Article included in
"Nomi Manon, And Her Eyes Were Open: Women's Religious Journeys,
Nomi Press, 2001, pp. 80-89
Just this week, even as I am writing this article, I have been grading comprehensive examinations for our masters' degree students. Half failed on the first try and are allowed to retake it once. They sent me emails telling me how "sad, sad" they were. They called and spoke of crying all night and not wanting to have to do it over again.
Yet the faculty understood these students needed more rigor in their thinking and writing and that forcing them to dig deeper into their inner resources could be a growth experience for them. If only they would really give it a try on the second round.
So why, then, since I understand how vital passing or retaking tests is for my students, did it take me so long to truly understand this as one if the crucial aspects of life. Each time a difficult situation-a "life test"-came, I would suck in my breath, waiting for it to be over and believing everything would be fine afterwards. Similar to leaders who see change as something to be temporarily endured, rather than the constant condition it has become, I kept thinking whatever test this was would be the last.
I knew the great religious and spiritual teaching talked about tests and the potential growth from them, but deep inside, unconsciously, I really wanted peacefulness, calm and serenity. Tests always seemed to pull me out of that. In fact, now I can almost see that neediness for external calm was part of my own test, and how my avoidance of difficult situations actually stunted my spiritual growth. The idea is to have inner calm, based on trust in God. Then no matter what happens around us, we can be happy and serene.
Some days my life seems so unbearable. But that is only because I believe it to be so. Could my life be anything even approaching that of 'Abdu'l-Bahá in prison for 40 years, unjustly put there because his beliefs as a Bahá'í were seen as threats to the religious leaders in the middle east?
The difficulties I face only serve to make me stronger in the long run. I have noticed over the years that people who are deeper, more thoughtful with a firm grounding have usually suffered more than those who seem more superficial.
I am almost embarrassed to admit it took me nearly thirty years of spiritual development to finally begin to gain this consciousness. Many readings, horrendous tests, maybe a little growth later until I finally start to see a small portion of the light. Back in college in the 70s, one of my favorite readings was the mystical essay or Tablet, The Seven Valleys, by Baha'u'llah, prophet-founder of the Baha'i Faith. Written over 150 years ago, it was a response to a Shaykh (a high level teacher in Islam), who was a member of the Sufi sect. The Seven Valleys describes the seven stages the soul must go through as it journeys towards the object of its quest, namely, God. The passage I was drawn to over and over again, was a story in the third stage, the Valley of Knowledge:
One phrase from that wondrous book has stayed in my thoughts throughout the years. As I went from one hardship to another test, what helped me hold on and move forward was to "see the end in the beginning," to be able to see the bright future that would surely await me, to anticipate the growth rising out of turmoil. To be comforted by 'Abdu'l-Baha's instruction to "make every stumbling block a stepping stone to progress," (in Fire & Gold, p. 149) as well as his urging to "pray for strength. It will be given to you, no matter how difficult that conditions." (Fire & Gold, p. 156)
Living the principle
A test that has gone on for two years for me involved a clash of values between me and the dominant culture of my workplace. For most of that time, I furiously read spiritual teachings about growing from tests and learning more patience. Then it got to the point that I finally saw the test had changed to one that asked the question. Do I have enough courage to leave? Is my trust in God sufficient for me to take the plunge into dark waters? After much agony and soul-searching and another, final collision of principles, I turned in my resignation, without another job in sight. Now my faith will have more chance to be tested.
How easy to say those words-never lose trust in God-and how difficult to remember them in times in intense pain. How much easier to blame: the world, our parents, our spouse, our boss, our co-workers, the economy. An immature response to difficulties-and I admit to this, even today-is to look outside for the cause and to bemoan one's fate. Real spiritual development includes being a full adult, taking responsibility and looking within for the strength. Tests and trials only cause agitation to weak hearts. But to the pure souls, a hundred thousand tests are but to them like mirage, imagination, shadow. ('Abdu'l-Baha in Fire and Gold, p. 36)
Re-structure our selves
What I came to see was that these tests were helping me re-structure my inner self, so that it could endure harsher tribulations. The same tests come again in greater degree, until it is shown that a former weakness has become a strength... ('Abdu'l-Baha in Fire and Gold, p. 15)
In my less mature ways, I wanted the outside world to change, to accommodate me, so that I would not have to feel the pain and sorrow. But spiritual growth ultimately brings that inner transformation, where weaknesses become strengths, where a gnat becomes an eagle. But suffering, although an inescapable reality, can nevertheless be utilized as a means for the attainment of happiness. Suffering is both a reminder and a guide. It stimulates us better to adapt ourselves to our environmental conditions, and thus leads the way to self-improvement. In every suffering one can find a meaning and a wisdom. But it is not always easy to find the secret of that wisdom. It is sometimes only when all our suffering has passed that we become aware of its usefulness. (Shoghi Effendi: Fire and Gold, p. 29)
They key, once again, was to see the end in the beginning. To have faith in God to know I am always receiving blessings and that, in the future, I would possibly understand the wisdom in my current suffering. The previous quotation ties back in to the concept of spiritual law, which I discuss at length in Managing with the Wisdom of Love. Suffering helps us adapt to our surrounding conditions, and may even be the result of our own behavior. That is, we have broken a spiritual law and are living the consequences, which might include suffering. As the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament states, "Reap what ye sow." For there are two kinds of suffering, one for tests and growth and the other as a consequence of our actions.
The path of spiritual development is a long and arduous one. Without pain, real growth is difficult. Men who suffer not, attain no perfection. ('Abdu'l-Baha in Fire and Gold, p. 6) Seeing the end in the beginning and trusting in the bounties of God are ways to move through the turmoil with radiant acquiesence.
Several years ago I was skiing in Austria. During my first hour at ski school, I had an accident where I tore two ligaments in my knee and was taken to the hospital. With my limited German, I was able to understand the doctor telling me I needed surgery. "No!" I cried out, tears streaming down my cheeks. "I don't have time for an operation and a cast on my leg. I have too much work to do!" Unable to see the end in the beginning, I was angry and started blaming the ski school instructor, Manfred, for abandoning me on that difficult T-bar lift.
Traveling home to Prague via train, a cast from hip to toe and two children, luggage and ski gear was no small feat. I quickly realized Prague was not a city made for handicapped people and I found myself unable to go much of anywhere for six weeks, until the cast was removed. The paper I had wanted to write on spirituality in organizations was sitting at my desk, begging me to work on it. For the past five months, I had told myself "Next week I will start it." Finally I had unpressured time to devote to it. By the time my cast was off, I had made so much progress, I knew it could be a book. Ultimately, it became Managing with the Wisdom of Love. Without the ski accident, I might still be telling myself I have to work on that project. So, the trauma I was so angry about was actually the blessing that helped give birth to my book.
Becoming a full adult, spiritually, means not complaining in the midst of tests, but being able to see the end in the beginning and being grateful for the learning and strength that are soon to come. My calamity if My providence, outwardly it is fire and vengeance, but inwardly it is light and mercy." (Baha'u'llah, The Hidden Words, p. 15)
It is not so difficult to realize all of these after the test has subsided and the blessings are evident, but real spiritual development would mean that in the midst of another test of life I am happy, even jubilant, that God has given me such a wonderful opportunity for growth. To truly believe "My calamity is my providence."
Baha'u'llah. (1945, 1991) The Seven Valleys and The Four Valleys. Wilmette, IL: Baha'i Publishing Trust.
Kurzius, Brian. (1995) Fire and gold: Benefiting from life's tests. Oxford: George Ronald Press.
Marcic, Dorothy. (1997) Managing with the Wisdom of Love: Uncovering virtue in people and organizations. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.