we each need our own understanding. This diversity is essential: how else could we grow, if we couldn’t form our own understandings and gradually develop them? This diversity of understanding is positive, as long as we don’t manipulate it for the purposes of seeking power. It’s not acceptable to try to persuade other people that your own understanding is the right one, and that other understandings are wrong.

But it is also true that the sacred texts are not just chaos. The Manifestations of God intended to communicate with us when they said or wrote something. How else would the whole process of receiving sacred books mean anything?

Bahá’u’lláh also explained how He wanted the Bahá’í community to handle this collective acknowledgment of basic meaning. In His Writings, He appointed an Interpreter to whom questions about meaning could be addressed once He Himself had passed on. This sacred interpreter was Bahá’u’lláh’s son, ‘Abdul-Bahá. Bahá’u’lláh also instructed that, when circumstances allowed, a world council be elected to whom the Bahá’í community could address questions of meaning. This process of acknowledging interpretation, which is called the Covenant of Bahá’u’lláh, protects both the unity and diversity of Bahá’í’s sacred journeys of learning. (The process of Bahá’u’lláh’s Covenant applies only to the Bahá’í Writings, not to humanity’s other esteemed sacred traditions.)

Thus, the Covenant of Bahá’u’lláh protects me, too, in my efforts to learn. I am free to work as hard as I can to find meaning in the sacred texts. Other people may enjoy to follow along with my enthusiastic reading, might be intrigued to find out what I’ve been learning, and that’s cool, as long as I don’t try to force them to agree with me. All in all, the Covenant protects me from my own ego.

So as I contemplate my current exploration of the Gleanings, I think about it in this context – I’m free to learn, free to accompany and be accompanied, and I’m thankfully aware that I do not carry the burden of interpretation. My responsibility is only to make my greatest effort to understand. This is the responsibility we all have.

My project of trying to find a meaning in each passage of the Gleanings is nestled firmly in this context. The passages of the Gleanings were compiled from Bahá’u’lláh’s wider Writings by Shoghi Effendi, whom the Bahá’í community refers to by the title of the Guardian. In the years between ‘Abdul-Bahá’s passing and the time when there were enough Baha’i communities around the world to make possible the electing of the world council (called the Universal House of Justice), Shoghi Effendi carried the burden of helping the community acknowledge the meanings that Bahá’u’lláh had written and that ‘Abdul-Bahá had explained. Shoghi Effendi also translated all the passages included in the Gleanings.

So as I read the Gleanings, the question in my mind is: What is the honorable Shoghi Effendi trying to tell me about the meaning of Bahá’u’lláh’s Revelation? Why did he choose to include each of these passages in this fundamental compilation, and why did he arrange the passages in this order? Bahá’u’lláh’s Revelation is vast, with a hundred books, with many letters and epistles, many of which are still not yet translated from their original languages of Arabic and Persian, almost none of which were translated at the time that Shoghi Effendi published the Gleanings. He had to choose carefully what he could translate and then present to the seekers of the world during the limited time he had – during his one life.

So Gleanings is a book compiled and presented with great weight. What does it have to say? I can’t wait to find out.


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