The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines refinement as the action or process of refining, which is to free from impurities, unwanted material or from moral imperfections. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá said that “in every aspect of life, purity and holiness, cleanliness and refinement, exalt the human condition and further the development of man’s inner reality.” Striving for spiritual refinement helps fulfill the purpose of our existence. And as everything in the spiritual world is reflected in the material world, it is only logical that the Writings encourage both spiritual and physical refinement. We can see examples of this in the meticulous appearance of the Master in the many photographs taken during His travels to the West.
If we keep in mind that our ultimate goal is spiritual refinement, we understand that physical refinement is but a means, a potent one at that:
“although bodily cleanliness is a physical thing, it hath, nevertheless, a powerful influence on the life of the spirit. It is even as a voice wondrously sweet, or a melody played: although sounds are but vibrations in the air which affect the ear’s auditory nerve, and these vibrations are but chance phenomena carried along through the air, even so, see how they move the heart. A wondrous melody is wings for the spirit, and maketh the soul to tremble for joy.”3
Refinement does not seem to mean acquiring something; rather, it seems to mean improving something that already exists. Baha’u’llah said to “regard man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value. Education can, alone, cause it to reveal its treasures, and enable mankind to benefit therefrom.” Perhaps spiritual refinement can be seen as the “polishing” of virtues inherent to us.
As the Perfect Exemplar, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá taught through the simplest of acts what refinement could look like. Further to His appearance, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá demonstrated in the way He carried Himself and, of course, in His language. Surely those who met him during His travels must have noticed the refinement He demonstrated. Studying these through anecdotes which can be found in books such as Vignettes from the life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, or Memories of Nine Years in ‘Akka, will certainly help us refine ourselves.
We are lucky that, in the example of the Master, we can avoid the dangerous traps of mistaking luxury for refinement, and mistaking the pursuits of the ego for that of spiritual refinement. We are also lucky that, as our spiritual refinement increases, so will our spiritual perception to avoid this and other traps; we can trust that by refining both our outer and inner beings, we will always remain on the path of spiritual refinement.