Strive, O people, to gain admittance into this vast Immensity for which God ordained neither beginning nor end, in which His voice hath been raised, and over which have been wafted the sweet savors of holiness and glory.1Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, LII. Available at www.Bahái.org/r/348389522
It is impossible for the reader of such words to remain detached, for he is a seeker as soon as he begins to read. Faced with the vast immensity of the written Revelation of Bahá’u’llah, he responds like a lover to its imagery, like a servant to its exhortations, and like a passionate believer to its message of Divine Unity. Indeed, the Writings of Bahá’u’llah are some of the mightiest gates through which the seeker can strive to gain admittance into the courts of God, for here one can clearly catch the accents of that voice and can sense the sweet savours of understanding from its melodies; here one can discover, through the mysterious affinity shared by Books and Gates in this Dispensation, the symbolic archetype of the many metaphorical and literal gates that stand wide open in this Day, summoning mankind unto them.
From its inception this Cause has taught man the ways of worship through the medium of language which is alike the channel of his praise and the expression of his service: the Báb, through His Name “The Primal Point,” is both the Gate and the Initiator of language, in its most profound sense of divine revelation, and from the Bayán, “the Mother Book,” proceeds the inspiration that forms the Letters of the Living, those motions of spirit and sacrifice in the world of creation. The mystical harmony between the language of pen and spirit found in the Writings reflects the link between word and deed in the lives of men:
I render Thee thanks … that Thou hast taught Thy servants how to make mention of Thee and revealed unto them the ways whereby they can supplicate Thee through Thy most holy and exalted tongue and Thy most august and precious speech.2Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh, CLXXVI. Available at www.bahai.org/r/721015589
The reconciliation of word and deed is likewise reflected in the mingling of justice and mercy in relation to the Writings, for while a single letter from the mouth of God is the “mother of all utterances”3Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh, CLIII. Available at www.bahai.org/r/360017873 and the “begetter of all creation,”4Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh, CLIII. Available at www.bahai.org/r/360017873 it can also decide “between all created things, causing them who are devoted to Thee to ascend unto the summit of glory and the infidels to fall into the lowest abyss.”5Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh, CLXXX. Available at www.bahai.org/r/169155682 At the same time words are the repositories of God’s infinite grace; the sheer abundance and poetry of Bahá’u’lláh’s language is an affirmation of the statement that “from eternity the door of Thy grace hath remained wide open.”6Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh, CLIII. Available at www.bahai.org/r/573843764 Such words are tokens of His immeasurable bounty:
Through the power released by these exalted words He hath lent afresh impulse and set a new direction to the birds of men ‘s hearts and hath obliterated every trace of restriction and limitation from God’s Holy Book.7Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh. Available at www.bahai.org/r/354019569
“O Comrades,” He cries to those who whether reading or seeking stand before the vast immensity of His Cause, “the gates that open on the Placeless stand wide”8Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words. Available at www.bahai.org/r/304654598 … “This,” He attests, “is verily an evidence of His tender mercy unto men.”9Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, LII. Available at www.bahai.org/r/043258227
To enter such gates requires both strength and submission: the strength of dichotomies and the submission to the widening wonder of paradox. The angels are of fire and snow; the food of them who haste to meet Him is the fragments of their broken hearts; the true believer is both a river of life eternal and a flame of fire. He must at one moment be consumed and also rise phoenix-like from the flame to become the source of another’s attraction. The reader struggles against the limitations of antithesis in his mind in order to resolve them through action, and yearns like the angels, the lovers, and the believers, to translate these words into acts of praise and dedication, to sing aloud of His glory, to circle with deeds of love around Him and stand in servitude before His throne. The traditional dichotomy between words and deeds is strangely transformed so that words become deeds, for the reader cannot remain static in this vast immensity but must be characterized by the forward striving of a life as well as a mind. The understanding and insight he receives from the language of Bahá’u’lláh demands expression in his acts. Anything less would belittle the nature of the initial invitation to strive; anything else would indeed be blasphemy
O miserable me! Were I to attempt merely to describe Thee, such an attempt would itself be an evidence of my impiety, and would attest my heedlessness in the face of the clear and resplendent tokens of Thy oneness.10Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh, CXIV. Available at www.bahai.org/r/954407631
Since limitation is the hallmark of any human endeavor, it might be in keeping with the nature of this article to begin with a necessarily limited consideration of dust as a symbol of that state in the Writings. Again and again the circumference of the human heart, like the surface of earth, is stressed as a fixed condition, one that may not be transcended. Bahá’u’lláh writes unequivocally that men “can never hope to pass beyond the bounds which by Thy behest and decree have been fixed within their own hearts.”11Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh, CXL. Available at www.bahai.org/r/383694989 We are children of dust, weeds that spring out of that dust, moving forms of dust, and sons of earth. Easily overwhelmed by “shades of utter loss,”12Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words. Available at www.bahai.org/r/944463388 man keeps turning and returning to “water and clay.”13Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words. Available at www.bahai.org/r/944463388 Content “with transient dust”14Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words. Available atwww.bahai.org/r/775010913 he sinks into “the slough of heedlessness”15Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words. Available at www.bahai.org/r/775010913; the meadows of his heart too readily become a “pastures of desire and passion.”16 His hands are too easily soiled by the dust of “self and hypocrisy.”16Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words. Available at www.bahai.org/r/810818726 Within him and about him threatens the abyss of his limitations as he moves with stumbling slowness across the “dust-heap of a mortal world.”17Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words. Available at www.bahai.org/r/921804077
The possibilities within these limits, however, are boundless. Once the reader recognizes his kinship with it, the metaphor invites him further. He realizes that both in the language itself and in the reality of his own being there lies a path across his earth-nature that beckons him beyond those gates he has already seen shimmering before him, a path upon which the particles of dust appear to gleam like gems. His dusty limitations become the expression of his most perfected virtues along these paths of service and ways of sanctity; his humility is his diadem on this highway of love and this pathway of “Thy loved ones.” The essence of his being is molded and sustained by the clay of love and grace, and words—the written expression of man both as mystery and limitation—like atoms of dust hold within them “a door that leadeth … to the station[s] of absolute certitude.”18Bahá’u’lláh, The Kitáb-i-Íqán. Available at www.bahai.org/r/729558295 Through such words “the rivers of Divine utterance”19Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, XVIII. Available at www.bahai.org/r/425325847 have flowed and caused the “tender herbs of wisdom and understanding”20Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, XVIII. Available at www.bahai.org/r/425325847 to spring from the soil of his heart, and from such soil the hyacinths of a greater knowledge may also grow. Indeed, such a heart is not merely “a garden of eternal delight”21Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words. Available at www.bahai.org/r/921804077 but a throne sanctified for His descent, a Sinai upon which His mysteries are vouchsafed, a place whose loftiness and dignity should never be defiled.
At the heart of this lofty station, however, lies the paradox of humility, for the earth can only be of such a transcendent nature when “ennobled by the footsteps of Thy chosen ones in Thy Path.” To be “a martyr in My path and shed thy life-blood on the dust” are fragments of the ideal evinced by the earth itself: “witness with what absolute submissiveness I allow myself to be trodden beneath the feet of men.” The actions of men must be of such humility that “every atom dust beneath their feet attest the depth of their devotion” and their words be of such quality “that these same atoms of dust will be thrilled by its influence.” Humility, therefore, is the station towards which one strives in approaching the immensity of service.
Having stepped forward onto this path and recognized the paradox inherent within the very dust upon which one treads, the motion forward both for the reader and the seeker is most simply conveyed by the imagery of courts and thresholds, steps and portals, canopies and shelters. The progress (if one can convey so multitudinous an approach by so flat a word) guides the reader through courts of ever increasing beauty and gardens of intoxicating nearness, like the worshipper in his approach towards the Shrines. Shoghi Effendi, in his creation of these literal gardens was not only providing a protection and establishing a respect around the holy places, but was also interpreting exquisitely the Words of Bahá’u’lláh; for these gardens reflect with haunting accuracy the shimmering presence of inner and outer courts, of marble steps that ever rise, and gates that ever open to the seeking spirit of the reader in his parallel progress through the language of Bahá’u’lláh. It is a language that is replete with the concept of kingship. This is the underlying theme that reverberates within the splendid architecture of courts and finds its nearest resolution in its references to the awe, the beauty and the fragrance of the King Who occupies them. Both His Person and His courtly surroundings are metaphors of approach, degree and perspective by which the reader can comprehend the nature of attainment in this Cause.
To begin with he finds himself among those who “stand(s) at the gate of the city of Thy nearness”22Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh. LXXXIII. Available at www.bahai.org/r/906443921 and is granted the inestimable bounty of approaching the courts of His presence, the canopy of His majesty and the precincts of His mercy. By the light of God “concealed in the well-hidden pavilions” he is able to see the path clearly enough before him and watch as it ascends “into the loftiest chambers of paradise.” With his whole being poised to follow in the direction of this insight, he sets himself towards “the adored sanctuary of Thy Revelation and of Thy Beauty”23Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh. CL. Available at www.bahai.org/r/424129344 and is able to draw nearer “the habitation of Thy throne.”24Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh. LXXI. Available at www.bahai.org/r/877249228 Finally, in his blessedness, he finds that he has “entered Thy presence and caught the accents of Thy voice.”25Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh. LXXI. Available at www.bahai.org/r/877249228
It is here, in this dazzling proximity where he can cling to the hem of His Robe, smell the musk-scented perfume of His hair and hear the Words that flow from His “sugar-shedding lips,”26Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words. Available at www.bahai.org/r/725404749 that the reader confronts another paradox. He realizes that his considered proximity is nothing but remoteness in relation to the magnitude beyond the metaphor:
Now that Thou hast made them to abide under the shade of the canopy of Thy mercy, do Thou assist them to attain what must befit so august a station. Suffer them not, O my Lord, to be numbered with them who, though enjoying near access to Thee, have been kept back from recognizing Thy face, and who, though meeting with Thee, are deprived of Thy presence …27Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh. LXXXV. Available at www.bahai.org/r/337730441
It is by now a familiar paradox and has been met before, but the relative simplicity of its presence in a single word such as “dust” is further enhanced and its orbit of association and implication widened as the complexity of the language forces the reader to reconsider his original discovery through the application of a whole metaphor. Then again, within the image itself, are a number of layers of comprehension which the reader might approach. The topical allusions alone, with their disturbing reference to the treachery and egoism which constantly surrounded the Blessed Beauty both from within and without His household, are a disconcerting enough interpretation of this paradox. But there is also an uneasy immediacy in these words which applies to the present instant in which they are being read, and implicates the reader as he stands preoccupied by his reading and is equally threatened by his preoccupation “from having near access to Thee and from attaining the court of Thy glory.”28Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh. LXXXV. Available at www.bahai.org/r/832218644
An abrupt return to a reconsideration of one’s abject limitations seems a necessary prerequisite to the motion of “circling” that must accompany any step towards proximity along this path. The gulf of separation that yawns between the servant and his King, the lover and his Beloved, the reader and the Goal of his desire, is a measure of this process:
Others were able to approach Thee but were kept back from beholding Thy face. Still others were permitted in their eagerness to look upon Thee, to enter the precincts of Thy court, but they allowed the veils of the imaginations of Thy creatures and the wrongs inflicted by the oppressors among Thy people to come in between them and Thee.29Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh. LXXXV. Available at www.bahai.org/r/832218644
Separation also has its own perverse architecture, for below the ascending tiers of court and pavilion that provide the pedestrian mind of the reader with a measure of the proximity of his Goal, there is a converse motion possible, down into “this darksome well which the vain imaginations of Thine adversaries have built, down farther into this blind pit which the idle fancies of the wicked among Thy creatures have digged.”30Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh. CLXXVI. Available at www.bahai.org/r/909084691 Suffocated by remoteness in the stale and cavernous dungeons of his separation from God the reader might also be dwelling “in a place within whose walls no voice can be heard except the sound of the echo, a place of thick darkness”31Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh. LXV. Available at www.bahai.org/r/283879331 in which “the croaking of the raven”32Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, CLXI. Available at www.bahai.org/r/851820312 obliterates the melodies of the very Words he reads. The Most Great Prison and the Síyáh-Chál become symbols of the contingent world bearing down upon the soul aspiring towards God. Just as gates were the means of literal and metaphorical approach and were always open, always beckoning, so prisons and the constraint of chains and veils are also always present, threatening and denying the seeker access to his Beloved. This separation, whether imposed from within or from without, is significantly felt at the instant when proximity seems imminent. “This is the Day,” Bahá’u’llah states, “whereon every atom of the earth hath been made to vibrate and cry out: ‘O Thou Who art the Revealer of signs and the King of creation! I, verily, perceive the fragrance of Thy presence. …’”33Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh. CLXXVI. Available at www.bahai.org/r/740818506 But within the same passage this very atom declares:
I know not, however, O Thou the Beloved of the world and the Desire of the nations, the place wherein the throne of Thy majesty hath been established, nor the seat which hath been made Thy footstool, and been illumined with the splendors of the light of Thy face.34Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh. CLXXVI. Available at www.bahai.org/r/740818506
The “unknowing” that must always impose itself between the reader and the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh is an ancient formless tradition in mystical poetry and finds its most tangible expression in the imagery of this Revelation. What was a cloud in an earlier dispensation is transformed by Bahá’u’lláh’s pen, and through the metaphors of separation, becomes an intensely felt, almost physical anguish. At the instant that the reader grasps the significance of the Words he reads, he becomes overwhelmed by his devastating unworthiness to approach such meaning. He realizes, moreover, that the meaning he has grasped is necessarily puny and pathetic, a play of shadows, a feeble echo of “the Kingdom of Thy Names” which is far above his comprehension and is itself “created through the movement of Thy fingers and trembleth for fear of Thee.”35Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh. CLXXVI. Available at www.bahai.org/r/684005534 The burst of praise that rises to his lips is a mere reflection of those same limitations against which he has striven with such zeal:
Whatsoever hath been adorned with the robe of words is but Thy creation which hath been generated in Thy realm and begotten through the operation of Thy will and is wholly unworthy of Thy highness and falleth short of Thine excellence.36Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh. CLXXVI. Available at www.bahai.org/r/062387424
And finally this anguish is stretched to its limits through the added dimension afforded to the reader of the presence, within the Words, of the Author Himself. He is not only, through His bounty and grace, speaking on behalf of man as his advocate with words of tender compassion that can be echoed; He is also speaking in His Own capacity, with His Own personal anguish, so that the separation experienced is that of the Manifestation from the source of His light:
And at whatever time my pen ascribeth glory to any one of Thy names, methinks I can hear the voice of its lamentation in its remoteness from Thee, and can recognize its cry because of its separation from Thy Self.37Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh. LXXVI. Available at www.bahai.org/r/344214198
To the frail reader standing on the furthest shores of this vast immensity, dazzled by orb within orb of light, it might seem that his initial presumption to strive can only set him adrift without direction on this luminous ocean, for failures are his sole means of measuring any attempt to progress. Even when he thinks he has finally grasped, on the most superficial level, the rise and fall of the metaphors and can at least stay afloat upon the waves of language, he discovers that:
It should be remembered in this connection that the one true God is in Himself exalted above proximity and remoteness. His reality transcends such limitations. His relationship to His creatures knoweth no degrees. That some are near and others are far is to be ascribed to the manifestations themselves.38Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, XCIII. Available at www.bahai.org/r/235886968
And with this new paradox, this new return to a contemplation of limitation as a means of reaching towards his Goal, the reader draws nearer than he ever has before to an understanding of the nature of Bahá’u’lláh’s language.
Since God must remain unknowable and above all degree, and since the language of limitation is the only means whereby man can either know or express his unknowing, it becomes clear that the Manifestation becomes the spiritual reality of words, of metaphors and of language. He is the Word, the Primal Point, the song of the Nightingale; He holds within Him both extremes of proximity and remoteness in their most perfect balance; He is the vivid and acute stillness at the heart of all the polarities experienced by the reader, the seeker, the lover and believer. The palpable remoteness that lay couched in the imagery of dust all the way from the path through the gates to the Placeless, the play of attraction that resonated in the language of the lover, the tangible space that existed throughout the vast architecture of courts and kingship, all compel the reader to recognize his reliance on language as his only means of understanding, and recognize at the same time that any language other than that of the Manifestation, any word other than that most mighty Word, and any name that is not the King of Names, cannot hope to transcend the limitations of dust. This recognition or confession of the reader’s powerlessness to strive beyond the limits of his understanding, or travel further than the Words themselves will go, constitutes “the utmost limit to which they who lift their hearts to Thee can rise”39Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh. LVIII. Available at www.bahai.org/r/556699770; it is the highest station afforded both reader and seeker, for in this condition they come closest to discovering the “hidden gift” in the written storehouse of the Manifestation of God, and admit to “their impotence to attain the retreats of Thy Sublime Knowledge.”
It is so intrinsic to the original desire of the reader to strive towards the unknown that he finds the intimate voice of the Manifestation uttering his most poignant thoughts:
Where can separation from Thee be found, O my God, so that reunion with Thee may be clearly recognized at the appearance of the light of Thy unity and the revelation of the splendors of the Sun of Thy oneness?40Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh. CLXXVI. Available at www.bahai.org/r/581711640
Now at this stage, something wholly mysterious transpires. Even as the reader glimpses his longed-for reunion shimmering before him in the Words of the Manifestation, even as he recognizes, simultaneously, how far he is, how remote he is from grasping the full beauty of those Words, he experiences a miracle. Depending on his sincerity, of course, about which an entire other chapter could be written, he is transfigured by the very pull and push of the hyperbole into something comparable to an angel. He may, by the grace of God, approach the condition of one of those embodiments of integration and disintegration, of harmony and conflict, of snow and of fire that hang suspended above their own extremes of sorrow and joy. In this condition of helplessness and dependency upon the Words, the reader finds himself, like those same angels, protected again from both extremities of reunion and separation by the merciful structure of Bahá’u’lláh ‘s language. Instead of extinguishing his precarious being by the expression of a climax, by an arrival as it were at the furthermost reaches of his understanding, Bahá’u’lláh controls the reader’s inward state by presenting this climactic discovery not as an end in itself but rather as a means towards an end which, for his own protection, must still remain out of sight. In other words, instead of the powerlessness of man, his limitation, his weakness, his dependence upon grace being the focal point of the prayer, it becomes the grounds for his beseeching:
I, therefore, beseech Thee, by this very powerlessness which is beloved of Thee, and which Thou hast decreed as the goal of them that have reached and attained Thy court … not to deprive them that have set their hopes on Thee of the wonders of Thy mercy, nor to withhold from such as have sought Thee the treasures of Thy grace.41Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh. LVIII. Available at www.bahai.org/r/556699770
Part of the mysterious subtlety and power of Bahá’u’lláh’s language lies in the contrapuntal relationship between the grounds of His beseeching and its appeal. Often, as in the beautiful Dawn Prayer for the Fast, one cannot comprehend the object for which one is beseeching without listening more closely to the grounds on which one’s appeal is raised. In this case the reader calls for grace to support and protect his limitations “by this very powerlessness which is beloved of Thee.”42Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh. LVIII. Available at www.bahai.org/r/556699770
He seems to have come full circle. The limitations against which he struggled earlier now become the means of his attainment. Here in the vulnerability of his essence is couched the ageless Covenant of God; here in the midmost heart of his humility reposes the eternal promise of the Beloved, assuring him that he will be graced, he will be visited again and again, in spite of his weakness and because of his unworthiness. Here as he stands, small and insignificant on the edge of the vast immensity of his relationship with the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, the reader finds himself protected from utter loss by the promise that within this immensity may be found His footsteps also, and may be seen the lineaments of His blessed Face. And here again the cherished sweetness of this Covenant becomes the grounds of his beseeching and resolves the original exhortation that had challenged the reader to set out on this endless discovery:
I entreat Thee, by Thy footsteps in this wilderness, and by the words “Here am I. Here am I.” which Thy chosen Ones have uttered in this immensity, and by the breaths of Thy Revelation and the gentle winds of the Dawn of Thy Manifestation, to ordain that I may gaze on Thy Beauty and observe whatsoever is in Thy Book.43Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh. CLXXXIII. Available at www.Bahái.org/r/382716458