In this frenzied world, I often wonder how ‘Abdu’l-Baha would have lived his life if He were alive now! It got me thinking about whether there might be some ideas based on how He lived a simple life back then.
Here is the standard He strove for – simplicity and love:
The husband of Amelia Collins, a devoted American Baha’i, was a very sociable man. He would take part in any discussion with perfect freedom and ease. But once, before entering the Master’s home, he was so excited that he arranged his tie just right, smoothed his clothes and repeatedly asked his wife what he should do when they arrived there. She told him, ‘Nothing! In the family of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá simplicity reigns, and nothing but love is ever accepted.’ (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá)
I love this sweet story where Bahá’u’lláh teaches us how little we need:
Mary Bolles (Maxwell) took an early pilgrimage to the prison city. She heard that the food man eats is of no importance, as its effect endures but a short time. But the food of the spirit is life to the soul and its effects endure eternally. She heard ‘Abdu’l-Bahá tell the touching ‘story of the hermit’. Baha’u’llah ‘was traveling from one place to another with His followers’ and ‘He passed through a lonely country where, at some little distance from the highway, a hermit lived alone in a cave. He was a holy man, and having heard that Our Lord, Baha’u’llah, would pass that way, he watched eagerly for His approach. When the Manifestation arrived at that spot the hermit knelt down and kissed the dust before His feet and said to Him: “Oh, my Lord, I am a poor man living alone in a cave nearby; but henceforth I shall account myself the happiest of mortals if Thou wilt but come for a moment to my cave and bless it by Thy Presence.” Then Baha’u’llah told the man that He would come, not for a moment but for three days, and He bade His followers cast their tents, and await His return. The poor man was so overcome with joy and with gratitude that he was speechless, and led the way in humble silence to his lowly dwelling in a rock. There the Glorious One sat with him, talking to him and teaching him, and toward evening the man bethought himself that he had nothing to offer his great Guest but some dry meat and some dark bread, and water from a spring nearby. Not knowing what to do he threw himself at the feet of his Lord and confessed his dilemma. Baha’u’llah comforted him and by a word bade him fetch the meat and bread and water; then the Lord of the universe partook of this frugal repast with joy and fragrance as though it had been a banquet, and during the three days of His visit they ate only of this food which seemed to the poor hermit the most delicious he had ever eaten. Baha’u’llah declared that He had never been more nobly entertained nor received greater hospitality and love. “This,” explained the Master, when He had finished the story, shows us how little man requires when he is nourished by the sweetness of all foods – the love of God.”’ (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá)
Even His wedding was simple:
Before His wedding day, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá made the necessary arrangements for the few guests. His mother and sister made a delicate bridal dress of white batiste. A white head-dress adorned Munirih Khanum’s hair, worn, as usual, in two braids. At nine in the evening she went with the Greatest Holy Leaf into the presence of Baha’u’llah, Who gave her His blessing. She then went to the bridal room and awaited the coming of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. The service was very simple. At about ten o’clock ‘Abdu’l-Bahá came, accompanied by the guests, and Munirih Khanum chanted a tablet revealed by Baha’u’llah. ‘Later, the wife of ‘Abbud recalled the sweetness of that chanting still ringing in her ears.’ There were no choir, decorations or cake – just cups of tea. Above all, a glory and a love there were more than sufficient to bless the happy event. (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá)
Here’s a story He told about the benefits of a simple life:
‘Abdu’l-Bahá told a story about a Persian believer’s journeys and how he could not sleep at night while in the wilderness for fear of someone stealing his new shirt, a new gift from a prominent person. After several sleepless nights he decided to get rid of the shirt so he could relax. (Rafati, Vahid, Sources of Persian Poetry in the Baha’i Writings, Vol. lll, p. 80)
He had His meals as follows:
7 A.M. Tea and bread
1:30 P.M. Dines with the family
4 P.M. Tea
7:30 P.M. Sits with the family at dinner but partakes of no food Himself
10: P.M. Simple meal (Agnes Parson’s Diary, ©1996, Kalimát Press, Footnote #6, p. 13)
He ate a very simple diet:
The Master . . . ate little food. He was known to begin His day with tea, goat’s milk cheese and wheat bread. And at the evening meal a cup of milk and a piece of bread might suffice. He considered the latter a healthy meal. Had not Baha’u’llah, while at Sulaymaniyyih, subsisted mostly on milk? (Sometimes Baha’u’llah ate rice and milk cooked together.) ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s sparse diet also included herbs and olives – it rarely included meat. (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá)
He does not permit his family to have luxuries. He himself eats but once a day, and then bread, olives, and cheese suffice him. (Myron Henry Phelps and Bahiyyih Khanum, Life and Teachings of Abbas Effendi)
He preferred to share His food with the poor:
On the occasion of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s first dinner in the home of Lady Bloomfield in London His hostess had prepared course after course in her eagerness to please Him. Afterwards He gently commented: ‘The food was delicious and the fruit and flowers were lovely, but would that we could share some of the courses with those poor and hungry people who have not even one.’ Thereafter the dinners were greatly simplified. Flowers and fruit remained in abundance, for those were often brought to the Master as small love tokens. (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá)
Mary Lucas, a pilgrim to Akká in 1905, found that the Master usually ate but one simple meal a day. In eight days He was present at most meals, often coming just to add joy to the occasion, though He was not hungry. If He knew of someone who had had no meal during a day, the family supper was gladly packed up and sent to the needy. (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá)
He served His guests:
Julia Gundy, an early pilgrim, described a beautiful supper at which many friends were welcomed by the Master Himself in Akká. He passed out napkins, embraced and found plates for each. All were individually anointed with attar of rose. He served pilau, a Persian rice dish, to each guest. There were also oranges and rice pudding. ‘Throughout the supper, which was very simple in its character and appointment, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was the Servant of the believers. This was indeed a spiritual feast where Love reigned. The whole atmosphere was Love, Joy, and Peace. (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá)
His schedule looked like this:
Tudor-Pole described a typical day for Abdul-Bahá: he rises about 5 AM, and works for some hours at his correspondence. Interviews commence soon after 9 AM and last until midday. After lunch he takes a short rest and then usually rides out into the parks or to visit various people who were deeply interested in his work. Gatherings of the friends take place nearly every evening and he has given some wonderful discourses at such times… He is quite vigorous and looks both well and cheerful. (Earl Redman, Abdul-Bahá in Their Midst, p. 30)
The Master kept little clothing – one coat at a time was ample. (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá)
‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s family was taught to dress in such a way that they would be ‘an example to the rich and an encouragement to the poor.’ Available money was stretched to cover far more than the Master’s family needs. One of His daughters wore no bridal gown when she married – a clean dress sufficed. The Master was queried why He had not provided bridal clothes. With candour He replied simply, ‘My daughter is warmly clad and has all that she needs for her comfort. The poor have not. What my daughter does not need I will give to the poor rather than to her.’ (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá)
A friend had sent some fur so that the Master could have a good warm coat; He had it cut up and made into twenty caps for the elderly men of the town. (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of “Abdu’l-Bahá)
As someone who suffers from Seasonal Affective Disorder, and needs a LOT of light, I take great comfort in this story:
As we drove up Broadway, glittering with its electric signs, He spoke of them smiling, apparently much amused. Then He told us that Bahá’u’lláh had loved light. “He could never get enough light. He taught us,” the Master said, “to economize in everything else but to use light freely.” (Juliet Thompson’s Diary, April 19, 1912)
Even when ‘Abdu’l-Baha was in great need, he didn’t accept financial help from the friends:
For his own personal use Bahá’u’lláh never ordered anything extravagant. The life of luxury to which He was accustomed in His youth had been denied Him since His imprisonment in the Siyah-Chal of Tihran when all His possessions had been confiscated. But He lived a life of austerity in a majesty such that in the words of Edward (Granville Browne of Cambridge University, He was ‘the object of a devotion that kings might envy and emperors sigh for in vain’. His personal needs were simple and inexpensive . . . He Himself and the members of His family, however, lived an austere life. There were many occasions when He was in great need, but did not accept financial help from the friends. (Adib Taherzadeh, The Revelation of Baha’u’llah v 4, p. 248)
Here’s an example:
The gates of the Akká prison were finally opened for Baha’u’llah, His family and companions after a confinement of two years, two months and five days. Many of His companions were consigned to the caravanserai, an unfit dwelling-place. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá occupied one room himself. The rooms were damp and filthy. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá sold a certain gift which had been given to Him in Baghdad and with the proceeds began to repair the rooms for the companions of Baha’u’llah. He left the repair of His own room to the last. The money ran out and as a result His room remained unrepaired and in very bad condition. Not only were its walls damp but the roof leaked and the floor was covered with dust. He sat and slept on a mat in that room. His bed cover was a sheepskin. The room was infested with fleas and when He slept under the sheepskin, fleas gathered and began biting. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá worked out a tactic of defeating the fleas by turning over His sheepskin at intervals. He would sleep for a while before the fleas found their way again to the inner side. He would then turn the sheepskin over again. Every night He had to resort to this tactic eight to ten times. (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá)
He didn’t allow his family to have any luxuries either:
He does not permit his family to have luxuries. He himself eats but once a day, and then bread, olives, and cheese suffice him. His room is small and bare, with only a matting on the stone floor. His habit is to sleep upon this floor. Not long ago a friend, thinking that this must be hard for a man of advancing years, presented him with a bed fitted with springs and mattress. So these stand in his room also, but are rarely used. “For how,” he says, “can I bear to sleep in luxury when so many of the poor have not even shelter?” So he lies upon the floor and covers himself only with his cloak. (Myron Henry Phelps and Bahiyyih Khanum, Life and Teachings of Abbas Effendi)
Has this given you any ideas on how you might live a more simple life? Post your comments below!
‘Abdu’l-Bahá was most uncompromising on the issue of racial equality during his visit to America:
As part of the American South, Washington, D.C. was also a city in which racial segregation was a fact of life, and it was on the issue of racial equality that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was most uncompromising during his visit to America. (Agnes Parson’s Diary, ©1996, Kalimát Press, Footnote #15)
Holding racially integrated meetings wasn’t easy, as no hotels would allow such a meeting:
In such a milieu, the Bahá’ís found it challenging to comply with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s instruction that they should hold racially integrated meetings. Even locating a public site for a community dinner honoring ‘Abdu’l-Bahá proved difficult, since no hotels in the city would allow an integrated meeting. (Agnes Parson’s Diary, ©1996, Kalimát Press, Footnote #15)
At one point, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was evicted from His hotel because his visitors were from such diverse backgrounds:
In late May 1912, in New York, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was evicted from His hotel because, as Mahmud noted, of the “coming and going of diverse people” and the “additional labors and troubles” for the staff and the “incessant inquiries” directed to the hotel management. “But,” Mahmud continued, “when the people of the hotel saw His great kindness and favor at the time of His departure, they were ashamed of their conduct and begged Him to stay longer, but He would not accept.”’ (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 111)
On another occasion He shocked some of the white socialites by insisting that Louis Gregory be seated next to him at a society luncheon:
Mrs. Parsons discreetly avoids mentioning here that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá broke with contemporary social conventions of racial separation by insisting the Louis Gregory, a prominent African-American Bahá’í, attend this luncheon in segregated Washington, D.C.—even though he had not been invited. Harlan Ober tells the story. . . .
“Just an hour before the luncheon ‘Abdu’l-Bahá sent word to Louis Gregory that he might come to Him for the promised conference. Louis arrived at the appointed time, and the conference went on and on; ‘Abdu’l-Bahá seemed to want to prolong it. When luncheon was announced, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá led the way and all followed Him into the dining room, except Louis.
“All were seated when suddenly ‘Abdu’l-Bahá stood up, looked around, and then said to Mírza Khan, Where is Mr. Gregory? Bring Mr Gregory! There was nothing for Mírzá Khan to do but find Mr. Gregory, who fortunately had not yet left the house, but was quietly waiting for a chance to do so. Finally Mr. Gregory came into the room with Mírzá Khan.
“’Abdu’l-Bahá, Who was really the Host (as He was wherever He was), had by this time rearranged the place setting and made room for Mr. Gregory, giving him the seat of honor at His right. He stated He was very pleased to have Mr. Gregory there, and then, in the most natural way as if nothing unusual had happened, proceeded to give a talk on the oneness of mankind.” (Agnes Parson’s Diary, p 31,33)
Another writer tells the same story with a few more details:
The Master’s every act was meaningful. On one auspicious occasion in Washington, D.C. He demonstrated what justice and love can do. The chargé d’affaires of the Persian Legation in the city and his wife had arranged a luncheon in His honour. Their guest list included members of the social and political life in the capital, as well as a number of Baha’is. Louis Gregory, a cultivated gentleman and employee in the government – he later became the first black Hand of the Cause – had been invited to visit the Master. He was surprised at the time scheduled for a visit, as he knew of the luncheon plans, but naturally he arrived on time. Their conference seemed to go on and on – as if indeed the Master might be prolonging it deliberately. Eventually the butler announced that luncheon was being served. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá led the way, the invited guests following closely behind. Mr Gregory was perplexed: should he leave or wait for ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to return? The guests were seated when suddenly the honoured Guest rose, looked around and then asked in English, ‘Where is My friend, Mr Gregory?’, adding ‘My friend, Mr Gregory, must lunch with Me!’ It just so happened that Louis Gregory had not been on the luncheon list, so naturally he had remained behind. Now the chargé d’affaires hastened after him. The Master rearranged the place setting at His right, the seat of honour, of course – ignoring utterly the delicate laws of protocol – and the luncheon started only after Mr Gregory had been seated. Then, in a most natural manner, as if nothing at all unusual had happened in the capital that day in 1912, with tact and humour, the Master ‘electrified the already startled guests’ by talking about the unity of mankind. (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 111)
At another time, ‘Abdu’l-Baha hosted a unity Feast and insisted that both black and white sit side-by-side in a previously segregated hotel:
On a certain occasion in America ‘Abdu’l-Bahá ‘announced that He wished to give a Unity Feast for the friends. The Committee arranging for the affair had taken it to one of the city’s most exclusive hotels, famed for its color bar. The colored friends, troubled by the prospect of insults and discriminatory treatment, decided not to attend. When ‘Abdu’l-Bahá learned of this, He insisted that all the friends should attend. The banquet was held with all the friends, white and colored, seated side by side, in great happiness and without one unpleasant incident.’ (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 110)
With this one stroke, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá swept away both segregation by race and categorization by social rank:
Juliet Thompson wrote: “Gently yet unmistakably, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had assaulted the customs of a city that had been scandalized only a decade earlier by President Roosevelt’s dinner invitation to Booker T. Washington. Moreover as a friend who helped Madame Khan with the luncheon recalled, the place setting that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had rearranged so casually had been made according to the strict demands of Washington protocol. Thus, with one stroke ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had swept away both segregation by race and categorization by social rank. (Gayle Morrison, To Move The World, Louis G. Gregory and the Advancement of Racial Unity in America, p 53, 5)
He found racial differences a thing of beauty:
Mr Robert Turner, the butler of philanthropist Mrs Phoebe Hearst, distinguished himself by being the first Western black man to become a Baha’i. May Maxwell recalled later that ‘on the morning of our arrival [on pilgrimage], after we had refreshed ourselves, the Master summoned us all to Him in a long room overlooking the Mediterranean. He sat in silence gazing out of the window, then looking up He asked if all were present. Seeing that one of the believers was absent, He said, “Where is Robert?” . . . In a moment Robert’s radiant face appeared in the doorway and the Master rose to greet him, bidding him be seated, and said, “Robert, your Lord loves you. God gave you a black skin, but a heart white as snow.”’ Such was the tenacity of his faith that even the subsequent estrangement of his beloved mistress from the Cause she had spontaneously embraced failed to becloud its radiance, or to lessen the intensity of the emotions which the loving-kindness showered by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá upon him had excited in his breast.’ (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 101)
The following delightful story about an incident during ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s stay in New York illustrates the fact that He was not ‘colour-blind’, but rather He found racial differences a thing of beauty. When the Master was on His way to speak to several hundred men at the Bowery Mission He was accompanied by a group of Persian and American friends. Not unnaturally a group of boys was intrigued by the sight of this group of Orientals with their flowing robes and turbans and started to follow them. They soon became noisy and obstreperous. A lady in the Master’s party was highly embarrassed at the rude behaviour of the boys. Dropping behind she stopped to talk with them and told them a little about who ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was. Not entirely expecting them to take her up on the invitation, she nevertheless gave them her home address and said that if they liked to come the following Sunday she would arrange for them to see Him. Thus, on Sunday, some twenty or thirty of them appeared on the doorstep, rather scruffy and noisy, but with signs that they had tidied up for the occasion nonetheless. Upstairs in ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s room the Master was seen at the door greeting each boy with a handclasp or an arm around the shoulder, with warm smiles and boyish laughter. His happiest welcome seemed to be directed to the thirteen-year-old boy near the end of the line. He was quite dark-skinned and didn’t seem too sure he would be welcome. The Master’s face lighted up and in a loud voice that all could hear exclaimed with delight that ‘here was a black rose’. The boy’s face shone with happiness and love. Silence fell across the room as the boys looked at their companion with a new awareness. The Master did not stop at that, however. On their arrival He had asked that a big five-pound box of delicious chocolates be fetched. With this He walked around the room, ladling out chocolates by the handful to each boy. Finally, with only a few left in the box, He picked out one of the darkest chocolates, walked across the room and held it to the cheek of the black boy. The Master was radiant as He lovingly put His arm around the boy’s shoulders and looked with a humorously piercing glance around the group without making any further comment. (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 100)
He was happiest at meetings where both white and colored people were present:
Joseph Hannen records: “On Tuesday, April 23rd, at noon, Abdu’l-Bahá addressed the student-body of more than 1,000, the faculty and a large number of distinguished guests, at Howard University. This was a most notable occasion, and here, as everywhere when both white and colored people were present, Abdu’l-Bahá seemed happiest. The address was received with breathless attention by the vast audience, and was followed by a positive ovation and a recall.” (Hannen, “Abdu’l-Bahá in Washington, D.C.” p. 7; Agnes Parson’s Diary, p. 29, Footnote 44)
He saw black people as His friends:
While ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was living in a Paris hotel, among those who often came to see Him was a poor, black man. He was not a Baha’i, but he loved the Master very much. One day when he came to visit, someone told him that the management did not like to have him – a poor black man – come, because it was not consistent with the standards of the hotel. The poor man went away. When ‘Abdu’l-Bahá learned of this, He sent for the man responsible. He told him that he must find His friend – He was not happy that he should have been turned away. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá said, ‘I did not come to see expensive hotels or furnishings, but to meet My friends. I did not come to Paris to conform to the customs of Paris, but to establish the standard of Baha’u’llah.’ (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 110)
He gave addresses to audiences of black people:
Though most of Abdul-Bahá’s time was spent with the rich, famous and white people, He gave special attention to their black servants, treating them no differently than their employers. On 4 August Abdul-Bahá addressed a group of 28 black people, and spoke of the importance of unity and amity between black and white people. He told them of the upcoming marriage of Louisa Mathew, a white woman, and Louis Gregory, a black man. The white people in the audience were amazed at the influence the Cause of Baha’u’llah had on everyone, while the black people were very pleased to hear about such integration. Some Americans considered the creation of unity between blacks and whites to be nearly miraculous and as difficult to accomplish as “splitting the moon in half”, but here was Abdul-Bahá showing that it could happen. (Earl Redman, Abdul-Bahá in Their Midst, p. 161)
At one meeting he called a young boy a “black rose”:
Howard Colby Ives tells . . . a story when about 30 of the boys arrived for their meeting: . . . Among the last to enter the room was a colored lad of about 13 years. He was quite dark and, being the only boy of his race among them, he evidently feared that he might Not be welcome. When Abdul-Bahá saw him, His face lighted up with the heavenly smile. He raised His hand and exclaimed in a loud voice, so that none could fail to hear; that here was a black rose. The room fell into instant silence. The black face became illumined with happiness and love hardly of this world. The other boys looked at him with new eyes. I venture to say that he had been called black – many things, but never before a black rose. (Earl Redman, Abdul-Bahá in Their Midst, p. 88)
He appointed Agnes Parsons to promote the unity of the black and white races:
Agnes Parsons became a fine speaker about the Faith and always had an invitation for traveling teachers to give talks in her home. During her second pilgrimage in 1920, Abdul-Bahá told her that she should organize the convention for the unity of the colored and white races. For a woman of her social standing to promote the unity of the black and one in the white was tradition-breaking. (Earl Redman, Abdul-Bahá in Their Midst, p. 91)
At that time, she still upheld the long-standing social conventions of racial segregation:
At that time, Washington was the most racially and socially mixed Baha’i community in America, but it had deep racial unity problems. The upper classes, including people like Mr. and Mrs. Parsons, still upheld the long-standing social conventions of racial segregation that were not easily overcome. (Earl Redman, Abdul-Bahá in Their Midst, p. 98)
Her husband’s attitude was that they should all go back to Africa:
Arthur Parsons once commented to Abdul-Bahá that he wished all the blacks would return to Africa, to which the Master wryly replied that such an exodus would have to begin with Wilbur, the trusted butler of the Parsons household. . . . It is remarkable, then, that Abdu’l Bahá subsequently chose Agnes Parsons to spearhead the Racial Amity campaign initiated by the Baha’i community and just as remarkable that she transcended her social milieu in order to carry out this mandate. (Earl Redman, Abdul-Bahá in Their Midst, p. 98-99)
It is remarkable that she was able to transcend her social milieu in order to carry out this mandate:
It is remarkable, then, that Abdu’l Bahá subsequently chose Agnes Parsons to spearhead the Racial Amity campaign initiated by the Baha’i community and just as remarkable that she transcended her social milieu in order to carry out this mandate. (Earl Redman, Abdul-Bahá in Their Midst, p. 98-99)
He encouraged the first inter-racial Bahá’í marriage of its kind, between Louis Gregory, (an African-American man) and Louisa Mathews, (a white British woman):
Louis Gregory was blessed with going on pilgrimage. Towards its end ‘‘Abdu’l-Bahá summoned Louis Gregory and Louisa Mathew, a white English pilgrim. He questioned them, and, to their surprise, expressed the wish that they should join their lives together. In deference to His wishes they were married, and he sent them forth as a symbol of the spiritual unity, cooperation, dignity in relationships and service He desired for the races of mankind. That marriage presented many challenges. It brought all the obstacles to understanding and amity, and often cruel pressures. But it endured because the two souls it joined were ever guided and protected by a love beyond themselves and the pressures of the world. Theirs was a demonstration of the love which is prompted by the knowledge of God and reflected in the soul. They saw in each other the Beauty of God; and, clinging to this, they were sustained throughout the trials, the accidental conditions of life and the changes and chances of human experience.’ (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 112)
For more about this Forbidden Marriage
Early believers had to first overcome their fear of black people:
Pauline and Joseph Hannen were the prime movers of racial integration in Washington in the early years of the Faith there. Initially, Pauline feared black people, but her study of Baha’u’llah’s writings forced her to change her attitude. Pauline taught the Faith to her black washerwoman, then she and Joseph began inviting blocks to meetings in their home – a rather daring thing to do at that time. (Earl Redman, Abdul-Bahá in Their Midst, p. 91-92)
Many whites were afraid to host multiracial gatherings in their homes for fear of what others would say. Many blacks were also reluctant to attend meetings because of their fear of insults and discriminatory treatment. (Earl Redman, Abdul-Bahá in Their Midst, p. 98)
Some people were evicted for having black Bahá’ís in their homes:
One day, Dr. Zia Bagdadi invited Mr. Louis Gregory, a black Baha’i, to his home. When his landlord heard about this, he gave notice to Dr. Bagdadi. He was to vacate his residence because he had a black man in his home. (Earl Redman, Abdul-Bahá in Their Midst, p. 108)
Others had to spend their wedding night on a park bench:
In the early 30s Mother, who was divorced from her first husband, Theodore Obrig, married the Reverend Reginald G. Barrow. The wedding ceremony was performed by her father Howard Colby Ives. It is family history that they spent their wedding night on a park bench, as they could not obtain a room in a hotel in Boston. Bishop Barrow, was a man of color, who was born in the West Indies. (Reginald Grant Barrow, Mother’s Stories: Stories of Abdu’l-Bahá and Early Believers told by Muriel Ives Barrow Newhall to her son, p. 5)
His efforts bore fruit, though. Look what happened in South Africa, under Apartheid:
Faced with the segregated social pattern and laws of Apartheid in South Africa, the integrated population of Bahá’ís had to decide how to be composed in their administrative structures – whether the National Spiritual Assembly would be all black or all white. The Bahá’í community decided that instead of dividing the South African Bahá’í community into two population groups, one black and one white, they instead limited membership in the Baha’i Administration to black adherents, and placed the entire Bahá’í community under the leadership of its black population. (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report (1998-10-29); Volume Four, paragraphs 6, 27, 75, 84, 102)
So with all of His love for the black people, why are they still so oppressed in America today? This might give us a clue:
Abdul-Bahá visited Charles Tinsley, a black employee of Phoebe Hearst who probably came into the Faith through Robert Turner, Mrs. Hearst’s longtime butler and the first African-American Baha’i. Charles was laid up at home with a broken leg when the Master arrived. When Abdul-Bahá asked how he was, Charles replied that he was fine except for the broken leg that kept him from working for the Cause. Abdul-Bahá told him:
“Cheer up! Praise be to God, you are dear to me. I will tell you a story:
A certain ruler wished to appoint one of his subjects to a high office; so, in order to train him, the ruler cast them into prison and caused him to suffer much. The man was surprised at this, for he expected great favors. The ruler had taken him from prison and beaten him with sticks. This greatly astonished the man, for he thought the ruler loved him. After this he was hanged on the gallows until he was nearly dead. After he recovered he asked the ruler, if you love me why did you do these things? The ruler replied: ‘I wish to make you Prime Minister. By having gone through these ordeals you are better fitted for that office. I wish you to know how it is yourself. When you are obliged to punish, you will know how it feels to endure these things. I love you so I wished you to become perfect.’
[To Mr. Tinsley] Even so with you. After this ordeal you will reach maturity. God sometimes causes us to suffer much and have many misfortunes that we may become strong in his Cause. You will soon recover and be spiritually stronger than ever before. You will work for God and carry the Message to many of your people.” (Earl Redman, Abdul-Bahá in Their Midst, p. 224)
By Heidi Lakshman
Presentation on the 25th Anniversary of the Gravenhurst Bahá’í Community, 25 March 2000
There are different milestones in the evolution of a Bahá’í community, and today we remember the arrival 25 years ago of the first Bahá’í pioneer, Francis Cowan, in Gravenhurst, and the development of the local Bahá’í community since then.
When our Assembly was in the middle of planning this event last summer, someone discovered in the back cover of the 1934-36 Bahá’í World Volume a map of the United States and Canada, showing localities where Bahá’ís resided as of May 1st, 1935. There were 229 localities in all, only 8 of which were situated in Canada, scattered right across the land: there was an Assembly in Montreal and one in Vancouver (with at least 9 Bahá’ís in each), and centers with only 1 isolated believer (meaning very lonely Bahá’í) living there, — one in Alberta, one in Saskatchewan, one in New Brunswick, one in Prince Edward Island, and two in Ontario: one in Toronto, and the other — lo and behold — in WEST GRAVENHURST! We got out a magnifying glass to make sure we were seeing right, and sure enough, there it was …
This meant that the history of the Gravenhurst Bahá’í community had obviously started much earlier than we realized, and that there was another milestone to be uncovered here. The search for this early believer began immediately, and what followed had all the characteristics of a true detective story.
Our first move was to put an ad in BAHA’I CANADA (September 1999 issue), inviting anyone with information about this believer to contact us, but — not surprisingly — no one did. Next, we contacted the Records Department and Archives Office at the National Bahá’í Center in Toronto, but they could not help us either since their records go back only to 1948, when the Canadian National Spiritual Assembly came into existence. All prior records were still being kept at the National Bahá’í Center of the United States in Wilmette, Illinois.
Next, we searched in Dr. van den Hoonard’s book, The Origins of the Bahá’í Community of Canada, for any clues about a believer in Gravenhurst, but found nothing there either.
In the meantime, we had started making inquiries with some of the senior citizens in town as to whether anyone remembered meeting a Bahá’í in the 1930’ies. But without knowing the name of the person we were looking for, nor even whether it was a man or a woman, this effort was going nowhere.
Eventually, we succeeded in obtaining the email address of Dr. van den Hoonard at the University of New Brunswick and asked for his assistance in identifying the believer who resided in West Gravenhurst as of May 1935. On the very next day (August 30) he responded as follows:
“…. you will be happy to know that the history of West Gravenhurst goes even further back! Between March 1916 and May 1940, Mrs. Caroline Lehmann lived in West Gravenhurst. She was taught the Faith by Isabelle Brittingham. Her previous religion was Lutheran and she was of German background. You can find a reference for her in Bahá’í World (vol. 8: 699 [actually 703] and the [American] Bahá’í News (July 1940: 10).”
This was the news we were hoping for, and now that we had a name, a gender, and a 24-year time frame, our search could begin in earnest.
There were a few Lehmanns listed in the local telephone book with which we could start. But then, on the same day as the above message arrived, one of my Red Cross Homemakers (Claudia) mentioned that her colleague’s (Sherry Rheaume’s) grandfather, who had passed away a few months earlier, was a Mr. Carl Lehman. As she was going to meet Sherry that night at the Leisure World Nursing Home, Claudia offered to ask her, whether Caroline Lehmann was any relation of hers.
Sherry had never heard of this name before, but was going to ask her grandmother (Carl Lehman’s widow) about it. A couple of days later, Sherry gave Claudia the amazing news that Mrs. Caroline Lehmann was her very own great-great-grandmother!!
It is interesting to note that Sherry was one of the Red Cross Homemakers assigned to me, when I first visited the Cowans in August 1997 in order to prepare my move to Gravenhurst. She lived just a block away from the Cowans and was known to Fran since her childhood. Sherry continued to provide homecare services to me for more than a year following my move to Lofty Pines Drive, and we had a good many conversations about her Bible studies as well as the Bahá’í Faith. She took some literature, as well as a Bahá’í colouring book and some balloons and prayer cards for her children. When her grandfather was ill, she borrowed the “Health and Healing” booklet, and when he passed away, she read the “Death — Messenger of Joy” booklet and found it very comforting, particularly as she had also lost her father not long before that. After her grandfather’s funeral, Sherry and I took a walk over to the Mickle Cemetery, just down the road from my place, and had some prayers at the Lehmann family grave. Little did we know then, that we were praying for the descendants (two sons and a grandson) of the first Bahá’í of Gravenhurst!
On 12 September 1999 I called Sherry’s grandmother, Mrs. Lila Lehman, and she confirmed that Caroline was her great-grandmother-in-law, and that she had lived “in a pink house on the first farm on the right going towards Bala”. She also said that Caroline and her husband had operated the General Store in Kilworthy (a suburb of Gravenhurst), and that they are both buried at the Kilworthy Lutheran Cemetery.
It was a beautiful Sunday, and Shapour Ostadi (a local Bahá’í friend) and I went looking for the pink farm house on the road to Bala. But nothing we saw there fitted that description. We then drove to Kilworthy, where we easily found the Kilworthy General Store. The present owners confirmed that it had indeed belonged to the Lehmanns, who had operated it until the late 1920s. Judging from its aged looks, it probably hasn’t changed much since the times the Lehmanns had been there.
For more (heartbreaking) pictures of this once lovely building
We received directions to the Lutheran Cemetery, which is located on top of a hill, in a bend near the end of Muskoka Road 19 (of all numbers!). It is a well-kept, peaceful place, surrounded by forest on three sides.
We found the Lehmann grave near a low lilac bush, almost in the center of the cemetery. We were extremely moved to read on the gravestone that Caroline Lehmann (nee Yaekel) was born in 1845 — just one year after the inception of the Bahá’í Faith — and that she was 95 years old in 1940, when she passed away.
Susan Gammage visiting her grave site
As such, her life spanned almost the entire first century of the Bahá’í Era and made her a contemporary of both the Báb, Bahá’u’lláh, `Abdu’l-Bahá, and Shoghi Effendi! She was 71 years of age in 1916, when she accepted the Faith of Bahá’u’lláh, — only 4 years after `Abdu’l-Baha’s visit to Canada — and was among the very first resident Canadians to do so. (According to Dr. van den Hoonard’s book, there were only 31 Bahá’ís in the whole of Canada as of 1916, some of whom would no doubt have been pioneers from other countries.)
Through her acceptance of Bahá’u’lláh, the light of God’s new Revelation has dawned upon this small community of Gravenhurst only 72 years after the Faith began in Persia! This is all the more remarkable when one recalls how long it took all the other major world religions to reach Canadian shores.
Having come empty-handed, we gathered some wild flowers to put on her grave, and Shapour chanted some beautiful Persian prayers there, — likely the first one to ever do so at that site.
Having solved the mystery of who this early West Gravenhurst believer was, our focus no shifted to learning more about her life and finding someone — anyone — who might still have a living memory of Caroline. Regrettably, her last living son, Carl, had passed away just a few months before we even knew about her existence. According to Sherry Rheaume’s own research, no one among the members of her family has any personal memory of her, nor do they have any photographs or other documentation of her life and activities. They did mention, however, that she was not the only Bahá’í here, but that another Bahá’í lady who had taught her the Faith was with her for some time, and they believe it may have been her sister.
The only person who still vaguely remembered the old Lehmanns was a Mrs. Hazel Schell, longtime resident of Kilworthy, and grandmother of Joan Allen, another one of my Homecare workers. I talked to her by telephone in late Fall 1999, and she confirmed to have met the old Lehmanns in her youth, but better recalled their daughter, Emily Beatty, who took over the Kilworthy Store from her parents. Hazel Schell, herself in her ninetieth, passed away just a few weeks after we had this conversation.
Her grand-daughter, Joan Allan, had referred me to a book about Kilworthy, A Legacy almost lost, published by the Kilworthy Historical Committee, which contained several references to the Lehmanns. It also provided a fairly good picture of what life was like for the early pioneer settlers in the 19th century, when they were there.
For More Information
The book contains a census of the Townships in Muskoka of the year 1871, in which Gustav and Caroline Lehman, and 2 of their children, are listed as having come from Prussia (East-Germany), and that they were then 39 and 23 years of age. It also shows that the Lehmanns had a farm “on the north shore of Sparrow Lake”, and that Gustav Lehmann bought the Kilworthy Store in 1875 and started the first Post Office there in November 1876. Gustav Lehmann was Postmaster until 1914 and, in 1927, turned the Post Office and the Store over to his daughter, Emily Beatty.
Apparently, he and Caroline then moved to the farm in West Gravenhurst, where Gustav passed away in 1929 and Caroline in 1940.
The case lay dormant over the winter but, during the Fast earlier this month (March 2000), Shapour and I ventured out once again in search of the “pink house” in West Gravenhurst. We rang some doorbells in the general area and were directed to 270 North Street, which turned out to be Carl Lehman’s place. We took some pictures of their old house and also had an opportunity to briefly talk to his widow, Mrs. Lila Lehman, who said that Caroline visited that home on occasion and stayed there for one week, when her youngest son (Sherry’s father) was born. She then gave us direction to the Lehmann farm, which is located about 2 miles further toward Bala, beyond the small convenience store and just around the bend on the right hand side. There is an old barn and a (green) house standing close to the road, and the old building on the back of that property was the Lehmann homestead. We found it to be a larger building with several added sections, yellowish in colour, empty, and in dilapidated condition. Only on the back did we see reddish siding that some people might consider “pink”. No wonder we couldn’t find it before! We photographed the building from all sides and had prayers there as well. (The address is lot #1272 on Highway 169, and the current tenants’ name is Waggs).
We were determined to also find the first Lehmann farm on Sparrow Lake and, on the following day, called the Franklins who, according to the book about Kilworthy, had bought the farm from the Lehmanns.
We spoke to a Mrs. Harvey Franklin who said that the Lehmann farm had been purchased by her uncle and is the property where the Silver Pines Cottage Resort is now located, about 3 miles West from the Kilworthy store. Shapour and I went there and spoke with the proprietor, Andy Fisher, who confirmed that this was the old Lehmann farm, but that Lehmanns did not build the house on his property. He had acquired the place only 15 years ago and did not know where their homestead would have been.
We drove down to the lake and along the shoreline just to look around a bit, and there, about 2 lots away from the Silver Pines property, discovered a whole complex of very old abandoned farm-type buildings along a creek! The first one, though much smaller, looked strikingly similar in style, age, and colour to the Lehmann house we had seen in West Gravenhurst! We photographed it, of course, and went back to Andy Fisher to ask him about these buildings. He didn’t seem to be aware of them nor who the present owners were, but he confirmed that the original farm was much larger than his current lot and had gone all the way over to the Delmonte Resort. This meant that the old buildings we had found were located well within the boundaries of the old farm.
We went back to the Kilworthy Store to ask the owners about the farm, and they directed us to Mr. Bruce Schulz, whose grandfather had bought the Kilworthy Store from Emily Beatty, Lehmann’s daughter. Mr. Schulz is a member of the Kilworthy Historical Society who had published the book, and he was very interested in our research and in receiving a copy of our findings for the Kilworthy Archives. Although he had no information about the Lehmann farm on Sparrow Lake, he said that he would try to find out about it at their next meeting.
Last not least, a letter was received from the National Bahá’í Archives in the United States in response to my inquiry, forwarding copies of the references about Caroline in Bahá’í World Volume 8 and the July 1940 edition of the American Bahá’í News. The first is a Bahá’í Directory of 1938-40, and the second an “In Memoriam” notice of her passing in 1940. The Archives could not provide any additional information about her at this time, nor verify when and where Isabelle Brittingham and Caroline Lehmann have met, and whether she might, in fact, have been the “other Bahá’í lady”, who had stayed with Caroline, as remembered by her family.
Their letter (dated 16 March 2000) states that Caroline Lehmann
“does not appear on the 1916, 1920 and 1922 membership lists maintained by the Bahá’í Temple Unity [precursor of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada]. However, the lists were sent in by local communities, so not all isolated believers were listed, unless they were near an active community.” It also said that “the National Spiritual Assembly files are still not open so we cannot check if she corresponded with the National Spiritual Assembly.”
Consequently, it is possible that some information about Caroline Lehmann would eventually be found.
As for Caroline’s resting place, we asked Mr. Bruce Schulz about the future of the old pioneer cemetery where the Lehmanns are buried, and what would happen to it. He assured us that it is there to stay and is presently being looked after by some individuals including himself, and that it would eventually be turned over to the Municipality for maintenance. No doubt, the historical significance of this gravesite will be publicly recognized in due course. (It should be noted in this context that Mrs. Lehmann would have retained her church membership until the time of her death as was common among early Bahá’ís living in Christian communities.)
Had forwarded a shortened version of the above presentation to the Bahá’í Archives in Wilmette and, shortly thereafter, the following additional information was received:
Subject: RE: An early Gravenhurst believer
Date: Thu, 30 Mar 2000 16:17:36 -0600
Dear Ms. Lakshman,
Thank you for the information on Caroline Lehmann. I have come across some more information about Caroline Lehmann. She had filled out an historical record card in the mid-1930s. I am mailing a photocopy of the historical record card to you. In the card Mrs. Lehmann wrote that she became a Baha’i in March 1916 in New York City. She had been making visits to her daughter, Helen Lehmann, and had learned of the Baha’i Faith. Isabella Brittingham*, Mother Beecher** and Ali Kuli Khan*** had been her teachers. She also gives her birth date as November 17, 1846.
There is a Mrs. Helen Lehmann in the 1916 and 1920 New York City membership lists but not in the 1922 New York City membership list.
With warm greetings,
Roger M. Dahl, Archivist [The National Baha’i Archives of the United States]
* One of the first believers in the United States, called the “Bahá’í-Maker” by `Abdu’l-Bahá
** Grandmother of Hand of the Cause, Dorothy Baker
*** Secretary of `Abdu’l-Bahá, and Persian Consul to the United States
The copy of the handwritten historical record card was received and is the first personal document we have of this early believer. — In 2003, a b&w negative of Caroline Lehmann’s photograph, which she had attached to the history card, was also provided by the U.S. Bahá’í Archives. The negative was digitally cleaned-up and several prints were made.
Both photograph and copy of the historical record card were included with a shortened story and other documents and pictures in the Lehmann binders forwarded in 2003/2004 to the following institutions:
The National Bahá’í Archives of Canada;
The National Bahá’í Archives of the United States;
The Local Spiritual Assembly of Gravenhurst;
The Archives of the Town of Gravenhurst;
The Sparrow Lake Historical Society
and Kilworthy Historical Committee
In the ages to come, though the Cause of God may rise and grow hundredfold and the shade of the Sadratu’l-Muntahá (Tree of Life) shelter all mankind, yet this present (20th) century shall stand unrivalled, for it hath witnessed the breaking of that Morn and the rising of that Sun. This century is, verily, the source of His Light and the dayspring of His Revelation. Future ages and generations shall behold the diffusion of its radiance and the manifestations of its signs. (`Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of `Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 67)
In the Bahá’í Faith, saints are those who have achieved the highest degree of mastery over their ego.
By this definition, any of us can become saints. All we have to do is:
- obey the laws of God
- seek to live the life laid down in the Bahá’í Teachings
- pray and struggle
The ego is the animal in us, the heritage of the flesh which is full of selfish desires. By obeying the laws of God, seeking to live the life laid down in our teachings, and prayer and struggle, we can subdue our egos. We call people ‘Saints’ who have achieved the highest degree of mastery over their ego. (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 114)
In order to achieve this mastery, though, saints (and all of us) have to go through tribulations and suffering in order to purify our hearts and souls for receiving the light of God:
All the Saints that shine in the history of society had to pass through tribulations. Their form was various but their effect has always been the same, namely, the purification of our heart and soul for receiving the light of God. (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 203-204)
Suffering because of a broken heart also seems to be part of the equation:
We as Bahá’ís cannot but believe that suffering is often an essential part of our service. The Prophets suffered bitterly, so did all the Saints and Martyrs, and often ‘fed on the fragments of those broken hearts’, as Bahá’u’lláh says in one of His beautiful prayers. (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 579)
It’s not enough to go through suffering, though – saints also have to feel joyous and happy in the midst of our severest tests and trials!
Physical pain is a necessary accompaniment of all human existence, and as such is unavoidable. As long as there will be life on earth, there will be also suffering, in various forms and degrees. But suffering, although an inescapable reality, can nevertheless be utilized as a means for the attainment of happiness. This is the interpretation given to it by all the prophets and saints who, in the midst of severe tests and trials, felt happy and joyous and experienced what is best and holiest in life. (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 280)
How to Become a Saint
Here’s how to become a saint – the guidance is embedded in this one quote!:
Saints are men who have freed themselves from the world of matter and who have overcome sin. They live in the world but are not of it, their thoughts being continually in the world of the spirit. Their lives are spent in holiness, and their deeds show forth love, justice and godliness. They are illumined from on high; they are as bright and shining lamps in the dark places of the earth. These are the saints of God. The apostles, who were the disciples of Jesus Christ, were just as other men are; they, like their fellows, were attracted by the things of the world, and each thought only of his own advantage. They knew little of justice, nor were the Divine perfections found in their midst. But when they followed Christ and believed in Him, their ignorance gave place to understanding, cruelty was changed to justice, falsehood to truth, darkness into light. They had been worldly, they became spiritual and divine. They had been children of darkness, they became sons of God, they became saints! Strive therefore to follow in their steps, leaving all worldly things behind, and striving to attain to the Spiritual Kingdom. (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Paris Talks, p. 60-61)
You can use this checklist as you work towards your goal!
- Have you freed yourself from the world of matter?
- Have you overcome sin?
- Do you live in the world but are not of it?
- Are your thoughts continually in the world of the spirit?
- Is your life spent in holiness?
- Do your deeds show forth love, justice and godliness?
- Are you illumined from on high?
- Are you a bright and shining lamp in the dark places of the earth?
You may think you are far from achieving these things, but every single effort you make is magnified by God.
An act, however infinitesimal, is, when viewed in the mirror of the knowledge of God, mightier than a mountain. Every drop proffered in His path is as the sea in that mirror. (Bahá’u’lláh, Quickeners of Mankind, p. 4)
You don’t have to be ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to attain this station! And you don’t have to be perfect at any of them either . . . you just have to strive!
Great mysteries happen when we become Bahá’í! As ‘Abdu’l-Bahá tells us in the quote above, the disciples of Jesus Christ, were just as other men (just as we are the disciples of Bahá’u’lláh):
- They were attracted by the things of the world
- Each thought only of his own advantage
- They knew little of justice
- They had none of the Divine perfections
But when they followed Christ (when we follow Bahá’u’lláh) and believed in Him:
- Their ignorance gave place to understanding
- Cruelty was changed to justice
- Falsehood was changed to truth
- Darkness was changed into light
- They had been worldly and became spiritual and divine
- They had been children of darkness, they became sons of god
They became saints! And we can too!
God wants us to become saints. He tells us that it’s a praiseworthy course of action; and well worth striving for!
There are two kinds of Bahá’ís, one might say: those whose religion is Bahá’í and those who live for the Faith. Needless to say if one can belong to the latter category, if one can be in the vanguard of heroes, martyrs and saints, it is more praiseworthy in the sight of God. (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 78)
Many of us have learned to hate ourselves and minimize our worth. We need to know the truth about how God sees us. To that end I’ve written a Love Letter from God, to remind us. You might like reading or listening to it!
Let’s all make up our minds to become saints! All it takes is to follow the Counsels of the Baha’i Writings:
Therefore I say unto you that ye should strive to follow the counsels of these Blessed Books, and so order your lives that ye may, following the examples set before you, become yourselves the saints of the Most High! (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Compilation of Compilations vol. I, p. 200)
As well as dedication and will-power!
He urges you to make up your minds to do great, great deeds for the Faith; the condition of the world is steadily growing worse, and your generation must provide the saints, heroes, martyrs and administrators of future years. With dedication and will power you can rise to great heights. (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 629)
How has this been helpful? Post your comments below!
One of my readers wondered:
Would an LSA be backbiting if they discuss the negative qualities of an individual at an LSA meeting when the individual was not present?
Do Assemblies have the right to hear and talk about community members’ negative qualities if the LSA is being asked to make a decision about this member, even when the community member is not present?
Can an Assembly make decisions about community members, by NOT listening to negative reports of bad character traits and praying for guidance instead?
First of all, dealing with this issue is working on the spiritual frontier of an Assembly’s growth, and patience is needed as we learn to rise to these challenges:
As you know, there can be many reasons for Assemblies not to respond to the believers. Undoubtedly, in some cases, it is because the friends and the Assemblies are struggling with issues on the frontier of their spiritual growth. Such a process can lead to tremendous development on both the individual and the collective levels. Sometimes we can facilitate this process of spiritual growth for individuals, and of maturation for Local and National Assemblies, by viewing these situations not as a problem but as opportunities for development. Taking part in this process should be a source of joy to us since we are, in effect, helping to build the kingdom of God on Earth. Nevertheless, patience is needed, particularly when it involves a subject that is close to our hearts, and when it seems that progress on the matter is lagging or has ceased entirely. We must maintain our confidence that the divinely ordained administrative system given to us by Bahá’u’lláh, and the inspiration of the Creative Word, will enable us to rise to these challenges. (Universal House of Justice to an individual believer, 25 October, 1994)
I’m glad you want to be a peace-maker in your community, helping the weaker members learn to function as true believers:
What the believers need is not only … to really study the teachings, but also to have more peace-makers circulating among them . . . It is one of the functions of the older and the more mature Bahá’ís, to help the weaker ones to iron out their difficulties and learn to really function and live like true believers! (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 89)
You are quite correct in your understanding of the importance of avoiding backbiting; since it strikes at the very unity of the Bahá’í community.
You are quite correct in your understanding of the importance of avoiding backbiting; such conduct strikes at the very unity of the Bahá’í community. (Universal House of Justice, Lights of Guidance, p. 89)
In a letter written to an individual believer on behalf of the Guardian it is stated:
If we are better, if we show love, patience, and understanding of the weakness of others, if we seek to never criticize but rather encourage, others will do likewise, and we can really help the Cause through our example and spiritual strength. (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 83)
This reinforces the role of the Assembly to act as loving parents. If we learn from the example shown by the House of Justice in their letters to individuals, they are always loving and encouraging.
However, learning not to concern oneself with the faults of others seems to be one of the most difficult lessons for people to master, and failing in this is area is a fertile cause of disputes among Bahá’ís, as you’ve discovered!
Learning not to concern oneself with the faults of others seems to be one of the most difficult lessons for people to master, and that failing in this is a fertile cause of disputes among Bahá’ís as it is among men and women in general. (Universal House of Justice, Lights of Guidance, p. 89)
Unfortunately it seems easier to gossip and criticize than to put into practice love, constructive words and cooperation:
Unfortunately, not only average people, but average Bahá’ís, are very immature; gossip, trouble-making, criticism, seem easier than the putting into practice of love, constructive words and cooperation. (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 89)
It’s an imperfect eye that beholds imperfections in others:
The imperfect eye beholds imperfections. (Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 93)
This is the standard we need to reach for:
One must expose the praiseworthy qualities of the souls and not their evil attributes. The friends must overlook their shortcomings and faults and speak only of their virtues and not their defects. (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Star of the West, Vol. IV, No. 11, p. 192)
One must see in every human being only that which is worthy of praise. When this is done, one can be a friend to the whole human race. If, however, we look at people from the standpoint of their faults, then being a friend to them is a formidable task. (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 168)
Here’s a story of how to apply the standard:
It is related that His Holiness Christ—May my life be a sacrifice to Him!—one day, accompanied by His apostles, passed by the corpse of a dead animal. One of them said: ‘How putrid has this animal become!’ The other exclaimed: ‘How it is deformed!’ A third cried out: ‘What a stench! How cadaverous looking!’ but His Holiness Christ said: “Look at its teeth! how white they are!’ Consider, that He did not look at all at the defects of that animal; nay, rather, He searched well until He found the beautiful white teeth. He observed only the whiteness of the teeth and overlooked entirely the deformity of the body, the dissolution of its organs and the bad odour. This is the attribute of the children of the Kingdom. This is the conduct and the manner of the real Bahá’ís. I hope that all the believers will attain to this lofty station. (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Star of the West, Vol. IV, No. 11, p. 192)
In the next quote it looks pretty clear that discussing the faults of others in their absence is forbidden:
As regards backbiting, i.e. discussing the faults of others in their absence, the teachings are very emphatic. In a Tablet to an American friend the Master wrote: ‘The worst human quality and the most great sin is backbiting, more especially when it emanates from the tongues of the believers of God. If some means were devised so that the doors of backbiting were shut eternally and each one of the believers unsealed his lips in praise of others, then the Teachings of His Holiness Bahá’u’lláh would spread, the hearts be illumined, the spirits glorified, and the human world would attain to everlasting felicity.’ (Quoted in Star of West, Vol. IV. p. 192) Bahá’u’lláh says in Hidden Words; ‘Breathe not the sins of others so long as thou art a sinner. Shouldst thou transgress this command ACCURSED ARE THOU.’ The condemnation of backbiting could hardly be couched in stronger language than in these passages, and it is obviously one of the foremost obligations for Bahá’ís to set their faces against this practice. Even if what is said against another person be true, the mentioning of his faults to others still comes under the category of backbiting, and is forbidden. (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 87)
In the following quote, the position is clear and it doesn’t say there are exceptions to the rule:
Breathe not the sins of others so long as thou art thyself a sinner. Shouldst thou transgress this command, accursed wouldst thou be, and to this I bear witness.
(Bahá’u’lláh, The Arabic Hidden Words, 27)
‘Abdu’l-Bahá does not permit adverse criticism by name in discussion unless the situation is of such gravity as to endanger the interests of the Faith:
‘Abdu’l-Bahá does not permit adverse criticism of individuals by name in discussion among the friends, even if the one criticizing believes that he is doing so to protect the interests of the Cause. If the situation is of such gravity as to endanger the interests of the Faith, the complaint, as your National Spiritual Assembly has indicated, should be submitted to the Local Spiritual Assembly, or as you state to a representative of the institution of the Counsellors, for consideration and action. In such cases, of course, the name of the person or persons involved will have to be mentioned. (Universal House of Justice, Lights of Guidance, p. 90)
Here is a checklist we could all use!
- Would this detraction serve any useful purpose?
- Would it please the Blessed Beauty?
- Would it contribute to the lasting honour of the friends?
- Would it promote the holy Faith?
- Would it support the covenant?
- Would it be of any possible benefit to any soul?
The answer to all of these is No, never!
If any individual should speak ill of one who is absent, it is incumbent on his hearers, in a spiritual and friendly manner, to stop him, and say in effect: would this detraction serve any useful purpose? Would it please the Blessed Beauty, contribute to the lasting honour of the friends, promote the holy Faith, support the covenant, or be of any possible benefit to any soul? No, never! (‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Selections From The Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, pp. 230-231)
The consequences are clear – it makes the dust to settle so thickly on the heart that the ears would hear no more; the eyes would no longer behold the light of truth; it dampens the zeal of the friends; makes them indifferent; and is the leading reason why the friends withdraw:
On the contrary, it would make the dust to settle so thickly on the heart that the ears would hear no more, and the eyes would not longer behold the light of truth. (‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Selections From The Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, pp. 230-231)
If any soul speak ill of an absent one, the only result will clearly be this: he will dampen the zeal of the friends and tend to make them indifferent. For backbiting is divisive, it is the leading cause among the friends of a disposition to withdraw. (‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Selections From The Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, pp. 230-231)
Even when an Assembly is dealing with an issue, backbiting causes more damage than the original offence:
If a believer faced with knowledge of another Bahá’ís conduct is unsure what course to take, he can, of course, always consult his Local Spiritual Assembly for advice. If, for some reason, he is reluctant at that stage to inform his Spiritual Assembly, he can consult an Auxiliary Board member or assistant. Whatever steps are taken, it is vital that the believers refrain from gossip and backbiting, for this can only harm the Faith, causing perhaps more damage than would have been caused by the original offense. (Universal House of Justice, NSA USA – Developing Distinctive Bahá’í Communities)
This one seems to have been written just for you, since you are standing for righteousness already!
Beware lest ye give ear to the words of those from whom the foul smell of malice and envy can be discerned; pay no heed to them, and stand ye for righteousness. (Bahá’u’lláh, The Summons of the Lord of Hosts, p. 200)
And you are doing your utmost to educate and prevent others from making complaints against others in your presence.
It is obvious that if we listen to those who complain to us about the faults of others we are guilty of complicity in their backbiting. We should therefore, as tactfully as possible, but yet firmly, do our utmost to prevent others from making accusations or complaints against others in our presence. (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 93)
Every believer must know that he can confide a personal problem to an institution of the Faith, with the assurance that knowledge of the matter will remain confidential:
Every believer must know that he can confide a personal problem to an institution of the Faith, with the assurance that knowledge of the matter will remain confidential. (Universal House of Justice, NSA USA – Developing Distinctive Baha’i Communities)
If a Bahá’í accepts confidential information, he is in duty bound to preserve that confidentiality:
Members of Assemblies, whether they are assistants [to Auxiliary Board members] or not, are obviously in a position to receive confidential information as individuals from several sources. It is an important principle of the Faith that one must not promise what one is not going to fulfill. Therefore, if a Bahá’í accepts confidential information either by virtue of his profession (e.g. as a doctor, a lawyer, etc.), or by permitting another person to confide in him, he is in duty bound to preserve that confidentiality. (Universal House of Justice, NSA USA – Developing Distinctive Baha’i Communities)
Any information which comes to the notice of an Assembly member by reason of his membership on that Assembly must not be divulged by that member, even though the Assembly itself may later decide to share it:
Any information which comes to the notice of an Assembly member, solely by reason of his membership on that Assembly must not be divulged by that member, even though the Assembly itself may later decide to share it. (Universal House of Justice, NSA USA – Developing Distinctive Baha’i Communities)
Assistants have the same duty to observe the confidentiality of its consultations, and of matters considered by the Assembly to be confidential, as does any other member:
Assistants who are members of a National Assembly or a national committee do not function as assistants in relation to that body, and they have the same duty to observe the confidentiality of its consultations, and of matters considered by the Assembly to be confidential, as does any other member. (Universal House of Justice, NSA USA – Developing Distinctive Baha’i Communities)
If a member of the Assembly knows of a personal problem, and if he has not undertaken to keep it confidential, he may bring it to the Assembly’s attention if he feels it would be in the interests of the Faith for him to do so, but he is not obliged to:
If a member of the Assembly knows of a personal problem, and if he has not undertaken to keep it confidential, he may bring it to the Assembly’s attention if he feels it would be in the interests of the Faith for him to do so, but he is not obliged to. (Universal House of Justice, NSA USA – Developing Distinctive Baha’i Communities)
Every institution in the Faith has certain matters which it considers should be kept confidential, and any member who is privy to such confidential information is obliged to preserve the confidentiality within the institution where he learned it:
Every institution in the Faith has certain matters which it considers should be kept confidential, and any member who is privy to such confidential information is obliged to preserve the confidentiality within the institution where he learned it. (Universal House of Justice, NSA USA – Developing Distinctive Baha’i Communities)
Where no confidentiality is involved the institutions must strive to avoid the stifling atmosphere of secrecy:
Where no confidentiality is involved the institutions must strive to avoid the stifling atmosphere of secrecy. (Universal House of Justice, NSA USA – Developing Distinctive Baha’i Communities)
The Assembly must carefully consider which information should fall in the category of confidential information; which should not be shared with others, and which may be divulged under special circumstances, and how:
The Assembly must itself carefully consider which information should rightly fall in the category of confidential information and which should not be shared with others, and which information may be divulged under special circumstances, and how such information may be divulged. (Universal House of Justice, NSA USA – Developing Distinctive Baha’i Communities)
Should confidential matters regarding personal problems be freely shared with others, the confidence of the believers in the Assembly and its members will obviously be destroyed:
Should confidential matters regarding personal problems be freely shared with others, upon application, the confidence of the believers in the Assembly and its members will obviously be destroyed. (Universal House of Justice, NSA USA – Developing Distinctive Baha’i Communities)
Several weeks later, another reader asked similar questions:
- Is an Assembly bound by the same prohibition against backbiting as an individual?
- Can an Assembly discuss an individual who is not present in the room?
- What are the implications for the Assembly as a Local House of Justice?
- Would a Local Assembly, National Spiritual Assembly and the Universal House of Justice
- all use the same guidelines?
- What is the Assemblies role/responsibility in protection? (for example in cases of child abuse)
- If an Assembly is not allowed to make a decision with someone who is not a member in the room – how could it rule on cases concerning individuals (again for example in the case of child abuse or marital disputes)? Does the Local Assembly actually have the right/responsibility to deal with such issues?
Great question! Thanks for asking! I’ve done a bit of thinking on this subject already! You might want to take a look (at what I wrote above)!
While it doesn’t deal specifically with some of the individual questions you ask, it will get you into the ballpark!
Here is the most pertinent answer I’ve been able to find:
If a believer faced with knowledge of another Bahá’ís conduct is unsure what course to take, he can, of course, always consult his Local Spiritual Assembly for advice. If, for some reason, he is reluctant at that stage to inform his Spiritual Assembly, he can consult an Auxiliary Board member or assistant. Whatever steps are taken, it is vital that the believers refrain from gossip and backbiting, for this can only harm the Faith, causing perhaps more damage than would have been caused by the original offense. (Universal House of Justice, NSA USA – Developing Distinctive Bahá’í Communities)
In terms of reporting abuse, these quotes might give you what you’re looking for
I think what I was trying to say (in the article above) and perhaps didn’t do it very well as I’m just thinking on the spot . . .
We live in a society absolutely immersed in backbiting; to the extent that most of us get caught up in it as second nature; and we often don’t examine our participation in it very much, even though we’ve been told:
The worst human quality and the most great sin is backbiting. (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Lights of Guidance, p. 88)
So since most of us are immature in this way; when we come to Assemblies, we bring this tendency with us, and it’s easy to hide behind our role as Assembly members as permission to engage in backbiting.
I think a much higher spiritual principle is being called on us here. Perhaps a close study of these quotes on backbiting might result in a fruitful discussion for the Assembly.
Remember, when we come to a Spiritual Assembly meeting, it’s a “spiritual” meeting; not a “problem solving” one; so spiritual principles need to take ascendency. My hunch is that if whatever issue is before your Assembly now, could be better served if everyone became thoroughly acquainted with the quotes on backbiting; and for the Assembly to attempt to make a decision based on them. Even though it’s an unusual approach to decision making, I think both individually and as an institution, you’d see tremendous spiritual growth by applying them.
Does this make sense?
Another thing to consider is that the Assembly is called on to be “loving parents”; and we have absolutely no idea what a loving parent would do!
In an ideal world, both parents would consult together and arrive at a decision in unity.
In order for both parents to have the same information, it would be a more effective consultation if they were both present when all the information was gleaned from their wayward child and those who feel wronged by their behaviour.
Many Assemblies appoint counselling committees composed of a small number of Assembly members, and rely on them to give the information to the whole Assembly. While this might be expedient, surely it’s just another form of backbiting with institutional support!
The following quote suggests that every Assembly member needs to have access to the same information, heard directly from the source, so that they can attain make an informed decision:
O SON OF SPIRIT!
The best beloved of all things in My sight is Justice; turn not away therefrom if thou desirest Me, and neglect it not that I may confide in thee. By its aid thou shalt see with thine own eyes and not through the eyes of others, and shalt know of thine own knowledge and not through the knowledge of thy neighbor. Ponder this in thy heart; how it behooveth thee to be. Verily justice is My gift to thee and the sign of My loving-kindness. Set it then before thine eyes. (Baha’u’llah, The Arabic Hidden Words 2)
When every individual Assembly member has heard all the facts, directly from the source, there will be no need for backbiting. Consultation and decision making done this way will be a lot easier and more effective.
I’d really be interested in continuing a dialogue with you and your Assembly about this; as it’s a very important topic for the whole world!
It may even be time to consult the House of Justice on it!
Hope you find this helpful! I realize most of it talks about individuals; but I believe that it applies to individual Assembly members as well.
How has this been helpful? What’s been your experience? What would you add?