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Born in the US, raised on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, lived in Italy, the US, and Canada. Lover of language, travel, colour, and the natural world.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The universe is abundant: Part II

On the first day of my pilgrimage I was woken by the feeling of sunlight on my face. Reluctant to be pulled from my sleep I slowly opened one eye and then the other. With my head still nestled into my pillow I could see the entire city of Haifa stretched out below me, the Baha’i gardens, and the coastline curving around the blue bay. What a view!! I got out of bed and settled on the divan in front of the windows with my prayer book and journal to watch the sun rise over the Mediterranean. What a blessed view to begin the day with. And I got to repeat this every day for the following nine days.

 My hotel, I quickly discovered, was situated just above the top terrace of the Baha’i gardens, so to get down to the pilgrim house, where I was to meet my pilgrim group, I entered the top gate and descended through the intricate gardens, following pathways covered with tiny pieces of broken roof tiles that had been eroded away by the many footsteps that had come before me.

The sun shone down, the gardens still glistening and giving off an overpowering perfume from having been recently watered. The deep crimson roses were in full bloom, beds of yellow, purple and orange flowers stood out brightly against the white stone of the flowerbeds and stairs.

Water ran down the mountain in channels on both sides of the steps as I descended, the sound clear and calming as I moved through terrace after terrace, each one distinctive and brightly embroidered with an endless variety of flowers.

By the time I reached the pilgrim house I felt as though I had moved through not only a physical awakening to the astounding beauty that the world is capable of producing, but I felt as though my soul had begun its journey as well – as though I had been given a pair of wings and was miraculously weightless, even though I was clearly still gravity-bound to the earth.

My pilgrim group was composed of a wonderful mix of people from all over the world. Many of them were strangers to me when we began our pilgrimage, but sharing such an intense spiritual experience sparked many inspiring relationships that I know will last for the rest of my life. 

In the evenings groups of us would go out for delicious suppers to talk and reflect on our experiences during the day. 

I also ran into a few old friends. Some were serving at the Baha’i World Centre (from Canada):

Some were actually in my pilgrim group (again, from Atlantic Canada):

And others were on a brief three-day visit (from Greece), which was a lovely surprise:

Pilgrimage began and ended with the recitation of the Tablets of Visitation, which are two tablets often recited at the resting places of Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha, and a circumambulation of the Shrine of the Bab on Mount Carmel. Baha’u’llah is the founder of the Baha’i faith, and visiting His resting place in Bahji is the primary purpose of Baha’i pilgrimage. Abdu’l-Baha is his son, and He is buried on Mount Carmel next to the Bab, who announced the coming the Baha’u’llah. After the Tablets were recited, all of the pilgrims slowly walked around the Shrine in silence. All I could hear was the sound the breeze in the tall Cypress trees that bent back and forth as if they were tickling the sky, the sound of pebbles moving beneath people’s feet, and the melody of birdcall. As we reached the walls of the Shrine and circled directly outside it, the light filtered through the trees and played across the cool stone beneath our feet, danced and climbed in dappled golden flecks across the rough stone walls. I held my breath, wanting to record every sound, every flicker, every scent precisely as I was experiencing it. I was at the front of the line, and after I exited the metal gate I turned and silently watched the long trail of sublimely happy faces from all over the world who had travelled so far and sacrificed so much to be here in this blessed place. Tears welled up in my eyes.

I floated through the following nine days as if in a dream. In addition to many of the administrative buildings on Mount Carmel, including the building in which the Universal House of Justice, the administrative body of the Baha’i international community, meets, we also visited many of the places where Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha had been imprisoned with their family, including some of the homes that they had inhabited. A few of the homes were in the prison city of Akka, and sunlight saturated every molecule of the air in them, illuminating the dust that hung in the rooms, the brass ends on beds, the finely embroidered bedspreads, the cedar wood panelling along some of the walls, the stone, and the beautifully woven carpets that decorated the floors.

Hallways were open to the sky, whitewashed walls sharp against the china teacup blue sky above, my feet warm against the rough sun-warmed stone. Through the windows I could hear waves crashing upon rock. Stone and sea. No green in sight.

Whitewashed walls, turquoise shutters and the blue sky.

My sensations were heightened, but although it was a physical experience in that I was smelling and hearing and seeing textures and colours and photographs, I felt as though my physical body was gone for the ten days. As though the only reality was a level of spiritual intoxication unlike any I had ever experienced before. In one home, I entered over a smooth stone step into a vast room whose length on one side was entirely glass and whose floor was spread with the richest, softest, most beautifully embroidered carpet I had ever seen. Sunlight spilled into that room and seemed to spread out and rise up weightless to the high ceiling above. I stood transfixed in the silence of that space feeling as if I was inhabiting a painting of some other time in history – as if I had pushed open a door to the past and any moment someone would enter and find me there, an intruder into this home of light.

The Baha’i writings tell us that as pilgrims, one of the greatest gifts we can give to our family and friends is to pray for them. When I knew I was going to be going on pilgrimage I started asking friends if they wanted me to say prayers for anything in particular while I was on pilgrimage. Many had responded, and my list of those to pray for had grown increasingly long. In addition to requests for prayers I had my own list of friends and family I wanted to say prayers for, as well as some personal things I wanted to pray and meditate on in the hope that I might be given some guidance. I had expected to arrive at the Shrines the first day, get my prayer list out, and immediately begin fulfilling my promises to say specific prayers for my friends and family. But when I entered the Shrines for on the first day, and again on the second and third days and tried to ask for things, I found that all I was able to do was utter prayers of gratitude. I have never said as many prayers of thanks in my entire life as I said those first few days on pilgrimage. I would sit and pray and then just sit immersed in silence and light, every molecule bearing witness to the blessedness of the moment I was immersed in and the amazing gift I was being given by having been invited on pilgrimage to that holy land. In addition to thanks for being given this time to renew the springs of my heart, I gave thanks to the Bab, Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha for their love and for sacrificing their lives and the lives of their family members so that I could be there in that peaceful place of beauty. As I moved further into my pilgrimage, I did say many prayers for family and friends, but the feeling of profound gratitude that characterized those first few days set the tone for my whole pilgrimage. I felt deeply humbled and woke every morning with the sense that I was, for those ten heavenly days, swimming in a sea of unlimited blessings.

Baha’u’llah loved the natural world, and the home where He spent His final years at Bahji is, today, surrounded by gardens of almost indescribable beauty. During my time in Israel I returned to Bahji as many times as I could to walk, silently meditating through the gardens – through the ancient olive groves, their leaves dusty clouds of light and shadow, their trunks old gnarled twists reaching skywards;

along paths of tall thick Cypress trees; along beds of blood red geraniums so bright that my eyes still burned with their image when I looked away;

beds of light green fleshy cacti; succulent ground vines blooming plum purple and sunflower yellow; palm trees casting medusa-like shadows swimming across my path; crimson roses and pomegranate trees blooming bright orange; jacaranda trees, their blossoms sharp purple against the clear blue sky above and contrasting with the whitewashed walls and turquoise shutters of Baha’u’llah’s former home; the bushy heads of Eucalyptus trees casting shadows long across the garden, their thick trunks peeling in watercolour hues. The air was full of birdcall and the sound of wind rustling the trees and shrubs.

Outside the Shrine of Baha’u’llah, I slipped off my shoes and entered with only my prayer book and journal. There is a garden inside the Shrine of Baha’u’llah, and windows high up all around the walls allow light to filter down softly into the room, highlighting the vines that climb upwards and the intricate Persian carpets of pastel green and watery blue that made me feel as though I was floating upon a lily pond. As though I had become a flower drifting across the rippling surface. The smell in the Shrine was sweet – as though rose petals had been crushed into powder and flung up, dissolving into the sunlit air. Every breath I took filled my nostrils with the sweet musky scent of roses. I spent many hours both in the Shrine of Baha’u’llah and in the Shrine of the Bab and Abdu’l-Baha kneeling or cross-legged with my eyes closed in prayer and meditation. Time seemed irrelevant, and often when I opened my eyes and reluctantly rose to withdraw from the Shrines, I would be surprised to find that many hours had passed and the sun had sunk into the horizon without my noticing.

One day after a long day at Bahji, I was about to return to the pilgrim house to have a sweet cup of hot Persian tea which the caretakers always had waiting for us, when I felt a strong urge to return to Baha’u’llah’s home. As I walked along the walkway bordering the wall around the house I thought that perhaps I wanted to enjoy the view of the moon and stars from the graceful balcony framed in archways that wrapped around the mansion, offering a birds eye view of the gardens spreading out in all directions. As it was about to close, most of the visitors had already left. I slipped out of my shoes and climbed the cool stone steps, emerging onto the large open landing at the top. But instead of turning towards to door to the balcony I felt myself drawn to Baha’u’llah’s bedroom. I approached it slowly, finding the only other person in the room preparing to withdraw. I entered and approached the foot of His bed and knelt, absorbing the atmosphere in the room. I had been there during the day, but in the darkness something delicate hung in the room. The small oil lamp that stood on the simple table beside His bed that had been off during the day was lit and it cast a flickering golden glow over white walls and deep blue border trim; across the thick, brocaded white bedspread and the richly hued Persian carpets. Two windows were still open, the curtains moving slightly in the breeze. Birdsong drifted in from the gardens. I sat and prayed in the golden light shed by the lamp and felt myself immersed, yet again, in the sensation that I was floating, not kneeling with my forehead resting upon the carpet. I felt, in that dimly lit room, like I was immersed in a brilliant, warm light.

On the last night of my pilgrimage we again recited the Tablets of Visitation and then went in procession, circumambulating the Shrine of the Bab and Abdu’l-Baha. It was evening and again a cool breeze was blowing. Our pilgrim guide had told us on the first day of our pilgrimage that when the grandson of Abdu’l-Baha was anywhere in the vicinity of the Shrines, his whole demeanour would change. He would not joke or laugh, and even his posture was different. This had struck me profoundly, and I had tried to be conscious of the fact that whether I was approaching or leaving the Shrines, or even wandering in the gardens around them, I was in the presence of God. It meant that my approaches and departures were slower and more purposeful, and often deeply meditative. On this last night approaching the Shrine listening to the sound of the night all around me – the fountains bubbling, the birds singing, the pebbles moving beneath my feet – I felt as though my soul was soaring in some world I had no name for. A world of such beauty that the only physical response I could muster was tears, although I was in no way sad.

After circumambulating the Shrine I decided to walk to the foot of the mountain and climb back up, saying prayers at each terrace as I rose up the mountain. In the distance I could hear the call to prayer. The fountains were lit up and glowed against the white stone. Water ran over stone and fell in steps down the mountain. The black sky was freckled with stars and pale yellow moonlight bathed the mountain in a soft light. I climbed, my heart thumping against my ribcage, the sound of water rushing past me, birds, the prayers I was whispering moving out into the night ahead of me, and the stone cool beneath my feet.

When I reached the Shrine of the Bab, I went in, knelt and prayed in that blessed place one last time, my prayers joining the prayer of the other pilgrims around me, rising up into the night. In the morning and throughout the next day we would all be leaving, heading back to our respective communities scattered around the world. 

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