There are still a couple of days of fasting left, but I’m already beginning to feel the ache a dear companion’s imminent departure, a companion who won’t be back again until March of next year. I really, really miss the Fast when it ends…and even after going through this for 14 years, the goodbye never gets easier. 😉 But I also know that when a cherished friend departs, their spirit lingers, and the time you spent in their company sustains and inspires you throughout the seasons. This Fast comes bearing gifts, as many guests do, but these are not the traditional gifts of a houseguest. Rather, they are life lessons—far richer and more enduring than a box of chocolates or an ornamental vase.
This year, the gift proffered by the Fast was a lesson in increasing my spiritual perception.
Last week’s visit from my beloved friend Liz Washington—author of the previous blog posting, which I’d forgotten to attribute to her—had a lot to do with this gift, as it was a time of heightened prayerfulness. During one of our mountainside devotional gatherings, Liz and I were inspired to read all of the Fast Prayers, and it felt like I was hearing the words of some of them for the first time. A particular line, from one of the longer Fasting Prayers, leapt out at me:
and all veils to be rent asunder
I began to ponder this, and sought out clues to help me better understand its meaning. In my search, I came across these passages from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá:
The bestowals of God which are manifest in all phenomenal life are sometimes hidden by intervening veils of mental and mortal vision which render man spiritually blind and incapable, but when those scales are removed and the veils rent asunder, then the great signs of God will become visible, and he will witness the eternal light filling the world.
…we must endeavor with heart and soul in order that the veil covering the eye of inner vision may be removed, that we may behold the manifestation of the signs of God, discern His mysterious graces and realize that material blessings as compared with spiritual bounties are as nothing.
One of my neighbors in the Carib Territory once told me “Papa God knows our needs.” Well, He must know, then, that I’m not the quickest kid on the block, and often require illustrations to help me understand a concept, spiritual or otherwise. Lo and behold—true to my neighbor’s assertion—Papa God delivered the perfect visual: the hummingbirds and the pig. I can think of no illustration that would have more aptly (and humorously!) conveyed the concept of spiritual perception…or lack thereof.
Actually, it was Liz’ idea to write about this, and she began a second “special guest blog entry” on the topic, but her brief visit didn’t allow the time to finish it. I’ll share with you her introductory paragraphs, and will try to take it from there:
“Since we still had two hours until sundown, we decided to sit outside and say prayers. Although I’ve been visiting for several days, it still amazes me that Denali and Roushy have a jungle in their backyard. Or more accurately, their home sits on the edge of a rain forest that extends down a sharp and lengthy decline, eventually reaching the Atlantic Ocean. We usually drag our chairs outside and sit on the last little patch of flat land that hovers on the edge of the incline. Here, we can see the ocean through a thick curtain of greenery. This time, however, we decided to venture down into the jungle just a little. We threw our plastic chairs ahead of us and slip-slided our way down the mountain until we reached what looked like a perfect spot. The view of the ocean was stunning. We were completely surrounded by fragrant, fruit-laden trees.
To our left was a steep little valley about twenty square feet in diameter. In the middle of the valley was a particularly beautiful tree bearing vibrant purple-pink flowers. The flowers themselves shed a brightly colored pink dust-like substance that blanketed the ground around the tree, looking for all the world like something out of a fairy tale. As we were marveling at the tree’s beauty, we noticed that there were dozens of hummingbirds flitting around its branches. We were overcome with its obvious blessedness. “It’s the ninth day of the Fast!” we told each other blissfully.
And then we saw it.
Underneath the tree was a huge, fat, dirty pig, lying on its side and snorting its way through some kind of wild boar-dream. With each snort, its ears shook and its belly vibrated.”
We gawked at the scene in stunned silence for a moment or two, and then erupted into side-splitting laughter. The juxtaposition of that divine tree with the snarfling pig below was just too ironic. But once we’d finally caught our breath, we began to reflect on what was really happening in the picture before us. The tree was literally raining down beauty—I have never seen anything quite so vibrant as those blossoms, and their electric-pink dust—and the hummingbirds, aware of the tree’s bestowals, were delighting in them. They circled the tree in adoration, partaking of the sweet nectar and dancing about the branches. Yet the creature below was oblivious of that which surrounded him. He remained rooted to the earth, unwilling to lift his mud-caked snout, or to open his eyes.
Now, in the biological sense, we can’t find fault with the poor pig, for he was simply behaving according to his nature, as were the hummingbirds. But we humans possess at least two faculties that the hummingbirds and the pigs do not: spiritual perception, and the ability to strive. But that spiritual perception is latent, and it takes some mighty striving to conjure it up. Fervent prayer and fasting assist the process tremendously.
So, similar to the “choose your narrative” idea from an earlier blog entry, this time it’s choose your metaphorical animal. As we navigate through this world, immersed in splendors and grace, do we inhale the fragrance of the flowers, or cover our eyes in mud?
All too frequently, I find myself assuming the role of the pig (I mean, hey, it’s the path of least resistance). But every so often, I’m enabled to experience a glimmer of life as a hummingbird…and the Night of the Heavy Rain was one of those glimmers. That night, there were two concurrent study circles: one at our place in Gaulette River, and the other in St. Cyr, in the home of the Joseph family. The sun had been quite hot that day, and when we began our study in the late afternoon, the heavens contained not a wisp of a cloud. But the skies here can be more volatile than the Atlantic, and—as we were saying our closing prayer, right around sunset—heavy clouds had congregated above the ocean. And then the rain was upon us, before we even had the chance to rise from our little wooden benches.
Now, I grew up in the Pacific Northwest; rain doesn’t usually phase me. But this was like no rain I’d ever experienced. Each drop sounded forceful enough to knock you off the side of the mountain, and the sky was dispensing those drops with such urgency that they soon merged into a vertical blanket of water. We huddled closer to each other on the porch, wide-eyed. Night descended on the island, and it was time to break the Fast…but no one was budging. I grew impatient, and started thinking about the dinner that Liz and Roushy would be cooking at home. I thought about the nearly dry clothes I’d left out on the line, now drenched. The little wooden bench began to feel uncomfortable, but when I shifted my legs to the side, they got splattered with rain. In my head, I started picking a fight with the storm. “Impeccable timing,” I seethed at the heavens. “Couldn’t you have waited ‘til I was at home, with a big plate of food in front of me?” The heavens didn’t answer. So I tried the pathetic, whiny approach. “C’mon, please just let it stop long enough for me to get home? I wanna go hooooooome. I’m hungry! Please?” The sky guffawed in response, and upped the wattage of the downpour. I scooted my bench closer to the wall, and stewed. My tummy groaned.
And then the little girls began to dance.
Our hosts’ young granddaughters, ages 5 and 3, whispered something in their father’s ear, which must’ve been “Daddy, can we bathe in the rain?” When their father nodded his assent, the girls shrieked with delight, and wriggled out of their clothes. They ran from the shelter of the porch, and into the blanket of water, where they jumped and twirled and clapped their hands. Someone handed them a piece of dish soap, and the girls scrubbed between their toes and behind their ears, splashing and giggling and catching raindrops on their tongues. It was the picture of bliss.
As I watched them, dancing there in the pouring rain, something shifted…or perhaps it was the lifting of a veil. The rain continued, but, as it fell, I stopped thinking about food. I may have even stopped thinking about myself for a minute or two. Instead, I thought of the thirsting earth, parched from nearly a month with no rain…and how it must be rejoicing. I thought of the farmers who had been hauling water on their backs the past several weeks, battling to keep their wilting crops alive…and the relief they must be feeling. I thought of the children across the island, who—if they didn’t live near a river—had had to bathe with a trickle of water from a bucket, rationing every drop…and knew that they, too, must be dancing. And then I stopped thinking (Hallelujah!), and began to notice. I noticed how the rain glistened on the lime trees and pepper plants. I noticed how the sound on the tin roof was like a thousand joyous drumbeats. I noticed that the air smelled like life, and leaves. I noticed the peacefulness of those seated with me, and the light in their eyes, and their contented silence. My tummy, and the insistent voice of my mind, were silent as well. I heard only the raindrops.
Eventually, the rain slowed to a soft drizzle, and—bidding “goodnight” to our hosts—Francillia and I ventured out onto the dark, shimmering street. My left flip-flop slid off my foot with every other step, and Francillia’s rubber sandals made a humorous squish-squash against the asphalt. We laughed at our soggy but gleeful selves, and the light raindrops danced on our shoulders.As we came around a bend in the road, a warm glow from the roadside shop beckoned us in. There, we found a boisterous group of friends taking shelter from the storm. Claudinus and Clayes, the shopkeepers, were serving up their “famous” fried chicken, and calypso hummed from the radio in the corner. Knowing that supper awaited us at home, Francillia and I limited our purchase to white bread and ginger beer…but, for us, it was a heavenly feast.
We parted ways at the Bahá’í Center, where Francillia took the turn-off up the mountain, and I continued down the road to Gaulette River. The night was inky purple, and I could barely see beyond the edges of my flip-flops (which continued to slip off my feet, rather comically). When I shined my cell phone flashlight to either side of me, I discerned processions of orange and yellow crabs, side-stepping their way across the rain-soaked street. As I reached our home-without-an-address, the participants from Roushy’s study circle—who’d also been waiting out the rain—were just leaving, and they greeted me with hugs. Liz was at the stove, frying up noodles and cabbage, and the neighbors shouted hellos over the wall. When I’d changed out of my wet clothes, dinner was on the table, and we offered the grateful prayer:
“Praise be unto Thee, O Lord my God! We have observed the Fast in conformity with Thy bidding, and break it now through Thy love and good pleasure. Deign to accept, O my God, the deeds that we have performed in Thy path, wholly for the sake of Thy beauty, with our faces set towards Thy Cause, free from aught else but Thee…”
As we finished our meal, the rain began again. It shook the branches of the palm trees, gave the yams and yucca another good long drink, and drummed a sweet lullaby on our rooftop. As I sank into my bed, I thought about the bounties that surround us, bounties I so often blot out from my perception with the murk and mire of vain imaginings. That night, though, the merciful rain washed away that murk and mire…and I dreamt of trees with purple-pink blossoms.
And now, it is the 18th of March. The Fast is drawing to a close, and the New Year* is two days away. I pray that my fast, and the fasts of all who have made this offering, will be accepted. I pray that this year will bring more laughter, and learning, and rain for us to dance in. I pray that, with each passing day, the veils will be lifted a little higher, and—as ee cummings expresses in his glorious poem below—that the eyes of our eyes will be opened.
This year, may we all become hummingbirds.
i thank you God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
(i who have died and alive again today
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)
how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any-lifted from the no
of all nothing-human merely being
doubt unimaginably You?
(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)
*The Baha’i New Year, Naw Ruz, begins on March 21st