Perhaps it was a mixed blessing. After almost merging into a Semi on the Sawgrass Express way, nearly hitting a motorcyclist while turning into the development, and getting my back wheel stuck in the gutter after parking on the lawn, I felt that prayer might actually just be what I needed.
When this assignment was pitched to us in class, I had all the intention of visiting a Dharma-based religious site; rather, I found myself more particularly interested in a Baha’i website I had stumbled upon while searching for religious institutions. The woman on the phone, who only introduced herself as Ruth, informed me that I would be more than welcome to a Baha’i devotional on the upcoming Friday. She described it as quiet, initiate, open and particularly spiritual. Although I cannot say that Ms. Ruth’s description was false, I would say it was romanticized.
I had decided to bring a friend me to the devotional, Corey, a likeminded atheist who was inquiring about the origin of what he had read to be such a young and obscure faith. I figured that if I ran out of good questions to ask these folk, he could jump in with ones that had yet to cross my mind. And so, upon arrival, we soon came to the conclusion that this was not the type of religious event we had expected. We were greeted with smiling faces and screaming children in the background (Baha’i Devotionals apparently double as day-care centers) as well as the smells of religious food offerings such as Papa John’s and an array of diet soft drinks. Ruth had early told me that casual attire would be fine, though I had no idea the ritual would be quite this laidback. Even the prayer area was nothing more than an art-deco coffee table with couches and spare dining room chairs circled around it. No religious iconography, symbols of any kind, significant attire; simply a setting similar to my parent’s weekly game of Pictionary. The absolutely casual setting made me strangely uneasy. In every other spiritual setting, I had always been told to cover my shoulders, sit with my hands in my lap, and make sure I had spit out my gum. This was something completely unexpected. Corey and I took the two spare dining chairs that were cramped between the sofa and dining area, perhaps to give myself a sense of enclosure. And as we sat, we began to inquire. Here’s what we learned.
Baha’i is the youngest of all the major world religions. Founded by a man named Bahau’llah in late 19th-century
The religion automatically sparked my attention, as it genuinely presses for the development of hard sciences, gender equality, and racial blindness. As a Sociology Major, these are all fundamental humanistic ideals of mine, so why wouldn’t Baha’i be the perfect religious fit for me? The people were friendly enough, and obviously ate well at every devotional. We began to ask more and more, trying to find where the weakness in these philosophies were, as the religion just seemed too lenient to have any standing against the other dogmatic theologies in today’s society. We soon discovered that lenience was the weakness of the religion.
Upon speaking of the “independent search for truth”, I asked the room at what age did they come into Baha’i openly. Most everyone claimed that as an older teenager or young adult, they found Baha’i to satisfy their spiritual needs. On the flipside, I then the room what religion they were raised as. All but one woman in the room reluctantly admitted that their parents were Baha’i and that they were raised in the religion. This puzzled Corey and I, as we were just told that these people found Baha’i on their own only after searching for spirituality. We then asked what happens to the soul after one dies, and only one woman was able to speak up about it. Paige, an animated and charismatic woman, took it upon herself to clear up these difficult questions. Without giving me so much as a solid answer, she immediately put the terms in metaphor.
“The body is like a cage and our souls are the bird inside. We must be close to god when we are inside the cage so that we can fly out one day, rather than flop out onto the ground.” I asked her to explain it in another sense, and she seemed stuck on the birdcage analogy. It was then we began to notice a strange pattern in the way these people spoke of their beliefs; they didn’t seem to care to. Every answer of every difficult question was open-ended. Every philosophy they laid out on the table was ambiguous to an excruciatingly frustrating extent. Even after speaking about it for 15 minutes, I’m still not sure what happens to people who are not Baha’i after death.
After taking up an entire hour of the Devotional time with questions, we sat back and decided to listen and watch the actual acts of the ritual itself. Books were first passed out in the way a Christian prayer group may pass out bibles, though none of these books were alike. Each one contained different prayers concerning different topics in completely different orders. One man, who only spoke English, settled with a Spanish prayer book and read from there, regardless of his lack of comprehension of the language. The ritual began only once everyone had a book in hand. Everyone bowed their heads and closed their eyes with the exception of the two of us. It began with one man bringing out a large bongo and beginning to drum an obscure beat that neither seemed rehearsed nor improvised. Soon, Paige began by saying a prayer about devotion and trust. As she ended her prayer, a woman behind us began to recite her own. In a breathy, seemingly sexual experience, she read from her book, her tone resembling what I associated with the ecstasy of the saints; a divine orgasm, in some ways. No one reacted to this, though I personally turned red in the face. The gentleman sitting beside Corey and I soon began to read aloud from his Spanish book of prayers, fumbling with the phonetics of a language he didn’t understand and emphasizing awkward parts of statements. Another woman behind us began to sing, though we couldn’t understand a word she was saying. It occurred to me that these people were not so much affected by what they were saying, but rather, simply satisfied that they had said anything at all. When the prayer circle was done, we said our “thank you”s and “god bye”s and walked out of the house in silence. We waited until we were in the car to reflect on what we had just witnessed, in one sense humored and in another deeply confused.
Now that I sit down to reflect and analyze, I find myself completely at a loss as far as how to tie this all back to what we have learned this semester. These people were completely unlike anything we had read about. These were not a sub-Saharan Muslim sect that worshipped river gods. These were not Christian Scientists attempting to pray the pain away. These people were not offering anything to a deity, like a puja to Shiva. They did not claim to witness the virgin mother’s image in their grilled cheese or profess that statues can cry tears of blood. These were progressive, forward-thinking people who simply lacked a sense of organization to their religion; no doctrine to document its philosophies, and no clergy to direct questions towards. These were people living in modern western society worshipping a god that was “both omnipresent and intrapersonal”. These are people who believe in civil rights and stem cell research and yet find religion in the ambiguity of the Baha’i faith. I still do not know what it means to be Baha’i, nor do I think I could have ever really known through the resource of the devotional alone. I cannot seem to relate my experience to Bowen, either. What I witnessed was not magic, it was not organized prayer, it was not euphorically spiritual. I grasp for anything to cite in Bowen, but I think the most useful tie-in would be it’s very definitions of religion. A “set of shared beliefs in spirits of gods” is one of Bowen’s descriptions, but then goes on to state it can also be “sentiment of awe and wonder toward the unknown”. If this is the case, perhaps those Baha’i that I was fortunate to meet met the criteria of shared belief. I, on the other hand, am struck with awe and wonder by this strange experience.