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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.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Reverb10, Day 29: 'Abdu'l-Bahá's North American boots

Prompt: Defining moment. Describe a defining moment or series of events that has affected your life this year.

The author of this prompt is Kathryn Fitzmaurice:
The Year the Swallows Came Early


Most people I know visit Montreal for the famous Jazz festival that happens in the summer. Or to go shopping, and enjoy the good restaurants and cafes. My main reason for passing through the city was that I wanted to go visit the home of the Maxwell family – a well established family in the Montreal area who welcomed ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the son of Baha’u’llah (the founder of the Baha'i faith), into their beautiful home when he visited Canada in the mid 1900s. The Baha’i community has maintained the property, recently restoring it completely and bringing all of the furniture back to the home that had been there when ‘Abdu’l-Bahá visited. Over time the home has become a place of pilgrimage. A spot where Baha’is can go to reflect, pray and connect with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Recently the site was named the first official Baha’i shrine in North America.
‘Abdu’l-Bahá spent nine months touring North America in 1912, at the age of sixty-eight. He traveled tirelessly all over the country, giving public speeches at universities, churches, synagogues, clubs and private homes. His speeches were about the message his Father had brought. They were about peace, unity, the elimination of all forms of prejudice, and spiritual life, among many other topics. You can read an account of his time in America in Amy Renshaw's book Voyage of Love: Abdu'l-Baha in North America. You can read a wonderful selection of his talks for free, here. A dear friend of mine, Brent Poirier, is another rich source of stories ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. He website, Storytelling in the Baha'i Faith, is a gem of a resource, if you would like to read more inspiring stories. The photograph of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá at the top of this blog entry is "borrowed" from his website.

I started getting to know ‘Abdu’l-Bahá as a child. The first prayer that I learned as a child was written by him. It goes: "O God, guide me, protect me, make of me a shining lamp and a brilliant star.  Thou art the Mighty and the Powerful." ~‘Abdu’l-Bahá

My experience of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá as a child and young adult was as a white-bearded elderly man wearing a simple robe and turban, the customary attire for men in much of the Middle East during his lifetime. I always had a photo of him in my bedroom growing up, and I envisioned him as a kind, loving, gentle, grandfather-like figure. I had heard many stories of how much ‘Abdu’l-Bahá loved children, so I always felt a closeness to him. 

Last year I took part in a Ruhi book 8 study course. The Ruhi Institute conducts educational programs for individuals from the age of 5 through adulthood. The materials were originally developed by the Baha'i community of Columbia to spiritually invigorate their community, and to help provide community members with training that would give them the practical skills to best serve the needs of their communities and the world around them. The Ruhi materials were so successful in generating community development that the materials spread, and today are being used all over the world. The Ruhi materials are constantly being updated, and as communities have more learning experiences with them, new materials are being developed. Ruhi book 8 is about the Covenant of Baha'u'llah, and much of it is about ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, because he is the Centre of the Covenant for Baha'is. The stories about ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, and the extracts from his Tablets are deeply inspiring and moving, and by the end of the course of study I felt a much stronger and personal connection to him than I had felt before. 

I chose to go visit the shrine in Montreal on a chilly February night. Bundled up in as many layers as I could get away with and still be able to move, I took the metro across the lit up city, transferred to the bus, and then walked down the icy pavement along a long line of beautiful, graceful stone homes. My silver breath hanging in the air, the snow all around me, and the elegantly style in which the homes were built made me feel as if I had stepped through a gap in the time continuum. I half expected a horse-drawn carriage to clatter by along the street beside me. 

Eventually I came to a home whose windows glowed with a warm yellow light, and I turned up a short walkway and rang the bell. The door was answered by a young Persian man with a radiant smile. He welcomed me in and showed me into a small cloakroom where he said I could leave my belongings during my visit. Having set down all my belongings and removed my shoes, another man approached and offered to give me a tour of the home. I was lucky, he told me. I was the only visitor, and given what a chilly night is was they would not be surprised if I were the only visitor all night. I was taken into the living room where ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had given many talks while in the city. It was a large rectangular room with a fireplace at one end. My tour guide explained that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá used to sit next to the fireplace when he gave his talks, this being the source of the term “firesides” that the Baha’i community often uses when referring to gatherings of people for the purpose of discussing the Baha’i faith. 

I was also taken into the office of Mr.Maxwell. The office had the beautiful, heavy antique desk in it that Mr. Maxwell had done his writing and other work at, as well as a number of ornate pieces of furniture. I was told that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had met with Mr. Maxwell in this very room on numerous occasions during the time that he was staying at the Maxwell home, and I conjured up images of the two men sitting deep in discussion in this richly decorated room, with the city of Montreal busily going about its business outside, oblivious of the noble visitor that they had in their midst.

Upstairs, I made a rather quick sweep of the rooms that had formerly been inhabited by members of the Maxwell family, before entering the room that drew me in like a magnet. I stood for a long time in the doorway of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá's room, taking in the placement of every piece of furniture: the old four-poster bed with the white embroidered bedspread over it; the dresser; the windows on the far side of the room that looked down the hill over the city of Montreal; and the chair that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had sat in next to the windows. I paused at the door because I wanted to take it in, but also because I felt the need to prepare myself to enter the space that he had inhabited. I had read stories of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, his kindness and generosity to all who crossed his path; his ability to sense what his companions were thinking without their uttering a single word; his absolute devotion and humility; his attitude of servitude and his love for all people, but entering a space that he had actually inhabited made all the stories come to life in a way that I had never before experienced. Although he was not in the room, I felt as though I was entering his presence, and it took a few minutes to ready my heart to enter this special place, and be wholly present.

I stood by the bed first, and imagined ‘Abdu’l-Bahá resting upon it, his white beard and hair flowing over the pillow. I walked around the perimeter of the room, stopping to take in each detail and commit it to memory. I found myself being drawn to his chair. I stood in front of it, then knelt, and was suddenly overcome with a rush of emotion. I felt deeply blessed to be in this room alone, and to have the chance to talk to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá like so many had done in person not so long ago, in this very place. I said many prayers, and in between the prayers I spoke with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. I thanked him. I asked questions, and for guidance on my journey. As I knelt in front of his chair, I felt as if he was sitting there right in front of me, and an overwhelming feeling of love poured over me. Love for this man who dedicated his entire life to serving others. I was there for a long time. Time seemed to disappear, and all that existed while I was between those walls was my heart, and the conversation that it was having with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. 

When I left two hours later it felt as though all my worries and concerns had been removed, and as though the space they had occupied had been filled up with a deep and tender love unlike any I had felt before. I felt as if I was carrying in my heart the most precious gift I had ever been given, and I held it tenderly in my chest as I walked back to the metro stop, awareness centred inward to the warm otherworldly silence of the blissful connection I had just experienced as the lights and voices, horns and vibrations of Montreal slid past me like a dream. 

The Baha'i House of Worship in Wilmette stunning against a blue sky
About a week later I visited the Baha'i House of Worship in Wilmette, Illinois. It is a spectacular architectural achievement, and I spent a few hours taking in the sheer beauty of the structure, and saying prayers. 

These pillars on the House of Worship have the symbols of the major world religions beautifully carved into them. Baha'i Houses of Worship have 9 sides, which represent the nine major religions of the world, all of which converge into a single point at the dome, to represent the unity of all the world's faiths. They are open to people of all faiths, for personal prayer and meditation.
The Baha'i House of Worship in Wilmette at night
Below the actual Hose of Worship are many offices and the Baha'i archives. I had not planned on visiting the archives, but one of the very kind souls working in the House of Worship insisted, whisking me down a hall and introducing me to the archivist. There was a lot to see. Tablets and photographs and other personal items belonging to both Baha'u'llah and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. But the items that touched me on this occasion the most were ‘Abdu’l-Bahá's shoes. It might seem rather plain, when I was surrounded by so many rare historical objects. There were two pairs of shoes sitting in the glass case. One was a pair of cream-coloured Middle Eastern slippers. The other was a pair of big black boots. The boots may have been from the Middle East also, but they looked very western. They struck me because precisely because they were so ordinary. They were well worn and scuffed, not shiny and new. They looked like a sturdy pair of boots that someone living in North America at that time in history might have trudged through snowy streets in. Practical. Comfortable. Ordinary. Very ordinary. 

For some reason, all my experiences of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá -- the prayers, the tablets, the stories, the simple photographs, and my experience in Montreal--all seemed to connect to a very real person in the form of these boots. It impressed me that while ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wore his traditional clothing, he chose to wear western boots on his feet in North America. He seemed to be embodying the need to be adaptable and practical, and at the same time communicate a grounded sense of humility. Just as I had felt when sitting in front of the chair that he had regularly occupied in the room that he had stayed in, in Montreal, as I stood in the basement of the House of Worship in front of the glass case of personal objects, I felt as though he was standing right there in front of me in his American boots, smiling. I do not know why those boots made such an impression on me. But since that day last winter, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá has become a much more real presence in my life. I feel like he is someone I can take a walk under the changing Autumn trees with; or a friend that I can sit with in silence and just be. 

As I move through my days, he inspires me to serve, and accompanies me as I do. He reminds me how important it is to listen, to be loving, and to practice humility in my everyday interactions. He reminds me to persevere, and to look to the limitless strength of God instead of my own limited resources when I am attempting to accomplish something. He has taught me about being lighthearted. My favourite stories about him involve laughter, and the image in my mind of him laughing in joyful delight never fails to curl the edges of my lips into a smile. I do not know why those boots made such an impression on me. Perhaps ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was humorously teaching me the importance of walking a spiritual path wearing practical shoes. Boots, to be precise!

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