In the morning it’s cool and rainy — the unusual warmth of the early part of our pilgrimage has given way to more suitable November weather. On the other hand, the coolness only gives a boost to my increasing sense of loss at having to leave this place and these people. We don’t talk about it too much yet, but we all know it’s coming. Pilgrimage is a scant nine days, and they are two-thirds gone.
In the old days, of course, it was different. Some pilgrims — the ones who would catch a glimpse of Baha’u’llah in the window of the Most Great Prison — had practically no time here. But later on, when He was able to move to Bahji, and later still in the days of ‘Abdu’l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi, the pilgrims would often stay for months, and you can see why. To have attained the presence of the Beloved, even in a largely symbolic sense as we today do, is a powerful thing. ‘Abdu’l-Baha writes:
Holy places are undoubtedly centres of the outpouring of Divine grace, because on entering the illumined sites associated with martyrs and holy souls, and by observing reverence, both physical and spiritual, one’s heart is moved with great tenderness.
This has absolutely been my experience, and I am not ready to lose such tenderness. I am not ready to return to my rough, abrasive world, to which I must respond with a certain amount of callousness. I want to stay. We joke about going to live with Jamshid in his house in ‘Akka, but sometimes it’s hard to remember we’re joking.
It’s also hard to leave one another. I don’t suppose I’ve ever made friends I liked so much, so fast. But another Tablet of ‘Abdu’l-Baha reminds us why we have to leave pilgrimage:
Thou didst pass thy days in perfect fellowship and happiness, and thereafter wast thou granted permission to return, that… thou mightest engage in service to the Kingdom, lead the people to the way of heaven, and guide them to the Lord of Hosts.
Pilgrimage, then, is only half the experience. If you find happiness but don’t help others attain it, what good have you done in the world? If you attain the Presence of your Lord, but don’t tell anyone else about it, what kind of person are you?
Fortunately, after the spiritual storms of the previous night, we have a light day. We gather at the gate closest to the Arc to begin our tour of the administrative centres of the Faith. I have a friend at home, not a Baha’i, who likes to refer to the House of Justice as the “Hall of Justice” — “Did you meet Aqua-Man?” he asks on hearing from me — and there is something heroic about this architecture, but mostly it’s dignified and stately and something else. Ready, perhaps — this is an architecture that seems entirely equal to the challenges of providing spiritual leadership to an emerging global civilization, greeting the leaders of nations, developing the institutions which can guide and channel the powers of millions for the benefit of all of humanity.
The buildings on the “Arc” — literally a semi-circular arrangement on Mt. Carmel — are currently four in number: the International Teaching Centre, the Seat of the Universal House of Justice, the Centre for the Study of the Texts, and the Archives.
The International Teaching Centre is the home of the International Counsellors, nine individuals appointed by the House of Justice for their wisdom and learning, charged with “the protection and propagation of the Faith.” The meaning of “propagation” is fairly obvious — encouraging and assisting the Baha’is to share their Faith with the world — while “protection” is a more subtle concept, generally involving the deepening of the understanding of the friends about all aspects of their Faith and helping to maintain the unity which is the underlying principle of, not merely Baha’i administration, but all Baha’i interaction. Their role is an individual one, but as individuals they have no legislative or executive authority — they do, however, carry great moral authority, and collectively their opinion often informs the consultation of the House of Justice.
We spend only a few minutes in the ITC building, and truthfully it is, despite its beauty, primarily an office building; people come and go on their errands, and we stand around and gawk. Two things of note: Jamshid tells us that all the furnishings have been specially designed for the buildings in which they reside, and indeed I notice that the couches in the lobby of the building, though tasteful and subtle, are a little different from anything I’ve seen before.
(There’s a picture of one here, but you can’t really see the pattern of the fabric.)
Also, the skylight, which is rapidly becoming famous, is not so brilliantly illuminated on this particular morning, but we can still see dimly its inscription in Arabic, a statement of Baha’u’llah — “I am the royal Falcon on the arm of the Almighty. I unfold the drooping wings of every broken bird and start it on its flight.” Is there any slogan that exciting where you work?
Our visit to the Seat of the House of Justice is conducted with some reverence. This, after all, is the legislative Head of the Faith. The individual members of the House have neither authority nor any special status, but most Baha’is nonetheless feel a certain quiet awe of the institution, and this indeed is felt in the building itself, which on a Sunday morning (the beginning of the work week in Israel) seems to have many fewer people bustling around than the other structures on the Arc. Indeed, almost the only person we meet is the receptionist who acts as a gateway into the council chamber of the House of Justice. Perhaps overly used to pilgrims, she is most severe about where we can stand to view the life-size portrait of ‘Abdu’l-Baha which stands before and, presumably, chastens those who enter to deliberate in the council chamber.
Outside, in the waiting area, are portraits of the two monarchs to have recognized Baha’u’llah — Queen Marie of Romania, who lived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and King Malietoa Tanumafili II of Samoa. In front of them are several extremely comfortable couches where, Jamshid tells us, people sit to await a meeting with the House. He says the functioning of the House is so punctual that if you have a meeting at 8:15, the door will open at 8:14 and you will be welcomed by the receptionist, and at 8:15 exactly you will be shown in. This makes me oddly proud, although I am not, myself, a terribly punctual person.
Leaving the Seat I have a feeling that I am on the porch of Olympus — huge Greek columns rise far above, and beyond, past the end of the marble terrace, where the steps drop away, I can see only the moody grey clouds of a cold November morning. Far away, between the columns, I can see the Archives building, which we will not visit, as it is under renovation.
But we continue on to the Centre for the Study of the Texts, and a warm little wash of excitement passes through me. This is where I would like to work. The Research Department is housed here, as is the International Baha’i Library, a collection of, basically, everything that’s ever been written about the Faith, whether by friend or foe, in almost every language. The building is a crescent, but its roof is a complete circle with a circular skylight in the middle, and below that skylight is a garden sunk below the level of the entrance; visitors circle around it to either side to enter the building, and looking down past the plants, you can see through the windows into the Library.
We enter through the front door and are immediately faced with an exciting free-hanging staircase along a curved wall. We go upstairs and explore and generally make a nuisance of ourselves, as we have done in the other buildings; I’m not sure how the people who work here must feel about us, although they are generally very polite about it. Of course, I would like to be one of them; this is the place where people spend their days reading the books and letters of Baha’u’llah, ‘Abdu’l-Baha, and Shoghi Effendi in Arabic, Persian and English — could there be a better place to work?
When we are assembled back outside Nina and Farideh peer in the window of one of the offices where someone has clearly just walked away from his desk. It is full of lovely, bookish clutter. “This will be your office,” they decide.
“Really?” I say.
“Yeah. Nice office.”
The last “building” we visit is actually built under one of the Terraces — Jamshid calls it a “bonus building,” because it was essentially a last-minute idea by the architect, who realized he could stick an office complex right into the mountain where the Terraces meet Hazionut St. This houses the Office of Public Information, where we go visit a very nice display on the Faith for the public. What I like about it is that, although it presents the essential principles of the Faith, as many public presentations do, it also gives people tangible connections to the history of the Faith, including things like a rifle of the vintage and make used to execute the Bab at Tabriz, and, on a happier note, reproductions of the lovely illuminations of the handwriting of the Central Figures of the Faith.
After a tour of the buildings, we are free for a while, so we go down to Ben Gurion St. and have quite a mediocre lunch, followed by really excellent gelatto. We decide to walk back up the Terraces from the bottom, something we haven’t done yet. It is still quite cold and blustery, and Nina is wearing a puffy, shiny parka with a detachable hood. Somehow we get in a silly mood and start sharing around the hood, taking foolish pictures with it.
I think this is as funny as anyone, but as we go up the Terraces and get closer and closer to the Shrine, I begin to feel strange about it. The girls have no such qualms, and they pose in elaborate positions, pretending to ski down the Terraces. I am determined not to be a spoilsport, but something in me is now quite bothered by it. I can’t decide if it’s the dignity of the Shrine, or a feeling that non-Baha’is watching this scene (and there are a few wandering in the gardens) will wonder what kind of reverence we have for this spot. I decide to continue up the Terraces by myself.
They call to me — “You’d be a great ski jumper, you can really get the lift!”
“No,” I say from a full Terrace above them — I have literally set myself above them — and then, awkwardly, “I just don’t feel comfortable being a ski jumper so close to that” — and I point to the Shrine of the Bab.
Farideh gives me a chiding grin. “God loves laughter, Seth.” I smile helplessly and continue up the Terraces.
I’m furious with myself for injecting such a sour note into what has, until now, been a relationship of nothing but sweetness. But I’m beholden, I suppose, to my own overweening sense of dignity and reverence. As I get close to the top I slow down, trying to let them catch up. Not that I know what to say now.
But they are very kind about it and don’t make a big deal out of it. We go into the Shrine and pray. I pray, of course, not to be such an ass.
Later, as we are putting are shoes on, I try to apologize to Nina. (Farideh has gone ahead of us to the Pilgrim House.) “I’m sorry if I put a damper on your fun.”
“That’s okay. We decided we had just crossed your line.”
“Everybody has one. Mine is crass jokes. I can’t stand them.”
And that’s as much as we say about it, although the two of them occasionally joke about having gone too far in the Gardens.
I am deprived of the two ladies’ company after that; they have their visit to the Archives display, and I have a couple of hours to kill in the Pilgrim Reception Centre. But I have an agenda, and I retrieve the phone number of the Personnel section of the World Centre from a display board in the annex. I make a call, and when I leave the phone closet I have a scribbled note: “9:00 Christine or Julie 60 Hillel St.”
The ladies come back a couple of hours later (a couple of hours I have spent vainly trying to sleep upright in one of the chairs in the dining room), bedraggled and damp and sleepy and grumpy. I sit them down and make them tea. They have not enjoyed their time at the Archives display. Nina grumps with me about the weirdness of the portraits, and they both complain that their guide was a little stiff, and didn’t provide the level of immersion into the experience that we’ve come to expect with our beloved Jamshid. Plus, Farideh can’t stand museums, and was itching to go almost before she got inside.
It’s nasty cold outside, and none of us can really face the idea of walking to where there’s food. So we order in from one of two places with menus in English, improbably named “Giraffe Asian Food.” But every staff member we mention it to gets a hungry gleam in her eye, and it turns out to be quite good. We pull our friend Badi in and order more Asian food than Mao took on the Long March; long after the point of satiation, I’m still picking at my carton of noodles, until I decide to give up and eat it for lunch tomorrow. We talk for more than an hour about hidden racism and how difficult it can be for people to get out of their inherited mental categories, and then we make our way to the International Teaching Centre for one of the nightly talks by House members and Counsellors. Tonight is a very funny talk by Mr. Grossmann about pilgrimage — nothing we don’t really already know at this point, but he delves quite deeply into the idea of attaining the Presence of one’s Lord.
I am not much of a note-taker, sadly, but here is what I write, mostly abbreviations of quotes from the Writings:
pilgrimage: as if attained the Presence of God (The Bab)
KI [Kitab-i-Iqan]: how to attain Presence of God —
Person of Manifestation of God
“clay” from which He is made is different
possible only in Day of Resurrection (through Revelation)
All places are same except place God appoints for a purpose — Qiblih
pilg. is a test & a re-confirmation of faith
Gleanings, p. 320 — Beloved calling out to lovers
The passage from Gleanings, p. 320, reads :
Behold how the manifold grace of God, which is being showered from the clouds of Divine glory, hath, in this day, encompassed the world. For whereas in days past every lover besought and searched after his Beloved, it is the Beloved Himself Who now is calling His lovers and is inviting them to attain His presence.
Read the entire journal: