From the Volume Archives

Impressions of Haifa

Wednesday April 21, 1926


Alain Locke reflects on his visit to Haifa in this article which was published in the first volume of The Bahá’í World, titled Bahá’í Yearbook (1925-1926) Caption: View of the Shrine of the Báb from the road which later became Ben Gurion Avenue (1905-1910) Photo Credit: Bahá’í Media Bank

By Alain Locke

Whether Bahá’í or non-Bahá’í, Haifa makes pilgrims of all who visit her. The place itself makes mystics of us all—for it shuts out the world of materiality with its own characteristic atmosphere and one instantly feels one’s self in a simple and restful cloistral calm. But it is not the characteristic calm of the monastic cloister—it is not so much a shutting out of the world as an opening up of new vistas—I cannot describe it except to say that its influence lacks the mustiness of ascetism, and blends the joy and naturalness of a nature-cult with the ethical seriousness and purpose of a spiritual religion.

Every thing seems to share the custody of the message—the place itself is a physical revelation. I shall never forget my first view of it from the terraces of the shrine. Mount Carmel, already casting shadows, was like a dark green curtain behind us and opposite was a gorgeous crescent of hills so glowing with color—gold, sapphire, amethyst as the sunset colors changed—and in between the mottled emerald of the sea, and the gray-toned house-roofs of Haifa. Almost immediately opposite and picking up the sun’s reflection like polished metal were the ramparts, of Akká, transformed for a few moments from its shabby decay into a citadel of light and beauty. Most shrines concentrate the view upon themselves—this one turns itself into a panorama of inspiring loveliness. It is a fine symbol for a faith that wishes to reconcile the supernatural with the natural, beauty and joy with morality. It is an ideal place for the reconciliation of things that have been artificially and wrongfully put asunder.

The shrine chambers of the Báb and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá are both impressive, but in a unique and almost modern way: richly carpeted, but with austerely undecorated walls and ceilings, and flooded with light, the ante-chambers are simply the means of taking away the melancholy and gruesomeness of death and substituting for them the thought of memory, responsibility and reverence . Through the curtained doorways, the tomb chambers brilliantly lighted create an illusion which defeats even the realization that one is in the presence of a sepulchre. Here without mysticism and supernaturalness, there is dramatically evoked that lesson of the Easter visitation of the tomb, the fine meaning of which Christianity has in such large measure forgotten—”He  is not here, He is risen.” That is to say, one is strangely convinced that the death of the greatest teachers is the release of their spirit in the world, and the responsible legacy of their example bequeathed to posterity. Moral ideas find their immortality through the death of their founders.

It was a privilege to see and experience these things. But it was still more of a privilege to stand there with the Guardian of the Cause, and to feel that, accessible and inspiring as it was to all who can come and will come, there was available there for him a constant source of inspiration and vision from which to draw in the accomplishment of his heavy burdens and responsibilities. That thought of communion with ideas and ideals without the mediation of symbols seemed to me the most reassuring and novel feature. For after all the only enlightened symbol of a religious or moral principle is the figure of a personality endowed to perfection with its qualities and necessary attributes. Earnestly renewing this inheritance seemed the constant concern of this gifted personality, and the quiet but insistent lesson of his temperament.

Refreshingly human after this intense experience, was the relaxation of our walk and talk in the gardens. Here the evidences of love, devotion and service were as concrete and as practical and as human as inside the shrines they had been mystical and abstract and super-human. Shogi Effendi is a master of detail as well as of principle, of executive foresight as well as of projective vision. But I have never heard details so redeemed of their natural triviality as when talking to him of the plans for the beautifying and laying out of the terraces and gardens. They were important because they all were meant to dramatize the emotion of the place and quicken the soul even through the senses. It was night in the quick twilight of the east before we had finished the details of inspecting the gardens, and then by the lantern light, the faithful gardener showed us to the austere retreat of the great Expounder of the teaching. It taught me with what purely simple and meager elements a master workman works. It is after all in himself that he finds his message and it is himself that he gives with it to the world.

The household is an industrious beehive of the great work: splendid division of labor but with all-pervading unity of heart. Never have I seen the necessary subordinations of organized service so full of a sense of dignity and essential equality as here. I thought that in the spirit of such devoted co-operation and cheerful self-subordination there was the potential solution of those great problems of class and caste which today so affect society. Labor is dignified through the consciousness of its place and worth to the social scheme, and no Bahá’í worker, however humble, seems unconscious of the dignity and meaning of the whole plan.

Then there was the visit to the Bahjí, the garden spot of the Faith itself and to Akká, now a triumphant prison-shell that to me gave quite the impression one gets from the burst cocoon of the butterfly. Vivid as the realization of cruelty and hardships might be, there was always the triumphant realization here that opposite on the heights of Carmel was enshrined the victory that had survived and conquered and now was irrepressible. The Bahjí was truly oriental, as characteristically so as Mt. Carmel had been cosmopolitan. Here was the eastern vision, full of its mysticism, its poetry, its spirituality. Not only was sombreness lacking, but even seriousness seemed converted into poetry. Surely the cure for the ills of western materialism is here, waiting some more psychological moment for its spread—for its destined mission of uniting in a common mood western and oriental minds.

There is a new light in the world: there must needs come a new day.