Sacred stories hold us in their loving arms. They lighten our burden, lift us up, launch us into flight. But they don’t always have happy endings. Such endings are reserved for the genre of comedy; and woven as it is from the interplay of light and darkness, crisis and victory, life on this earth can, at best, be described as a tragicomedy — joy mixed with pain.
We are born to die. We live only to suffer. What is the meaning of it all? At times, we may wonder. In a talk He gave in Paris in 1911, to what was surely an enraptured audience, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá reflected on this very theme — joy and pain:
In this world we are influenced by two sentiments, joy and pain. Joy gives us wings! In times of joy our strength is more vital, our intellect keener, and our understanding less clouded.... But when sadness visits us we become weak, our strength leaves us, our comprehension is dim and our intelligence veiled.... There is no human being untouched by these two influences; but all the sorrow and the grief that exist come from the world of matter — the spiritual world bestows only the joy! (Paris Talks, # 35)
Sacred stories, stories woven from joy and pain — every tradition has them. There is the material poverty and spiritual riches of the Buddha; the forty years of wandering and final arrival of the Jews in their holy land; the crucifixion of Jesus and the spiritual resurrection it generated in His followers; the persecution of Muhammad and His ultimate conquest of the hearts and souls of the warring tribes of Arabia; the execution of the Báb and the spiritual power released by His sacrifice; and the utterly providential exile and imprisonment of Bahá’u’lláh.
In this year marking the centenary of His passing, I have been reflecting on the sacred story embedded in the life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá — His joy and His pain. And in the course of my reflections, I came across a tablet that so stirred me I was moved to set down my thoughts on it in an essay — “The Wound is Where the Light Enters. In this particular tablet, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá gives us a rare glimpse into His personal suffering, in all its searing intensity, and a lesson in the divine art of detachment — and surely this is the lesson at the heart of all sacred stories. I dedicate my essay to the Bahá’ís of Iran, who continue to face unrelenting persecution in the land where the Bahá’í Faith was born.
In this issue, we feature work by one of those Iranian believers — poet Mahvash Sabet. In our Artist Profile, we share an interview by Raha Sabet Sarvestany in which Sabet tells the story of her beleaguered childhood and of coming of age at a time when the persecution of the Bahá’ís grew so intense that she found herself serving a lengthy prison sentence for the “crime” of practicing her faith. In this profile, we also share a selection of Sabet’s poems, drawn from two new books of her poetry published in the Persian language: Raha (Nehal Publishers, Spain) and The Love Story (Baran Publishers, Norway).
In “The Writing Life,” we feature “The Fountain and the Thirsty One,” in which Sabet recalls her temerity as a poet and tells of her long struggle with her art, a struggle that ends only with the complete surrender that comes after long years of imprisonment, torture, and threatened execution. Sabet’s account of receiving a sudden outpouring of inspiration in that prison cell is a sacred story indeed.
I am saddened to report that we lost e*lix*ir poet Christine Pratt this past spring. Christine was one of the first poets published in e*lix*ir; her work appeared in issue # 1 of the journal. We have reprinted her poems in this issue, as well as my poem for Christine, “Elegy with Mourning Dove and Red-Tailed Hawk.” In my poem, I draw on the landscape and imagery of Christine’s own poems, to converse with her, poet to poet, about the pain of losing her and to reflect on the joy she is certainly harvesting on the next stage of her soul’s journey.
We also introduce the work of emerging poet Dana Paxson. The record of a life intensely-lived and honestly examined, his poems speak with an arresting authenticity.
In this issue, we are delighted to share a link to a poetry reading hosted by e*lix*ir, during which nine e*lix*ir poets met across time zones in the presence of a global audience, to mark the centenary of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s passing with poems about His life and ministry.
We feature “An Opening in the Curtain” by debut author Martha Washington in our essay section. In this moving essay, so redolent with love and forgiveness, a sometimes-neglected child finds an opportunity to imbibe the sweet honey of love from an often-struggling mother.
We are pleased to present the work of artist and photographer Chris Page, whose evocative and multi-layered documentary realism leads the eye to a powerful encounter with beauty. This encounter is explored in an interview with Chris Page conducted by Christine Pratt on the occasion of a recent show of Chris’ work in Northampton, Massachusetts. Readers will find much to ponder in this probing artist-to-artist conversation.
We are pleased to announce that Ann Sheppard has joined our staff at e*lix*ir; the images that grace the pages of this issue are the fruits of her art.
In this issue, we are not able to offer a fresh installment of Ruhi & Riaz, the comic beloved by so many readers. Its absence inspires feelings of unease, of apprehension as we note the surging wave of persecution faced by the Bahá’ís in Iran during the past year or so.
We do offer, however, three moving essays in our “Voices of Iran” section. In “The Court of Holiness,” Mahsa Foroughian takes us to the far north of Iran, to Takur, the birthplace of Bahá’u’lláh, on a journey of spiritual transformation — her own — as she makes pilgrimage to this holy place. In “The Silence of Being Heard,” Nazanin Eslami takes us to the southwest of Iran, to the city of Shiraz, where she makes pilgrimage to the site where the House of the Báb once stood, now a derelict lot that nonetheless retains its spiritual potency and confers blessings not only on those who visit it, but on those who happen to live near it.
Melika Rezvani’s essay, “The All-Highest Paradise,” is the kind of piece we rarely come across, for it tells a sacred story second to none other: the story of a person who gives their life for their faith. As we read Ataollah Rezvani’s story, we cannot help feeling profound sadness, but also awe and wonder at such a sacrifice.
We are fortunate to have, once again, in “State of the Art,” an annual update from Allison Grover Khoury on recently-published Bahá’í books for children.
Finally, in “Looking Back on Books,” we draw the attention of our readers to some titles relevant to this centenary year. We survey the contents of Pearls of Bounty and Light of the World, two books of Writings by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá published in honor of this special year. A repository of riches impossible to describe, these books are a special gift to readers of the Bahá’í Writings as they mark the centenary of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s passing.
We also review two books by Kalimat Press, the first a classic that bears revisiting during this centenary year. Carefully edited by Richard Hollinger and richly contextualized with research, Agnes Parsons Diary is a must-read for anyone interested in learning more about ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s visit to America in 1912 and how He inspired the Bahá’ís of the day to take bold steps to dismantle segregation.
We make available here a link to the foreword to Agnes Parsons Diary, since so many readers have said it helped them better understand the relationship of the American Bahá’ís to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá as well as the socio-cultural milieu in which He moved during His time in America.
We look, too, at Dariush Lamy’s highly accessible ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: The Perfect Exemplar, a new book from Kalimat Press that offers an engaging and wide-ranging account of the life and ministry of the Master.
In closing, as we pause during this centenary year to ponder the life and ministry of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, let us acknowledge the joy and pain of our earthly lives even as we watch these emotions pass like shifting clouds. Let us practice the divine art of detachment and bear witness to the abiding spiritual joy that lives at the heart of our own sacred stories.
I have not yet forgotten the emotions of that young primary school girl who recited an unwritten essay from a blank sheet of paper and, instead of being encouraged by her teacher, received a beating! I still remember that eleven-year-old girl who sat in the stairway of her grandmother’s home writing a poem about her mother’s absence. And I recall that pupil with spectacles and an ormak uniform who would write essays for her classmates while climbing the high school stairway! I don’t know if it was my deep love for Saadi and Hafez that made me feel so at home with poetry and its rhythms or if that feeling stemmed....
We always want to go home
to some familiar yet distant land
where hills rise rocky and lean
with the lush valleys
hidden in mist
where snow-fed streams pitch forth
from alpine heights
and the cloud-swept sky
arching over it all a bountiful
upturned bowl, a blue cathedral.
I walked out this afternoon
from the quiet street
with its row of blazing poplars
the garden with its single,
and the sunflowers
toppled by some impetuous
child or wind or by the heaviness
of their sad yellow faces.
Pratt: Chris, I wonder if we could start out by talking about the work you showed recently at the Northhampton Museum and Education Center?
Page: I had some ideas of pieces of art from their collection to include in the show and had found an interesting correlation between what I do with sky-viewing and the writings of Jonathan Edwards, an eighteenth-century theologian....
The Kind Servant: A joyful poem about ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was written by Celeste Finn and illustrated by Sophie Rutstein Ansari. This is a lovely book — one of my favorites this year. A gentle poem teaches young children about ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s kindness, and His encouragement to all He met to be happy and generous....
Both the pages and the illustrations are soft pastels in watercolor — fun squiggles and dots of color accompany simple but charming pen and ink drawings. Photos of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá are featured throughout and serve to make ‘Abdu’l-Bahá a real Presence, someone to Whom young readers can easily relate....
Sarvestany: Could you please introduce yourself and share something of your personal experience as a girl from a religious minority growing up in Iran before the Islamic revolution?
Sabet: I would like to say that I am a cry of genocide from the hearth of history.
I was born into a Bahá’í family. I remember I was five years old when my father, who was among the few educated people in our small city, brought electricity and a mill engine to the city. For the first time, we had electric lights. Everyone was so happy and thankful, and the mill engine changed completely the life of the farmers and their families.
But this happiness and joy didn’t continue long....
I live in a place many people wish to visit: Shiraz, the birthplace of the Báb. Nabil once visited this holy place, but nowadays we are not able to make pilgrimage because the house has been destroyed. All we can do is walk around the site where the house used to stand....
It was 24 August 2013. I was spending my summer vacation at my grandparents’ house in Mashhad. My mother, Roshanak, was there too. I was watching my mother the whole day because she was nervous. Several times, she called my father in Bandar Abbas, but he did not answer the phone........
....This diary tells one of the most important stories of our time: the story of the early efforts of the American Bahá’ís to dismantle the cruel legacy of slavery — racial segregation....
In these days leading up the centenary of the passing of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, I am thinking about joy and pain, about anguish and ecstasy, about the spear that heals the wound it makes. For it is as Rumi says, “the wound is the place where the Light enters you.” And I am not merely thinking about these things...
I approach the alleyway that leads to my house and say goodbye to my friends. I stop for a moment and gaze apprehensively down the unpaved alley dotted with houses, my own looming at the far end. I think about what I might find when I open the door....
Bridging high steel atop the Chrysler Building,
noise rising from the sweating streets below,
My feet toe in and dance among new rivets
and feel the fallen pine across the stream
rushing mountain-deep in Chouinard’s Gully,
my childhood friends taunting me to dance
where the log rots, daring me against
the long drop to the sharp rocks,
Amidst the desolate, proud mountains in the north of Iran, where the Haraaz and Nour rivers meet, there lies a road named Balaadeh Road. The road is tight and sharp. On the right, there is the steady hand of the Alborz mountains, welcoming and guiding visitors to their destinations. And on the left, there is the warm yet fresh embrace of the river. As the road continues, the number of cars lessens, and there comes a point where I find that my friends and I are the only people traveling along Balaadeh Road. Only the bright blue river, the verdant mountains, and the snowy summits are our companions; the calm and peace they exude soothes our souls.
....two remarkable volumes of newly published Writings by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá .... include translations of prayers, tablets, and table talks that, for the most part, have not been available before in print....
....Whether read together or individually, these two volumes, published in commemoration of this centenary year, offer rich spiritual food for the reader....
....This book is a collection of everything the author knows about the Master. Many photos, some drawings, and a timeline of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s life enrich this compendium of relevant facts, this overview of the Master’s life, ministry, and Writings. For those readers who wish to dip into various aspects of that life and work and for others who would like to get an overview of the landmark events in ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s daily interactions, this book is a must....