The Protestant work ethic and spiritual wellbeing

I was inspired to pick up on something that Karen said on her blog, Karen's Path. She talks about the fact that she has been working part time over the last few months and that this has been stressful for her. She wonders how people who work full time cope. She says that she can cope with working only part time because she needs space to think: "I never really learned to balance work with all the other obligations in my life. ... I've never been a person who thrives on being busy. I need that space to think." I have thought about this issue a great deal because I am like Karen and go crazy if I am too busy with work. I work part time and try to ensure that I have enough space each day to reflect and do my devotions. When I work full time, I do this at great cost to my spiritual wellbeing.

I believe that the Protestant work ethic is a big obstacle on our spiritual path. We are taught that activity is good and anything else is laziness. Interestingly, we have to overcome this ethic in order to feel comfortable about praying. Praying isn't strictly speaking 'activity'—it's more akin to sitting around, and reflecting is even worse. For years, I would deal with this by fitting prayer into the tiny spaces of my life.

I can still remember the words of wisdom that came from a believer at a conference many years ago. She said: "If you're too busy to pray, you're busier than God meant you to be." The gem of the idea is that Baha'u'llah determines how we should live our lives, not the Protestant work ethic. Bottom line is that we must first look after ourselves spiritually. That means taking sufficient time each day to pray, reflect and bring ourselves to account, and not let work get in the way of this. And we need the space to pray in such a way that we calm down fully within ourselves and truly listen to the words and the response that our heart is giving. As Abdu'l-Baha put it: "Rise above the murmur of syllables and sounds."

In the Kitab-i Iqan, Baha'u'llah discusses things he calls "veils of glory". These are concepts, such as Seal of the Prophets, that have been passed down through tradition, but which get in the way of people recognising the new manifestation. I believe that the Protestant work ethic is one of these veils of glory. It works like this: we believe that activity is the highest good. There's no doubting the glory a person gets for over-working—they are our heroes. This ethic determines how we run our religion. The Protestant work ethic has fitted in perfectly with the Guardian's vision of a Baha'i administration. We have taken the administration and filled it with our highest form of worship—activity. And then we call this thing "the Baha'i Faith". What it is, in fact, is vain imaginings and selfish desire. There's no elimination of self in it—it is all self. It's like a husband who spends all his time building and perfecting the house, believing that this is how you 'do' marriage. Meanwhile, she—the Houri—is neglected. Baha'u'llah wants us to be his lover but we are busy with our activity and believe that this is our greatest expression of love. And while work is an expression of love, it is no substitute for genuine union of heart and nearness.

"O bond slave of the world! Many a dawn hath the breeze of My loving-kindness wafted over thee and found thee upon the bed of heedlessness fast asleep. Bewailing then thy plight it returned whence it came." (Baha'u'llah: Persian Hidden Words, no 30)