Fire | A personal reflection on the Baha'i Fast
Each year Baha’is around the world greet the spring equinox refreshed from the Nineteen-Day Fast. For nineteen days -- a full Baha’i month -- Baha'is arise before dawn to greet the day with prayer and the only food or drink they’ll have until after sunset. Their sustenance throughout the day is spiritual, immersion in prayer and meditation. And at sunset on the last evening, they’ll emerge from that spiritual cauldron to celebrate the arrival of a new year.
Reflections on the meaning and benefits of the Fast are myriad, but only one adherent has written a full book on the subject. We welcome Deborah Walters' contribution, in celebration of the Baha’i year 179 B.E.
Written by Deborah Walters
As a health care practitioner, I witness feelings of powerlessness in people who are striving to make changes in their personal lives and hoping for individual transformation in a world they wish were different. The helplessness caused by our maladaptive response to challenges and our incapacity to find solutions infiltrates our relationships, careers, worship, and our ability to be good stewards to the earth.
The natural inclination of life is expansion. Cells need a nutritional environment in which to grow and live. Neurons seek growth factors that aid in the development of the brain and central nervous system. Children thrive in a warm, responsive environment with healthy boundaries. In contrast to this expansion, living organisms are wired to retract and move away from fear, pain, or disgust and towards what feels good.
Which leads us to ask -- how can we expand, and not retract both physically and spiritually, in the midst of increasing environmental disasters, fierce antagonisms, and injustices?
Baha’u’llah, the Prophet founder of the Baha’i Faith, conceived a divine civilization based in justice that will establish a pattern for peace. That bottom-up structure encourages participation and consultation, finding truth through the fiery clash of diverse opinions. His revelation infused all created things with this new potency; an inside out paradigm that lends understanding to the connection between our material and spiritual worlds.
Neuroscience is moving toward this understanding as quantum mechanics reveals more about the worlds behind matter, and we begin to witness how things manifest from the ‘invisible realms’ spoken of in the Baha’i Writings. Traditionally, the brain has been viewed as an information-absorbing processor, but more recently neuroscientists have observed how it behaves as an active explorer in the world, creating, and then examining the consequences.
Similarly, we need to acknowledge the divine spark that bridges the material and spiritual. This animating source, in the Writings called “the seat of the soul,” can transmute the human heart.
Allowing that spark to ignite our hearts requires prayer and fasting. Baha'u'llah begins the Long Obligatory prayer, “Make of my prayer…a fire that will burn away the veils that have shut me out from Thy beauty...” While in a prayer for the Fast, He writes, “Grant, O my Lord, that the fire of Thy love and the heat produced by the Fast may inflame them in Thy Cause.” It is the heat of spiritual fire that overrides our learned helplessness and that echoes in our physical being.
Whereas “material fire” chemically requires the breaking of molecular bonds; “divine fire” burns by itself and is inextinguishable. It appears in the world as a manifestation of the love of God to guide and attract all; creating the nurturing environment the heart needs. Like the neuron seeking growth factors to become mature, our hearts seek the heat of the love of God.
In a spiritual sense, we can ‘break the bonds’ of our attachments through reflection and our lower self is tested during the Fast as we refrain from what is not of God. The ‘friction’ of our lower will submitting to the Divine releases heat into the world. For nineteen days we continue to fuel this fire of the heart through the Words of God and enkindle it through His prayers. When Baha’u’llah says in the Tablet of Ahmad, “be thou as a flame of fire to my enemies,” this invokes deeper insight into how a heart consumed by divine fire can warm and melt the coldest of hearts.
As we fast and enkindle our love for God, we see how spiritual fire transcends that biological impulse to turn away from what is painful, and we retrain ourselves to move towards the pain with hope to dissipate it.
When collaborating with people in dysregulated emotional states, I encourage them to run at the emotional storm. Similarly, horse riders train horses not to react to stimuli like fire, and to instead trust the rider, submitting to the rider’s guiding hand. Baha’u’llah’s Fire Tablet asks us to rise above our biological nature, align with spirit and expand into it with spiritual fire. “When the swords flash, move forward, when the shafts fly, press onward.”
When considering the challenges of the physical, dry, intermittent fasting asked of us, be assured that our bodies have evolutionary mechanisms adapted for scarcity of both food and water. And, in a spiritual sense, if we all could ignite the divine fire, the whole world would be set ablaze, healing from the inside out. There is a world-redeeming spirit “vibrating in the realities of all created things.”1 And when our inner eye perceives what is behind the material, we can move, fearlessly and on fire towards what is hard, assured that the light will illumine the right path along the way.
1. Shoghi Effendi, The Advent of Divine Justice
Health care practitioner and author of “The Supreme Remedy,” a book offering deep insight on the benefits of the Baha’i Fast, Deborah Walters believes that healing goes beyond addressing physical illness. She’s pursuing ground-breaking research on rewiring the nervous system to overcome fear through PhD studies in Neurobehavioral Science.