When I first joined the Bahá'í Faith over 30 years ago, I was fascinated by all things Persian: the language, the music, the food, but especially the beautiful manner of chanting prayers--one soul's humble voice raised in intimate conversation with God. The only similar sound I had ever heard was in travelogs where Islamic muezzin climb a minaret five times a day and call the Muslim faithful to prayer. For me, the Persian chanted prayers sound so very special, and I cherish them most at Bahá'í holy days.
Ridván, in case you're wondering, is the Arabic word for "paradise" and is known alternately as the "Most Great Festival" and the "King of Festivals." It observes not just one but 12 days: the length of time Bahá'u'lláh, the founder of the Bahá'í Faith, spent with the early Bábís in the garden of Najíb Pasha on the outskirts of Baghdad in 1863, prior to His departure to Constantinople (modern day Istanbul).
Although Bahá'ís observe the whole 12 days of Ridván (April 21-May 2), we are required to refrain from work only three days: the 1st, 9th, and 12th days. According to Bahá'í guidance, the first day of Ridván is the only day in this festival that has a specific time for observation. It is held around three o'clock in the afternoon, corresponding to the approximate time Bahá'u'lláh told his followers about his mission.
If you're familiar with the history of the Bahá'í Faith then you know that at this time, Bahá'u'lláh had not yet revealed to the world His true station as a messenger of God. Instead He only informed a few close friends and members of His family, including `Abdu'l-Bahá, His oldest son.
But the actual time of observance isn't the only way the first day of Ridván is different from the other days in the festival. This is the day when Bahá'ís all over the world elect for a one-year term the nine members who will serve on their local governing council, known as the local Spiritual Assembly. As there is no clergy or priesthood in the Bahá'í Faith, it is the Spiritual Assembly as an institution that governs the affairs of the Bahá'ís in the particular town or city where they live. The election is done by secret ballot--there are no nominations and you can't run for office. Instead, Bahá'ís elect the nine people they feel are best qualified to serve.
I remember my home Bahá'í community, where I first declared my belief in Bahá'u'lláh. It was West Hollywood just at the start of the '70s. At that time, there were only about a dozen or so Bahá'ís living in the community, surrounded as it is by the much larger megalopolis of L.A. With so few Bahá'ís, the chances were pretty good that everyone would eventually wind up serving on the Spiritual Assembly.
I reviewed in my mind the qualities we were to keep in mind for membership on the Spiritual Assembly: "unquestioned loyalty, selfless devotion, a well-trained mind, recognized ability, and mature experience." That's quite a list of qualities when you think about it. How was I to know who had selfless devotion and who didn't? I was new to the Bahá'í Faith, and everyone seemed equally selfless. It's partly what attracted me to the Bahá'ís in the first place.
Gradually, I went through the roles of our little community's membership. This person best exemplified ability, that person best showed loyalty. I had a heck of a time making up my mind. Finally, I decided it would be easier to decide who not to vote for, since there were only a dozen to choose from. I disqualified myself, for obvious reasons. I didn't know anything and had virtually no experience. I'm pretty sure I was the last one to finish voting, and in the end I think I kind of flipped a mental coin and selected the nine people who were left. Now it was time to tally the votes.
Two people were asked to count the votes. One to tally and one to observe and recount if necessary. They went off by themselves in one part of the room and proceeded to count the little slips of paper. What happened next shook my faith in my new religion.
Somehow, I had been elected to serve on the Assembly! There must be a mistake, I thought to myself, or maybe it was some kind of test. I smiled and happily accepted everyone's congratulations, but inside I was worried. Shouldn't I tell them that I didn't know what I was doing when I voted, that I was just guessing? Had I been more informed or experienced, the outcome might have been different and someone else would have been elected in my place.
I kept my peace that night and did the best I could in serving on the Spiritual Assembly throughout the following year. It's been a long time since I've thought about my initial predicament with voting at a Baha'i election. But even now, I can remember the sound of a beautiful chanted prayer as we brought the evening's celebration for the first day of Ridván to a close: the sound of one soul's humble voice raised in intimate conversation with God.