Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Reading Father Thomas Merton: Convergence of Spirits

This morning the same routine: coffee at Starbucks and reading, writing, conversation or combinations thereof. These three, in addition to my formal Bahá’í activities, form the basis of my spiritual life. Of late, I must add to this mélange, the volunteer work I do with the handicapped at the Jack Purcell gym on Friday mornings. It brings enormous satisfaction to do something that is both practical and “hands on” rather than just spending my quality time working out keen thoughts or attempting to communicate truth through conversation and social interaction. Through this volunteer work, I have been able to experience a little of the joy that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá alluded to when he exhorted the friends to “bring joy to the hearts.” It is true that when one brings joy to the hearts’ of others, one brings joy to one’s own heart—but this must not be the motive for such service, for then the motive would be selfish not selfless. (Pardon this necessary moralizing).

Today I brought with me Lawrence S. Cunningham’s compilation, Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master (The Essential Writings). The fluent, spiritually alert, richly poetic and sometimes homiletic Merton is without doubt one of the great spiritual geniuses of the twentieth century, and he deserves to rank among the greatest spirituals of any age. While he may have been a Roman Catholic monk, he belonged to all religions and all humanity because Merton was a universal thinker who transcended doctrinal barriers. The Catholic Church could not really hold him. To claim him as a Catholic, in the strict sense of word, is not really to describe him accurately. I even read the remarkable statement in one of his own writings that he could not “stand Catholics.” He was speaking, of course, of the narrowly dogmatic, authoritarian types within the church, not all of whom made his life particularly easy.

His transformative, brilliantly clear, light and pure mystical vision of the reclining Buddha while viewing the Polonnaruwa sculptures during a visit to Ceylon (Sri Lanka), just days before his sudden death, is so powerful that it could be read as an non-explicit conversion to Buddhism. But I am sure that Merton felt no pressing need to change his religious affiliation since he penetrated to the common esoteric or intrinsic mystical core of truth which lies at the heart of all the imponderable realities contained in the world’s great faiths.

He practiced interreligious dialogue in a time when it was only beginning to be taken seriously in the field of comparative religious studies, but he knew that true interreligious dialogue was not sitting down for innocuous conversation while sounding platitudes and holding hands. He knew that the truth meant saying “Yes” to whatever struck him as being genuine within the faith tradition of the other and saying “No” to whatever was spurious, whatever rang false or seemed unacceptable to him. He knew that truth was worth defending and that silence on vital, fundamental issues, while it may have served to avoid controversy, and to maintain polite decorum and courtesy, did not serve the real interests of dialogue and truth-telling, whose fundamental purpose is to create revolutionary new understandings, to draw us closer together and to become one. He understood that only Truth could unite; compromise on essential beliefs had to mean saying No or starting over again, in a spirit of patient humility, until the point was made—if it could be made at all.

The best work of Thomas Merton is the Merton who is not speaking in his persona as monk, the Merton who is not serving the needs of apologetics or piety. Although he betrays a slight affectation in some passages, Merton knew better than to take himself too seriously, whether as writer, poet, theologian or spiritual master and teacher. He writes best when he is relaxed and speaking from his heart, when he is at a little distance from his subject and not trying too hard. When he does this, he is wonderfully illuminating to read.

He knew that the so-called “self”, the projected image of who we are, or more precisely how we wish to appear in the eyes of others, is not the real self, but a manufactured self. He knew that the real self is very much hidden and mysterious. Loving the true self is to love, with the heart of faith, all the potential one may see in each child of God, loving the striving, struggling self that is ever a work-in-progress. To make a somewhat different but related point: I believe that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá commanded us to love the unlovable for the precise reason that they feel, beneath their pain, sorrow and anger, they are not worthy of love and consequently, and paradoxically, need it most of all.

Merton despised, as I do, artifice, self-righteousness and pretensions to piety, for he knew that it was only in humility and the obliteration of self that one could, as a hollow reed, become an instrument of God. He could not stand conventionally “religious” or pious people, for they do not serve the noblest and best interests of higher religion.

In his 1961 essay “Learning to Live,” his response to Columbia University’s award, the “University Medal for Excellence,” that was presented to his friend and mentor, Mark van Doren--church authorities would not allow Merton to attend—Thomas Merton calls himself a “hermit.” While technically that may well have been the case, Merton’s sort of hermitic life was a very peopled one. His intensely energetic mind was ever-fruitful in insights; he wrote constantly; the public had access to him and he to them; he had a certain freedom of movement and travelled abroad; he conducted a voluminous correspondence with intellectuals and religious figures around the world. This is obviously not being a hermit in the fully Catholic sense of the word.

Nor is falling in love with his young student nurse "M." after a painful back operation. (I am just glad that his male instincts and his very large romantic heart were still working irrationally well). This I hasten to add is not gossip, but history. It is well documented in Merton’s own writings and correspondence that he kept a journal about M. and wrote love poems to her. But through it all, Merton kept his vows. The intrusive church authorities demanded that Merton end the relationship, but by the time that Merton had received the order from the Abbot, he responded in writing to the request that the relationship had already ended and that his former Irish-American nurse was already engaged to be married. Church hierarchy being what is, and in light of the vows taken by monks, the church really had no choice. Merton must have realized that the affair was doomed since he had no real intention of leaving holy orders. But given his attraction to women, the affair with M. highlights once again the complexities and challenges of Merton’s life as a monk and is just another example of his constant run-ins with his immediate superiors. The particular case of Merton and M. is now closed, but the larger question that it raised, that of the priest’s relationship to women, still remains problematic for the church.

As the French doubter and sceptic Voltaire might have exclaimed, had he been Merton’s contemporary, just as he once praised, in another age, the remarkable spiritual activist and reformer St. Vincent de Paul:“Thomas Merton. Now there’s a monk for me!” I say with a smile that I heartily concur with Voltaire!

Finally, during this morning’s reading of Thomas Merton, outside on the small terrace at Starbucks on Elgin and Jack Purcell Lane here in Ottawa, I looked up for a moment and suddenly experienced a quiet visitation, an altered state of consciousness, one that I did not at all expect at that moment. (One can never command the true mystical experience in any case). As I watched the stream of passers by, walking in one’s, two’s and three’s, moving up and down Elgin Street, that “peace that passeth all understanding” (St. Paul) came over me. I saw all these folk walking as if in a slow-motion, stream of consciousness, and I thought to myself that this might just be a tiny, incomplete vision of the peace that we will experience in the next life, when we will perform all our activities in and for God alone, when our very motion will be in and for God alone, without toil, trouble and sin.

Then I looked down again at the page and read this: “Man is the image of God, not his shadow. At present we have decided that God is dead and that we are his shadow...Take a picture of that Jack!” (p. 138). Well, God does indeed have a wonderful sense of humour! I smiled and wondered whether, in the convergence of spirits that sometimes takes place, Merton might not be speaking to me, John Allan, Jack McLean. Yes, love is stronger than death, as Meister Eckhart says, but harder than hell. Those living in heaven can reach down from their lofty heights and still touch those bound to the earth in a variety of ways and means. Despite time and space, life and death, aspiring spirits can meet aspiring spirits in an existential moment.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Return to Salt Spring: Fall Impressions of an Island Refuge

*Salt Spring Island, with a population of about 10,000 inhabitants, whose centre is Ganges, named after the last British ship to cast anchor there in the 19th century, is one of the southern Gulf Islands that lies in the Strait of Georgia between Victoria and Vancouver.I lived on Salt Spring from 1997-1999 and wrote a column, “Pilgrim’s Notes” for the Gulf Islands weekly newspaper, The Driftwood. This piece was published in The Driftwood on September 17, 2008.

The seaplane arcs a turn and descends slowly onto the island. We buzz the tree tops and approach due South from Vesuvius. I recognize the pub from the air. A neophyte Salt Spring Islander, an ex-Ontarian from Britain, who finally fled the harsh winters, tells me it has been closed for a few years now. It has been seven years since my mother Joyce’s funeral in 2001. Joyce and husband Allan James are buried in a twin plot in the cemetery behind the Central Hall. A return to the grave site with sister Mary Lou to tend the ground and offer prayers is planned.

It is good to return to this island―to the salt sea air, the peace that settles in with gazing at the tops of sheltering, giant firs, to the variegated characters who like a mixed assortment of odd clothes, populate this island, to the slower, mellow pace of the E-shaped country that, culturally, is a better fit with northern California.

By virtue of its natural energy, Salt Spring carries healing in its wings. It lies on one of the world's great lay-lines, or energy circuits, that runs through Stonehenge, another magical island spot, the desert warmth and gem-like colours of New Mexico, and the silent, Egyptian pyramids, mysteriously personified by the riddling Sphinx. Descending from the float-plane, I pause to bask in the brilliant Fall sunshine, fill my lungs with the pure air, look up to contemplate the bright wash of azure sky. The tonic is already working its magic, restoring well-being to body and mind.

Salt Spring placates the harried mainlander, cradles you in her arms and sings an island lullaby. The pacifying effect is built into the island’s alchemy and history. The first nations referred to Salt Spring as Fire Island, a symbol of the flame that radiated healing but did not burn. Salt Spring was and remains a sacred burial ground. Here the ancestors lie sleeping, dreaming their ancient dream, called Dream Time by the Aboriginal Australians. Adjacent to the homes on Menhinick Drive lies a native preserve where sacred rites are still performed which are shared with respectful islanders. The first nations never fought wars here. Somewhere on Nose Point there is reputedly a well of sacred waters which was shared by rival tribes, friend and foe alike.

But spiritual romance fades in the face of harsher contemporary realities. I see creeping development encroaching on the woodlands. Houses and other residences have sprung up spottily where once the visual field was only solid timber. Bare-breasted, raging grannies and more youthful activists have made their nude and semi-nude protests to halt it all. Still the “development” continues.

It is an ambiguous word, this word development. Who of us wants to endorse ongoing “progress” that swallows up everything it its path? Development, and the parasitic, materialistic values that feed it, has already sanctioned the rape of earth, the fouling of our waters and the spoiling of the air. I stand by the poet-priest Gerard Manley Hopkins’s incantation in Inversnaid: “O let them be left, wildness and wet; Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.”

The nature-dream is momentarily broken by intermittent nightmares. Snippets of conversation overheard at the Salt Spring Coffee Company tell of life-threatening illness, divorce, broken relationships, stressed out lives and struggles to make ends meet. Mainlanders who once anticipated a slower pace of life here see themselves obliged to return once it becomes apparent that they cannot afford to live here any longer. The “Help Wanted” signs in the shop windows beg for the employees who cannot keep pace with the rising cost-of-living. A blond, young woman in animated conversation hides her disappointment in levity as she tells her friend of her parents’ retirement divorce while “their RV lies rotting in Mexico.”

My thoughts wander beyond this island refuge, out to embrace the larger community of humanity that is suffering today from a host of troubling pathologies: War, hunger, illiteracy, poverty, unemployment, famine, disease, repression, injustice. The more affluent western nations are also suffering from their own version of bad dreams: Random violence, inner-city blight, economic woes, unemployment, catastrophic illness, psychological dysfunction, homelessness, and the fractured social relationships that are increasingly defining marriages, families, friendships and the workplace.

Now the dream, sceptics have often said, is nothing but an illusion. But more perceptive minds view the All that surrounds us as the manifestation of a waking dream, a dream that is of our own making. Is it not high time to dream a new dream and awaken from the nightmare that is disturbing our conscious life? What shall this new dream be? For this pilgrim, at least, it is imperative that the vision that will enable the people to flourish should be world-embracing. It should transcend the little singularities that define the daily round of our individual lives to include the entire human family. It is a vision that shall once for all put an end to war and violence, to chronic hunger and famine, to illiteracy, to the subjugation of women. It is a vision that cherishes the organic unity and solidarity of the human race, that strives for social justice, and the elimination of all forms of prejudice, a vision in which religious fanaticism, fundamentalism and exclusivism shall be replaced by interfaith amity and understanding.

I pause to look up from my desk. On a patch of grass nearby, a crowd of yellow buttercups is waving almost imperceptibly in the autumn breeze, an idyllic picture I shall remember once I have returned home.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Teaching at the Café: Meeting H., an Iranian Gentleman

Most mornings I head for a local café. In that semi-musical spot—jazz is the preferred medium—that combines the worldly and the divine, I do some reading, writing and thinking. These elementary activities form part of my daily routine and give structure to my day; in fact, I can’t imagine my life anymore without these three old companions. Nor can I imagine my life without teaching. By teaching, I mean the Bahá’í Faith; it was and remains “the dominating passion” of my life, a hope that Shoghi Effendi cherised for all Bahá'ís. However, it has not been lost on me over the years that learning and teaching are part and parcel of the same experience: Docendo discimus, said the Romans. So teaching is not a one-way street: In teaching one is at the same time a student.

I use the services of the café, not only as my morning office, but also to make new friends forthe Bahá’í Faith and myself as the opportunities arise. While teaching at the café, I take delight in remembering that Baha’u’llah taught the Faith in a café in Baghdad, a locale that was actually a tea house. The owner became so depressed when Bahá’u’lláh was exiled to Istanbul, and no longer graced that lowly place with Divine Illumination, that he sold the business outright. The sun of his life had set.

Over the years, I have met intellectuals of all sorts: thinkers of all stripes, including a good number of professed atheists and agnostics, poets, artists, psychiatrists, psychics, missionaries, professors of religion, medical doctors, and many of the ordinary men and women-in-the-street whose company I value as much as the person of capacity.

Despite my love for the cultural life of the mind, its attainments and discoveries, I do not fit the definition of an intellectual snob. In some respects, I love the genuine affection and sincerity of the common man or woman more than the company of those holding social rank and intellectual distinction. In one sense, of course, there are no commoners. Each individual is unique and has his or her own story to tell.

Today I had another of those teaching opportunities. Call it, rather, a Begegnung, as the German existentialist might say. For it turned out to be more consequential than a passing meeting over a cup of coffee. This brief story begins outside the café, as I approached the Second Cup on my Northland mountain-bike, travelling east to west on Lisgar Street in Ottawa, toward the corner of Elgin and Lisgar, where my current preferred café now stands.

About a block away from the corner of Elgin and Lisgar, I passed by a man dressed in a white shirt and dark trousers, trundling one of these low-slung cases with an extended handle that is rolled along by lawyers and clerks headed to the Ottawa Court House. These days, one sees the compact case trailing behind business people, pilots and airline personnel and air travelers of all descriptions. As I passed by, I thought that the gentleman looked perhaps as if he were from the Middle-East.

I locked my bike at the stand, went in and stood in the small line. Then I noticed that he was standing in front of me. Despite the fact that he was on foot, he had reached his destination before me. He ordered a “regular coffee,” but it seemed to me that he was deliberating his moves, taking the time to count his change carefully. He moved slowly and seemed unsure of himself. I thought perhaps he was a tourist.

I ordered my usual--a small dark roast--and sat down in one of those spacious armchairs of Moroccan style, green embossed leather that one finds in cafés and book stores. I sat on the opposite side of the glass pastry case where faux walnut, built-in curving shelf-space is provided, a very convenient spot to lay down books and what-not. The armchair next to me sat vacant. The gentleman stood at the other counter, adding milk and sugar to his coffee.

With his drink prepared, he glanced around the room, and then approached the adjacent chair. “Is anyone sitting here?” inquired a polite, accented voice. “No sir, please go ahead.” I motioned a welcome as I replied. He sat down and once settled produced a packet of papers. My reading material was Nader Saiedi’s excellent Gate of the Heart: Understanding the Writings of the Báb (2008), a seminal study that I will be reviewing for World Order. I have reached the penultimate chapter called “Ethics and Laws in the Bayán” in which the author discusses the Fi’s Sulúk (the spiritual path/conduct), the Bab’s treatise on law and ethics, in which Bahá’u’lláh’s Herald defines all our actions as the means of attaining union with God. There are actually two tablets called Fi’s Sulúk. One is a shorter, complex text written before the declaration of His mission. Fi’s Sulúk I has been explicated by Todd Lawson. Nader Saeidi explicates Fi’s Sulúk II.

Something began to stir in me, as I searched for a pretext to engage him, for my curiosity had by not got the better of me. I sensed a certain courtesy and receptivity. The Báb’s word Sulúk provided the opportunity. After all, I was on the path; we were both on the path, but I ignored at that time precisely what this path was. Our conversation was soon to reveal it.

“Excuse me,” I said. “Do you speak Arabic?” Two kind, brown eyes framed by a benign face of whitish skin looked up at me. I sensed he was slightly embarrassed. “No,” he replied. “But which word is it?” he asked. “Sulúk” I said, emphasizing the “u” as it is sounded in “you.” “Oh, Solúk,” he repeated, changing the first vowel from an “u” to an “o”. I recognized the Persian accent. “By your accent, you are Iranian”? I asked. “Yes,” he said.

We introduced ourselves. Our conversation flowed naturally from that point on, greatly facilitating this new friendship in the making. I shared with him the book I was reading, showing the cover with its beautiful photograph, taken at twilight, of the house of the Báb in Shiraz. I told him that the sacred house where the Bahá’í Faith began on May 23, 1844 had since succumbed to the furies of religious fanaticism. It was damaged by fire in a Shiah attack in 1942-43, and was destroyed by the same implacable hatred in 1955. This place of pilgrimage was later restored, I continued, but finally razed to the ground by government order in 1979.

After the house of the Báb was demolished, the authorities decided to construct an Islamic religious center on that site. But “He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the Lord shall have them in derision.” (Ps. 2:4). Ironically, the new structure is named Bayt-al-Mahdi or House of the Mahdi (Guide) or Promised One. “They scheme and Allah schemes, but verily, Allah is the best of schemers.”

H. commented on the beauty and graceful symmetry of the house of the Báb. Several times during our conversation, in a subdued and mild voice, as if apologetically, he deplored the fanaticism of the Islamic regime in Iran, whose current president, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, came to power by voting fraud.

I told him I spoke a smattering of Persian, that Farsi was one of the sacred languages of the Bahá’í Faith, that I had taken Introductory Persian at the University of Toronto years ago, and learned a few prayers in Persian by heart. We spoke about Persian poetry, about the great Rumi, called Mollavi by the Iranians, and the differences between the styles of Hafiz and Rumi. He commented on the anti-clericalism of Rumi and of the need for irony and dissimulation with this outspoken mystic-poet-theologian.

When we spoke about the Bahá’í Faith in more detail, he volunteered that he acknowledged the common ethical core of the great world’s religions. H.’s uncle, recently deceased, had been a Bahá’í. I was soon to learn that he respected and loved him. He said that he “loved” the Bahá’í Faith, and told me quite naturally that he was a Bahá’í. He didn’t mean this declaration in the factual sense, of course; that he was an active member of the Bahá’í community. He was only trying, I think, to express his affection for his departed uncle, and solidarity with his Bahá’í friends in Iran who been suffering from a renewed cycle of repressive measures imposed by the government since January, 2007. I very much appreciated the sincerity of his motive. With H’s “declaration of faith”, the distinction between who is officially a Bahá’í and who is not, was distinctly erased.

Later at home, I reread the prayer Bahá’u’lláh revealed for the suffering friends in Iran: “I beg of Thee, by Thy mercy which hath preceded the contingent world, to raise up from the earth those who will be moved to aid and protect them, and to preserve their rights and the restitution due to them by those who broke Thy Covenant and Testament…” It seemed to me that H.would have qualified as one of those individuals.

He said that his father had been a wealthy judge in Iran, and at the onset of the Islamic revolution in February, 1979 all his property and holdings had been confiscated. He said that his father had known Amir Ali Abbas Hoveydah, the last Prime Minister to serve under Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, from 1965-79. To placate the Mullahs, however, Hoveydah became the scapegoat of the last Iranian monarch. The charge was corruption. He was executed by the Revolutionary Guards after surrendering himself into their hands, believing himself to be innocent, and after languishing in prison for several months. H. said he respected the former Prime Minister. He thought Hoveydah was a Bahá’í but kept it hidden. I told him that Bahá’ís were forbidden from entering politics, but that it was possible that his family or relatives had been Bahá’ís.**

He had met Hoveydah when he was a child of ten years old when the Prime Minister was visiting his father. His father the judge, he told me, greatly respected the cultured intellectual, Amir Abbas, who spoke fluent French and conversed with existential philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre. But I wondered how Hoveydah could not have known about the many Iranian citizens who were imprisoned and tortured by Savak, the Iranian secret police. In any case, when Hoveydah was executed, it was discovered, H. said, that he had not profited financially from his position of influence. Instead of amassing a fortune, at his death his personal assets consisted only of his apartment which was partially mortgaged by the bank.

During the course of our conversation, H. commented on the unusual coincidence of our meeting and the immediate, friendly nature of our exchange: “I find it amazing that we are sitting here in this café, and after only a few moments, we are discussing things in common.” “Yes, it is true.” I rejoined.

When our conversation ended, he excused himself and said good-bye. He would soon be traveling back to Iran, but indicated that he would get in touch again when he returned to Ottawa. As I reflected later on our remarkable meeting, I realized that in actual fact, I had taught H. very little. Divine Providence, the power that rules over both the great and the small, had guided us on our respective paths to a crossroads in a café—a meeting-place where strangers had become friends in only a brief moment.
**I have since been informed by Dr. Moojan Momen that Hoveyda's grandfather was a Bahá'í and a companion of Bahá'u'lláh. Hoveyda's father began life as a Bahá'í and even helped the first French Bahá'í, Hippolyte Dreyfus, with some translations of Bahá'í scripture into French when he was a young man, but he then pursued a political career and either left the Faith or was expelled before Hoveyda was even born. Since the Muslim clerics had repeatedly accused him of being a Bahá’í, Mr. Hovaydah enacted discriminatory measures against Bahá’ís to satisfy them, blocking their advancement into government positions. I thank Moojan for this clarification.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Divine Simplicity: Remembering the last Hand of the Cause of God, Dr. 'Ali-Muhammad Varqa

“‘Hand of the Cause’ is not a title which can be given to anybody. Neither is it a position to be handed down to whomsoever may desire it. The more any soul becomes self-effacing, the more confirmed will he be in the service of the Cause of God; and the more humble, the nearer will he be to Him.” Attributed to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá . (From Lights of Fortitude: Glimpses into the Lives of the Hands of the Cause of God by Barron Harper, George Ronald Publisher, 1997).


I am grateful to Mrs. Latifa Toeg of Russell (Ottawa), Ontario, formerly of Baghdad, now in her 90th year, and to her son Jalál of Manotick (Ottawa), who heard the story of Dr. Varqá’s confirmation as a Hand of the Cause by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá while he was still an infant from Bahíyyih Khánum, Dr. Varqá’s mother. Bahíyyih Khánum related this story to the Toegs while they were guests at her home in a suburb of north Tehran in 1970, after they had fled Iraq on their way to settle in Hull, Quebec. The following appreciation may also be noteworthy for the mention of Shoghi Effendi’s priceless gifts to the Varqá family.

The Distinguished Varqá Line

· Hájí Mullá Mihdíy-i-Yazdí. Great-grandfather of Dr. Varqá. Muslim cleric. Learned, eloquent and bold teacher of the Faith of the Báb. Highly praised by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.

· Mirzá ‘Alí-Muhammad Varqá. The poet-martyr. Dr. Varqá’s grandfather. Hand of the Cause of God (posthumous appointment by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá).

· Ruhúlláh Varqá. Son of Mirzá ‘Alí-Muhammad Varqá. Dr. Varqá’s uncle and expert teacher of the Faith. Imprisoned and died a martyr’s death in a Tehran prison with his father at age twelve.

· Valíyu’lláh Varqá. Dr.Varqá’s father. Appointed Chief Trustee of Huqúqu’lláh by Shoghi Effendi (1938). Appointed Hand of the Cause of God (1951).

· Dr. ‘Ali-Muhammad Varqá. Appointed Hand of the Cause of God (1955). Made Chief Trustee of Huqúqu’lláh to succeed his father in the same appointment.

Dr. Varqá and the Institution of the Hands of the Cause of God

On October 30, 2007 a memorial service was held at the Bahá’í Centre in Ottawa for the now departed last Hand of the Cause of God, Dr. ‘Ali-Muhammad Varqá. That memorial has prompted me to share the following thoughts and impressions of the life and character of this selfless personage who was the last living link with “the Sign of God on earth”, Shoghi Effendi Rabbani, the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith (1897-1957). With the passing of Dr. Varqá on September 22, 2007 an illustrious chapter in Bahá’í history has now closed, one that witnessed the demise of a spiritually aristocratic institution created by Bahá’u’lláh in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, an institution that was dedicated to the learning and edification of the minds and hearts of Bahá’ís everywhere, and to the establishment of the Bahá’í Faith around the world.

The ministry of the entire body of the Hands of the Cause of God spanned approximately 119 years, from the first appointment of that immovable mountain of faith and certitude, Hájí Ákhúnd, about the time of his second visit to Akká in 1888, to the passing of Dr. Varqá in 2007. When we pause to consider what the distinguished company of these gifted and dedicated men and women has accomplished for the Bahá’í Faith, we are left with mingled feelings of gratitude and wonder at their accomplishments, coupled with a distinct sense of loss: the last Hand has passed to the Great Beyond…

Although the following reflections contain some biographical information, this message intends especially a keener appreciation of Dr. Varqá’s unique spiritual qualities, and purposes to honour and perpetuate his memory, both for those friends who had the privilege of meeting him, but also and especially for those who may not have had that opportunity. I cannot claim, of course, to have known Dr. Varqá well. The following personal reflections have been gathered after meeting him on only two occasions. The first was in the summer of 1980 at “The Gathering” held at the Hadden estate in Port Hope, Ontario, a week-end conference that was attended by no less than four Hands of the Cause: ‘Amatu’l-Bahá Rúhíyyih Khánum, Dr. Varqá, Mr. William Sears and Mr. John Robarts. That occasion afforded a conversation with Dr. Varqá, as we stood on a path in the afternoon sun, that would leave a lasting impression of the gentle kindliness, the humane understanding, the ready compassion and the loving-kindness of this man. The second occasion occurred some 27 years later, 6 months before his passing, while I sat with the other pilgrims this past March (2007) in the elegant and well-appointed auditorium of the International Teaching Centre in Haifa and listened to his address. Both meetings, separated in time by almost three decades, were defining moments in a fuller appreciation of the station of these “billows of the Most Mighty Ocean”, these “stars of the firmament of Glory” who occupied the highest rank that could be conferred by the founders of the Bahá’í Faith upon one of their followers. A lasting impression is often created from just one brief encounter with a great soul. Such was the effect of meeting Dr. Varqá.

The Only Hand of the Cause Who Had Not Met Shoghi Effendi

It is not generally known that Dr. Varqá was the only Hand of the Cause who did not meet Shoghi Effendi in person. Dr. Varqá had more than once mentioned that he did not anticipate that Shoghi Effendi would leave this life at age 60, with the torch of his many, prodigious accomplishments burnt out by three and half decades of incessant, superhuman labour. No doubt he looked forward to meeting his Guardian in this world, but destiny was to decree otherwise.

His Station of Hand of the Cause of God Foreseen by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

The story related by Dr. Varqá’ s mother tells of the portentous signing of a photograph of baby ‘Ali-Muhammad by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá while the Master was in America. This story does not appear in Mahmud’s Diary of the Master’s travels in America. A brief allusion to it is found in Barron Harper’s Lights of Fortitude. It is, of course, well-known to Dr. Varqá’s family and their circle of friends and has reached the ears of some other Bahá’ís. Dr. Varqá’s father, Valíyu’lláh Varqá, had been chosen to be included in the entourage that accompanied ‘Abdu’l-Bahá on His mission to proclaim the Bahá’í Faith during his eight month tour of North America in 1912. During this period, Valíyu’lláh served as treasurer of the Bahá’í Funds. Valíyu’lláh Varqá was not yet Chief Trustee of Húquq; that function belonged to the second Trustee appointed by Bahá’u’lláh, Hájí Amín. (The first Trustee named by Bahá’ u’lláh was Amín al-Bayán, who was appointed in 1869 and served for 12 years before his accidental death in Tabriz in 1881).

Valíyu’lláh, like his father Mírzá Alí-Muhammad Varqá, the martyr-poet, and like his son after him, was also appointed a Hand of the Cause (1951). Valíyu’ lláh was appointed Chief Trustee of Huqúqu’lláh by Shoghi Effendi in 1938 to succeed Amín-i-Amín who had been appointed by‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Dr. Varqá was appointed to the same position when his father Valíyu’lláh passed on in 1955; like Dr. Varqá’s father, he was also elevated to the rank of Hand of the Cause of God in the same appointment.

One afternoon while the friends were resting after lunch, and reading the mail in the presence of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Valíyu’lláh received a photograph of his newborn son from his brother ‘Azízulláh in Tehran where little Ali-Muhammad had been born. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá noticed that Valíyu’lláh was smiling and asked him why he looked so pleased. “Beloved, Master” replied Valíyu’lláh, “I have received a letter from my brother in Tehran which contains the photograph of our newborn son. ” “Bring the picture to me,” ‘Abdu’ l-Bahá instructed. “ I would like to see it.” When the photo was presented to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, He took His pen and wrote on one of the infant’s arms “Yed” (Hand) and on the other arm “Mo’ayyed” (confirmed). ‘Abdu’l-Bahá also named the child ‘Alí-Muhammad after the baby’s martyred grandfather, the illustrious poet Mírzá ‘Alí-Muhammad whose nom de plume was Varqá (dove). Bahíyyih Khánum showed the original photograph to the Toeg family during the above mentioned visit to her home in Tehran.

Shoghi Effendi’s Priceless Gifts to the Varqá Family

During the same visit, Bahíyyih Khánum invited Jalál Toeg to retrieve a medium-sized trunk that was hidden away in a storage room that he had to access by ladder. Jalál retrieved the trunk and brought it into the living room. Dr. Varqá’ s mother opened the container and reverently displayed its contents which were neatly folded in square bundles. With a growing sense of awe, the Toeg family viewed sacred relics that had once belonged to the Báb, Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá! They consisted of various articles of clothing and accessories, including robes, slippers, a comb, some writing materials that included reed pens and ink-wells, and a turban which had been sown with gold filigree thread.

Normally, Shoghi Effendi stored such precious items in the archives, or offered them as gifts on special occasions to selected National Spiritual Assemblies. One of these gifts, offered to the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Iraq, was the blood-stained shirt worn by Bahá’u’lláh as He attended the dying Purest Branch, Mírzá Mihdí. But these relics were the personal gift of the Guardian offered in gratitude to the Varqá family for four generations of remarkable service dating back to the time of the Báb.

The poet-martyr, Mírzá ‘Alí-Muhammad Varqá’s father, Hájí Mullá Mihdíy-i-Yazdí, had been a bold and eloquent teacher of the Faith of the Báb, having been taught by the Báb’s great, erudite convert, Vahíd, while the latter was openly proclaiming the coming of the Qá’ím in Yazd. The Varqá line counted three generations of Hands of the Cause, passing from father to son: the poet-martyr, Mírzá ‘Alí-Muhammad Varqá, his son Valíyu’lláh, and Dr. Ali-Muhammad; the second and third generations were both Chief Trustees of Huqúqu’lláh. This is not to forget Dr. Varqá’s uncle, the 12 year old expert teacher, Ruhúlláh, who witnessed the horrific scene of his father being rent asunder after a grisly stabbing at the hands of the enraged Hájibu’d-Dawlih, a murderous courtier and warden of the prison of Tehran, who was bent upon mindless revenge for the assassination of Násiri’d-Dín Sháh in 1896 on the eve of the king’s jubilee celebration. The young Ruhúlláh also died a martyr’s death at his father’s side, strangled in the noose of a bastinado by the bloodthirsty warden who had unsuccessfully attempted to entice the young Varqá with worldly benefits.

The Consolation of Dr. Varqá After an Encounter With Rúhíyyih Khánum

The conversation with Dr. Varqá on the Hadden estate, alluded to above, came at moment when I was recovering from what felt like a severe rebuke from ‘Amatu’l-Bahá Rúhíyyih Khánum. I wrote “what felt like.” Of course, it wasn’t a severe rebuke; it was a rather mild one. But coming from such a distinguished member of that illustrious institution, it felt like a blow. Its impact left me, in fact, momentarily dazed and confused. It does not matter now how that misunderstanding occurred or what was said. Let’s just say that it was one of those awkward exchanges that resulted from certain expectations and the embarrassment produced by a misconceived remark I made in the confusion of the moment.

Now, I know that I am not the only Bahá’í who experienced first hand Rúhíyyih Khánum’s direct manner. And in retrospect, I can see clearly now how I set myself up for it, well-intentioned though I was. Although the memory of the incident gradually dissipated, I must admit that it troubled me for years, that is, until the time of her passing. Then, mysteriously, a welcome and sudden psychological uplift occurred; instead of feeling embarrassed, I felt comforted and strangely peaceful. After her death, what I had once taken as a rebuke became a source of comfort; what I had experienced then as thunder and lightning became a refreshing rain shower. I am at a loss to explain this mysterious transformation, but it permanently removed the least twinge of discomfort.

Dr. Varqá and I crossed paths when I was still freshly reeling from the impact of the encounter. Unhinged, I unburdened myself to this fount of compassion and generosity there and then. Dr. Varqá knew exactly what I was feeling. He had seen it before. The receptivity, the “gentle kindliness, the humane understanding, the compassion and the loving-kindness of this man” of which I wrote above became embodied in that moment in his very presence. We spoke in French; Dr. Varqá had not yet learned English. “Now, now,” he said, with a comforting gesture of the hands in that soft, mild voice of his, as he threw a cloak of kindness over me, “Remain calm. Don’t be upset. These things happen sometimes. It has happened even with my wife, you know.”

Dr. Varqá wasn’t telling tales out of school; even less, did he have any intention of detracting from the high station of the great ambassadress of the Bahá’í Faith. He was simply recognizing, with that ocean of sympathy and understanding that defined his entire spiritual being, the human frailty and humanity that defines every Bahá’ í. Then we spoke of other things.

I realize now, some 27 years later, as I recall the circumstances of that conversation, how much love and wisdom were manifested in his response. He didn’t smile or laugh. He didn’t ask me to recount the incident to determine what I had done to contribute to my own misery; he just poured out loving-kindness and understanding. I am sure that Dr. Varqá, with his great humility, thought nothing of it. He was only being himself that sunny afternoon. Rivers flow; birds fly; grass grows. Dr. Varqá breathed compassion and understanding on many Bahá’ís in his lifetime. But time has only deepened my appreciation of his genuine humanity.

The Last Time I saw Dr. Varqá: The International Teaching Centre (March 2007)

Once the International Teaching Centre was completed on the arc in 2001, the pilgrims were invited to gather evenings in the auditorium to hear the last two living Hands of the Cause, Mr. ‘Alí-Akbar Fúrutan and Dr. Varqá, or to listen to a member of the Universal House of Justice or one of the Counsellors. During the week of our pilgrimage, we were favoured with two addresses by Dr. Varqá. We took our seats in the centre of one of the front rows of the second section. I realized, of course, that the occasion was auspicious: this would be the last time I would see and hear the last living Hand of the Cause of Bahá’u’lláh.

After all the pilgrims were seated, and following a short interval, Dr. Varqá walked onto the stage steadying himself with his left hand placed on the arm of a young assistant. He settled into a green leather wing chair. A decorative plant had been placed nearby. He was impeccably dressed in a fine suit with a beautifully matching tie. This time Dr. Varqá spoke in English. (I wasn’t aware that he had learned English over the past 25 years). His voice was at times weak, making some of his remarks partially inaudible, even with amplification. Although he looked frail, I could have scarcely guessed that he was 95 years old.

One of the pilgrims in our group recorded her impressions: “Dear Dr. Varqá, so pure and sweet-- so frail but luminous. He is remarkable continuing to offer this incredible service to pilgrims, to make them feel so welcome and cared for and loved. He tells us that there are 10,433 LSA’s in the world. I think of how few there would have been when he was first appointed and how much progress has been made through the steadfast efforts of those whose spirits have transcended their physical limitations. The last of the Hands of the Cause…we are so fortunate to have this precious opportunity to be in his presence, to feel his selfless love and his enormous dedication to this great faith of God. No easy retirement for him. He serves in all the ways he can to his last days.”

But the last Hand had not come out that evening to have us listen passively to just another talk, or to permit us to bask in his love and to marvel at the living example of his selflessness . He reminded us in the most courteous but direct manner of our pressing responsibilities. Another pilgrim recorded this remark: “If you leave the Holy Land without establishing your own individual plan, you are neglecting your duty.” He exhorted the friends to arise with dispatch to serve the needs of the current plan to the very best of our abilities. To him, there was nothing miraculous about success in teaching. It flowed naturally from the practice of obedience, effort, love, selflessness and devotion . The gist of his messages was this: “Friends! Love and serve Bahá’u’lláh with all your heart and soul. Love one another. Love those whom you teach. Do what is required of you and success will crown your efforts. ” Like the living example of his life, the formula for success was simplicity itself.

Divine Simplicity

This last thought leads me to close with a few observations on Dr. Varqá’s particular style of spirituality. The Universal House of Justice said it best in its tribute of 23 September 2007 announcing his passing: “In the early hours of last night, revered, greatly admired, well-loved Hand of the Cause of God Dr. ‘Alí-Muhammad Varqá departed this earthly plane after a period of outstanding, consecrated service to the Blessed Beauty that spanned many decades” . “Throughout the many years of his valiant endeavor to maintain the integrity of the two offices of so high a rank to which he was simultaneously elevated, his manner was imbued with a luminous gentleness, a genuine kindliness and a natural dignity which combined to reflect a saintly personality. For these exemplary traits he will ever be remembered.”

“Well-loved.” Yes. The last Hand was both loving and loveable, and these two qualities are inseparable. Without the least hint of ostentation, Dr. Varqá drew us to himself. Just as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had taught the little child in response to a question: the ocean is great because it places itself at the lowest point on the earth and draws all things unto it. That maxim applied perfectly to ‘Alí-Muhammad Varqá. One of the Ottawa believers who met Dr. Varqá for the first time just after becoming a Bahá’í in 1970 felt the magnetic power of that still, strong ocean. He wrote the following about their first meeting: “From the moment I set my eyes on him, I was dumb-struck. I couldn’t speak at all, not even when being introduced. I felt a very strong but quiet power that emanated from him. This was something that I had never really felt before from anyone. I would say he seemed the most humble person I have ever met.”

When we look at Dr. Varqá’s family history, another lesson emerges. Strong believers produce strong believers. While this is not a universal rule, we can see that the same qualities that existed in his father, grand-father, and great-grandfather, also existed in him. When this rare spiritual and genetic inheritance work together, the forthcoming results are sometimes marvelous. Dr. Varqá remarked during one interview: “When asked why his father was named a Hand of the Cause, Dr. ‘Alí-Muhammad Varqá said: ‘Because Shoghi Effendi recognized in him this capacity, devotion and sincerity. From him there was a feeling of nothingness. He devoted his life, mind and health to the Faith. The Faith for him was above all.'” That same nothingness or selflessness that Shoghi Effendi saw in the father was also visible in the son. The same degree of consecration existed in both. The Faith was their all, just as it should be for every faithful believer.

Dr. Varqá’s child-like purity of heart, innocence and simplicity should not be confused, of course, with a lack of intellectual sophistication. He earned a doctorate in hydraulics and irrigation from the Sorbonne in Paris in 1950 and he taught physical geography and geomorphology at Tehran University. His motivation in studying and teaching these subjects was to contribute to the modernization and economic development of Iran, but he was forced to leave his country after the Islamic revolution of 1979; he sought refuge in Canada.

Penned shortly before his passing, his last message as Chief Trustee was addressed to the participants of the Institutional Conference on the Right of God, held in Surrey, British Columbia from September 28-30, 2007. It contained the following mature reflection: “The observance of a law based on love rather than fear of retribution is unique in religious history and is a reflection of the stage of maturity that is expected of humanity in this era, when technological and scientific advances are continually improving material wellbeing. However, it is only when the means of material progress are anchored in a firm spiritual foundation that the social and economic welfare of mankind can be advanced.”

The keynote of his life was simplicity--divine simplicity--which is the concomitant of humility. He taught us, through the power of living example, and without ever saying so, that the way to God, and the path to success, do not lie in complexity. For complexity is only a burden and a hindrance. We shall honour him best by learning to practice that submissiveness to the Divine Will that illuminated his radiant soul, that submissiveness in action that will propel the Bahá’í community ever closer to winning its most cherished prize.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Preparing for the Centenary of 'Abdu'l-Bahá's Visit to Montreal (2012)

“The time of the sojourn was limited to a number of days, but the results in the future are inexhaustible.”

The Visit: Evening of August 30 to Morning of September 9, 1912

September 9, 2007 marked the last day of the 95th anniversary of Abdul-Bahás nine day visit to Montreal, the Canadian leg of a much longer eight month ambassadorial speaking tour throughout the United States. Put in a larger context, Abdul-Bahás three‑year‑long mission to the Western world, in Shoghi Effendis judgement, was the greatest exploit ever to be associated with His ministry.

In September, 2004 the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baháís of Canada requested the Canadian community to begin preparations for a befitting observance of the centennial of the Masters visit. As run-up to the centennial, the NSA also requested that the event be celebrated annually between August 30 and September 9th.

Preparation for the annual remembrance and the upcoming centennial may be achieved in a number of ways that necessarily involve reading, reflection, study, prayer and research. A variety of relevant topics might include the content and nature of Abdul-Bahás public addresses, interactions with the press and public, spiritual conduct, method of teaching, the composition of the Montreal Baháí community in 1912, and His manner of demonstrating interracial, interreligious, intercultural and socially diverse fellowship. Researchers should keep in mind the spontaneous, inspired and natural techniques of the Master Teacher of the Baháí Faith, the one who remains the Ideal Model of every Baháí virtue. As the paradoxical Mystery of God (Sirullah), Bahá’u’lláh’s eldest son, while He was not endowed with prophethood, was nonetheless a perfect human being who possessed supernatural powers and abilities.

Mr. H.M. Balyuzi in Abdul-Bahá: The Centre of the Covenant (1971) gives the dates of the visit as August 30-September 8, 1912 while both the National Spiritual Assemblys publication Abdul-Bahá in Canada (1962) and volume one of Mahmuds Diary by Mirzá Mahmúd-i-Zarqání (trans. 1998) give the dates as August 30-September 9, 1912. The discrepancy is explained by the fact that Abdul-Bahás departure, according to Zargání, occurred at 9:00 a.m. on September 9th. Mr. Balyuzi seems to have followed common sense in not counting September 9th as a full day. Even though Abdul-Bahá changed evening trains in Toronto on His way to Buffalo, New York, and walked along the platform of Union Station, the honour of being the only Canadian city that was blessed by a visit from Abdul-Bahá goes to Montreal. He was 68 years old at the time of His arrival in Montreal.

The Pearl of Great Price: Mrs. May Bolles Maxwell

It was no doubt the presence of the Maxwell family, particularly the illustrious May Bolles Maxwell, that drew Him there. In one of the tablets, Abdul-Bahá had described Mrs. Maxwell as a “…pearl, a real Baháí pure in heart and attracted in soul. The second tablet to Canada contains this reference to this luminary of early western Baháí history: One pearl is better than a thousand wildernesses of sand, especially this pearl of great price, which is endowed with divine blessing. Erelong thousands of other pearls will be born from it. When that pearl associates and becomes the intimate of the pebbles, they also all change into pearls. (February 21, 1917, Tablets of the Divine Plan, p. 95). The word pearl was no stranger to Abdul-Bahás vocabulary. Sometimes it served as metonym for the Baháí Faith itself. Its most famous allusion was to Shoghi Effendi. But in the above passage, a more personal relationship is indicated: spiritual intimacy and transformation. In Montreal, May Maxwell was the magnet and catalyst for both. Her role and station in Baháí history are great for she has won all the following distinctions: praise in the Tablets of the Divine Plan ; the spiritual founder of the first Baháí centre in Europe in Paris, France at the bequest of Abdul-Bahá; laying the foundations of the Baháí Faith in the Dominion of Canada; “the priceless honor of a martyr’s death (Shoghi Effendi) at her passing in Buenos Aires (1940).

The Arrival: Under a Full August Moon

In her journal of the Masters stay in Montreal, May Maxwell wrote, in a poetic phrase, that >Abdu=l-Bahá arrived at her home, on the flank of Mount Royal, under the full brightness of a summer moon. He came on the train from Boston and arrived late. The Master was met eagerly at the Windsor train station on Peel Street at 8:00 p.m. by Sutherland Maxwell with two carriages.Abdul-Bahá was accompanied on this occasion by only two members from his retinue: Mahmúd-i-Zarqání, who chronicled the Masters visit to North America and his interpreter, Ahmad Sohrab, who later broke the covenant under Shoghi Effendi.

The Remarkable Press Coverage

The approximately fifteen believers and their friends living in Montreal had well prepared the ground for the Masters arrival. In fact, their advanced preparation may be taken as an example of efficient media and public relations. When Abdul-Bahá arrived at 716 Pine Avenue West (later 1548) on the evening of August 30th, He was met by a group of friends and reporters that included John Lewis, editor of the Montreal Daily Star. It is likely that editor Lewis was a Baháí because in Amine De Milles eye-witness account of the visit, he is included in the list of names of first servants to arise through the teaching of Sutherland and May Maxwell and mentioned among these earliest friends of the Faith in Montreal.

No less than six English and five French language newspapers covered Abdul-Bahás visit. Among others, reporters at The Gazette, the Montreal Daily Star, the Daily Witness and the ministers and members of the Church of the Messiah (Unitarian), and St. James Methodist Cathedral Church--now United--some socialist and labour activists, professors and societal friends of the Maxwells had been given advance notice of the imminent arrival of Abdul-Bahá.

The Montreal Daily Star gave the widest coverage with ten articles and one editorial. The press had typed the persecuted, majestic and venerable figure with such majestic titles as the “the venerable Apostle of Peace,” the “Eastern Sage” and the Oriental Seer.” Despite His best efforts to have the name withdrawn, journalists referred to Abdul-Bahá as the Persian Prophet.” Having learned of ‘Abdul-Bahá’s arrival, Turks and Arabs, in their splendid native dress, came to pay their respects to, adding colour and variety to the uniform group of Anglo-Saxons that attended the meetings at the Maxwell home and in the churches. Assembled in the meetings were Americans, French Canadians, Jews, Arabs, Turks, Persians and, of course, Canadians.

The numerous articles written about Abdul-Bahás visit to Montreal provided the best newspaper coverage of His western tour. He ordered copies to be sent back to the Middle East. It was fortunate that the Montreal Baháís were well connected to the press. They were assisted by three of their own: editor John Lewis and Mr. Archibald Archie Eddington, a Montreal Daily Star reporter, and his wife who played such an active part in securing the most outstanding newspaper publicity of Abdul-Bahás visit to America. Amine De Milles journal includes the Eddingtons among these earliest friends of the Faith in Montreal. Mr. Archie Eddington also took stenographic notes of the oral translations of Abdul-Bahá’s talks. The headline of John Lewiss editorial from the Montreal Daily Star of September 11, 1912 read: War Must Precede Universal Peace. It must have dismayed readers that Abdul-Bahá had predicated the great war that was to come. He was quoted as saying: “A great war in Europe is a certainty before permanent peace can be established. International peace can only be reached by an international agreement entered into by all nations.”.

The considerable publicity and the magnetic, irresistible personality of Abdul-Bahá brought such a flow of inquirers to 716 Pine Avenue West that the Maxwell home could not accommodate them all. Zarqání recorded that Abdul-Bahá, on Monday, September 2nd rented a suite on the 7th floorroom unknown--of the prestigious Windsor Hotel on downtown Peel Street, looking majestically continental on one corner of Dominion Square.

Public Addresses, Informal Talks and Private Interviews

Abdul-Bahá gave eight public addresses and seven informal presentations, totalling fifteen, for which six transcripts are extant. This does not include newspaper articles, private interviews and the Apilgrim=s notes@ recorded in Mahmúds Diary. Three talks were given in the Maxwell home and two in the churches; one public address was enthusiastically received by the Socialists and labour activists of the day. Of these talks, three were given the same day (September 1st), two of them in the Maxwell home; third was delivered in the Unitarian Church of the Messiah. His considerable energies were fully engaged during the entire visit. To have Abdul-Bahá speak at the Church of the Messiah must have been a singularly happy event for architect William Sutherland Maxwell for he designed the Unitarian church which had opened its doors just seven years earlier in 1905.

The presiding minister at the Church of the Messiah, who introduced >Abdu=l-Bahá with eloquence, solemnity and deference, was the Reverend F.R. Griffin. The minister drew the congregations attention to >Abdu=l-Bahá=s complete naturalnessBone reads between the lines, despite his oriental provenance--and the purity of His child-like outlook on life, despite His prolonged and severe incarceration. Reverend Griffin went on to say that although >Abdu=l-Bahá has been A...disciplined by long years in prison, his spirit has never yet been crucified by pain.

These six talks contain some of the great principles and tenets that are familiar to Bahá=ís as their fundamental teachings. The vital necessity for a Christ-taught Arebirth@ and the exemplification of Avirtues divine@ to fulfil the human beings potentially high spiritual station was emphasized in His opening address at the Maxwell home. Other basic teachings are found throughout these talks: the oneness of God the Father, the divine AShepherd@ of the flock of humanity; the necessity to recognize the unity of the human family; the oneness of the prophets and religion; that religion must be a Aremedy@ and not aggravate the disease of disunity; that the prophets are the divine educators, Athe gardeners of humanity@; the unity of the Orient and Occident; that materialist philosophies are hopelessly bankrupt and of no benefit to the human race. (As reported by the Montreal Daily Star, September 3, 1912)

Other basic teachings, once included in fireside talks among Athe twelve principles@ are presented, particularly in His addresses of September 1st at the Unitarian Church of the Messiah and the St. James Methodist Church on September 5th. Proofs for immortality were presented in the second talk at the Maxwell=s during the evening of September 1st. It was during this address that >Abdu=l-Bahá was so transported by His theme that His turban fell to the ground and lay there for an half-hour while He finished the talk. At the St. James Methodist Cathedral Church, >Abdu=l-Bahá was voted thanks by a lay person, Mr. Recorder Weir, who reckoned Him among the Along line of prophets@ that some believed had become extinct. (Despite the Masters distaste for the term “prophet”, it kept reappearing). But such was the impression created by the Centre of the Covenant. One reporter described Him as a serene, majestic figure, calm, commanding, austere and wise.@

Baháí Economics for Socialists, Strikers, Marxists and Labour Leaders

In one sense, the most original talk was Bahá=í Economics delivered to an audience of 500 Socialists, labour leaders, strikers and Marxists, some of whom were members of the Jewish community. The talk took place at Coronation Hall, 204 St. Lawrence Street, now 1074 St. Laurent Boulevard. >Abdu=l-Bahá=s public speaking strategy is noteworthy: the topic was well-suited to the audience. He did not expound abstruse theological or religious themes to this group of practically minded, this-worldly socialists who were concerned with what is called today social justice. He spoke to them on their own terms. But >Abdu=l-Bahá did not refrain from mentioning God and His Holiness Bahá=u=lláh.

>Abdu=l-Bahá outlined the Baháí plan to eliminate the extremes of wealth and poverty, a plan that necessarily excluded “sedition,” i.e. the overthrow of government and the use of armed force. Rather, as >Abdu=l-Bahá expounded it, Bahá=u=lláhs solution provided ..the greatest happiness, welfare and comfort without any harm or injury attacking the general order of things. It was Apractical politics,@ as the Gazette called it, for the equitable distribution of the surplus wealth of a nation. It was based on the primacy of the agricultural class as the foundation of the system, and set out tiered levels of “revenues” or graduated taxation, in both cash and kind, that would fill a general storehouse or community chest for the village and the nation.

The funds from this central bank would ensure that all members of the community would be delivered from hunger and poverty and guaranteed “the utmost welfare and well-being.” The poor, the orphans, the old, the blind, the deaf and the handicapped would all be amply provided for in such a system. In addition to the specifics of graduated taxation and the management of surplus wealth, >Abdu=l-Bahá emphasized the necessity for concerning oneself with the well-being of others, for self-sacrifice and the recognition of the interdependence and solidarity of the human family. Abdul-Bahás innovative, genial presentation, and the noble sentiments it evoked, struck a strongly responsive chord in this largely working-class audience. Both the talk and the question period were punctuated with spontaneous and enthusiastic applause, so intense that the walls of the building seemed to vibrate to the foundation.

A Puzzle: The Healing of Nine Year Old Geraldine Birks

‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s historic visit, like all His visits, contains a number of touching anecdotes. The most moving of them was the healing of the nine year old girl who lived in the impressive home across the street at 715 Pine Avenue. Little Geraldine Birks was the grand-daughter of Henry Birks, the merchant who in 1879 founded in downtown Montreal the first of the Birks successful chain of 39 jewellery stores (2007). Her father John Henry Birks (1870-1949) had succeeded his father and had at the time of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s visit expanded the business to six stores. It was in the first Birks jewellers that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá purchased a number of rings and watches to distribute as gifts.

However, I agree with Will van den Hoonaard’s endnote comment in The Origins of the Baháí Community in Canada: 1898-1948 that there is something “puzzling” about this story. The puzzle lies in the strange lack of coherence between May Maxwell’s written account, which devotes roughly a quarter of its content to the healing, and the recollections of Geraldine Birks herself when asked about it some 79 years later in 1991.

May Maxwell describes Geraldine as a “sick child.” Both the young girl and her mother, Annie MacNeill Birks, are referred to as “invalid”; hereditary transmission probably figured into Geraldine’s illness. According to Mrs. Maxwell’s account, the mother entreated ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to come and visit them because they were unable to do so; when the Master offered to heal the child, “the reply was an ardent appeal.” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s instruction to the parents countermanded the doctor’s orders. He urged the parents to allow Geraldine to go out of doors in the middle of the day. Nine months later, according to May’s account, in the early springtime, “this beautiful child came out of her prison house and walked upon the ground, gradually becoming perfectly healthy, strong and well.“ However, when interviewed about the healing at the age of 88 years, Geraldine Birks could not recall the incident. Surprisingly, she did not remember ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s visit at all, although she did recollect being “sick”--not invalid. She did recall her family saying that Mrs. Maxwell “had invited a guru from India” to visit.

What can one make of this discrepancy? We cannot know with certainty, but the simplest explanation would be that Geraldine simply suffered from the defective memory that sometimes affects the elderly. However, another clue may be taken from the filmed interview of ‘Amatu’l-Bahá Ruhíyyíh Khanúm. When asked about this incident--and this is my impression recalled from having seen the film years ago--Ruhíyyíh Khanúm expressed disappointment that her cousin did not seem to appreciate the significance of either the greatness of her visitor or the divine healing that had been bestowed upon her.


Will C. van den Hoonaard, The Origins of the Baháí Community in Canada: 1898-1948 (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1996)

Mírzá Mahmúd-i-Zarqání, Mahmúd’s Diary, translated by Mohi Sobhani (George Ronald Publisher, 1998)

H.M. Balyuzi, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: The Centre of the Covenant of Bahá’u’lláh (George Ronald Publisher, 1971)

National Spiritual Assembly of the Baháís of Canada, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Canada (The Forest Free Press, 1962)