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)

Sunday, September 2, 2007

What A Young Man Learned From Laura Rumney Davis About Shoghi Effendi (c. 1965)

Mrs. Laura Rumney Davis: The Mother of the Toronto Bahá’í Community

That afternoon, as I left my home at 6 Emery Circle in the Township of Etobicoke, and made my way south down Royal York Road to that familiar address at 44 Chestnut Park in affluent Rosedale, I was keenly aware that I was about to visit a “historic” individual in the Canadian Bahá’í community. It was at 44 Chestnut Park that important developments in early and mid Toronto Bahá’í history had taken place. I was going to visit Laura Davis, the mother of the Toronto Bahá’í community. This distinction was sufficient in itself to merit a visit, but Laura had also made the pilgrimage to Haifa while the Guardian, Shoghi Effendi Rabbani, was still serving as head of the Bahá’í Faith.

Laura Rumney Davis was a second generation Bahá’í” but this phrase has to be used advisedly. Lauras personal papers have it, in two different documents, that her mother, Violet Rumney, became a believer shortly after Laura. Laura Davis heard about the Faith in 1919 in Toronto at the home of Bahá’í Dr. Albert Durant Watson, from that model and scion of all Bahá’í teachers, Miss Martha Root, and declared almost immediately. Laura shared the news with her mother who declared within a week. Both mother and daughter had been former Christian Scientists, although Laura’s mother had belonged to a number of Christian denominations during her spiritual search.

Laura and Violet and Lauras husband Victor became, along with only a handful of other faithful believers, pillars of the early Toronto Bahá’í community. Their steady activities spanned about 40 years, from 1936-1976. Laura was an enthusiastic amateur poet and once belonged to Dr. Watsons Toronto literary circle, a circle that included the famous Canadian poets, Bliss Carman and Sir Charles G. D. Roberts. Her presence there was probably more as observer than participant. Her school chum, Margaret Lawrence, was Dr. Watson‘s private secretary and it is likely that Laura was invited to the circle through Margaret. (For the biography of Laura’s life, readers should consult Marlene Mackes instructive manuscript Take My Love to the Friends: The Life of Laura R. Davis. Will van den Hoonaards The Origins of the Bahá’í Community of Canada: 1898-1948 (1996) also contains pertinent information).

Always eager from the time that I first declared my faith in Bahá’u’lláh in 1962 to meet anyone who had made the pilgrimage when the “the sign of God” was still alive, I felt fortunate that I was about to meet a pilgrim who had looked upon the “priceless pearl. Dame Laura Rumney Davis, who lived in comfortable surroundings when I met her, had been granted the rare privilege of sitting at Shoghi Effendis table in 1955 and hearing him expound the Bahá’í teachings and his perceptions of world events. I have since come to realise that meeting with historic individuals, and the making of historic events, are closely tied. Both went hand-in-hand with meeting the Guardian.

Following the interview, I made no notes, but as near as I can tell, the visit with Laura would have taken place circa 1965. Laura would have been about 70 years old; I was about 19. I recall climbing the steps to Laura and Victor’s spacious, red brick Georgian style home with its arched portico entrance. Although I had met Laura when I was still a child and young teenager, those occasions had been only brief hellos at conferences, conventions, public meetings or summer schools. This was our first real meeting. I rang the bell in anticipation.

The Act of Incorporation (1949): Dame Laura Rumney Davis

“Dame” is used before Lauras name when it appears, for example, in the act passed by the Canadian Parliament to incorporate the National Spiritual Assembly on April 30, 1949. However, Bahá’ís did not address Laura Davis as “Dame Laura.“ So the reader should not be mislead by this title. In the incorporation act, the title was honorific and meant simply a mature, honourable, married woman. In Great Britain the title was granted by the crown as the female equivalent to the knight. Author Marlene Macke did not discover the title even once in Laura‘s private papers. It is, consequently, more likely that Laura felt that prefixing the title “Dame” befit the dignity of the Bahá’í Faith rather than her own. Although Laura, as a middle-class Canadian of her time, was certainly aware of class distinctions and stations in life, she was far from being snobbish. Despite the comfortable surroundings in which she and Victor lived at 44 Chestnut Park, the Davis’s were not, as one might suppose, wealthy. At her fireside meetings, she mixed freely with people from all classes and walks of life. In our interactions, she presented a curious mixture of reserve, dignity and a spontaneous, child-like innocence.

The Interview

Laura greeted me at the door and welcomed me into her home. Always eager to share her impressions of the Guardian, the blend of bubbling enthusiasm, ready laughter with a gracious manner, typical of those Canadians of British ancestry belonging to her generation, was soon in evidence. Her speech-- particularly the more open “a” vowel -- had traces of English diction that were not so marked as to qualify as the overtly British “Canadian Dainty“; it was nearer to mild, mid-Atlantic.

We sat down in that spacious living room whose walls had witnessed some 50 years of fireside talks, declarations, LSA, NSA and committee meetings, and visitors of note, a space that someone has described as a “museum.It is an apt description if one considers that the early beginnings of personal spiritual histories, and certain chapters of Canadian Bahá’í history, written by many hands, were first sketched in that room. My aunt Edna Halsted Nablo (b. 1931), my mother Joyces youngest sister, had declared her faith at 44 Chestnut Park and had waited nervously later, hoping and praying that the consulting LSA would accept her. (It happened on rare occasions that ones declaration was not first accepted). Although I do not remember her speaking about it, my mother Joyce must have been welcomed in 1952 by the Toronto LSA in that same room.

The conversation began. I can regrettably recall only one or two specific details of our talk that afternoon but what I do remember, I remember clearly. (The reader is referred to Ms. Marlene Macke’s biography which gives a much fuller account of Laura’s pilgrimage). However in our conversation, she referred to what North American Bahá’ís used to call in the 1960’s and 70’s the “catastrophe.” Other pilgrim’s notes also contain references, sometimes contradictory, to this fearful event or events [1]. Now all Bahá’ís know that pilgrims notes, even though Shoghi Effendi urged the friends to read them because they contain “valuable information,” he did not deem to be authoritative. And with good reason. So they are presented here only as a matter of anecdotal interest. One “note” from Laura did not come from Shoghi Effendi directly, but it interested me as much as the Guardians reported comments; it bore eloquent testimony to Shoghi Effendis decisive influence on Mrs. Davis herself. I refer to Laura’s unconcealed love for Shoghi Effendi.

But to begin with the catastrophe: Laura told me that Shoghi Effendi had said that some of the larger cities of North America -- his reported remark applied mainly to the cities of the U.S.A. -- would be “vapourised.” That was the word he used. As I recall, she named New York, Chicago and Pittsburgh. The other note concerned a powerful energetic force as yet undiscovered in the earth which Shoghi Effendi did not name.

Her Unconcealed Love for Shoghi Effendi

But what struck me more than Laura’s pilgrims notes was her loving appreciation of Shoghi Effendi. When Laura left Haifa, the Guardian said to her: “Take my love to the friends.” While Shoghi Effendi often expressed this desire to other pilgrims, Laura took his directive as her marching orders for life. It was an unconcealed, open love, a love that was youthful, unblushing and ebullient. “You know,” Laura said, beaming at me through her glasses, “I tell Victor that I love Shoghi Effendi more than I love him.” This declaration was followed by school-girlish, innocent laughter. In this extroverted love, that some interlocutors might have found overstated, Laura clearly took pride. This love Laura wore proudly, as one might wear a badge of honour. But I could not help wondering how her husband Victor might have felt about being so completely eclipsed by Shoghi Effendi. I was somewhat reassured to learn of Laura’s deep and settled love for Victor. But that was another kind of love. Victor must not have enjoyed being introduced, as he once was, as “Laura Daviss husband.” In any case, their marriage was solid; it was a working partnership.

I gathered from her remarks that Shoghi Effendi was quite conscious of the state of Laura’s mind, for he commented on it, as was his manner, in a rather direct way: “You know, Mrs. Davis,” Shoghi Effendi reportedly said, “the purpose of the pilgrimage to Haifa and Bahji is to pray in the holy shrines and not to meet the Guardian.” Although Laura reported the Guardian’s words to me, as she did to others, I still wondered if she were fully conscious of Shoghi Effendis intent. For he read just as incisively individual personalities as he did the ethos of nation-states. However, it is to her credit that Laura, in all honesty, reported this observation.

The reader should not interpret this observation as a criticism. Many a male pilgrim had also “fallen in love” with Shoghi Effendi. Referring to the Guardian, Hand of the Cause of God, Mr. William Sears, said in of his talks: “He looked into my eyes and all the world became as ashes.” For William Sears, as for other men, no less than for Laura Davis, the heart of the pilgrimage was to be in the Guardian’s presence. After all, love is not, nor should it be, whether it be purely spiritual or human, or its various shades of in-between, entirely rational. Lauras love for Shoghi Effendi was, not only the source of all her pride and joy; it fed, long after the pilgrimage, the fountain of her spiritual effervescence and contributed to the considerable services she rendered to the Faith over the rest of her lifetime. For Laura Davis possessed that singular quality that was typical of that favoured generation that had known either Abdul-Bahá and/or Shoghi Effendi--devotion, a devotion that was expressed in action and a life of service.

She died in 1990 at 95 years of age, “being old and full of days” (Gen. 35:29), having surpassed the proverbial three score years and ten by 25 full years [2]. Her defining personal qualities were an unusual blend of purity of heart, child-like innocence, youthful enthusiasm, cheerful optimism, a ready smile, a touch of grace and dignity, combined with a high seriousness in her approach to the Causeand, of course, and above all, that unbounded love for Shoghi Effendi. She was keenly aware that she had been accorded a rare privilege. And in that Haifa moment, she attained her deepest desire. She had been ennobled.


[1] Another distinguished Baháí, Winifred Harvey, told me, unlike Lauras account, that Shoghi Effendi said to her pilgrim group: “The catastrophe is not what the Bahá’ís think. It will be spiritual, social, economic and religious.” It is admittedly hard to reconcile such contradictory views of the “catastrophe” except to suggest that the Guardian was, at different times, reading a alteration of human affairs according to a Divine Will that was, in a sense, changing Its Mind according to a divine wisdom. Or perhaps, he was giving, at different times, a number of possible readings of future outcomes.

[2] Marlene Macke discovered in her archival research Lauras correct birthdate. The above affirmation, based on Ms. Mackes research, gives her correct lifespan as 95 instead of 90 years.


Mrs. Laura R. Davis, Personal Interview

Marlene M. Macke, Take My Love to the Friends: The Life of Laura R. Davis (MS)

Will C. van den Hoonaard, The Origins of the Bahá’í Community of Canada: 1898-1948 (1996)

Sunday, August 12, 2007

What Stanwood Cobb Told Me About 'Abu'l-Bahá

Introducing ‘Abdu’l-Bahá via Khalil Gibran

Most of you reading this message will already know that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is one the “Three Central Figures” of the Bahá’í Faith, an apt expression that has become standard in Bahá’í parlance. It was coined by another spiritual genius, Shoghi Effendi. I would like to introduce “the Master,” as Bahá’u’lláh called His eldest son, with a comment by the famous Lebanese/Syrian Christian prose writer, poet and painter, Khalil Gibran: “It wasn’t until I met ‘Abdu’l-Bahá,” Gibran said, “that I was able to conceive how the Holy Spirit could inhabit the human temple.” As I take it, Gibran’s remark was meant in the classical, prophetic sense.

Gibran was, in fact, to make a solemn declaration years later, after viewing the only motion picture ever made of the Master in Brooklyn, New York, that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was “a Manifestation of God for this day,” that is to say, a Prophet. His heart-felt declaration shows evidence of a change of heart, for he formerly believed that all gifted, creative souls were in touch with the Holy Spirit and were in no need of any intermediaries. Gibran did not seem to know that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had emphatically denied this claim, but such was the Cosmic Power that flowed through the Servant of Bahá. Gibran made a pencil drawing of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s head and shoulders during an early morning pose that lasted an hour; a facsimile hangs proudly in my study.

Gibran’s statement comes by way of Juliet Thompson (d. 1956), a portrait painter, and ardent devotee of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, who was granted the privilege of painting ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s portrait. Her painting reveals an ethereal, mysterious being who is dynamically alive to the moving, vibrating influxes and refluxes of the Spirit of Divine Life. Juliet Thompson, it should be noted, was no amateur. She had painted portraits of President Woodrow Wilson, and Mrs. Calvin Coolidge, among others. Gibran and Juliet were well acquainted. They were in fact neighbours. Juliet shared a home with Daisy Smythe at 48 West 10th Street in Greenwich Village; Gibran lived just across the street at 51 West 10th. He called Juliet “my first friend in New York.” He spent as much time as he could with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá during the Master’s visits to New York and Boston. When Gibran was diagnosed with cancer in his late forties, he asked Juliet to visit him every day. He wept out his sadness and grief on her shoulder until he died at age 49.

Stanwood Cobb: “Un original

But let me turn now to Stanwood Cobb (b. 1881), formerly of Chevy Chase, Maryland. Although Stanwood’s books are no longer widely read in the Bahá’í community, he was a prolific writer, innovative teacher and international lecturer. He has well earned his place, if not somewhat neglected, in the annals of Bahá’í history. I first came across Stanwood’s name in our family library. There I discovered a few of his books, including Islamic Contributions to Civilization (1963), which gives a readable, economical overview of the contributions of Islam to world culture and civilization.

Stanwood was a living illustration of what the French call “un original.” With the possible exception of the flamboyant and dramatic Ali Kuli Khan, one of my aunt Ruth Halsted Kern’s teachers, the personalities of the Middle-Eastern Bahá’ís seemed to fade into evanescence at the very mention of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s name. By contrast, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s effect on the early western believers was such that they generally stand out as individual personalities, a characteristic mark of their culture. There were not a few eccentrics among them. But if Stanwood Cobb was eccentric, he was not markedly so. I have since come to the conclusion, after having met some of these great souls in my younger days, that the perceived eccentricity of some of the early western friends meant rather that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had been instrumental in helping them to discover, in Dr. Daniel Jordan’s phrase, their ‘true self.’ He changed them in indelible ways.

Although he was first and foremost a Bahá’í, Stanwood reached out to the non-Bahá’í world. He lived and moved in parallel universes. In 1919, he became one of the founders and later President of the Progressive Education Association , an organization devoted to the reform of elementary education in America. In 1940, an academic named Reuben R. Palm wrote an 8 page article called “The Origins of Progressive Education ” which was reprinted in a recent issue of The Elementary School Journal, published at the University of Chicago Press. It mentioned Stanwood Cobb. Stanwood also founded other literary and philosophical associations including the Cosmos Club.

Stanwood studied at Dartmouth College where he had been chosen Valedictorian in 1905. He did post-graduate work at Harvard Divinity School, studying the history and philosophy of religion. He was preparing for ministry in the Unitarian Church when he became a confirmed Bahá’í in a matter of a few hours, under a tree at the Green Acre Fellowship, responding to the call of two other luminaries, Miss Sarah Farmer, the spiritual mother and creator of Green Acre (1894), a centre she established for the study of comparative religion and progressive ideas and movements, and Mary Lucas, “the woman in white,” who had recently returned from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s presence, who was then a prisoner in Akká (Acco). Like so many other chosen ones of that age, Stanwood was in a state of spiritual readiness because he had come to the independent conclusion that for the creation of a new world order, someone with more than human authority must appear.

Meeting Stanwood Cobb

I first met Stanwood Cobb at Beaulac summer and winter school, a property north of Montreal in the beautiful Laurentian Hills, not far from Rowdon, Quebec. I was about 14 years old; Stanwood would have been about 72. (Circa 1959). When, years later, I paid him a visit at his cottage at the Green Acre Centre near Eliot, Maine in the summer of 1977, he had reached the advance old age of 96, but he was to live on for a few more years. Although he was somewhat frail by 1977, Dr. Cobb was still in reasonably good health, a condition that had been produced, not only by robust genes, but also by his life-long regimen of good hygiene, a program that included deep-breathing, meditation, dietary practices and exercise.

Beaulac had once been owned by the National Spiritual of the Bahá’ís of Canada but it was subsequently sold. It consisted of a two-storey farm house, a barn that had been converted into a rustic lecture hall for larger meetings—it always retained the lingering odour of the cattle barn--cabins on both sides of the highway, a small lake, and acres of rolling hills. It was at lunch that I met Stanwood. He sat opposite. Time has not dimmed the memory of this colourful character. He was showing a faint growth of beard and, as I recall, unlike photos of his later years, he was not wearing glasses, perhaps because he was returning from his morning swim.

His first piece of advice was dietary: “You should never eat until you feel completely full,” he said, speaking matter-of-factly. “If you feel full, you have eaten too much. Always leave a little room.” Stanwood practiced what he preached. After donning his black swimming trunks, he would head down to the lake for a daily swim. One day I stood on the shore and watched him. I recall seeing the strong head visibly still above the surface of the water. As I recall, he did not swim vigorously but movement was the key to his exercise philosophy. His body was strong and solid, and even in his senior years, his muscles were toned.

Memories of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: The Joy of Life

It was during his lectures in the barn that he first spoke of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, whom he had met on five occasions: twice in Akká in 1909 and 1910, later in Boston (1912), then in Washington (1912) and finally in Paris (1913). It was later at Green Acre, in old age, that he would give me his more personal impressions. But during his barn lectures, Stanwood related some of the stories that were published in his memoir “Memories of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.” However, the following observation was not found there. “Abdu’l-Bahá,” said Dr. Cobb, “was unlike the other spiritual leaders who came to Green Acre in this respect: He had a wonderful sense of humour and laughed out loud. It is this joy and zest for living that distinguished the Master from the other spiritual teachers there. They were much too serious. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá fully embraced the joy of life and encouraged his followers to do the same.”

It was at Beaulac that Stanwood told the story of how his father, “a venerable Boston artist 75 years of age,” a devoutly religious man, and much to Cobb’s shock and horror, began to lecture the Master on the personal spiritual philosophy that was the fruitage of his mature years. There must have been something of the preacher in Mr. Cobb senior because Stanwood’s memoir says that his father, for no less than half an hour, “proceeded to lay down the law to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.” But on this, as on other occasions, the younger Cobb witnessed ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s graciousness and silent wisdom. In an unforgettable lesson, informed by infinite courtesy and humility, the Master listened patiently to the preachment, smiling all the while, “enveloping us with His love.” The unfailing wisdom of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had correctly divined that Mr. Cobb Senior needed to empty his cup. Stanwood’s father came away from his encounter with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá fully satisfied this wonderful interview!

The Divine Healing: Cured From Depression

The most gripping of Stanwood’s anecdotes was the divine healing. But the printed version of his memoir differs slightly from his table talk at Beaulac. At Beaulac, Stanwood intimated that it was from a “suicidal depression” that he had been cured by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. His memoir says that “I had been slowly recovering in previous years from a nervous depression due to overwork at Dartmouth.” This depression was not just a case of “the blues”; it was clinical. He wrote: “At times I would feel so depressed that I should have been glad to have found a hole in the ground, crawled into it, and pulled the hole in after me. I understood at such times, the Hindu craving for extinction.” Stanwood’s table talk also revealed another factor that is not found in his memoir, although it is hinted at there. He told us that because he was a Bahá’í, his life had been threatened by some of the Muslim students whom he taught at Robert College in Istanbul. They must have been a fierce lot, not unlike the Muslim extremists of our time, for some of them were carrying “knives and revolvers.” Returning to the school, where he was still employed, must have seemed a fearful prospect. In any case, this is the account of the healing taken from his memoir, an anecdote which he also told at Beaulac:

“‘Abdu’l-Bahá came into my room one morning without His translator. He sat beside me and took one of my hands in both of His and held it for a minute or two. He had not at any time inquired as to my health. He knew. From that moment on I found myself permanently relieved of these depressive moods. No matter how hard the going, I have always since then been glad to be alive.”

In his oral account at Beaulac, Stanwood related that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had looked directly into his eyes. When after his Akká pilgrimage he returned to Robert College, the divine magic of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had worked its wonders: “As for my disciplinary troubles at the college,” he wrote, “they vanished like mist which the sunshine dispels.” His pupils “loved me again and more than ever.”

The Venerable Stanwood Shares His Latter View of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

Some 18 years were to pass before I would meet Stanwood again. In 1977, when our children were small, we decided to attend the Green Acre Summer School. Forever blessed by the presence of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Green Acre is a veritable “who’s who” of the Apostolic and early Formative Ages of the Bahá’í Faith. An impressive, vast company of teachers, scholars, writers, and Hands of the Cause have passed through; several have lived and taught there. When I heard that Stanwood was living in a cottage on the property, I determined to visit him, desiring the privilege of being in the company again of one who had known the unique “Mystery of God.” One afternoon, I made my way down to the cottage. Stanwood was sitting on the porch; a young attendant sat nearby. We exchanged greetings. I sat down and the conversation was engaged. I recalled to him our first meeting at Beaulac. Then I came to my central question: “Stanwood,” I inquired, “now that you have reached this ripe old age, and when you look down the long vista of the years, what is it that comes now to your mind about ‘Abdu’l-Bahá?” There was a brief moment of silence. Suddenly the atmosphere changed and the air became charged with emotion. “Well, if I told you what I really thought,” he exclaimed, “you would find it reprehensible!”

I asked for a clarification. “Well,” he replied, “if ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had not specifically denied being a prophet, as far as I was concerned, He was. He moved with the ease of a king, was as free as a bird, and did just as He pleased.” He said that if ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wanted to visit a home in Eliot, He just rang the door-bell and waked in. I encapsulated Cobb’s views about the Master in my book Dimensions in Spirituality (1994): “But what Cobb perceived in ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was a kingly freedom and majestic power which indicated to him that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was master of His fate in a way that no ordinary man was and possessed a freedom and a power that Cobb could only associate with what we might call a prophet.”

Such was the lasting impression produced by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. But it was no ordinary impression. It was a divine encounter that forever changed the soul.