02/02/2011 10:53 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Processing Personal Pain -- A Baha'i View

O God, my God! Lowly, suppliant and fallen upon my face, I beseech Thee with all the ardor of my invocation to pardon whosoever hath hurt me, forgive him that hath conspired against me and offended me, and wash away the misdeeds of them that have wrought injustice upon me. Vouchsafe unto them Thy goodly gifts, give them joy, relieve them from sorrow, grant them peace and prosperity, give them Thy bliss and pour upon them Thy bounty. Thou art the Powerful, the Gracious, the Help in Peril, the Self-Subsisting!

This was Abdu'l-Baha's prayer for God to forgive and bless people who had been incredibly malicious to him for many years. It is highly instructive for anyone who wishes to see how the Baha'i Scriptures urge one to process pain -- in this case, pain caused by treachery.

We all experience pain -- caused by loved ones who prove false; friends who hurt our feelings; disappointments with ourselves or with others; grief and longing. The natural tendency at such a time is to isolate ourselves, nurse our wounds, and numb the pain. In a letter to a Baha'i who had been libeled, Abdu'l-Baha urged him at such a time to increase his services in the Path of God, and to seek neither to be praised by others, nor to be upset by their blame:

"If one is praised and chosen by God, the accusation of all the creatures will cause no loss to him; and if the man is not accepted in the threshold of God, the praise and admiration of all men will be of no use to him. By all these it is meant that thou must not be sorry and grieved because of these things ... written against thee; nay, rather trust in God and be unmoved by either the praise or the false accusations declared by people towards thee, depend entirely on God and exert thyself to serve His holy vineyard."

Whatever its cause, pain, properly used, can be an incentive to spiritual growth. In his work "The Seven Valleys," which describes the stages of the seeking soul in its quest for the knowledge of God, Baha'u'llah states, "if there be no pain, this journey will never end."

In this same passage, Baha'u'llah quotes the Persian mystic poet Attar, whom I here paraphrase: Let the believer keep his faith; let the unbeliever keep his doubt. Attar's heart seeks pain -- even an atom of pain. Attar understood the preciousness of pain in the path of personal growth. This is also expressed in this prayer by Baha'u'llah, which will help to process one's pain and soothe one's soul:

"Glory to Thee, O my God! But for the tribulations which are sustained in Thy path, how could Thy true lovers be recognized; and were it not for the trials which are borne for love of Thee, how could the station of such as yearn for Thee be revealed? Thy might beareth me witness! The companions of all who adore Thee are the tears they shed, and the comforters of such as seek Thee are the groans they utter, and the food of them who haste to meet Thee is the fragments of their broken hearts."

Pain, put to good use, is an incentive to change, a stimulus to draw us closer to God, and a means of purifying our motives. I have personally found that directly trying to reduce the pain is counterproductive. Rather, I embrace the pain, and work with it. I recall reading a Persian aphorism in a book many years ago: "If a moment burns -- let it burn." I have found this to be great advice. I ask myself what is causing the pain, and resolve to change within me whatever brought it about. Whether it is the pain of exposure of my own shortcomings, or pain caused by another, if I let it burn inside, and if I view it as burning away my ego, I find, without exception, that it does me no harm and causes me to grow. This is consistent with this guidance received from Shoghi Effendi:

" ... suffering, although an inescapable reality, can nevertheless be utilised as a means for the attainment of happiness. This is the interpretation given to it by all the prophets and saints who, in the midst of severe tests and trials, felt happy and joyous and experienced what is best and holiest in life. 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 Marjory Morten's description of Baha'u'llah's daughter Bahiyyih Khanum, and her high state of spiritual attainment in dealing with pain, she writes:

"Something greater than forgiveness she had shown in meeting the cruelties and strictures in her own life. To be hurt and to forgive is saintly, but far beyond this is the power to comprehend and not be hurt."


" ... if one tried to hurt her, she would wish to console him for his own cruelty."

Sometimes the source of pain is much deeper than emotional pain, and expresses the state of a soul who has not found God. Baha'u'llah identifies this with the "Great Tribulation" anticipated by Christians. Referring to it as "oppression" in this passage from his "Book of Certitude," in the course of his elucidation of the meaning of the signs of Christ's return, Baha'u'llah writes:

What "oppression" is more grievous than that a soul seeking the truth, and wishing to attain unto the knowledge of God, should know not where to go for it and from whom to seek it?

The Word of God brought to earth in every age causes a tumult in the human soul. In one's inner being and in the world at large, there is chaos before there is resolution and a higher order, as Baha'u'llah expresses in one of his meditations:

"I testify that no sooner had the First Word proceeded, through the potency of Thy will and purpose, out of His mouth, and the First Call gone forth from His lips than the whole creation was revolutionized, and all that are in the heavens and all that are on earth were stirred to the depths. Through that Word the realities of all created things were shaken, were divided, separated, scattered, combined and reunited, disclosing, in both the contingent world and the heavenly kingdom, entities of a new creation, and revealing, in the unseen realms, the signs and tokens of Thy unity and oneness. Through that Call Thou didst announce unto all Thy servants the advent of Thy most great Revelation and the appearance of Thy most perfect Cause."

Suffering is an inevitable part of living. By identifying the source of our pain, making the necessary adjustments in our life, and striving to use it as an incentive to rendering greater service, pain can be seen as one more of the God-given tools we can use to draw closer to Him. As Shoghi Effendi's guidance says:

"It is part of the Preciousness of this great work being done in the teaching field that it should be done through real sacrifices and not without heartaches attending it. There is a tendency in the American outlook on life at present to believe that suffering is produced by clumsiness and is not only avoidable but not a good thing, and not essential. While there is some truth in this attitude, we as Baha'is cannot but believe that suffering is often an essential part of our service. The Prophets suffered bitterly, so did all the Saints and Martyrs, and often 'fed on the fragments of those broken hearts', as Baha'u'llah says in one of His beautiful prayers."