Stimulating spirit pervades study circle

October 20, 2005

SOFIA, Bulgaria — On a soft summer evening, conversation in the center of this Eastern European capital moved quickly past the transient issues of the day to the eternal questions.

Gathered were members of a Baha'i-inspired study circle that has met weekly in an exploration of spiritual and practical topics that have excited them for the past two years.

"We talk about the soul, life after death, prayers -- these are the eternal questions," said Iota Konstantinova, a corporate administrative manager.

Ms. Konstantinova, who is not a Baha'i, was referring to their discussions that arose out of studying "Reflections on the Life of the Spirit," the first in a series of workbooks developed by the Ruhi Institute of Colombia. The study circle here has moved through the series now to the fourth of seven workbooks.

The workbooks were originally intended for members of Baha'i communities to use in study circles with the aim of fostering their own spiritual development and building their capacity to better serve others.

However, popularity of the study circles has now spread far beyond the Baha'i community. In many countries, including Bulgaria, participation in study circles includes people from a wide range of religious and cultural backgrounds. They use a system of self-directed learning carried out in a group setting.

Study circles have tutors whose role is to facilitate discussion rather than instruct, and in this case it is Terry Madison, a Baha'i. Ms. Madison described the other members as people who "love and respect" the Baha'i Faith although not formally enrolled.

Ask the members of the study circle to explain the benefits of their involvement and they respond with enthusiasm.

"Well-educated people enjoy such discussions," said Ms. Konstantinova, who holds a master's degree in civil engineering as well as qualifications in economics and journalism.

"It has given me new ideas, new points of view, new understandings."

Ms. Konstantinova said, for example, that her participation has inspired her to embark on a personal project to help eliminate gossip and backbiting in her environment.

"I read an extract from Baha'u'llah that says it is not one who calls himself a Baha'i who is His follower but one whose deeds are those of a Baha'i," she said, speaking of the importance of acquiring moral virtues rather than just labeling oneself as a member of a faith.

Another member of the study circle is Dyana Dafova, an award-winning Bulgarian singer and composer with an international following. In New York recently, she donated two songs for a compilation compact disc released by the United Nations Human Rights Commission. Her music has been played in space to US astronauts.

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Stephanie and Evgenie Kostourkov.

Ms. Dafova said she enjoys study circles because they allow one to see oneself from a different angle and to become more knowledgeable about important topics.

"I like to make contact with people who have a spiritual interest and have spirituality in life," she said.

"When you are leading a very hectic life, I think it is good to take time to look at these things. If you don't, you lose out on knowing how you have to live, about what is important. This is the most important thing you do in your life."

At home, she recites Baha'i prayers with her husband. She describes herself as a good friend of the Baha'i Faith.

"I have been to Haifa -- I had a wonderful experience there (at the Baha'i holy places), a special experience that I will remember for the rest of my life."

Previously her creative focus was in the jazz, pop, and classical genres but it has since changed to "new music," combining the musical influence of different cultures, and presenting a message of love, peace, and tolerance.

"It is very serious music for thinking people. It is music for the mind and the soul."

Ms. Dafova's service activities include being president of the Morals and Ethics Association, a foundation she and Terry Madison established to build a moral society through education and the practice of virtues in daily life. The association arranges training programs for parents and teachers in virtues education, and it plans pilot "virtues" projects in schools.

Another member of the study circle, businessman Evgenie Kostourkov, said that members of the study circle discuss the spiritual development of the personality and how this intersects with their own lives, their families, and society.

"I enjoy this mostly because it is a very good group -- they are very intelligent women and have very interesting views -- and we love Terry and highly appreciate her tutorship."

Mr. Kostourkov said he has most enjoyed studying the lives of Baha'u'llah and the Bab, how They delivered spiritual teachings, knowing that would attract persecution. He said he is impressed with Their courage and endurance.

Involvement in the study circle, he said, has made him and his wife feel more relaxed, and they enjoy continuing the discussions at home after returning from the study circle meetings.

"We have started saying prayers -- Christian and Baha'i prayers. They are almost the same -- they must be the same, coming from the same source. When you are praying, it changes everything."

His wife Stephanie, known as Fanny, is an English translator who works closely with Terry Madison in a series of service projects, such as the Love That Child Foundation, which is involved in helping children in need, including children with disabilities.

For her, the study circle is a relief after the often trivial conversations encountered in normal daily life.

"Even professors here are not ready to talk about serious matters -- they are always joking and drinking. This discussion, though, is serious, it is very deep conversation."

"Since I have been with Baha'is there has been a change in me. During our upbringing in communist times religion was absolutely neglected -- in 40 years they eradicated 1,000 years of religious tradition."

The effect, she said, was to make it difficult for her to have any religious feeling and to make her feel "terribly alone." Even now she doubts her capacity for true spiritual feeling although she can see that throughout her life she has been on a spiritual quest. One of the issues with which she is grappling is how God can allow children to suffer.

Since being involved in the study circle she has been continually pondering the value of prayers, and she now experiments with reciting them.

"I sometimes pray that God will help me to relax and it works," she said.

"My great gain (from the study circle) is this idea to serve and help others. I feel the pleasure of doing it, it is very natural. I think how beautiful it is, how great it is to help others."

Formerly a resident on the Caribbean island of St. Martin and Suriname, the study circle tutor Terry Madison is a television producer who has lived in Bulgaria for more than 14 years. She said there is a special spirit in the study circle.

"By the time the session is over everyone is uplifted. Even if they were depressed and didn't feel like coming initially, they are grateful for our sessions, and at the conclusion they are always joyful -- me too.

"I learn continually from these lovely souls," she said, mentioning their ability to deliver talks on deep spiritual matters not only during their own study circle sessions but at others in the city and at the Baha'i Center to bigger audiences.

A day after the discussion in the apartment, the group met on the patio of the Kostourkov home for their regular session studying spiritual virtues.

Others present included a local lawyer, psychologist, and teachers -- all keen to consciously include spiritually virtuous behavior in their own lives and to assist their children and others to do the same.

It was a lively and vibrant session, including a skit, and lots of laughter. The same spirit of the study circle -- joy and intellectual and spiritual stimulation -- pervaded the gathering.

(Photographs by Edit Kalman.)