In the morning, we get the key from the Pilgrim Reception Centre, and our little gang visits the Monument Gardens. As is our custom in the holy places, we split up and pray individually, each moving in his or her own time, meditating on the significance of these monuments as they move us.
The first two monuments are to Navvab (Asiyih Khanum), Bahá’u’lláh’s first wife and the mother of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, and her son, the Purest Branch, who perished in ‘Akka, which we visited yesterday. Although many Bahá’ís know the story of the Purest Branch, little has been written, so far, about Navvab. (There is, on the other hand, a small but excellent collection of stories about the wife of the Báb, Khadijih Bagum, written by H.M. Balyuzi shortly before his passing, sadly no longer in print but available used through Amazon.) But Bahá’u’lláh Himself specifically called on the Bahá’ís to recite this prayer, “Should ye visit the resting-place of the Most Exalted Leaf (Navvab)”:
Salutation and blessing and glory upon thee, O Holy Leaf that hath sprung from the Divine Lote-Tree! I bear witness that thou hast believed in God and in His signs, and answered His Call, and turned unto Him, and held fast unto His cord, and clung to the hem of His grace, and fled thy home in His path, and chosen to live as a stranger, out of love for His presence and in thy longing to serve Him. May God have mercy upon him that draweth nigh unto thee, and remembereth thee through the things which My Pen hath voiced in this, the most great station. We pray God that He may forgive us, and forgive them that have turned unto thee, and grant their desires, and bestow upon them, through His wondrous grace, whatever be their wish. He, verily, is the Bountiful, the Generous. Praise be to God, He Who is the Desire of all worlds; and the Beloved of all who recognize Him.
This is a powerful thing — that God will “forgive” and “have mercy” on those who “draw nigh” and “remember” her, and “grant their desires,” and “bestow… whatever be their wish.” Because it has become quite clear, both in my prayers at the Sacred Thresholds and in my conversations with Nina and Farideh during the past day, that my wish is to serve at the World Centre. It started as a sort of declaration of our love for this place — “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to serve here?” But I quickly realize that for me, perhaps a little more than for them, the desire to work here is an unacknowledged longing, who knows of what duration, which has only now, in response to the physical reality of the place, begun to sing out in a pure and insistent voice.
My friends encourage this idea, cheerfully pushing me to apply. I am diffident and noncomittal, but the truth is that I deeply love the idea. What holds me back is a profound awareness of my own limitations. I am referring not to any lack of skill or, particularly, intellectual vigor — if anything, I have rather too high an opinion of my own abilities, and I am confident that I can learn whatever I need to contribute usefully in some field. (My dearest hope is to work in the Research Department, but my heart seems perfectly happy with any kind of service here.)
Instead, I am paralyzed by my spiritual inadequacies. It is all very well to say that one need only call on the assistance of the Concourse on High, that one should rely not on one’s own meager strength but on the limitless might of God — but all too often, in the past, I have failed to call on that assistance, and have instead floundered. I have doubted, and I have broken Bahá’í law, and I have failed, again and again, to teach the Faith, and perhaps worst of all I have often been prideful and suspicious about the guidance from the House of Justice. I feel tremendously unworthy of the work of the World Centre — and this is not, in any way, hyperbole. Of course, there is the story of Badi, the story of redemption, but even so, I often have the feeling you can never entirely escape your past. It is, after all, a truism that the best indicator of future behavior is past behavior. And so this is the real leap of faith — not merely to believe in God, but to believe that He will, somehow, enable us to move past our own failures.
And so I say this prayer at the resting-place of Navvab entirely in earnest, with a desperate (perhaps, unfortunately, even puritanical) conviction that I will need forgiveness and mercy before I can accept the granting of my desires.
But I do pray here, and although I pray for myself I mostly pray in remembrance of these four towering and faithful figures in the history of the Faith — not holy figures, perhaps, but the greatest among the ordinary human beings to serve the Faith. Besides the ultimate sacrifice of the Purest Branch, one can’t help but be moved by the lifelong sacrifice and devotion of both Navvab and Munirih Khanum, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s wife. And their roles, little-described as they have thus far been in Bahá’í history, will probably never be fully understood — who among us, after all, can even contemplate the idea of sharing every intimate moment with the Manifestation of God?
Nonetheless, Shoghi Effendi, in Messages to America, gives some picture, through the words of Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, of the station of Navvab, while his brief but arresting cablegram on the occasion of the passing of Munirih Khanum, calling for the suspension of the celebration of Ridvan in her honor, itself says volumes.
Meanwhile, the unwavering devotion and considerable contributions of the Greatest Holy Leaf are well-known, and written of eloquently in Shoghi Effendi’s eulogy of her to Western believers. He includes in his history a story recounted to us by our beloved Jamshid, of the appalling poverty the Holy Family suffered when Bahá’u’lláh was stripped of all His earthly possessions and thrown into the Black Pit of Tihran:
Deprived of the means of subsistence, her illustrious mother, the famed Navváb, was constrained to place in the palm of her daughter’s hand a handful of flour and to induce her to accept it as a substitute for her daily bread.
But the life of the Greatest Holy Leaf was also a story of strength, faith, and ultimate victory. From the days of her youth, when she was Bahá’u’lláh’s trusted emissary in Baghdad, to her administration of the affairs of the Faith while ‘Abdu’l-Bahá made his famous journey to America, to her tireless care for war victims during World War I, to her stewardship of the Faith and encouragement of the friends during the dark hours after the ascension of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to the next world, until Shoghi Effendi was prepared to assume his role as the Guardian, she is one of the few figures in the history of the Faith to have served over such a span, so tirelessly, and with such ability. Shoghi Effendi affirms that she was, “next to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, among the members of the Holy Family, …the brightest embodiment of that love which is born of God….”
Later Nina and I meet up at the top of the garden. We talk quietly for a few moments. I don’t tell her everything I’ve been thinking, but I confess my desire to serve here. We look up the hill at the Seat of the House of Justice, majestic at the apex of the Arc of buildings which will form the center of the next great religious civilzation. Another of those odd trees has been planted in the path between us and the Seat. A sense of calm has come over me, meditating here, asking nakedly for assistance and trying to find in myself something of the greatness of the people whose monuments surround us. I let my own sense of unworthiness and failure, one more attachment, float away gently. We see Farideh, who has missed us, walking rapidly down the path to the gate, and we chase after her, giggling quietly.
Our official program today begins at 11:30, with lunch at the Pilgrim House at Bahji followed by visits to the Mansion at Mazra’ih and the Mansion of Bahji. We decide to skip lunch, having only some oranges and a little bread to hold us over, and instead go for a “speed prayer” session at the Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh, something we will get quite good at over the course of pilgrimage. We have only about forty minutes to pray, and it’s a good ten-minute walk each way. Farideh, the only one of the three of us to wear a watch, has to rouse me and Nina from our meditations, and we walk rapidly, not to say comically, back toward the Pilgrim House. Toward the end, the girls encourage me to run ahead and make sure the bus isn’t leaving, which I do, picking up a jog which I’m not sure is quite dignified enough for this peaceful gravel path.
But it feels good to run. I have laid off exercise while I’m on pilgrimage, trusting Bahá’u’lláh that this was more important, but running has been a huge part of my identity as a soldier over the past several years, and I’ve missed it a little. I have not yet told anyone here I am in the military; it’s a complex subject among Bahá’ís, and anyway, for security reasons, I’m not prepared to talk about it in public in Israel.
Running on little missions, particularly if they involve stairs, has also become part of my role in the group. Nina confesses a love of certain aspects of traditional gender roles, and says that she thinks part of a man’s job is to do difficult physical things like run up stairs.
“And my part,” she adds, “is wearing pretty dresses and giggling.”
“And you think this is an equal division of labor?” I ask her.
“Yes,” she says with a radiant smile. “I do.”
Mazra’ih was Bahá’u’lláh’s first home outside the prison city, a country house rented for Him by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá because He longed to gaze on greenery again. (Bahá’u’lláh’s love of nature and gardens was well-known and lifelong, a particularity of personality that reflects the human, as well as the divine, nature of the Manifestation.)
By this time, perceptions of Bahá’u’lláh and the Bahá’ís — and, concomitantly, the conditions under which they were living — had changed so radically as to essentially render the term “prisoner” inaccurate. Despite His nominal confinement, Bahá’u’lláh was receiving a steady stream of visitors, including many high-ranking officials in ‘Akka, and He Himself would accept or decline to see them. Nonetheless, it is reported that Bahá’u’lláh refused to leave the prison until the Mufti of ‘Akka himself pleaded with Him, the Shaykh acknowledging that He was, after all, only in prison because it was His own will.
This is a fairly momentous event, and yet after our tour, I find I am unable to remember anything whatsoever about the house. Even looking at it in pictures, I am not sure, later, that I was ever there. Only a memory of reading the name “Mazra’ih” in Arabic on a street sign convinces me that it was so.
I find this peculiar, but perhaps the beauty of the Mansion at Bahji simply erased Mazra’ih from my mind. Bahji is magnificent. If the grounds are beautiful and serene, and the Shrine is undeniably holy, a place of communion, the Mansion is at once exquisite and very simple. A large house, certainly, but no larger inside than many upper-middle-class homes in the U.S. today, it is a rectangular, two-storey structure, handsomely symmetrical, with Turkish primitive paintings decorating its exterior and fine blue stencils tracing the outlines of it white walls indoors. It was built by a wealthy merchant who lavished some wealth on perfecting it, only to abandon it when a plague passed through the area. Perhaps he thought he was Kubla Khan, because he posted this notice over the door:
Greetings and salutations rest upon this mansion which increaseth in splendour through the passage of time. Manifold wonders and marvels are found therein, and pens are baffled in attempting to describe them.
The stenciling and the arches are very nice, of course, and there is a stained-glass screen on the far end of the balcony that I like very much, but obviously the manifold wonders we are concerned with are those of Bahá’u’lláh’s residence there. Jamshid, our guide, is also the caretaker of this house, along with his wife, and his joyful enthusiasm seems elevated a notch as he presents it to us. He gathers us together in the large central hall of the second floor and recounts for us, mostly from memory, Professor E.G. Browne’s description of his audience with Bahá’u’lláh in this house. The passage, quoted on page 39 of Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era by John Esslemont , is usually considered notable for its lengthy description of Bahá’u’lláh’s physical person, but I found it fascinating this time for Browne’s description of the room:
[M]y conductor… replaced the curtain; and I found myself in a large apartment, along the upper end of which ran a low divan, while on the side opposite to the door were placed two or three chairs…. In the corner where the divan met the wall sat a wondrous and venerable figure, crowned with a felt head-dress of the kind called taj….
My first, absurd sense, standing outside the room and peeking past the curtain as Jamshid tells us a little about that long-ago audience, is disappointment in Browne’s description — the apartment doesn’t seem that large. But, in fact, I discover as he pulls aside the curtain to the room (which, like the curtain to every room of Bahá’u’lláh we’ve visited, is emblazoned with the Greatest Name ), that it is larger than it first appeared, and exactly as Browne described it — like many of the rooms in the various properties, it does have a long divan running down the far wall, and in the corner, Bahá’u’lláh’s actual taj has been carefully placed under a translucent cloth, presumably to protect it from dust.
We go inside to pray and take in the atmosphere of the room, one of two times we will have an opportunity to do so. Jamshid has told us the House of Justice has decided to have both the Mansion and the Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh open for the pilgrims in the evening on Saturday. At the time I didn’t pay much attention to that detail, but it turns out that Saturday will be the biggest day of the whole pilgrimage.
Read the entire journal: