Soundtrack in my head: Spiritualized, “The Slide Song”
As I’d written in a previous post, I began attending events at the Madison Baha’i Center back in August. This began after years of accumulated issues and concerns with the Mahikari spiritual organization I’d been involved with for the previous eleven years. This began a series of events that led to the day that the sun crossed the equator.
I re-read a copy of J.L. Esslemont’s “Baha’u’llah and the New Era,” and it resonated with me like it hadn’t before. I’d had a daily habit of reading Mahikari teachings for a few minutes each day. A couple weeks after I first started going to the Baha’i Center, I started to read Mahikari and Baha’i books side by side to see if I could get a sense of which path was more of a reflection of my understanding of God, the spiritual life, the purpose of religion in this world, our current world situation and what felt…right.
After a few weeks of this, I was beginning to think that the Baha’i Faith was speaking to me more than my path of the previous eleven years was, but I wasn’t anything close to sure about the right direction to go. At that time, I’d been coming to the Mahikari Center–located at the outer edges of the Chicago area–about once a month. So I decided that at my next trip to the Mahikari Center, I’d also visit the Baha’i Temple, which is also in the Chicago area, and see if that would give me a clearer idea.
I reserved a rental car on the morning of Saturday, September 22nd, but when I got to the rental car place, my credit card didn’t go through. Apparently, an online payment to my credit card that I made several days before didn’t post. I had to be a bit assertive in order for them to let me rent the car with my debit card. I sort of felt bad about it as I drove away. I felt kind of anxious as I began driving towards Chicago.
I usually take US Hwy 12 to Illinois Route 59 to get to the Mahikari center. Highway 12 is a beautiful drive through southeast Wisconsin, with lots of rolling hills. The leaves on the trees were still green, but splashes of autumn color were starting to appear here and there. But it didn’t diminish my anxiety too much. And it increased with the Chicago traffic.
My visit to the Mahikari Center was no different than any other visit. I made my offering, offered a prayer, and participated in the activities there. To anyone at the center, my visit there was no different from any other. Inwardly, however I felt a lot of turmoil because of the fact that I was considering leaving. I knew it was possible that this might be my last visit to the center. While there, I spent some time with friend I helped guide into Mahikari five years ago. I found this to be kind of ironic. I continued my activities, said one more prayer, said my normal goodbyes to people and left without any fanfare.
It’s not an easy drive from the Mahikari Center in Streamwood to the Baha’i Temple in Wilmette. It’s 34 miles, and most of it is side roads. I posted in an earlier blog entry how I do not like driving in Chicago, and the combination of that and the inner turmoil I was feeling turned my drive into a white-knuckled journey.
It’s a little hard to explain what I felt and why I felt it. I have always felt that there are multiple legitimate spiritual paths, so on the outset it shouldn’t seem that questioning my current path and considering a new one might be stressful. But Mahikari has very definite and specific teachings about the spiritual world—teachings which made sense to me for many years, and which I had accepted as fact. I tend to throw myself quite heavily into whatever endeavor I consider important. But I’d been increasingly questioning the organization for the last four years. The inner conflict I felt had been quite stressful for me. Seriously considering leaving was even more unsettling. I think I understand now how difficult it was for my mother to leave the Catholic Church.
I was still white-knuckled and shallow-breathed when I arrived at the Baha’i Temple. I wish I could say that I was overjoyed at my arrival there, but I wasn’t. I went through the exhibits in the Visitors Center, and walked into the Cornerstone Room where ‘Abdul Baha, the son of the Baha’i prophet Baha’u’llah, first laid the cornerstone of the building in 1912. Then I saw a film about the Baha’i Faith and the building of the temple. Finally, I went into the bookstore there, looked around, and ended up striking a conversation with the bookstore attendant. It turns out that she went to the University of Illinois in Urbana like I did, though a little later than me. It was at the university that I was first introduced to the Baha’i Faith. She talked about having to overcome worries of leaving her childhood faith for the Baha’i Faith. I told her I could relate.
I went up into the main floor of the temple, a place for prayer and quiet contemplation. I’d been there about three or four times before. One of those visits I remember very well was December 27, 1989. On that day, while in the temple, I decided *against* joining the Baha’i Faith, even though I’d previously planned on making that declaration on January 1, 1990. It was funny, because I felt a lot of energy in the temple on that day, a lot of warmth and love from God while in that room, but I still felt that it wasn’t the appropriate path at the time. Now, eighteen years later, I was in the temple again, praying and reflecting. I hoped to feel that sense of love and warmth again but I think I had too much on my mind. Nevertheless, looking up at the high ceiling and the intricate stonework within the temple made me feel more calm.
Then I went to Gillson Beach, which is a beach along Lake Michigan a few blocks from the temple. It has always been my favorite beach in the Chicago area. I like it because it faces more north than east, away from the lights of the city, giving it a different and more mysterious vibe altogether. Because the shoreline juts west, the sun sometimes looks almost like it’s setting over the lake during the longest days of the year even though the lake generally faces east. When I lived in Chicago, I would frequently go up there and write in my journal. A Mahikari friend and I once went up there on a summer night and exchanged Light on the beach, and we saw a shooting star in the sky shortly afterwards.
Now here I was again at Gillson Beach with the dome of the Baha’i Temple behind me in the distance–this time as a Wisconsin resident writing 150 miles from my home. Nevertheless, Lake Michigan was once again witness to the many conversations going on in my head, and boy, they were talking up a storm this time. I sat down and wrote, and tried to put into words all of the anxious feelings I had. The sun disappeared behind the horizon, and it began to get dark, cool, and mosquito-ey. Then about a half hour later, I suddenly I had this strong feeling that I should walk into the temple once again. And write. And pray.
I walked back into the temple, and began a new journal entry with, “Hello temple my old friend. I’ve come to talk with you again.” I wrote a little while longer and then put my journal down and started to pray. I prayed about my confusion and fear. Gradually, I became aware of a warm and loving presence. I began to feel that I was loved and understood. Was this something I was creating in my own mind? Who is to say? I tend to be cautious now when it comes to declaring spiritual experiences like these. But one thing that is clear—the feelings of love and understanding that I felt emanating there were not ones I sensed during the literally thousands of prayers I offered at a number of Mahikari Centers around the country.
In any case, I walked out of the temple feeling a greater sense of joy than I had in a long time. As I walked out, I ran into the bookstore attendant I’d talked to a couple of hours before. Since there’s no talking allowed in the temple, we just exchanged knowing smiles. I walked down the stairs and sat by one of the fountains in the temple gardens. The fountains glowed luminescent blue in the night air and the sound of the rushing water calmed me even more. I sat there, not really wanting to leave, but knowing that I had 150 miles to drive home. Right before I left, I looked up at the temple and noticed the attendant looking down at me. Perhaps she could sense the intensity of emotion I felt.
And then I drove home.
The next day was the autumnal equinox, which is the time when the sun crossed the equator and the nights became longer than the days. This seemed appropriate. I knew that I wasn’t ready to declare myself a Baha’i just yet. I’m still not ready at this point. But I knew a line had been crossed. Except that things have felt like they’ve been getting brighter, not darker. From that day on, I stopped reading the Mahikari Teachings because I knew that my belief in the Baha’i Faith was now stronger than my belief in the Mahikari Teachings. And the experience convinced me that I was not going through a period of spiritual disturbance, but spiritual transformation–which is still occurring as I write this…