01 / 04 / 21
by Rozita Leetham
The 23rd March 2020 marked the first UK national lockdown, it also coincided with the Bahá’í new year – ‘Nawruz’ – on the 20/21st March (sunset to sunset). I was living and working in student halls at the time, and so things changed early for us when on the weekend of Friday 13th, almost half of the students left. Over the next few weeks, for me and those I lived with over the first period of the pandemic, it deteriorated fast and furiously.
In her blog post ‘Learning to Trust Allah’s Plan’, Samera Iqbal writes ‘my faith community had to change overnight’. As a Bahá’í, my community too offered connection and continuity as the COVID crisis unfurled around us – or at least tried to make it a bit easier. Zoom took over my schedule, our community 19 Day Feasts went virtual and we had our first big Holy Day event online with Riḍvan in April. In fact, the logistical ease of virtual life meant that my community activities increased, with my fortnightly children’s class becoming a weekly event, intensive study circles and youth spaces.
A year on the government marks the 23rd March as National COVID Remembrance Day, and once again it is a time of celebration and renewal for the Bahá’í community across the world. According to a BBC report, by March this year, there were 143,259 deaths linked to COVID. In that time I studied and graduated, lost friendships and built up new ones, moved house, broke down and picked myself up again, and found and finished two jobs, with a third starting in 12 days time.
Bahá’ís believe life is made up of cycles of crisis and victory, but I think it’s safe to say it’s been more than a slightly mixed bag over the last year. Nawruz may have launched a new year for Bahá’ís, but outside our community the world ground to a halt – quite literally. This year our period of renewal was instead a period of remembrance, and I, like so many others, was left wondering how we are meant to be starting a new year when everything feels so stuck.
Samera also talked about resilience and faith unity during Ramadan in her article. The Baha’i Fast is the last month of our calendar before the new year, so it was one the last aspects of normality that I remember before the pandemic hit. It’s a time to slow down and focus on your spirituality, so ironically it was already a liminal shift in the sense of time that continued well into the COVID mindset.
This year we were somewhat better prepared and knew what we were up against; for example I was part of an initiative in my local community to host dawn prayers on zoom everyday, something that I hope will last outside of pandemic life. I found that after a year of the surreal, the physical simplicity of the Fast grounded me. Despite it’s obvious hardship, being drawn to the immediate need for food kept me somehow in the present. And the Fast retained its liminality, lifting me slightly out of the overall liminality of the pandemic.
Finally, the Fast broke up the monotony of the “new normal” and allowed the creative energy of Nawruz to be felt more keenly. ‘Abdul-Bahá explains:
“At the time of the vernal equinox in the material world a wonderful vibrant energy and new life-quickening is observed everywhere… It is a day of joy, a time of happiness, a period of spiritual growth. I beg of God that this divine spiritual civilization may have the fullest impression and effect upon you. May you become as growing plants. May the trees of your hearts bring forth new leaves and variegated blossoms. May ideal fruits appear from them in order that the world of humanity, which has grown and developed in material civilization, may be quickened in the bringing forth of spiritual ideals.” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, US Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1982 second edition. pg 39.
I know I have none of the answers, and I maintain that far from making it through the madness of the pandemic, I’m just trying to muddle through. The rhythm of community life as a Bahá’í offers structure and the new year offers renewal in the stagnation. This year I am trying to celebrate as I commemorate, and I am looking forward, certain in the uncertainty, to what is coming next.