The Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh which the beloved Guardian has given us is in large measure an intimate remembrance of the Redeemer’s sufferings. And Bahá’u’lláh wished us to meditate on these sufferings. In the Tablet of Aḥmad He says: ‘Remember My days during thy days, and My distress and banishment in this remote prison.’
In a great poem known as the Fire Tablet He records at length the tale of His calamities and writes at the close:
‘Thank the Lord for this Tablet whence thou canst breathe the fragrance of My meekness and know what hath beset Us in the path of God.’ He adds: ‘Should all the servants read and ponder this, there shall be kindled in their veins a fire that shall set aflame the world.’
True religion in all ages has called on the faithful to suffer. On the one hand it brings to mankind a happiness in the absolute and the everlasting which is found nowhere but in religion. No unbeliever knows any joy which in its preciousness can be compared to the joys of religion. ‘The true monk,’ it has been said, ‘brings nothing with him but his lyre.’
On the other hand Heaven is walled about with fire. This bliss must be bought at a great price. So it has ever been in all religions of mankind.
An ancient hymn of lndia proclaims a truth as real now as it was in distant times:
The way of the Lord is for heroes. It is not meant for cowards.
Offer first your life and your all. Then take the name of the Lord.
He only tastes of the Divine Cup who gives his son, his wife, his wealth and his own life.
He verily who seeks for pearls must dive to the bottom of the sea, endangering his very existence.
Death he regards as naught; he forgets all the miseries of mind and body.
He who stands on the shore, fearing to take the plunge, attains naught.
The path of love is the ordeal of fire. The shrinkers learn from it.
Those who take the plunge into the fire attain eternal bliss.
Those who stand afar off, looking on, are scorched by the flames.
Love is a priceless thing only to be won at the cost of death.
Those who live to die, those attain; for they have shed all thoughts of self.
Those heroic souls who are rapt in the love of the Lord, they are the true lovers.
All the founders of religions have had to endure rejection and wrong, and as mankind grew more and more mature and the victory of God nearer, these wrongs, these sufferings have grown more and more severe continually.
We read little if anything of martyrdom in the Old Testament. But the New opens with Herod’s slaughter of the innocents, his beheading of John the Baptist; its central figure is a Man of Sorrows acquainted with grief. The Gospels close with the agony in Gethsemane and with the Cross, the Nails, the Spear, and history follows with the martyrdom of all the eleven apostles. The Báb Himself was martyred and His followers gave up their lives for love of Him, not by dozens only but by hundreds and by thousands. In establishing the victory of God Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá drank the cup of suffering to the dregs.
It is said there are three kinds of martyrdom: one is to stand bravely and meet death unflinchingly in the path of God without wavering or under torture denying for an instant one’s faith. The second is little by little to detach one’s heart entirely from the world, laying aside deliberately and voluntarily all vanities and worldly seductions, letting every act and word become a speaking monument and a fitting praise for the Holy Name of Bahá’u’lláh. The third is to do the most difficult things with such self-sacrifice that all behold it as your pleasure. To seek and to accept poverty with the same smile as you accept fortune. To make the sad, the sorrowful your associates instead of frequenting the society of the careless and gay. To yield to the decrees of God and to rejoice in the most violent calamities even when the suffering is beyond endurance. He who can fulfill these last conditions becomes a martyr indeed.
None can attempt to delineate the variety or to analyze the nature of the afflictions which were poured upon Bahá’u’lláh. Repeatedly He has Himself summarized them in a few brief powerful sentences. In one place He calls our particular attention to the fact that it was not the Black Dungeon of Ṭihrán, for all its horrors and chains, which He named the Most Great Prison. He gave that name to ‘Akká. We are left to surmise why, and we reflect that in the Black Pit His sufferings were chiefly personal and physical; His enemies were external foes, the hope of redeeming the Cause was still with Him. But when He went down to ‘Akká in 1868, the traitor Mírzá Yaḥyá had done his deadly work; the kings and leaders had definitely rejected the Message, He was definitely cast out and silenced. Not He Himself alone but the Cause of God was in prison.
We can never imagine what numberless possibilities of immediate redemption the mad, sad, bad world had wantonly flung away; nor can our less sensitive natures know what the anguish of this frustration must have been to the eager longing of a heart as divinely centered, divinely loving as His.
But this much is abundantly plain; that the pains, the griefs, the sorrows, the sufferings, the rejections, the betrayals, the frustrations which were the common lot of all the High Prophets reached their culmination in Him.
Yet through all He remained calm, confident, His courage unshaken, His acquiescence forever radiant.
No one is to imagine that the excess of His tribulations means that at any time the power of evil had prevailed against Him. Pondering as He would have us to do, over the significance of these afflictions, we are shown that the truth is quite otherwise. He reveals:
‘Had not every tribulation been made the bearer of Thy wisdom, and every ordeal the vehicle of Thy providence, no one would have dared oppose Us, though the powers of heaven and earth were to be leagued against Us.’ He writes that God had sacrificed Him that men might be born anew and released from their bondage to sin. He praises God for His sufferings, He welcomes them, and even prays that for God’s sake the earth should be dyed with His blood and His head raised on a spearpoint. He continually protests that with every fresh tribulation heaped upon Him He manifests a fuller measure of God’s Cause and exalts more highly still God’s Word.
How bitterly felt were His tribulations, how acute His anguish, how real His grief and pain is shown a hundred times in His laments. His high divinity did not protect Him from human sensibility, but never did He quail nor blanch, never did He show resentment.
Many of His laments are not over His woes themselves but over the effect they produce on the faithful whose hearts they sorely shook or on the enemies of the Cause whom they fill with joy.
Nothing could exhaust His patience nor dampen His spirit. ‘Though My body be pained by the trials that befall Me, though it be afflicted by the revelation of Thy decree, yet My soul rejoiceth.’ He affirms that the tribulations that He and the faithful are made to endure are such as no pen in the entire creation can record, nor anyone describe. Yet ‘We swear by Thy Might, every trouble that toucheth us in our love for Thee is an evidence of Thy tender mercy, every fiery ordeal a sign of the brightness of Thy light, every woeful tribulation a cooling draught, every toil a blissful repose, every anguish a fountain of gladness.’
How then is it that ‘by Thy stripes we are healed?’
It is because the intensity, the magnitude, the volume of the sufferings of Bahá’u’lláh called forth the fullest possible expression and outpouring of the infinite mercy and love of God.
Wrongs done to the founder of a religion have two inevitable effects: one is that of retribution against the wrong done—the severity of which we may judge from the two thousand year exile of the Jewish people. The other is that of reward to the High Prophet whom they enable to release fresh powers of life that would have otherwise lain latent, to pour forth Divine energies which in their boundlessness will utterly overwhelm the forces of evil and empower Him to say: ‘Be of good cheer. I have overcome the world.’
The sufferings of Bahá’u’lláh enable us in some degree to measure the immensity of His love for mankind, to appreciate the sacrifice He made for love of us. The story of them enables us to keep in remembrance the heinous blackness and cruelty of the world of man from which He saved us; it enables us to realize the meaning and the need of Divine redemption, it proves to us the invincibility of God and the lone majesty of God’s victory over evil.
It is for the sake of learning more fully the love and the glory and the might of God that we contemplate this story of Bahá’u’lláh’s tribulations.
In that spirit we are to read it, and as a proof of His triumphant inviolable love He keeps the picture before us in many forms that we may be fortified and uplifted in our poor human struggle with the tests and afflictions of life.
The Fire Tablet adds all the poignancy and impassioned power of divine poetry to the story of the boundless suffering He and His beloved followers had to endure. In language of torrential eloquence He tells of the longing of the faithful for reunion with God being ungratified, He tells of the casting out of those most near to His heart, of dying bodies, of frustrated lovers left afar to perish in loneliness, of Satan’s whisperings in every human ear, of infernal delusions spreading everywhere, of the triumph of calamity, darkness, and coldness of heart. He tells of the sovereignty in every land of hate and unbelief while He Himself is forbidden to speak, left in the loneliness of His anguish, drowning in a sea of pain with no rescue ship to come and save Him. The lights of honour and loyalty and truth are put out; slander prevails and no avenging wrath of an outraged God descends to destroy the wicked and vindicate God’s messenger.
He calls to God for an answer. And the answer comes, showing the inner significance of God’s seeming to forsake His righteous ones.
Man’s evil sets off God’s goodness. Man’s coldness of heart sets off the warmth of God’s love.
Were it not for the night, how would the sun of the Prophet’s valour show forth the splendour of its radiance? Through His loneliness, the unity of God was revealed; through His banishment, the world of divine singleness grew fair.
‘We have made misery,’ said God to Him, ‘the garment of Thy glory, and sorrow the beauty of Thy temple. O Thou treasure of the worlds! Thou seest the hearts are filled with hate, and shalt absolve them, Thou Who dost hide the sins of all the worlds! Where the swords flash, go forward; Where the shafts fly, press onward, O Thou victim of the worlds.’
In that battle which we—all of us—wage with pain and suffering and sorrow, those are God’s last words to us:
‘Where the swords flash, go forward; Where the shafts fly, press onward.’
For love is a priceless thing, only to be won at the cost of death. Those who live to die, those attain; for they have lost all thoughts of self. Those heroic souls who are rapt in the love of the Lord, they are the true lovers.
Bahá’u’lláh revealed a sublime vision of human history as an epic written by the finger of God and proceeding along an ordered course to a climax, the nature of which was exactly defined before the story opened and the appearance of which at the date ordained by the Author no human misunderstanding nor opposition could prevent or postpone.
He taught that human history throughout its entire length was an intelligible and connected whole, centring round a single theme and developing a common purpose. From the beginning of the cycle to the present day and beyond the present to the cycle’s distant end, one master-scheme is by set degrees disclosed. The stage upon which the action moves forward is the entire globe, with all its continents and all its seas; and there is no race nor nation nor tribe nor even individual who has not a designated place in the unfolding of the Grand Design of God.
This doctrine of the unity of world-history held in the revelation of Bahá’u’lláh a position of cardinal importance. He was far from being the first among the Messengers of God to reveal it. Those “prophets which have been since the beginning of the world” and lesser seers as well as they have given glimpses of it to mankind, or have referred to it in symbol and in parable. It is indeed involved in all the historic faiths of the human race, and there is no world-religion extant which can be fully understood without a knowledge of its truth. But Bahá’u’lláh was the first to lay on it so great an emphasis and to expound it at large and in plain terms. On it depends the significance of his own advent and the timeliness of his humanitarian reforms; and on it turns his teaching as to the aims and methods of Providence in its dealings with mankind.
This scheme is carried out by the power of God’s will and it has its origin in his desire for the well-being of his creatures. Its aim is the training of the peoples of the world to live and to work together in harmony, and to establish by God’s particular assistance a universal civilisation in which all the human faculties shall find at last adequate and complete expression. The attainment of this goal is in the Divine Author’s eyes the opening of the main movement of human history. All previous and earlier events are in the nature of an introduction. They are steps up a long ascent, causes of a desired result. However important they be, their meaning lies not wholly in themselves, but in the fact that they look and lead forward to a transcendent issue save for which they themselves would never have been called into existence.
Secular schools of thought cannot be said to have applied nor adopted any such broad conception of the integral unity of all human history. In past times, truths so large did not find easy entrance into the minds of men. So long as accurate knowledge of distant peoples was as hard to gain as accurate knowledge of past events, such doctrines would remain for scholars disembodied and unsubstantiated ideas. Today, histories of mankind on a comprehensive scale have become numerous; yet those of them which present the complete story as having an organic plot like a well-constructed epic, are probably few indeed.
In the sphere of religion, however, the case is different. The idea that the course of human events is directed by a stronger will and a clearer eye than man’s to a predetermined end is found in more revelations than one. It is said to have been mentioned by the founders of all the world-religions. Though it has not been in any past age of such critical interest as it is today and has not before been treated so fully as now by Bahá’u’lláh, yet it has never been kept wholly concealed from man. There are references to it in scripture or tradition which are clear enough to show that this truth is part of the common religious knowledge of mankind while slight enough to prove that it did not hold in any High Prophet’s teaching the same importance as in that of Bahá’u’lláh.
The general fact that God ordains human events long ages before they take shape on this earth (somewhat as a dramatist will complete his play before it is embodied in action on the stage), was alluded to by Jesus when He said of the righteous in the Last Day, “Enter into the joy prepared for you by the Father before the beginning of the world”; and again on many occasions by the Apostle Paul, as, “He chose us in him before the foundation of the world” (Eph. i. 4), and by Peter who speaks in a similar connection of “the foreknowledge of God the Father” (I Peter i. 2).
Muhammad bore the same witness when he revealed that the first thing which God created was a pen and that he said to it, “Write.” It said to him, “What shall I write?” and God said, “Write down the quantity of every separate thing to be created.” And it wrote all that was and all that will be to eternity.
More specifically, Zarathustra taught the gradual perfecting of mankind under divine law and the God-guided progress of history towards a distant but certain culmination.
At some unknown date the Hebrew allegory of the creation of the world in seven days made a cryptic allusion to the procession of world-religions and to the final consummation of God’s full purpose in the Seventh Day, the day of maturity, completion and rest. The seers of the Hebrew people, lifted by inspiration into the eternal realm, would descry some sign or feature of the far-off Day of God, the foreordained climacteric of world-history, and in a mood of exaltation would give utterance to their predictive vision without fully comprehending what they saw or measuring the interval which separated them from its fulfilment.
It shall come to pass in the last days that the Mountain of the Lord’s House shall be established in the top of the mountains . . . and all nations shall flow to it. They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.1(i. 2, 4)
The Day of the Lord cometh. . . . And the Lord shall be king over all the earth; in that day shall there be one Lord and His name one.2(Zech. xiv. 1, 9).
Or again Joel:
The Day of the Lord cometh . . . there hath not been ever the like, neither shall there be any more after it even to the years of many generations. . . . Ye shall eat in plenty and be satisfied and praise the name of the Lord that hath dealt wondrously with you . . . ! I will pour out my spirit and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy . . . your old men shall dream dreams . . . your young men shall see visions. And also upon the servants and the handmaids in those days will I pour out my spirit. And I will show wonders in the heaven and on the earth. The sun shall be turned into darkness and the moon into blood before the great and the terrible Day of the Lord come. And whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved.3(Joel ch. 2)
Confucius, more than five centuries before Christ, outlined in his book, Spring and Autumn, the ordained Plan of History in brief but plain terms.
He divided history into three stages. In the first, which he called the Stage of Disorder, the social mind was very crude; there was a sharp distinction between one’s own country and other countries, and hence attention was paid more to conditions at home than abroad. In the second stage, the Advancement of Peace, there was a distinction between civilized countries on the one side and those uncivilized on the other; the range of civilization extended and friendship between nations became closer. The smaller people could make their voices heard. In the third and final stage, the Supreme Peace, there was no distinction at all among the nations of the world. All became civilized and met upon the level. Righteousness prevailed and the world was unified.
Jesus spoke much of the Last Day (the Kingdom of God as He usually called it) and of its near approach. “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” He did not stress, as Confucius had done, the historical aspect of the coming climacteric, but taking up the warnings of the Hebrew prophets He spoke of the unexpectedness of its advent and of the terrible jeopardy into which it would bring mankind. Even in an age so late in history as His, a full account of the development and destiny of the race would have been premature. He kept the fullness of this truth among those things which He had to say to His disciples, but which at that stage they could not yet bear.
But now a new occasion has arisen. New opportunities, new problems, new perils, confront mankind; and with these new conditions has come the need of a new knowledge. He who, before the human race began, fixed the date at which that yet untreated race would reach the apex of its course and attain the maturity of its powers, has now declared that the Date has come. He who, in dim and distant ages long past, solemnly ratified with His people a Covenant and made to them a faithful promise that He would bring them all to His Kingdom in His own good time, has now in this epoch kept His ancient promise and fulfilled the Covenant in its completeness.
This present time is God’s Good time. This present time is the Era of which since the beginning of the world prophets have chanted and seers have sung. Suddenly—unexpectedly—unawares—without observation (exactly as Jesus said) the fullness of the Glory of God has irradiated the globe from the east to the farthest west. The Day of the Lord has dawned. Keeping his pledge, God has thrown open to men a new domain of life and activity, has conferred on them new powers, laid on them new responsibilities; and he demands that they enter as quickly as may he into this new order of existence and fit themselves to these higher conditions.
The nature of those charges which in the Day of God are to be laid upon mankind can be gathered from a sympathetic reading of the prophets of Israel. Those seers wrote—as a great poet might write—with their minds turned towards God and their hearts lighted and warmed by ardent faith. They could not control the vision that was vouchsafed them: they could not complete it nor set it in its own environment and perspective, nor plumb its meanings nor yet count the years which should elapse before it descended from the realm in which they saw it to the realm of actuality. When the prophets are read in this spirit as Jesus and the evangelists read them, there rises into view a clear and boldly sketched outline of those world-developments which from the creation have been laid up to await the present hour.
The picture is one which has puzzled, fascinated and awed the Christian mind. The impression made by the vision upon the seer-prophets was profound. They write or chant in a strain of exaltation which finds its answer across the years in the rapturous faith of the Apocalypse and the controlled but not less deep emotion of the Christ telling of his second Advent. The strange scenes and deeds and wonders that appear in the picture are hardly more startling than the violent contrast of the colors in which they are painted. Here Hell seems to reach out to the gates of Paradise; delusion and enlightenment, despair and victory, the unlighted Pit and the sunshine of God’s own presence seem all to have a place here, and through some purgation of Phlegethonian misery man hardly comes alive to inherit the promise of all ages.
The Event which the Hebrew prophets foresaw was not to be an isolated occurrence; it was one of a series of events; it was the Last Day of many days. But it so transcended all before it as to be outstanding and paramount. Its splendour outshone all previous splendours, and its blessings were so far above all previous experience and precedent that men would live in a new world and would not even remember the former things that had passed so utterly away. So full will be the Revelation vouchsafed by God in the Last Day, so glorious the effulgence of this supreme Theophany that darkness and error will not be able to withstand the impact of its might. They will flee and perish. The radiance will sweep across the entire globe from the east to the west. It will settle and abide in every land. Mankind will become one, and will be organised round a single central authority which it will recognise as divinely appointed. One law will run throughout the whole earth. National distinctions will not be obliterated; the various nations will meet upon a common level but will retain their separate identity. All peoples and races will share a common relation to one another. A Universal religion will unite the hearts of all. Mankind will form a single congregation, their God being recognised everywhere as one and the same God endowed with the same attributes and known by the same Name. The Glory of the Most High in its depth and in its height will be poured forth over the earth; and spiritual gifts, once the privilege of a gifted few, will be possessed by the many. War will be abandoned. The skill of those who made weapons of destruction will be turned to beneficent uses. All the world over, men will be able to enjoy their homes and their prosperity in security and peace.4See, for instance, Isaiah ii. 2-4; xv. 17- 25; Zech. ix. 10; xiv. 9; viii, 20 ff.; Zeph. iii. 9; Micah iv. 1-5, etc.
Such is the prophets’ picture of the world conditions of the Last Day; such—believe the Bahá’ís—are the changes which man in this hour is called upon to make.
Prescient of the crisis and the difficulties that lay ahead, Bahá’u’lláh, half a century ago, with timely forethought, offered to mankind the knowledge that would enable them to shoulder the new responsibility about to be imposed upon them. He not only outlined a large plan of reform, but he explained, with an emphasis, a fullness, and a precision not used before, the brotherhood of mankind and the unity of their development from the infancy of the race to the present time.
History, he taught, is in its length and breadth one and single. It is one in its structure. It is one in its movement. From the beginning of time the whole human race has been subject to one law of development; and it has advanced age after age in accordance with one and the same principle and by the application of one and the same method. Its whole movement has one source and one cause, and is directed towards one goal. The unification of the world, instead of being an afterthought, or of needing an improvised miracle for its completion, is the normal conclusion of a process that has been going on since the race began. Each of the world-religions has its own set place within this vast economy. Each is mediated through a Master Prophet from God by one and the same principle and bears witness to some phase of one indivisible Truth. No religion has been exhaustive or final. Every one admits of development and invites it. If all were under God thus developed, each along the line of its own implicit truth, they would not move farther and farther apart, but on the contrary would approach one another till at last they merged and became one. The ultimate ideal of them all, while not the same as any one of those from which it grew, will yet be consistent with the essence of each of them. It is the universal religion: the fruit and the perfection of all that preceded it. He who accepts it on its appearance will not deny the ancient Faith of his forefathers; he will reassert it, and at the same time will accept all the other revealed faiths of mankind.
When all men know the certainty of their common history and their organic unity, then, said Bahá’u’lláh, on that knowledge will be built the temple of peace and the fabric of future civilisation.
To live today in deed and truth the kind of life that Jesus of Nazareth lived and bade his followers lead; to love God wholeheartedly and for God’s sake to love all mankind even one’s slanderers and enemies; to give consistently good for evil, blessings for curses, kindness for cruelty and through a career darkened along its entire length by tragic misrepresentation and persecution to preserve one’s courage, one’s sweetness and calm faith in God – to do all this and yet to play the man in the world of men, sharing at home and in business the common life of humanity, administering when occasion arose affairs large and small and handling complex situations with foresight and firmness – to live in such a manner throughout a long and arduous life, and, when in the fullness of time death came, to leave to multitudes of mourners a sense of desolation and to be remembered and loved by them all as the Servant of God – to how many men is such an achievement given as it has been given in this age of ours to ‘Abbás Effendi.
The story would be too sad to recount or to recall were it not that the impression which it fixes on the mind is less that of human perverseness and depravity than that of the power of the soul of man, aided by God, to face, endure and transcend the utmost power of earthly evil – evil in its most mean and most malevolent form: hypocrisy, jealousy, guile, implacable hate and frigid cruelty. Enveloped by it stand the figures of a few unarmed and unresisting victims whose resolution is not weakened, whose enthusiasm is not lowered, whose calmness is not shaken by the fury or the length of the persecution, but who after an ordeal lasting an old man’s lifetime emerge with their great purpose achieved and their foes beaten from the field. Here is everything of high colour and of strong contrast to give to the narrative force and sharpness of impression. Here is the luxury of the Orient and here its sloth, its squalor and its baseness. Here is the saint, the philosopher, the reformer, the crusader; and here the outraged despot, the subtle vazír, the fanatical priest, the jailer, the torturer, the headsman and the howling mob. Reversal follows upon reversal, and the inevitable yields place to the impossible. Power and wealth dissolve; force is vanquished by weakness; the defeated win the spoils, and they who inherit all are the meek and the poor in spirit. The story seizes and holds fast the attention of the reader. Now it attracts and now repels; now horrifies, now softens; now uplifts the heart and now makes the blood run cold. But its final and lasting effect is to sweeten, to exhilarate, to strengthen, and to infuse into the soul a yet profounder faith in the overruling might of God.
To the historian, the psychologist, the student of comparative religion, the narrative in all its aspects has much to offer of interest and value. But to the practising Christian of the twentieth century the personal life and character of ‘Abbás Effendi make a direct and peculiar appeal. The Christian who has set himself really to follow the precepts of Christ finds himself in special difficulties today. The very understanding and knowledge of the will of Christ, as well as the performance of it, seem now less easy to attain than they were for our forefathers. The accuracy of the Gospel record not only in phrase and detail but in larger matters likewise is questioned by an increasing number of scholars. The record in any case is brief and fragmentary; and the utterances attributed to the Christ are not only very few but so terse and epigrammatic that their bearing is often uncertain and they admit of diverse interpretations. The problems of the contemporary world too are so much more complex than those of the period in which Christ lived that his words which suited so well the conditions of the past are difficult to apply to the present. Those who profess themselves the teachers of Christendom speak with such different voices and offer much contradictory advice that the public mind is bewildered. And since many of these self-appointed guides fail to be true in their lives to those injunctions of Jesus which all admit to be authentic, the bewilderment becomes mixed with impatience and disrespect. Guidance from both the ancient Book and from living example, is therefore less easy to gain than it was once. And the natural weakness of our nature which finds so arduous the moral life demanded by Christ is no longer supported by custom and general opinion but is on the contrary further enervated by the influence of a self-willed and flippant age.
In the story of ‘Abbás Effendi the Christian comes upon something which he ardently desires and which he finds it difficult to obtain elsewhere. There awaits him here reassurance that the moral precepts of Christ are to be accepted exactly and in their entirety, that they can be lived out as fully under modern conditions as under any other, and that the highest spirituality is quite compatible with sound common sense and practical wisdom. Many of the incidents in ‘Abbás Effendi ’s life form a commentary on the teachings of Christ and illuminate the meaning of the ancient words. Being a philosopher as well as a saint he was able to give to many a Christian enquirer explanations of the Gospel which had the authority not only of their own reasonableness and beauty but also the authority of his own true love for Christ and his life of Christlike righteousness.
Thus the beauty of Christ and of his words, obscured by so much in modern life, is through ‘Abbás Effendi brought nearer to us and made real again, and a perusal of the story imparts to the Christian encouragement and light.
Christ taught that the supreme human achievement is not any particular deed nor even any particular condition of mind: but a relation to God. To be completely filled -heart-mind-soul- with love for God, such is the great ideal, the Great Commandment. In ‘Abbás Effendi ’s character the dominant element was spirituality. Whatever was good in his life he attributed not to any separate source of virtue in himself but to the power and beneficence of God. His single aim was servitude to God. He rejoiced in being denuded of all earthly possessions and in being rich only in his love for God. He surrendered his freedom that he might become the bondservant of God; and was able at the close of his days to declare that he had spent all his strength upon the Cause of God. To him God was the centre of all existence here on earth as heretofore and hereafter. All things were in their degree mirrors of the bounty of God and outpourings of his power. Truth was the word of God. Art was the worship of God. Life was nearness to God; Death remoteness from him. The knowledge of God was the purpose of human existence and the summit of human attainment. No learning nor education that did not lead towards this knowledge was worth pursuit. Beyond it there was no further glory, and short of it there was nothing that could be called success.
In ‘Abbás Effendi this love for God was the ground and cause of an equanimity which no circumstances could shake, and of an inner happiness which no adversity affected and which in his presence brought to the sad, the lonely, or the doubting the most precious companionship and healing. He had many griefs but they were born of his sympathy and his devotion. He knew many sorrows but they were all those of a lover. Warmly emotional as he was he felt keenly the troubles of others, even of persons whom he had not actually met nor seen, and to his tender and responsive nature the loss of friends and the bereavements of which he had to face more than a few brought acute anguish. His heart was burdened always with the sense of humanity’s orphanhood, and he would be so much distressed by any unkindness or discord among believers that his physical health would be affected. Yet he bore his own sufferings however numerous and great with unbroken strength. For forty years he endured in a Turkish prison rigours which would have killed most men in a twelvemonth. Through all this time he was, he said, supremely happy being close to God and in constant communion with Him. He made light of all his afflictions. Once when he was paraded through the streets in chains the soldiers who had become his friends, wished to cover up his fetters with the folds of his garment that the populace might not see and deride; but the prisoner shook off the covering and jangled aloud the bonds which he bore in the service of his Lord. When friends from foreign lands visited him in prison and seeing the cruelties to which he was subjected commiserated with him he disclaimed their sympathy, demanded their felicitations and bade them become so firm in their love for God that they too could endure calamity with a radiant acquiescence. He was not really, he said, in prison; for “there is no prison but the prison of self” and since God’s love filled his heart he was all the time in heaven.
From this engrossing love for God came the austere simplicity which marked ‘Abbás Effendi’s character. Christ’s manner of life had been simple in the extreme. A poor man poorly clad, often in his wanderings he had no drink but the running stream, no bed but the earth, no lamp but the stars. His teaching was given in homely phrases and familiar images and the religion he revealed however difficult to follow was as plain and open as his life. His very simplicity helped to mislead his contemporaries. They could recognise the badges of greatness but not greatness itself, and they could not see the light though they knew its name. He was neither Rabbi nor Shaykh though he was the Messiah. He had neither throne nor sword though all things in heaven and in earth were committed into his charge.
The life of ‘Abbás Effendi too was simple and severe. Familiar during much of his life with cold, hunger and all privation, he chose for himself in his own home the most frugal fare. The room in which he slept and in which he would sometimes deny himself even the comfort of a bed served him as a work-room too. His clothing was often of the cheapest kind; and he taught his family so to dress that their apparel might be “an example to the rich and an encouragement to the poor.” The household prayers which he held morning and evening were quite informal.
Partly from a natural modesty but also from a resolve to do nothing that might encourage in others a tendency to formalism, he objected to any parade or unnecessary ceremonial, particularly if he were to be concerned in it. When, as he was about to leave the ship on his first visit to New York, he saw that his reception was to be made a public spectacle he peremptorily declined to have anything to do with the arrangement, dismissed the company, and at a later hour went ashore as unostentatiously as possible. In Haifa on another occasion, he managed to turn the tables on those who sought to do him an unacceptable honour and created a diversion which had not the less its serious meaning because he invested it with the spirit of high comedy. Some wealthy visitors from the Occident planned to involve him in a picturesque scene in which a page boy, a chased bowl flowing with crystal water, and a scented towel had their part. Just before the meal hour ‘Abbás Effendi saw the designful group approaching across the lawn. He divined their intention at once; and running over to a little water-trough performed quickly in it the customary ablution, wiped his fingers on the gardener’s cloth that hung close by and then turned to greet with his radiant smile his guests, who a moment later were receiving at his hands the elaborate attention they had designed for him.
Even if some degree of circumstance and formality were called for, ‘Abbás Effendi would reduce them to the smallest possible proportions. When on April 27th 1920 he was to receive in the grounds of the Governor’s Residence at Haifa the honour of knighthood he evaded the equestrian procession and the military reception prepared for him by slipping unobserved from his house and making his way to the rendezvous by some unaccustomed route. When all were in perplexity and many thought that he was lost, he appeared quietly at the right place and the right time and proceeded in the prescribed manner with the essential part of the ceremony.
Of all material things, as of food, clothing, shelter he sought and desired for himself the barest sufficiency. But asceticism was not part of his creed nor of his teaching. “Others may sleep on soft pillows; mine must be a hard one,” he said once in declining a kind friend’s offer of some little comfort for his room. Men were to take what God had given them, and to enjoy the good things of nature: but with renunciation. Fasting was a symbol, and as such had high value, but in itself was no virtue: “God has given you an appetite,” he said; “eat.” Riches he thought no blessing: if they had been, Christ would have been rich. The poverty however which he inculcated was not impecuniousness but the heart’s poverty of him who is so rich in love for God that he is destitute of all desire for aught else.
He was the most unassuming of men. He counted himself personally as less than others, put himself below them and served them in every way he could find with unaffected humility. He used to entertain at his table visitors from far and near; but if the occasion were one of special importance he would rise and wait on his guests with his own hands – a practice he recommended to other hosts. When his father was alive and dwelt outside ‘Akká among the mountains, ‘Abbás Effendi used frequently to visit Him, and though the way was long he habitually went on foot. His friends asked him why he did not spare himself so much time and effort and go on horseback. “Over these mountains Jesus walked on foot,” he said. “And who am I that I should ride where the Lord Christ walked?” Once when in his latter days he had to return from a distance to his home, he took a seat in the common stage. The driver thought this unseemly in a man of his standing and remonstrated with him for not hiring a private carriage; but ‘Abbás Effendi insisted on using the stage. At the end of his journey as he alighted, he was accosted by a beggar to whose pleading he listened and to whom he gave a gold coin. Then turning to the driver, he said – “Why should I travel in a carriage when such as he need money?”
But this humility did not come from any weakness. It was a proof of his strength and a cause of his spiritual power. Once when a child asked him why all the rivers of the earth flowed into the ocean, he said, “because it sets itself lower than them all and so draws them to itself.” Pride repels; humility attracts. When commenting on Christ’s direction to be as little children, he emphasised the fact that the virtues of children are due to weakness, and adults must learn to have these virtues through strength. A palsied arm cannot strike an angry blow; but the virtue of forbearance belongs to one who can but will not. His humility was not due to any diffidence or other failing. Nor did it imply any self-abasement or self-deprecation. What it meant was the obliteration of the personal self. His separate ego had no existence at all save only as an instrument of expression for the higher self that was one with God. He did not minimise his spiritual station, nor did any circumstance large or small separate him from it. He upheld under all conditions the cause to which his heart was given. Somebody who knew him in the West remarked that he was always master of the situation, and amid the novel and alien surroundings of such cities as London, Chicago, and New York he preserved his self-possession and his power. On one occasion in America when he had arrived at a house where he was to be a guest at luncheon, a coloured man called on him just before the meal hour. Being known to the hostess the caller was admitted but ‘Abbás Effendi observed that according to the prevailing social custom there was no intention of admitting him to sit at the table with the regular guests. Now race prejudice is what ‘Abbás Effendi could not tolerate. At his own table members of all races and religions met on an equality as brothers. He was not going to countenance it among his friends in America if he could help it. What was the surprise of the hostess and of everyone else present when he was observed clearing a place beside him and calling for knives and forks for the new arrival. Before any seemly way of countering ‘Abbás Effendi’s initiative was found, before anyone had quite realized how it had happed, the lady found herself doing what neither she nor any other hostess in her position would have dreamed of doing and entertaining at her table with her white friends a negro. ‘Abbás Effendi had become the spiritual host. He spread before those who sat with him the reality of the Fatherhood of God. Such was his radiant power that the unconventional challenging meal passed off without unpleasantness or embarrassment to any who partook of it.
Pouring forth unceasingly kindness and compassion he forgot himself, and thought only of others: not of some others only, but of all. His love seemed to know no bounds and showed itself throughout his whole life in every variety of shape.
It was told of him as a little boy that he once was sent out to inspect the shepherds who had charge of his father’s flocks among the Persian hills. When the review was completed he was told by his attendant it was customary to give each of the shepherds a present. He said he had nothing to give; but was told the men would expect something and something should be given them. The boy thereupon presented the shepherds with the flocks. His father hearing of this munificent gift was pleased at his son’s generosity but said “We shall have to watch ‘Abbás; for next he will give away himself.”
Even when some years later, ‘Abbás Effendi and his father, as exiles and prisoners, were reduced to destitution, he still managed to help others and contrived (so his companions said) somehow to find something to give away.
In his old age when he was living in Haifa he used to set aside a special hour each Friday for dispensing charity to the poor who came to ask for it; and many visitors have left pictures of the strange wild scene as the crowd of alms-seekers, many of them guileful-menacing-violent, many of them dreadful to look on, but all of them pitiable, jostled around the venerable figure of their host who walked among them distributing smiles and good cheer and warm encouragement along with the material gift that seemed to fit each case of need. It was his practice too to seek out the poor and needy in their homes, and the sight of their deprivations brought him great sadness. Returning from such a visit of charity he could hardly bring himself to partake of his own frugal supper, for thinking of their greater poverty.
When he traveled in the West it was his custom to take out with him a bag of silver pieces to give to the poor whom he met; and being brought down one evening to the Bowery Mission in New York he delivered there one of the most compassionate and moving of his addresses. It is recorded in the third volume of the Star of the West, and reads in part as follows:
“Tonight I am very happy for I have come here to meet my friends. I consider you my relatives, my companions, and I am your comrade. You must be thankful to God that you are poor, for his Holiness Jesus Christ has said, ‘Blessed are the poor’; he never said, ‘Blessed are the rich.’ He said too that the Kingdom is for the poor. Therefore you must be thankful to God that though in this world you are indigent yet the treasures of God are within your reach; and although in the material realm you are poor, yet in the Kingdom of God you are precious. His Holiness Jesus himself was poor. He did not belong to the rich. He passed his time in the desert travelling among the poor, and lived upon the herbs of the field. He had no place to lay his head, no home; yet he chose this rather than riches. It was the poor who accepted him first, not the rich. Therefore you are the disciples of Jesus; you are his comrades; your lives are similar to his life, your attitude is like unto his, you resemble him more than the rich. Therefore we will thank God that we have been so blest with real riches and in conclusion I ask you to accept me as your servant.”
At the end of the meeting ‘Abbás Effendi stood at the Bowery entrance to the Mission Hall, shaking hands with from four to five hundred men and placing within each palm a piece of silver.
With not less tenderness he answered the need of those whose poverty was spiritual. His guards and jailers, servants of a cruel and despotic master, were won by his kindness and became his friends. “What is there about him,” people would say, “that he makes his enemies his friends?” Towards those who displayed to him personal ill-will and malice he showed forbearance and generosity. Missionary work, he said, is not promoted by being overbearing and harsh; bad people are not to be won to God by criticisms and rebukes, nor by returning to them evil for evil. On the contrary the cause of God advances through courtesy and kindness and the bad are conquered by intercession on their behalf and by sincere unflagging love. “When you meet a thought of hate, overcome it with a stronger thought of love.” Christ’s command to love one’s enemies was not obeyed by assuming love nor by acting as though one loved them: for this would be hypocrisy. It was only obeyed when genuine love was felt. When asked how it was possible to love those who were hostile or personally repugnant, he said that love could be true yet indirect. One may love a flower not only for itself but for the sake of someone who sent it. One may love a house because of one who dwells in it. A letter coming from a friend may be precious though the envelope which held it was torn and soiled. So one may love sinners for the sake of the universal Father and may show kindness to them as to children who need training, to sick persons who need medicine, to wanderers who need guidance. “Treat the sinners, the tyrants, the bloodthirsty enemies as faithful friends and confidants,” he would say. “Consider not their deeds; consider only God.” His kindness was persistent and unflagging: he forgave until seventy times seven. A neighbour of his in Haifa (a self-righteous Muslim from Afghánistán, who regarded ‘Abbás Effendi as a renegade and an outcast) pursued him for years with hate and scorn. When he met ‘Abbás Effendi on the street he would draw aside his robes that he might not be contaminated by touching a heretic. He received kindnesses with obdurate ill will. Help in misfortune, food when he was hungry, medicine in sickness, the services of a physician, personal visits, all made no impression on his hardened heart. But ‘Abbás Effendi did not relax nor despair. For five and twenty years he returned continuously good for evil; and then suddenly the man’s long hate broke down, his heart warmed, his spirit awoke and with tears of disillusion and remorse he bowed in homage before the goodness that had mastered him.
Even with enemies much more dangerous and cruel than this poor Afghán, ‘Abbás Effendi showed the same forbearance and good will. He would suffer or invite any personal loss or humiliation rather than miss an opportunity of doing a kindness to an enemy; he would suffer calamity in order to avoid doing something which might be to the spiritual detriment of an ill-wisher. When he had been liberated, a secret enemy procured his re-imprisonment by misrepresentations to the authorities. ‘Abbás Effendi might probably have secured his release by a special appeal; but he declined to take this action. He went back to the prison and was held there for years, one reason for this non-resistance to evil being that the success of his appeal would but deepen the envy and degradation of his enemy: “he must know that I will be the first to forgive him.” In this submissiveness he acted in the same spirit as his father in parallel circumstances. For during that period when a certain jealous member of their entourage was by various means covertly seeking His life, Bahá’u’lláh and all the members of His family, including His eldest son, remained (so Professor Cheyne records) on cordial relations with him, admitting him as before to their company, even though they thus afforded him further opportunities of pursuing his deadly designs.
So confident were all who knew ‘Abbás Effendi that they could count on his largeness of mind that even the Sháh of Persia, when in extremity and threatened with revolution, stooped to send a letter to him asking for his opinion and advice, and received an assurance that if he would end despotism and establish a constitution he might count on a happy reign but that if he persisted in his present path he would be dethroned. The Sháh neglected the counsel and brought down upon himself the fate from which his generous prisoner would have shielded him.
He that is faithful in a very little will be faithful also in much. The foot of a Hercules will be enough to reveal the giant dimensions of his strength. And from the few phrases and incidents quoted in this brief sketch one may recognise the keenness of ‘Abbás Effendi’s insight into the spiritual meaning of the Gospel, and the Christlikeness of his character and his life.
Who can even casually regard this story without being touched to the quick by this spectacle of wisdom held in chains and tender love scourged by bloodthirsty hate, and without being moved to long wonder at the obliquity of our human nature which metes out to a heaven-born goodness either icy neglect or ferocious persecution? It is strange that ‘Abbás Effendi should have walked the streets of Christendom and spoken in its halls, little honoured and little heeded, and that when he had gone, the sluggish tides of materialism should have closed over his tracks and rolled on their accustomed course. Yet it is still more strange that in Islám every virtue in his breast should have called forth in the breast of priest and politician its opposite, and that he should have been a target for the last extremes of all injustice. But even in these unparalleled tribulations appears the unveiling hand of Almighty God. The spiritual eminence of the central figure stands out with a loftier majesty because it rises from an uttermost abyss, and the world could never have realised the tremendous power of that character had it not been put to the proof by trials proportioned to its strength.
Here the world’s religions meet and are fused into one by the fire of a great love. “This is that which hath descended from the realm of glory, uttered by the tongue of power and might, and revealed unto the prophets of old. We have taken the inner essence thereof and clothed it in the garment of brevity.”
In an age of compendiums there is no other compendium such as this. No other pen has attempted to make a summary which shall be so concise and so complete as to contain in less than eight score brief Words of Counsel the vital substance of the world-religions. In the newly printed version of Shoghi Effendi, the “Hidden Words” makes a small pocket volume of fifty-five pages.
Yet for all its terseness it bears none of the marks of a digest or an abstract. It has the sweep, the force, the freshness of an original work. It is rich with imagery, laden with thought, throbbing with emotion. Even at the remove of a translation one feels the strength and majesty of the style and marvels at the character of a writing which combines so warm and tender a loving kindness with such dignity and elevation.
The teaching of the book throughout is borne up as if on wings by the most intense and steadfast spirituality. With the first utterance the reader is caught away to the heavenly places, and the vision is not obscured when the precepts given deal with the details of workaday life, with the duty of following a craft or a profession and of earning a livelihood to spend on one’s kindred for the love of God. The picture given of man and of human nature is noble and exalted. If he be in appearance a “pillar of dust,” a “fleeting shadow” yet he is in his true being a “child of the divine, and invisible essence,” a “companion of God’s Throne.” The created worlds are designed for his training. The purpose of all religious teaching is to make him worthy of the love of God and able to receive his bounties.
The “Hidden Words” is a love-song. It has for its background the romance of all the ages—the Love of God and Man, of the Creator and His creature. Its theme is God’s faithfulness and the unfaithfulness of Man. It tells of the Great Beloved Who separates from Himself His creatures that through the power of the Spirit breathed in them they may of their own will find their way to that reunion with Him which is their paradise and their eternal home. It tells how they turned away to phantoms of their own devising, how He ever with unwearying love sought them and would not leave them to the ruin they invoked but called them back that they might enter yet the unshut gates of heaven. Only the final event of the love-story is lacking. God calls, and when His utterance is complete He pauses that man may answer, and waits—listening.
Love is the cause of creation: it is the Beginning, the End and the Way. God, as yet a Hidden Treasure, knew His love for man, drew him out of the wastes of nothingness, printed on him His Own image and revealed to him His beauty. Apart from God man has nothing and is nothing; but in union with God he possesses all things. God ordained for his training every atom in the universe and the essence of all created things. He is the dominion of God and will not perish: the light of God which will never be put out; the glory of God which fades not, the robe of God which wears not out. Wrought out of the clay of love and of the essence of knowledge he is created rich and noble. He is indeed the lamp of God, and the Light of Lights is in him. He is God’s stronghold and God’s love is in him. His heart is God’s home; his spirit the place of God’s revelation. Would he sanctify his soul, he could look back beyond the gates of birth and recall the eternal command and antenatal covenant of God. Would he but look within himself, he would see there God standing powerful, mighty and supreme.
Alas! in the proud illusion of his separateness, man has forgotten whence he came, and what he is, and whither he moves. He has turned away from his True Beloved and given his heart to a stranger and an enemy. Bound fast in the prison of self, dreading that death which might be to him the messenger of joy he has rejected the immortal wine of wisdom for the poor dregs of an earthly cup and has given up eternal dominion that he might revel for an hour in the lordship of a passing world.
So blinded by arrogance and rebellion have mankind become that they live well content amid these sterile imaginings. They are no longer able to tell Truth from error nor to recognize it when it stands before them in naked purity. Thought they enter the presence of the All-Glorious; thought the Manifestation of Him Whom they affect to seek is before them and the Face of the Mighty One in all its beauty looks into their face, yet are they blind and see not. Their eyes behold not their Beloved; their hands touch not the hem of His robe. Though every utterance of His contains a thousand and a thousand mysteries, none understands, none heeds. He made the human heart to be His dwelling place; but it is given to another. Among His own on earth He is homeless. Nay more, His own heap on him persecutions. The dove of holiness is imprisoned in the claws of owls. The everlasting candle is beset by the blasts of earth. The world’s darkness gathers about the Celestial Youth. The people of tyranny wrong Love’s King of Kings. The angels weep at the spectacle; lamentation fills the heaven of heavens; but men glory in their shame and esteem their impiety a sign of their loyalty to God’s cause.
In His mercy and compassion, God leaves them not to self-destruction. Sternly but lovingly He upbraids them, He warns them. He summons them from the couch of heedlessness to the field of endeavor and heroic adventure. He demands of them a faith and courage that will dare the utmost in His service, a fortitude that will endure serenely every calamity, a devotion that will rejoice in tribulation and in death itself for the Beloved’s sake.
He gives them counsel upon counsel. With definiteness and force He shows what God expects of His lovers. The toils and perils of the Homeward Way are many and grievous; but true love will overcome them all and be grateful for afflictions through which it can prove its strength. None can set out upon this journey unless his heart is single and his affections are centered without reserve on God. If he would see God’s beauty he must be blind to all other beauty. If he would hear God’s word, he must stop his ear to all else. If he would attain to the knowledge of God he must put aside all other learning. If he would love God he will turn away from himself; if he would seek God’s pleasure he will forget his own. So complete will be his devotion that he will yield up all for the dear sake of God and welcome with longing the martyr’s death.
Earth has a thousand ties to bind men from their God: envy, pride, indolence, ambition, covetousness, the habit of detraction, the ascription to others of what one would not like to have ascribed to oneself. Against such things as these He warns all who wish to reach the bourne of Love, bids them keep ever before them the rule of Justice (“the best beloved of all things God’s sight”), and every day to bring themselves to account ere the opportunities given here on earth are snatched from them for ever by the hand of death.
He reminds them of the treasures He has laid up for those who are faithful to the end. Upon the sacred tree of glory He has hung the fairest fruits and has prepared everlasting rest in the garden of eternal delight. Sweet is that holy ecstasy, glorious that domain. Imperishable sovereignty awaits them there, and in the joy of reunion they will mirror forth the beauty of God Himself and become the revelation of His immortal splendor.
Now in this age, He declares, yet greater rewards and ampler powers are vouchsafed to mankind than in time gone by. God’s favor is complete, His proof manifest, His evidence established. He has opened in the heavenly heights a new garden, a new degree of nearness to God. Whoso attains thereto, for him the flowers of that garden will breathe the sweet mysteries of love, for him its fruits will yield the secrets of divine and consummate wisdom.
Yet even in this great day of revelation the fulness of God’s ultimate being has not been uttered. So much has been said as the will of the Most High permits: and no more. What has been set forth is measured by man’s capacity to understand it. God’s true estate and the sweetness of His voice remain undivulged.
How strange and pitiful that in the East the warmth of heart and breadth of mind of him who wrote this little book should have brought on him the relentless hate of the priests of his land. Born the heir of an ancient and noble family of Persia and endowed with vast wealth, he was through priestly envy deprived of all his possessions, driven into exile, chained, tortured and at last consigned to a life-imprisonment in the city of ‘Akká, a gaol reserved for the lowest criminals of the Ottoman Empire and reputed so pestilential that the birds of the air fell dead as they flew over it.
Strange, too, that this devotional volume, so beautiful in its thought and also (it is said) in the classic purity of its style, should never have drawn to itself the attention of an English scholar and should remain after seventy years unknown to the religion and the culture of the West.