The Central Figures

The Way of the Master

Thursday April 21, 1932

In this penetrating and moving essay, George Townshend reflects upon ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s character and the lessons and example He offered for the lives of people everywhere. Caption: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá on the steps of 7 Haparsim Street, the House of the Master, May 1921

By George Townshend

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.