About Me

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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.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Just beneath the surface...

Resting place of the Greatest Holy Leaf. Photo courtesy of Pascale Battrick. May not be used without permission. 

"We ought to show something greater than forgiveness in meeting the cruelties...in our lives. To be hurt and forgive is saintly but far beyond this is the power to understand and not be hurt... It is not that we would make the 'best of things', but that...we may find in everything, even calamity, the gems of enduring wisdom. We ought to be incapable of impatience as one would be of revolt. This is not being so much long suffering as a quiet awareness of the forces that operate in the hours of darkness or years of waiting and inactivity. Always we ought to move with the larger rhythm, the wider sweep towards our ultimate goal, in the complete acquiescence, that perfect chord which underlies the spirit of the Faith itself." - The Greatest Holy Leaf (Daughter of Baha'u'llah)

About a year ago I was in Haifa, Israel, immersed in a nine day pilgrimage to the Baha’i World Centre (which you can read about here: Part I, and here: Part II). It was a life-changing pilgrimage, and I often close my eyes and imagine myself wandering through the spectacular gardens in Haifa or Bahji, enjoying the bright crimson roses and geraniums, and the cool shade beneath a canopy of twisted olive branches, or the sunlit silence within the Shrine of Baha’u’llah – the way light streamed in over everything, and the musky, sweet scent of roses. It being late spring here in California, the roses all over the city are in full bloom. I run three days a week, early in the morning before I start my work day, and am fortunate to live in a very lush, beautiful part of the city. Every home I run past has roses of every colour imaginable climbing walls, trellises and fences. One house in particular that I love to run past has a tall wall running all the way around the back garden. The wall has a thick carpet of peachy, cantaloupe coloured roses that literally cascade over its lip, blossoms tumbling over each other, down the rough red brick. I usually just run past this wall, making sure to inhale deeply, but the other day I could not resist stopping to stand on my toes, and, with my eyes shut, press my nose into a thick cluster of roses. The intensity of the sweetness took me right back to the spring of 2010 in Israel. So deep was I in my thoughts, that when I opened my eyes, and turned to go, I nearly knocked the owner of the house, who had just come home from a walk himself, and was watching me enjoy his flowers with great amusement, over.

It is interesting how small, seemingly unrelated things come together to illuminate each other in ways that, if each event, experience, person or object had remained in isolation, would have remained in shadow.

I take part in a few study circles with various groups of friends. One theme that has been coming up regularly is how every little thing we experience, do or say has both a physical reality and a spiritual reality. Sometimes we catch glimpses of that spiritual reality, but often our conscious experience is that of the physical reality. Nevertheless, the spiritual reality is always there, beneath the surface. While I was on pilgrimage last spring I made a number of “connections.” I say “connections” because they were not physical, although there were physical sensations associated with them. They were the spiritual kind of connection. The silent, mysterious, unexplainably powerful kind that are hard to put into physical words.  

One of the “connections” that I made last spring was with Bahiyyih Khanum, also known as the Greatest Holy Leaf. Bahiyyih Khanum was the daughter of Baha’u’llah, the Founder of the Baha’i faith. Bahiyyih Khanum was born around 1846, and died in 1932. At the age of six, her Father was arrested and imprisoned, and the family lost their home and all of their possessions. Bahiyyih Khanum spent the remainder of her days moving from one place of exile to the next with her family. A good portion of her adult life was spent in prison. Bahiyyih Khanum was an incredibly strong woman. At a time in history when few women held leadership roles in the Middle East, she led the international Baha’i community through sensitive and fragile periods of transition, giving unwavering support, unconditional love and gentle but firm advice to everyone who crossed her path. Bahiyyih Khanum never married, instead dedicating her life to service. She is buried on Mount Carmel, in Haifa, Israel. In order to reach her grave you have to enter through a small iron gate, and walk up a long, steep path of white pebbles, lined on either side with tall, deep green Cypress trees that sway in the breeze. A few marble stairs lead up to the circle around her grave, and surrounding the circle are a myriad varieties of flowers. I visited her grave many times while on pilgrimage. I am not sure what kept drawing me back, but it felt like I was visiting the grave of a close friend. I would sit and pray, or write in my journal, or just stand silently on the flank of the mountain in silence. For some reason I felt that on a spiritual level, her presence was like a deep well of cool water from which I could draw inner strength.

I was reading an article recently about the Greatest Holy Leaf in the magazine The American Baha’i. The article, written by Janet A. Khan, is about accompaniment, which is a skill that is highly valued in the Baha’i community. When I think of accompaniment, I think of something I read somewhere many years ago: the best leaders are those who know how to encourage others lead. I am not sure where that came from, but Bahhiyih Khanum in many ways embodies this model of leadership. Janet Khan highlights a number of qualities that Bahiyyih Khanum had that made her such an excellent leader. One was a posture of humility. Her great-nephew said that she possessed “an unaffected simplicity of manners; an extreme sociability which made her accessible to all,” and “a quiet and unassuming disposition that served to enhance a thousand fold the prestige of her exalted rank” (Shoghi Effendi, in Bahiyyih Khanum: The Greatest Holy Leaf). Janet Khan goes on to say that an American pilgrim, Marjorie Morton, who was fortunate to meet Bahiyyih Khanum, said of her that:

“Her strong will was never used to override and her decided opinions were never pressed upon another. Her ways were gentle…In her you met with no exactions, no biddance; she beckoned, smiling, and would have no one come heavy-footed or bent to her will. So quietly did she make her influence felt that you were scarcely conscious of its working” (The Baha’i World, Volume 5). 

Bahiyyih Khanum was forgetful of self, but very mindful of the needs of her community and Faith. She also had an incredible and unshakeable trust in God, which not only helped her to get through the endless challenges and hardships that she experienced during her lifetime, but to help others who were being tested as well. Janet Khan, in her article ‘Accompanying: An advance at the level of culture,’ explains that “her confidence in the power of divine assistance and in the knowledge that God’s will must ultimately prevail endowed her with true patience and the strength to endure.” She goes on to say that in one of her letters, Bahiyyih Khanum writes:

“It has been demonstrated time and time again that whatever comes to pass only enhances the glory of God’s Faith, and further proclaims His Word. This time it will be the same.  However savage this tempest of trials, however battered by surging waves the Ark of the Faith may be, still the Divine Mariner has taken into His own two powerful hands the helm of this Ark – and He, steady, calm and able, and endowed with all authority and might, is steering its course, and will bring it at last safe and secure to its glorious haven. Of this there can be no question.”

The last point that Janet Khan highlights in her article is the great delight that the Greatest Holy Leaf took in the progress and service of those around her. One way that she encouraged those around her at a time when she was not able to freely travel herself was by writing letters. In one of her letters, quoted by Janet Khan in her article in The American Baha’i Bahiyyih Khanum says:

“O you men who stand fast and firm, you women who are steadfast and firm in your faith! Whenever I visit the Holy Shrines, I think of you, and in all lowliness at His Threshold, I entreat the Almighty to send down upon you all His invisible confirmations, and to let His endless bounty enwrap each one of you…” (American Baha’i, January/Februrary 2011, p.39).

I have been thinking a lot lately about how struggle and loss challenge me to grow in new ways, and how often I draw on the spiritual realm for strength and inspiration. This past week, as I was sorting through some papers, I came across hand written letters from two women with whom I shared very deep spiritual connections. One of them, Alana Birchim, was one of my best friends in college. Like Ruhiyyih Khanum, she was always encouraging those around her, and bringing joy into everyone’s lives. She was a free spirit, always going the extra distance to live life to the fullest. She rode her bike to a local farm to get fresh milk that she would use to make butter and cheese; bought freshly ground flour that she would use to bake her own bread and make her own tortillas, and she was always turning up at my door urging me to come dancing with her, or inviting me out to explore the wilderness near our homes, to make art or to come garden with her. What differentiated her from other people was her infectious joy. Rarely did I see her without a smile on her face. Alana did not speak about the spiritual “connection” often, but she sent me a number of letters before she lost her battle to cancer when we were 23, in which she talks about the spiritual a lot. Even from her hospital bed, she was, bringing joy to those around her. She says: “it is traditional white walls, cold floor hospital that has become my home…that’s ok. That’s why I’m here to liven it up a little and help others see it’s not so hard. I am living on the edge. The edge of what? The edge of truth, perhaps. Everything in life passes on. Keep your spirits high. I am praying a lot myself. Prayers keep me warm and light and send so much positive energy and love and healing.” In another letter she says: “It’s a funny thing the way life works, and how it takes critical, challenging situations like the one at hand to help so many people open up, learn or realize, come closer…GROW! I am taking and making huge bounds towards enlightenment in every realm I’ve known to exist (and many I did not know existed before)! I am broken and re-broken a million times, in a million ways, over and over. Yet I rebuild and reconstruct myself each and every time and I am stronger yet with every repair.”

The other letters I came across were from Ruth Hampson. I wrote a long blog entry about her when she passed away this past year, which you can read here. Her letters, filled with stories, always return to a few central themes. Reliance on God is one. She says: “Never forget that the source of all courage is promoting His Word,” and in another, “don’t worry. It is a waste of energy. God is in charge, and everything will work out as it should.”  In a third letter, she says:

“I have to tell you that only after I relinquished to God my will and agreed to live with His Will instead of my own did things start to happen. After that I became not nearly as tense and determined, but became filled with assurance that the right thing would happen, and now I believe things are working out the right way. God surely knows our innermost thoughts and will help us if we allow it.”

And in response to a letter that I wrote to her many years ago, as a young girl, about leaving my home in Cyprus to live in North America, she wrote back:

“I think that loving God includes a continually deepening appreciation – a conscious love – for all created things, including all human beings! Love is not dependent upon other people or places. It is love for the Creator of all that is beautiful and good, and the inevitable aftermath of such emotion is astonishment and appreciation for the Power of God that allows us, even forces us, to love other people independently and without need. The more we feel that, the less we fear, until, finally, there is nothing left to fear. The people you love will never leave you. The Island of Cyprus is lovely and very precious, and it is simply the reflection of the real Cyprus which exists in the spiritual world. Nothing can harm you when you truly love God and His creation, and you come to know that the things you love will never be taken away from you. The stronger is our love for God, the more dearly do we hold His creation, and we know that He, the All-Powerful, will protect it.” 

Today a friend of mine shared a poem with me, that resonated deeply. It is about loss. She lost her mother not too long ago, and it has been both painful and transformative for her to press onwards as a woman in her early thirties who thought her mother would be around for many years to come. She had, and still has a deep spiritual connection with her mother that gives her strength. I will share the poem with you here:


I am fooling myself when

I say my mother exists now

only in the photograph

on my bulletin board,

or in the outline of my hands,

or in the armful of memories

I still hold tight.

She lives on

beneath everything I do.

Her presence

influenced who I was,

and her absence

influences who I am.

Our lives are shaped

as much by those who leave us

as they are by those who stay.

(Author unknown)

I feel as though the “connection” with those who we cannot see is very close. As close as my own breath. Whether it is Ruhiyyih Khanum’s strength, or Alana’s joy and commitment to others, or Ruth’s absolute confidence in submitting to the Will that is larger than her individual will, or Laragh drawing on the strength and grace and courage that her mother gave her and continues to share with her, there are things happening on another level that I can sense, even though I cannot see, or even describe them in physical terms. These “connections” are mysterious to me because they do not distinguish between this world and the next. I can draw on relationships with those who are no longer living in this physical reality in the same way that I regularly draw on my spiritual “connection” with a dear friend in Spain who is very much alive, but who I have not physically spoken to in years.

What experience have you had with drawing on that invisible strength that seems to lie open to us whenever we need it, just beneath the surface?


  1. Just wanted to thank you for such a beautiful post. I was lucky and blessed to have known Alana, the most genuine wonderful spirit I've known, and reading her words here is so moving and special, thank you.

  2. Thanks so much for your comment, Eric. She was an incredible woman, and I think of her often. It is a gift indeed to have touched so many lives, and to be able to continue doing so long after you are going from this physical world. She was, and continues to be an inspiration to me every day.

  3. Beautiful writing. I too was very blessed to have known and love Alana. Not a day goes by I don't think of her. Gratitude for sharing! Aloha.