Commemoration of the Centenary of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Visit to North America (1912-2012)

by Jack McLean

Talk to a city-wide Ottawa Bahá’í commemoration (September 5, 2012)

Dear Friends:

I feel honoured to have been asked to address you this evening on the subject of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the Servant of Bahá, the Mystery of God. In the brief time that has been allotted to me, I will speak to you about two things, two things that in my view cannot be separated: the Person of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and His teachings. To begin, I should say, as most of you already know, that the Prophet-Founder of the Bahá’í Faith is not ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, but His Father, Baha’u’llah, the Glory of God, the Promised One of all ages, whose most distinguished servant ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was and remains. But together with the Forerunner, the Báb, and Bahá’u’lláh, our Prophet-Founder, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is the third Central Figure of this youngest of the world’s great religions.

With the exception of the twin Prophet-Founders of this Faith, His stature thus towers above any other figure in the Bahá’í dispensation. Without Him, among other things, the Bahá’í Faith would never have been established in the western hemisphere — at least, not as we know it here now. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, while He was not a prophet, is the Perfect Exemplar of every Bahá’í virtue. He lived with complete integrity everything that He taught, fully demonstrating the value of each virtue, during a well-witnessed life that was exposed, from start to finish, to dire adversity.

I have read somewhere that Bahá’u’lláh said that the friends are not devoted enough to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Bahá’u’lláh called His son, Sar Kar-i-Aqa, “His Excellency the Master.” Now “the Master” is not a title that should be used only by older generation Bahá’ís like me. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was also called Sirullah, the Mystery of God, by His father. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was a being who possessed some of the superhuman powers of the Manifestations of God, the Higher Prophets, but without actually being one. And therein lies a mystery. For as Shoghi Effendi has written, to say that a perfect human being existed is in itself a paradox, that is, a contradiction in terms. Yet it was true in the case of the Master. For 500,000 years at least, all throughout the Bahá’í cycle, there will never be another ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. We will never fully understand His station, but we will acquire a greater understanding of it as the centuries roll by.

In the presence of His father, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, despite the greatness of His own station, showed an indescribable evanescence and humility, and stood with head bowed before the Manifestation. Bahá’u’lláh, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá said, did not choose Him to be His successor for the sole reason that He was the Manifestation of God’s eldest son. The successorship had nothing to do with the physical paternity, because other sons proved themselves entirely unworthy to be Bahá’u’lláh’s offspring. It was, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá said, because His father saw “the signs of God stamped on my forehead.”

As a child in Tihran at the age of 7, He contracted tuberculosis, but was miraculously cured. From the time of His early childhood, He had been harassed and persecuted. When He was 9 years old, He became a prisoner and exile, subjected to the rigours and cruelty of Islamic persecution, the extent of which we genteel westerners, grown up in countries ruled by liberal-democratic governments, had not, until very recent history, even the faintest idea.

But the revolution of the Young Turks in 1908, and their “Committee of Union and Progress”, which dealt a deathblow to the dying Ottoman Empire, suddenly set Him free–free to travel and proclaim the Bahá’í Faith in the West, an act which, Shoghi Effendi has written, was “the most outstanding achievement that will forever be associated with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s ministry” (GPB, p. 279). He was 67 years old, when He began his arduous, three-year-long missionary journeys to Europe and North America, at an age when most working people have already retired to enjoy the fruits of their labours.

In the winter of 1910-1911, He laid over in Alexandria, Ramleh and Cairo to recover His health on His way to Europe, and from there to make His way to the new world. The Master sailed from Alexandria on the RMS Cedric, refusing an invitation to take the faster Titanic. He arrived in New York on April 11, 1912. Travelling to some 40 cities, including Montreal, he gave scores of talks, now published in several volumes, in venues both stately and casual, before élites and lowly alike. He said that in America He spoke with such power as to raise the dead to life and to put flesh on bone. He also granted literally hundreds of life-changing personal interviews. No other oriental spiritual teacher in America was able to match His punishing schedule. His crowded, ceaseless itinerary was in itself a sure testimony to His being the recipient of the confirmations of Bahá’u’lláh, the confirmations of the Holy Spirit.

In one church, He was so tired that He could not stand on His own, but He gave the talk anyway, leaning against a pillar in the house of God. Mahmud’s diary tells us that on one occasion, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was so thoroughly exhausted that He could not find the strength even to sit down! But when He so desired, vital new forces of energy suddenly poured over Him, forces the demonstration of which astonished all those who witnessed His sudden transformation from deep fatigue to full strength. When he travelled by train, He always travelled third class, an object example of economy accommodation to the comfort-loving peoples of the West. On December 5th He left New York on the SS Celtic, some 9 months later, following the by now famous 239 days.

Horace Holley, Hand of the Cause of God, a mystic, poet, writer and great administrator, highly praised by Shoghi Effendi, wrote that when he saw ‘Abdu’l-Bahá at Thonon-les-Bains in 1911, on the shores of Lake Geneva, his old self melted away, and he became a new being. Such was the divine, instant transformative power of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá on receptive souls. In Paris, on His western tour, He got sick again, the only time He was taken ill on His western journeys. Was it a return of consumption? We cannot be sure, but He said that when He had to do something for the Cause of Bahá’u’lláh, His body could withstand anything. He kept on going.

Before journeying to Europe and North America, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had never given speeches before large crowds, but in North America, with perfect ease and commanding language, He discoursed before audiences both large and small, the larger audiences numbering in their hundreds, and occasionally surpassing a thousand souls, all of whom were eager to see, to hear, to meet, to shake the hand, and to be in the company of the “Persian Prophet”, as the American press called Him, a phrase He strongly deprecated. Prior to coming to the West, He probably had not ridden in an automobile, or talked on the telephone, something He did with Laura Dreyfus Barney in Paris. (There is a very charming and amusing anecdote that an eye-witness has recorded in which He wrote that ‘Abdu’l-Baha at first tried to avoid the call).

His charisma was both magnetic and magical. Some Iranians took Him for a Persian nobleman. When He passed by in the long robes of His abá, the sculptured lines of the face and head showing the strength, nobility and majesty of His character, His patriarchal, carefully trimmed full white beard in view, crowned with His cream-coloured turban, moving with that graceful step that could have been the gait of either “a shepherd or a king,” people stopped and stared in wonder. Some bowed their heads; others removed their hats and stood silently as He passed. Two adoring Arabs at Green Acre suddenly threw themselves at His feet crying out “O Thou prophet of God!” The Master raised them gently with His own hand and said simply: “I am ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the Servant of Bahá.”

One Sunday morning, in a poor quarter of Paris, a boisterous Parisian who was gesticulating, dancing and shouting among a rowdy crowd, waving a loaf of bread in his hand, suddenly fell silent when he saw the Master. The man quieted the tumultuous crowd, and pushing them aside, shouted: “Make way! Make way! He is my father!” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá passed by quietly, saying, “Thank you my dear friends.” Lady Blomfield has recorded that He was never so happy as when He found Himself among the poor.

The Servant of Bahá. Servitude is the highest station to which any Bahá’í can aspire. That is our spiritual standard. So along with His commanding authority and magnetic charisma, we find in the Master a humility that we can never fathom…an utter evanescence of the created before the Creator. And here I would be remiss if I did not quote those oft-repeated words of His own self-understanding: “My name is ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. My qualification is ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. My reality is ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. My praise is ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Thraldom to the Blessed Perfection is my glorious and refulgent diadem, and servitude to all the human race my perpetual religion… No name, no title, no mention, no commendation have I, nor will ever have, except ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. This is my longing. This is my greatest yearning. This is my eternal life. This is my everlasting glory.”

Friends, all the great teachings that we now know, teachings that existed in the sacred writings of Bahá’u’lláh, were expanded and expounded, even systematized by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Europe and North America: the oneness of humanity being the “cornerstone” of them all, followed by the independent search for the truth, the abolition of all forms of prejudice, the equality of women and men, the harmony of religion and science, and so forth. In reality, these teachings fill volumes: teachings that cover spiritual, social, metaphysical, economic, ethical, psychological, religious, and administrative and other spheres.

But, as Shoghi Effendi has reminded us, knowledge without action is useless, because the purpose of gaining new insights and understandings is to translate them into concrete action in society and in our individual lives. Even prayer and meditation, without action, as the Guardian emphatically told a group of pilgrims in 1956, including the former Canadian NSA member, Alan Raynor, are useless. And here I must mention the great advantage of the Bahá’í system, or World Order of Bahá’u’lláh, compared to the other religious systems or secular governments in the world. The divine institutions that constellate the World Order of Bahá’u’lláh, and with these institutions, the core activities of the current institute process that Bahá’ís around the world are executing, constitute the living laboratory in which those who choose to participate are engaged in the greatest social and spiritual experiment that has ever been undertaken in the history of humanity: the creation of a peaceful, united, racially integrated, religiously harmonious, fully functioning society.

Friends! ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is our Perfect Exemplar. Look closely to see how His life exemplified elements of today’s institute process and its related activities. How many home visits did He make? How many times did He call on Bahá’ís or their friends, to pray with them, enlighten and encourage them? Did He not shower His love upon the children, blacks and whites together, at a time when segregated society was still ruthlessly enforced? Did He not enrich the poor? Did He not in 1912 marry Louisa Matthew, a white Englishwoman, and Louis Gregory, an African-American, to hold up to us all the best model and pattern for overcoming racial prejudice and achieving the unity of humanity? Did He not ensure that youth were present in the meetings to hear His wise counsel at a time when children and youth were expected to be seen but not heard? Did He not erase the so-called “generation gap” by taking the children and youth in His arms, and as a loving Father and kind Teacher warmly encourage them with His love, wisdom and affection? Did the Master not specifically ask us to study these life-giving teachings until we had understood them in their depths in our minds, hearts and souls? And last, did He not show, by His numerous acts of service, service that went far beyond His undoubted concern with finding new believers, that to be truly valid, religion must be, in the last analysis, about deeds not words, deeds that must have no hidden agendas or ulterior motives?

These are just some of the marvellous realities that the life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is still shining on us as we commemorate the historic centenary of His visit to our shores.

    Thank you, friends, for your attention!
    Jack McLean

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