We are in the first group to visit Bahji on Tuesday. There is no delay in the way the House of Justice has organized the schedule of pilgrimage; first the Shrine of the Báb, and then the Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh. Later on in the week we will visit all the historical sites, the former homes of Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Akka, the Most Great Prison, the display of relics and artifacts from the Bahá’í Archives, as well as seeing the buildings of the Arc, the visible symbol of humanity’s glorious future. But these are all, truly, secondary to the purpose of pilgrimage, which is to supplicate at the Threshold of Bahá’u’lláh, to show devotion in the holiest site on earth, to commune with our Lord at His final home and in His final resting place.
I wonder, the first few days of pilgrimage, whether there will be any whiff of idolatry in the acts of pilgrimage. This is more than usually present in my mind because, having been studying Arabic for the past year, I have been spending a lot of time with Muslims. Muhammad, as a corrective to both paganism and some of the excesses of Christian theology, emphasized His human nature over His nature as the Manifestation of God, allowing God’s words in the Quran to be the object of veneration. Yet it is undoubtedly the case that, one way or another, the Manifestation of God is the Source of our contact with, and understanding of, an exalted and limitless God. As the Báb says in a prayer that the members of my family have always loved especially and recited freely:
Far be it from Thy glory that Thy creatures should describe Thee or that anyone besides Thyself should ever know Thee. I have known Thee, O my God, by reason of Thy making Thyself known unto me, for hadst Thou not revealed Thyself unto me, I would not have known Thee.
The Manifestation, be it Moses, Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, or Bahá’u’lláh, is the means by which God reveals Himself to us. Sometimes, as in Judaism or Islam, the emphasis is on His teachings — the Law, the Book. But after humanity has time to absorb revelations of this kind, it seems, there may be a later revelation and a later era in which we enter into a more direct and personal relationship with the Manifestation of God, in which the emphasis is as much on the reflection of God’s attributes in His Person as it is on the miracle of His Revelation and His Teachings. It also seems that, accompanying this shift in devotion, there may be an expansion of the scope of His revelation to people outside the community in which His message is revealed. So we see that Buddhism left India, and with it the veneration of the Buddha’s detachment and joyful nature; Christianity left Israel, spreading devotion to Christ’s love and selfless sacrifice; and now the Bahá’í Faith has left the Muslim world and, with astonishing rapidity, brought a love of Bahá’u’lláh’s beauty and majesty to every spot on earth.
This principle, that the Manifestation of God is Himself the perfect expression of God’s will and attributes in this world, is so strongly expressed in the Bahá’í Revelation that Bahá’u’lláh actually changed the Qiblih, the direction of prayer, which for Muslims had been Mecca, writing:
The Qiblih is indeed He Whom God will make manifest; whenever He moveth, it moveth, until He shall come to rest.
Nonetheless, it must be fervently and continually emphasized that Bahá’ís do not mistake Bahá’u’lláh for God Himself; nor do we confuse His remains, sacred as they are to us, for the real object of devotion. And so I am pleased to say that the pilgrim guides, while preparing us to venerate Bahá’u’lláh in the Shrine, are careful to explain the metaphorical nature of this approach to the Shrine. The original pilgrims, of course, attained Bahá’u’lláh’s presence in this world. We can no longer do that, but there is a special spiritual power in drawing close to the last traces of His presence on earth, and communing with Him in the resting place of those traces, thus performing, in the physical realm, the act of drawing close to Him which we should, in our prayers, be attempting in the spiritual realm. And of course, in reality, the journey to be in His presence was always a metaphorical one, but that hardly diminishes its spiritual importance; the acts we perform in this world are always a reflect of the movements of our souls. When I wash my face and hands before prayer, the cleansing that matters is not a physical one; yet the prayer is not acceptable without it.
The great beauty of the Shrine, then, is that everything in the “sacred precincts” — the area around the Shrine, its gardens, the building itself, the inner court, and finally the Holy of Holies — is directed to reminding you of the meaning of your approach. Whereas the path from the Pilgrim House in Haifa to the Shrine of the Báb is rather short and takes a few turns before reaching the sacred door, the path to the Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh is a straight path of bright white gravel that leads for quite some distance — perhaps as much as a quarter of a mile — in a straight line. The first part of the path is an expansive avenue of bright white gravel, secluded from the rest of the world by hedges and trees. Closer to the Shrine, however, there is a large gate of iron grillwork, always attended by two or three Bahá’í youth. After you pass through the gate, the quality of the stones beneath your feet changes — I believe they are, again, those smooth white stones collected from the Sea of Galilee — and to either side the view opens to reveal the gardens surrounding the building of the Shrine itself.
As the pilgrims walk this path together in silence, I am actually pleased to see that, although the gardens on the left are perfected in their tranquil beauty, there is a section to the right that is under renovation — some distance from us, there is the muddy yellow shape of a bulldozer, and one section of the garden is sculpted in the rough hills and valleys of moved earth. It seems like a reminder that our work in the Faith is far from a stopping point; there is always work to be done, and that work often seems unglamorous compared to ideal we’re striving to bring about.
Ahead is the famous door, also well-known to me from pictures, a beautiful wooden door with modest gilt accents. The final part of the path leading up to the marble steps of the shrine is covered with a long Persian carpet, and we take our shoes off and place them beside the carpet. I don’t know what other pilgrims are feeling, but I am filled with a sense of awed joy, a strong and insistent spiritual awareness of devotion that has never been so certain and so pure in all my life. It washes away other thoughts, replacing them with an intense, brilliant focus on worship and adoration.
We enter the Shrine. One of the guides faces the Sacred Threshold and reads the Tablet of Visitation, which says, among other things,
I bear witness that he who hath known Thee hath known God, and he who hath attained unto Thy presence hath attained unto the presence of God. Great, therefore, is the blessedness of him who hath believed in Thee, and in Thy signs, and hath humbled himself before Thy sovereignty, and hath been honored with meeting Thee, and hath attained the good pleasure of Thy will, and circled around Thee, and stood before Thy throne.
He then gets down on his knees and bows his forehead to the ground. Then he backs away, and one by one, in their own time and without any particular method, the pilgrims do the same, coming to the Threshold, bowing before it, spending however much time they need in prayer and contemplation, and then rising and backing away. Although I have not done this at the other shrines, this time it feels natural, a deeply precious opportunity. I am not sure, still, what to say or how to pray, and I don’t want to take too much time and deprive other pilgrims of time in that sacred spot, so I resolve simply to say the Greatest Name of God — “Allah-u-Abha,” “God is Most Glorious” — nine times, and then rise. When I get there, however, and recite this name nine times, I find that it is hard to rise — I don’t want to rise — and it takes some force to remove myself from this posture of devotion and make way for others.
The process takes about an hour. During that time, both before and after our turns at the Sacred Threshold, we sit along the walls of the inner court or in the side rooms and pray. I find that while my prayers to the Báb at His Shrine were about teaching and declaring Bahá’u’lláh’s cause, and the destiny of nations, here my prayers are intensely personal. I pray for my parents, and my sisters, and my grandparents who have passed away recently. I pray for those who love me and those I love, and I find myself weeping, overcome, though not sad. I pray about marriage, which I have still not been able to make work, and I pray to be purified and able to serve. I pray for a long time, and then, finally, I withdraw.
The Shrine itself is very different from the Shrine of the Báb. While the Shrine of the Báb, Who lived His life and conducted His entire ministry in Persia, has a distinctly Eastern feel, given its arches and its dome surrounded by little towers like minarets and its inner room hung with carpets, Bahá’u’lláh’s Shrine seems, without denying His heritage, not quite of any particular culture, although it is decorated with several beautiful and surprising objects of mixed tradition.
But, more importantly, where the Báb’s Shrine is plain, austere, and enclosed, the Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh is crowned with glass; windows running like a frieze around the entire top of the structure give the feeling that the ceiling has been lifted up a few feet, allowing sunlight to pour into the inner court. This natural light is in and of itself beautiful, but it also allows for what is, to me, the most precious part of the design, a small rectangular garden occupying most of the center of the room. Bahá’u’lláh is reported to have loved verdure and the countryside, and this garden feels like the sweetest possible homage to Him.
Small plants with purple and green striated leaves stand in perfect rows around a center area filled in with coarse sand, and four aloes stand at the compass points of the circle in the middle, and four ferns climb up small wrought iron towers aligned with the four corners of the rectangular garden. But in the middle of the circle, slightly off-center, another fern creeps and winds its way in a delightfully random fashion through the air, until it catches hold of the wrought iron lamp suspended above the center of the garden.
The union, in this garden, of perfectly regular organization with the free movements of organic things, is to me an expression of the ideal state of religion, which gives a structure and an order to human life, within which the unpredictable promptings of the individual soul provide the verdant energy which should be channelled but never fettered. It is a pattern which I see repeated again and again in the design of the Bahá’í grounds in the Holy Land, from the cypress trees marking the spot where Bahá’u’lláh stood on Mt Carmel, which are off-center from the rest of the pattern of the garden surrounding the Shrine of the Báb, to the tree which grows, surprisingly, in the middle of the path leading from Monument Gardens to the seat of the Universal House of Justice.
We meet with the members of the House of Justice after the morning in Bahji. This is largely a formal event, with the eight present members (Mr. Dunbar being out of the country) shaking hands with and introducing themselves to 300 pilgrims, after a brief but warm address by Peter Khan. As they make their way through the room, of course, there are periodic outbursts and murmurs of delighted recognition as the House members find old friends. This is characteristic, really, of any sufficiently large meeting of Bahá’ís. It gives the Bahá’í world an intimate, tightly-knit feel.
Of course, it’s still statistically somewhat odd, somewhat like gathering 300 random people from Chicago in a room and seeing how many of them know each other; my guess is the Bahá’ís know each other better. That’s because the Bahá’ís, unlike the Chicagoans, are highly fluid in their connections; they travel their countries and the world in service, befriending whomever they find, wherever they are, rather than having their relationships determined by birth and occupation and class and race. I myself know three people working at the Pilgrim Reception Centre, and a very dear friend just left the World Centre a few months ago. Of course, there are days when I long for this worldwide clubbiness to no longer be numerically possible; I’ve been cheered, the last few years, not to see anyone I know on the Bahá’í Newsreel.
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