Arts portray life of the spirit

November 8, 2003

SCARBOROUGH, England — British Baha'is explored creative ways to portray the themes of a popular study course on spirituality at a national festival held here last month.

More than 1,200 people attended the festival, held from 7 to 9 November 2003, in the historic spa town of Scarborough, on the northeast coast of England.

The Baha'is and their many guests used the arts and other methods to portray the themes of "Reflections on the Life of the Spirit," a course aimed at understanding prayer, life after death, and the spiritual nature of human beings.

The course, created at the Ruhi Institute in Colombia, is the first in a series being used widely by Baha'is around the world to develop spiritual insights, knowledge and skills. People who are not Baha'is are also participating in increasing numbers.

Festival coordinator Rob Weinberg said the event was aimed at encouraging people to reflect on their spiritual nature and its portrayal in dramatic and musical performances, audio-visual presentations, and talks.

"The 'Life of the Spirit' was chosen as the theme because (spirituality) is fundamental to life and the transformation of society," Mr. Weinberg said.

Though many of the participants had already studied the course, Mr. Weinberg said that the festival was meant to "take the concepts and ideas of it and present them on a bigger stage."

Professor Edward Granville Browne in oriental attire. Slideshow
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Professor Edward Granville Browne in oriental attire.

"We also wanted to demonstrate to our visitors and friends what it means to be a Baha'i and to encourage them to engage with the processes the community is involved with."

Among the many guests of the Baha'is attending the festival was a representative of environmental charity Life Force International, Nigel Whittle, who said the festival was successful on many levels.

The enormous effort of the Baha'is was demonstrated by the variety and quality of exhibits, talks, and entertainment, Mr. Whittle said.

"Since the spirit is manifested in the material, this aspect of the festival alone represented much love, faith, and spiritual development," he said.

The spiritual realities that underpin human existence, the main theme of "Book One" of the Ruhi Institute's series of courses, was the topic of an address by Sohrab Youssefian, a member of the Continental Board of Counsellors.

"Just as there are laws, such as gravity which govern our physical life, so there are spiritual laws which impact on the life of our souls," Mr. Youssefian said.

"If we fail to access these forces, we remain like a bird that refuses to leave its nest and fly -- in other words, we do not realize the potentialities inherent within us."

Allied to the theme of prayer was an exhibition that showed the development of Baha'i Houses of Worship around the world.

Rare drawings and photographs of those Temples were displayed alongside architectural models. Audio-visual presentations charted their evolution.

The exhibition also included images and descriptions of the model of the newest Baha'i Temple, which is now in the planning stages and will be built near Santiago, Chile.

Illustrating the theme of life after death, Arabella Velasco, a British writer and actress, presented "A Light at the End of the Tunnel," her play based on first-hand accounts of near-death experiences.

"These were true stories taken from over 200 testimonials that were studied in my writing of the play," said Ms. Velasco, who played all three characters.

"Although science has not yet backed up such experiences, they add an enriching element to our study, in ("Reflection on the Life of the Spirit") and other arenas, of life after death," she said.

Other themes, such as the status of women, were also creatively explored at the festival.

Athens-based actor Shirin Youssefian-Maanian performed all 14 characters in the play "Pure," written by Annabel Knight.

The play depicts the life and death of the 19th century Persian poet, Tahirih, who heralded a new age of emancipation for women and challenged the religious fundamentalism of her time.

Among the prominent musicians at the festival was Conrad Lambert, also known as Merz, who gave a solo performance.

Merz's debut album was named one of the top 50 in the United Kingdom in 1999, and his performance at the Glastonbury Festival won him critical acclaim.

Making his UK debut was Tunisian-born Hatef Sedkaoui, also known as Atef, who played a blend of new soul and traditional Arabic dance music with his Marseilles-based band, "Soul Tunes."

One of the members of "Soul Tunes," Franck Taieb, said there were no religious barriers when it came to music.

"My wife is a Muslim and I am Jewish, and Atef is a Baha'i, and music brings us all together," Mr. Taieb said.

The festival included a creative description of aspects of the 1890 meeting between the distinguished Cambridge University orientalist, Professor Edward Granville Browne, and Baha'u'llah.

A documentary film about Professor Browne, which included footage shot in the professor's rooms at Pembroke College, was screened.

Festival participants could enter a detailed reconstruction of the room near Acre, Israel where the meeting took place, and hear a recording of Professor Browne's eloquent pen-portrait of Baha'u'llah.

Another film shown at the festival charted the worldwide development of the Baha'i community since 1890.

The National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of the United Kingdom presented a program describing the Baha'i social and community projects underway in the country.

Participants heard about the Institute for Social Cohesion, a Baha'i sponsored initiative, which encourages government and civil society to promote unity and understanding between socially diverse groups within British society.

Heather O'Neill, the coordinator of the Baha'i-inspired Youth Empowerment Project of Swindon, described how many young people have transformed their lives by participating in programs aimed at helping them develop a sense of purpose, personal responsibility and community service.

Festival participants aged between 11 and 14 had sessions in which they explored issues affecting them at school, and in the wider society.

The event concluded with a devotional ceremony. Pauline Senior, 96, a Baha'i for more than 80 years, led readers -- from children to the elderly -- in a tribute to the transforming power of the Baha'i teachings in their lives.