by Jack McLean
This account tells of a first nine day pilgrimage of a 61 year old Canadian Bahá’í (although a three day visit had taken place in 1996)
The Pilgrim of Today and the Pilgrim of Yesteryear
At this writing (2007), several excellent pilgrim guides have already been written that give the history of Bahá’í holy places in Israel. These guides are an indispensable companion to every pilgrim and greatly assist in pre-pilgrimage preparation. But what the guides cannot do, and are not intended to do, is to create for the pilgrim his or her own internal experience of pilgrimage: the personal impressions, the new understandings and insights, and, above all, should it occur, the transformation in the life of the soul and spirit.
May Maxwell’s and Phoebe Hearst’s accounts remain the prototypes of all western pilgrim notes, their pilgrimage being the first one from the West in 1898. Other valuable impressions, written by no less notable Bahá’ís, such as Thornton Chase (In Galilee), were penned during the ministries of the Master and the Guardian. According to Shoghi Effendi, Phoebe Heart’s group of 15 believers, which visited Akká in smaller groups, so as not to attract the attention of a suspicious populace, included May Maxwell, who joined the group in Paris.
The dominant note of these memories is, of course, the lordship of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. The word lordship is not too strong, being based on the very witness of their own personal encounters with the Master. For May Maxwell, who was then a young and fragile May Ellis Bolles, they bear witness to her death and resurrection–the demise of her former spiritual self, which literally dissolved in the presence of her Lord, and the birth of a higher consciousness. (Incidentally, the 1937 notes of May and Mary Maxwell take pride of place during the ministry of the Guardian for their abundance of information and accuracy).
For obvious reasons, the pilgrimages that took place during the ministries of Bahá’u’lláh, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi cannot be compared to the experience of pilgrimage under the Universal House of Justice. During the ministries of Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the whole meaning of pilgrimage derived from attaining the divine presence of two of the Bahá’í Faith’s Three Central Figures, the Father, “transcendental in His majesty, serene, awe-inspiring, unapproachably glorious”, and the Son, “vibrant”, “magnetic”, reflecting “the glory and the power” of the Manifestations of God, “to a degree that no man, however exalted his station, can hope to rival.” If one were spiritually alive, these pilgrimages, when combined with service, resulted in the recreation, either gradual or sudden, of one’s spiritual being–the experience of rebirth of which Jesus has spoken, a rebirth that was facilitated by the “saving grace” of the Founders of the Bahá’í Faith. As for “the sign of God on earth,” even though Shoghi Effendi said that the purpose of pilgrimage was to visit the holy shrines, and not the Guardian, these spiritual transformations also took place in his presence. Some of the Hands of the Cause who were appointed by Shoghi Effendi have written eloquently on this subject.
A dwindling number of the friends are still alive who met Shoghi Effendi and it is to be hoped that they have all written down their impressions or dictated them to others. One of them was that steadfast and distinguished believer, Allan Raynor of Toronto, who told me about 40 years ago that he was “electrified” by Shoghi Effendi, and that nothing could have prepared him to meet the Guardian. This does not mean, of course, that such dramatic transformations cannot or have not occurred during the administration of the Universal House of Justice: they have–many times. For as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá has affirmed, the dynamic power of the Three Central Figures is not limited to their life on this earthly plane, the world of Násút. He says, as does Bahá’u’lláh Himself, that their power increases after the casting aside of the human temple.
The pilgrim of today also hopes and prays for a transformation of spiritual consciousness. Today’s pilgrim, however, has been placed in a different time in history, one in which he becomes both a witness, and especially, a recipient of the rich legacy that has been handed down, and at the great cost, it should never be forgotten, of such enormous suffering and sacrifice. So that this holy sacrifice be not made in vain, the returning pilgrim must consecrate himself with renewed vigour to teaching the Faith, ever the shining goal, or as the latest phraseology from the International Teaching Center put its—to raise up new human resources. And, as Shoghi Effendi has said, the pilgrim both “imbibes and imparts.” Once home, it is the pilgrim’s duty to share what she has seen, felt and heard, and so impart to some of the local believers, who form that vast majority who has not had the same privilege, all that she has learned.
The Arrival at Night: Looking Down on the Shrine of the Báb From Terrace Nineteen
When we arrived in Haifa, and after checking in to our hotel, we walked down Mount Carmel, and took the avenue which led to Terrace Nineteen. Night had fallen over Haifa and the bay. My heart beat in anticipation knowing that soon we would come across the magic sight of the Queen of Carmel, illuminated and shimmering in her golden glow.
Although I would never tire of seeing the Sublime Shrine, as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá called her, in the vast repository of psycho-spiritual impressions, that first view is in some respects the most memorable. That first view of the Shrine of the Báb captures all the freshness and excitement of making an eternal discovery. It is the moment of perpetual wonder and entrancement. It captures the bliss of the eternal now, when time is momentarily suspended on this plane of space-time, and we enter, if only for a brief moment, into eternity. For here we find ourselves gazing upon the one and only Throne on God’s holy mountain. This is that holy court around which all names, all subjects, all worshippers revolve. It is that Point of precious association, that spiritual link, before which all creation bows down. That such a sublime vision has materialized on this mountain, when only a century ago this sacred spot was all wilderness and rocky terrain, bears witness to the herculean powers and abilities of the Three Central Figures of our Faith, and of our true brother and Guardian, Shoghi Effendi.
The Heart is a Little Bird That Longs to Soar
By day, however, I had another impression. Whenever I found myself atop Terrace Nineteen, looking down in the bright sunshine over the Shrine of the Báb, it seemed as if all creation was spread out, as a vast panorama, before me. As I looked down on the marvelous view, I felt that my soul wanted to fly out of my body and soar over Mt. Carmel and the Bay of Haifa. From this height, there was no fear of falling. The soul felt so empowered that it longed to take flight. And so would I have soared like a bird, had I been able, in the atmosphere of God’s love, safe in the bosom of the Báb. Such was the levity that gazing down on the Queen of Carmel produced in my soul. I felt that in some sense “the incredible lightness of being” that I felt in such moments must be a small foretaste of the waves of liberation that the soul experiences when at last it is freed from the confines and constraints of the physical body.
Bahjí: The Poetry of Divine Presence: Walking the White Pebbled Path
I prepared for pilgrimage in advance by reading as much as I could about the Bahá’í holy places and by trying to remember what took place where. Since I have been a Bahá’í since I was 16 years old, and am now 61, much of this material was familiar to me. But one can never be a master of so much historical detail. This advanced reading is done in the spirit of the pilgrimage whose true meaning is to draw close to the Three Central Figures and to be transformed by Their refined, subtle, but unmistakable influences. Certain pilgrim accounts from the time of the Bahá’u’lláh, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and the Guardian, mention the celestial transformations that take place in the heart and mind of the pilgrim; such transformations, these pilgrims have testified, can be only approximated in words. Before a believe makes the pilgrimage, and reads these accounts, he must make an effort of the imagination to appreciate the nature of these changes. But he should not make the mistake of thinking that such effusive language is mere hyperbole, or a cultural expression confined only to certain personalities. For it seems to me now that hyperbole is the only adequate language to describe both the spiritual atmosphere of these holy places and the subtle transformations that take place in the heart and mind of the pilgrim.
But the real pilgrimage began on that white, pebbled path that leads to the Collins Gate, that boundary that not only guards the entrance to the Quiblih, but also lets the pilgrim know that she is entering the outer court of the Holy of Holies, that point around which circles the Concourse on High. It was on this path that reverence, quite naturally but surely, took hold of me. Shoghi Effendi speaks of the spiritual atmosphere that pervades these holy spots; and just as surely as the weather outside changes our mundane moods, so too does the spiritual atmosphere of these holy places uplift the soul and spirit.
As our little troop walked silently and solemnly along the way, I ceased to be a mere traveler and became a pilgrim. Instinctively I bowed my head as I remembered, not only the Bahá’í pilgrims of the past who had trodden this sacred way leading to their Hearts’ Desire, but the numberless pilgrims of all ages who had set out on a journey to catch a scent of the divine fragrance emanating from the robe of the Beloved. As I walked along, it seemed to me that the white, smooth stones from the Sea of Galilee that lay beneath our feet were the longing, broken hearts of all God’s lovers who have suffered in His way down through the ages. I thought especially of all those martyrs who had willingly laid down their lives in His path. Suddenly I recalled the title of Roger White’s book of poems and portrayals, The Witness of Pebbles, a title that took on new meaning. Now as I write these words, I recall an idyllic afternoon spent with Roger in Vancouver during which he wrote a dedication for me in that same book, “in admiration of your poet’s soul and pen”. (It was a kindness I did not expect).
Akká: The Walled City Where Bahá’u’lláh First Set Foot (August 31, 1868)
I am not sure why I love this ancient city where the Blessed Beauty and His family suffered such unspeakable suffering and loss. Perhaps it is because it is the “white city” of Akká that reveals the true measure of His love for humanity and for each one of us. Despite the galling afflictions and martyrdoms that took place on the Siyah Chal of Tihran, that was not to be titled “the Most Great Prison.” That honour was reserved for the barracks in Akká. It was there that the Purest Branch at age twenty-two, while reciting His father’s Ode to the Dove, stumbled and fell through the skylight, crashing on to the floor below, piercing his ribs on a crate, and causing the fatal hemorrhage that took his life some twenty-two hours later.
Mirza Mihdi, being given the choice of life or death, offered up His life so that the lovers of Bahá’u’lláh could be accorded the inestimable privilege of attaining his father’s presence. And so, it was there that the Purest Branch cast away his young life, so that the first drops of what will surely become a mighty ocean of pilgrims, might also attain and know the love that he had known. No greater measure of love than this can be imagined; it meets the criterion laid down by Christ: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). It is the reason why, Bahá’u’lláh has affirmed, that the very earth “trembled in its longing to meet thee” when the Purest Branch was laid to rest. Such love, such heavenly sacrifice will transform the very lowly atoms of the earth into living realities.
We do well to remind ourselves that the mysteries of this sacrifice remain beyond the ken of any intelligence. Let us recall briefly: what sort of life could this young man with the penetrating dark eyes have had? Separated from his father at any early age, then reunited with him, his childhood could have been nothing but privation. His belief in Bahá’u’lláh, his love for Him, made him a target of religious persecution while he was only a child; he felt its rigours all his life. Who but his family could have been his friends and playmates in these unusual circumstances? Our only consolation is that during his life on earth, he was able to enjoy some blessed and immortal moments of communion with his Father. His mother, it is said, never recovered from his loss, despite Bahá’u’lláh’s consoling assurances. The depth of her motherly love was the measure of her loss.
One of the original doors of the sea gate by which the Blessed Beauty entered is still hanging there. Many a pilgrim has passed through it, and has seen or touched its massive cracked surface. It was as dry and barren as tinder as we paused for a picture with Daniel Caillaud, our friend and guide in Akká, under a hot March sun. When Bahá’u’lláh passed through the steps of the sea-gate, proclaiming the stones immortal, the configuration of the shoreline was different then; the prisoners would have been conveyed from the water, directly up to the sea gate steps, and then onto dry land. “He entered by the sea gate and left by the land gate.”