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Friday, March 19, 2021

Naw-Ruz and the Celebration of Baha’i New Year | By Gity Etemad, MD

Baha’is all over the world will celebrate Naw-Ruz as the annual, celebratory feast of renewal - the spiritual and physical springtime. But for Baha’is, Naw-Ruz isn’t only a party – it serves as a symbolic reminder of the oneness of all the messengers of God, and the spiritual springtime they each brought to humanity. Naw-Ruz is a feast of hospitality and rejoicing.

As the first day of the Baha’i New Year, Naw-Ruz coincides with the spring equinox in the Northern Hemisphere, which typically occurs on March 21. However, since Baha’u’llah enjoined that this festival should be celebrated on whatever day the sun passes into the constellation of Aries – that is, the vernal equinox – Naw-Ruz could fall on March 19, 20, 21, or 22, depending on the precise time of the equinox. The Festival of Naw-Ruz follows with four days Ayyam-i-Ha for community service and gift-giving, and then 19 days of fasting finally ending by the festival of Naw-Ruz.

Baha’i communities typically observe Naw-Ruz and meetings that combine prayerful devotions with joyous fellowship. Since Naw-Ruz is an ancient Persian festival that goes back thousands of years the Baha’is from Iranian backgrounds may follow some traditions associated with the ancient Persian festival, but these cultural practices are kept distinct from the religious observance itself.

A prayer by Baha’’u’llah for Naw-Ruz:

Praised be Thou, O my God, that Thou hast ordained Naw-Ruz as a festival unto those who have observed the fast for love of Thee and abstained from all that is abhorrent unto Thee. Grant, O my Lord that the fire of Thy love and the heat produced by the fast enjoined with Thy praise and with remembrance of Thee.

Gity Etemad is a fourth-generation Baha’i, a founding board member of Interfaith Philadelphia, and currently represents the region’s Baha’i community on the Religious Leaders Council of Greater Philadelphia. You can find a description of her career and other interests here.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Love as Another Way of Being: Spiritual Wisdom from bell hooks | by Eva Whittaker

Some days, it feels as if my feet are on shifting sands. We are facing different crises on many fronts in our shared life. A global pandemic making wealth and health disparities, as well as our deep disconnection from each other, all the more clear. A profound sense of isolation. The history and present crisis of racial and social inequity and oppression, pushing us to live the questions of what an ethical and equitable society might look like. Just to name a few.

I’ve been reflecting on what it looks like to live my values right now. And I often feel as though I’m looking for some sort of hope or clarity, in any form really, to meet this moment. Spiritual practices like lovingkindness meditation or walking in the woods help me to restore some balance, but it’s almost inevitable to eventually feel the weight of isolation from our beloved communities or the sense that our lives are on pause. In this time, reading bell hooks’ All About Love feels like a tonic, and a sacred text. In this book, she writes wisely and incisively about community and about love as an active force in our lives.

hooks illuminates with incredible precision the crises we face as what she terms a ‘loveless’ society, and the importance of reorienting our shared lives toward a ‘love ethic’. She tells us that love is something more expansive, more persuasive than the ‘love’ society romanticizes, physicalizes and idealizes. Instead, she names love as a necessary embodiment of care, responsibility, compassion, humility, and integrity in every aspect of our lives. It involves cultivating personal and social awareness, which "enables us to critically examine our actions to see what is needed so that we can give care, be responsible, show respect, and indicate a willingness to learn".

In a society which does not promote this expansive understanding of love, we are left divided and out of touch. hooks writes incisively about the consequences of this lovelessness, and how it promotes fear of difference and intense disconnection. But “when we choose to love we choose to move against fear - against alienation and separation. The choice to love is a choice to connect - to find ourselves in the other”. This is wisdom many different religious and spiritual traditions impart, too. How we locate ourselves lovingly in relation to one another is empowering, and profoundly spiritual.

Seen clearly, this love is a transformative force which enhances our communal relationships, cultivates spiritual growth, and gives us different values to live by. Drawing on her own wisdom, and the wisdom of spiritual thinkers like Thomas Merton and Martin Luther King Jr, she writes that embracing and enacting love is a profoundly spiritual way of being – as well as something inherently political and necessarily communal. hooks writes, “we can collectively regain our faith in the transformative power of love by cultivating courage, the strength to stand up for what we believe in, to be accountable both in word and deed." This embrace of love is equally a commitment to a spiritual life for hooks, which requires “conscious practice, [and] a willingness to unite the way we think with the way we act”. This choice, to ‘walk our talk’, is a life founded on a “commitment to a way of thinking and behaving that honors principles of inter-being and interconnectedness.”

The way hooks emphasizes this courage and compassion as necessary elements of living by a love ethic reminds me of Interfaith Philadelphia’s motto, ‘Dare to Understand’. She writes of love like it’s a well, an aquifer – out of which flows hope and energy, strength and renewal, if we choose courageously (against the received ‘wisdom’ of our loveless society) to tap it. She teaches us "to remember that though our paths are many, we are made one community in love.” This is the ethos of interfaith work, and of building bridges of solidarity and trust across different ideologies and faith traditions, in order to create a more loving society. Reminding us of our responsibility to each other, and the spiritual nourishment that love provides, hooks illuminates another way of being for this time and all time. She gives us an expansive understanding of how to meet this moment of separation and suffering with equal strength and tenderness. I am so grateful for her wisdom, and her ability to see a long-view of our life together, which grounds me in hope.

If you want to read more about the impact of bell hooks’  broader oeuvre, find a wonderful commentary and 'starter kit' here. Thanks to Chelsea and my fellow interns for exploring parts of this text with me.

Monday, March 8, 2021

How a Paintbrush Helps Me Face Isolation and Heartache | by Bronwen Henry

It seems unreasonable, but it is true. A paintbrush, together with some pigment and a blank canvas, is a key conspirator helping me navigate isolation and heartache. These apparently simple tools have been essential in escorting me on a path to strengthen my sense of self, my connection with other people and my time of listening to the Divine.

The creative process is the opposite of numbing. When I create, a doorway opens to be present with my own suffering and the suffering of others. Though it is a solitary act, I find creativity helps me to identify with people near and far. The creative act gives me space to breathe, imagine, hope, cry, and pray.

The creative life has awakened in me a radical degree of compassion for myself and others. It is a space where I reckon with anxiety, fear, heartache, and failure. It is also a space where I dream and imagine a world within and around me that is more beautiful.

Let me give an example with a recent series of paintings. At the beginning of the pandemic, I released my first book, Radioactive Painting, which was focused on the surprisingly poignant topic of navigating isolation and finding compassion and creativity. To launch the book I had created a collection of round canvases.

These canvases each held prayers inspired by the Buddhist practice of lovingkindness or metta. In this practice of metta one holds expanding circles of awareness of people from self to unknown other, to friends, to people you may be in conflict with, ultimately to all sentient beings. Each canvas is created and named to reflect the intention to extend to ourselves and all beings these phrases of lovingkindness. In metta, we offer phrases such as “May we be protected. May we be surrounded by love. May we be courageous.” If at any point it becomes difficult to offer kindness to another you return to offering kindness for yourself.

While creating I often return to the metta meditation, wherein you offer kindness to self and others, in expanding circles, with no limit. More recently with the continued national movement awakening around racism, my time at the canvas has been a space for me to look deeply at my own history of privilege, the ways I contribute to and benefit from existing structures.This self examination is painful, confronting and necessary. This time at the canvas gives me the courage to look deeply at my complicity and flaws. It is also a time where if I stay with the discomfort and if I am patient, I find hints and insights on how I can be part of change.

I spend consistent time each week on my practice. Color and forms delight me as they emerge on a blank canvas. At the same time I do not put the results of my creative practice above the process. It is truly the process and how it transforms me and motivates me to participate in the world with more compassion that interests me the most. Though it appears I am the one doing the creating, the truth is that the creative act itself has shaped me. It is a space for my own identity to expand and grow in courage, compassion and a deep sense of connection to others.

Note About Author: Bronwen Henry’s faith has roots in a Christian context and continues to grow as a student of many faiths with much alignment found in Buddhist teachings and A Course in Miracles. Bronwen began painting in 2013 when she faced a thyroid cancer diagnosis that reignited her passion for (and prioritization of) the creative process. To read more of her story check out her book, Radioactive Painting, and to see more of her work check out or follow her on instagram.