My only joy in this swiftly passing world was to tread the stony path of God and to endure hard tests and all material griefs. For otherwise, this earthly life would prove barren and vain, and better would be death. The tree of being would produce no fruit; the sown field of this existence would yield no harvest. Thus it is my hope that once again some circumstance will make my cup of anguish to brim over, and that beauteous Love, that Slayer of souls, will dazzle the beholders again. Then will this heart be blissful, this soul be blessed. — Excerpt from Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá # 190
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 am drinking deep of the words of a tablet revealed by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá about those anguished days when He waited for a Turkish ship to take Him into further exile, from Akka to the distant land of Libya. I think of those nights when, it is said, He stayed awake and chanted the powerful invocation Yá Alláhu’l-Mustagháth, “O Thou God Who art invoked,” from the time the sun set until it rose again. I am thinking of that fateful morning when the ship appeared in the Bay of Haifa then suddenly, inexplicably, turned back, sailed away, without ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, returned to the place of its belonging — how it faded into the horizon, became a mere nothing, an empty space, a fear that had been conquered, a fate vanquished by the love and grace of an All-Merciful God.
I am drinking deep of this tablet as I think of my student in Bandar Abbas whose father gave his life for his faith and of a poet friend who just celebrated the anniversary of her release from prison after a seemingly endless sentence served for the same ‘crime’ — following the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh. I think of all those who still languish in Evin and other desolate prisons. I call them to mind and meditate on that place where the light enters in — that narrow crack in the wall, that small hole in the floorboards that grows wider and wider each day making way for the sunlight to illuminate the darkness, for the radiance to enter, for the ecstasy of the soul to fill the empty space that is despair. Such light can transform any space, make the sharp corners of a cell round and warm and soft as a baby’s cheek, a thing with which to fall in love. So it was for ‘Abdu’l-Bahá who kissed the noose of His affliction, who prayed to throw away His life, to exchange it for a martyr’s death.
In this tablet, #190 in His Selected Writings, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá implores God “with a throbbing heart, with streaming tears, and a yearning soul, and in complete detachment from all things,” to make the faithful “as rays of light across Thy realms. . . .” He is praying for the light to enter in, for the souls of the faithful to be ignited, enkindled by the heat of their devotion. He asks that the faces of God’s “chosen servants” turn “beauteous and bright with splendor” and that their hearts be “filled with mysteries.” “Verily,” He cries out, “Thy lovers thirst, O my Lord, lead them to the wellspring of bounty and grace. Verily, they hunger; send down unto them Thy heavenly table. Verily, they are naked; robe them in the garments of learning and knowledge.”
He calls the faithful “[g]uides” and asks that they be assisted “to speak out with arguments and proofs.” He addresses them as “[m]inistering servants” and asks that they be empowered to “pass round the cup that brimmeth with the wine of certitude.” The steadfast are “lions that couch in the thickets” and “whales that plunge in the vasty deep.” But most moving to me, as a poet, is ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s prayer that the faithful become as “songsters that carol in fair gardens.” Surely, Rumi was one of these when He wrote of the fruitful marriage of joy and pain, when he reminded us that the wound is the place where the light enters into the body and the soul.
In those difficult days, as He contemplated the possibility of further exile and an enduring separation from the fledgling Bahá’í community in Akka, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá bared His heart to His faithful servants. He wrote in bold and vivid terms of the tests that were afflicting Him, of His persecution, His loneliness, His pain:
O ye my spiritual friends! For some time now the pressures have been severe, the restrictions as shackles of iron. This hapless wronged one was left single and alone, for all the ways were barred. Friends were forbidden access to me, the trusted were shut away, the foe compassed me about, the evil watchers were fierce and bold.
It is rare that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá writes of His afflictions, yet in this tablet He probes His own wound and utters cries of anguish:
At every instant, fresh affliction. At every breath, new anguish. Both kin and stranger on the attack; indeed, one-time lovers, faithless and unpitying, were worse than foes as they rose up to harass me. None was there to defend ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, no helper, no protector, no ally, no champion. I was drowning in a shoreless sea, and ever beating upon my ears were the raven-croaking voices of the disloyal. At every daybreak, triple darkness. At eventide, stone-hearted tyranny.
The simple declarative sentences are brief and as pointed as a spear. “At every breath, new anguish . . . At every daybreak, triple darkness. At eventide, stone-hearted tyranny.” In these pithy, pointed sentences, these telegraphic utterances, we can hear the breathless voice of overwhelming pain. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá continues, writing that as He awaited His exile to “the Fezzan sands” of the far-flung region of southwestern Libya, there was “never a moment of peace, and never any balm for the spear’s red wound.” All hope seemed lost. “[F]rom hour to hour,” He writes, “I was to be cast into the endless sea.” He recalls hearing it said that the nascent Bahá’í community, “these homeless wanderers,” were to be “ruined at last” and that “the cross would soon be put to use.” So intense is His anguish that it becomes physical, bodily. “This wasted frame of mine was to be made the target for bullet or arrow,” He writes, and “this failing body was to be cut to ribbons by the sword.” And as His anguish intensifies, His enemies exult: “Affliction beat upon this captive like the heavy rains of spring, and the victories of the malevolent swept down in a relentless flood. . . .”
Then the tone shifts. Everything changes. As in the Petrarchan sonnet, where the octave poses the question and the sestet gives the answer, in this tablet, suddenly, the light enters in. He writes: “. . . and still ‘Abdu’l-Bahá remained happy and serene, and relied on the grace of the All-Merciful.” Why is He baring His heart and soul? Why is He telling us all this? Now we know: to show us that the light does not merely enter into “the spear’s red wounds,” but this is the very place where it comes flooding in,
That pain, that anguish, was a paradise of all delights; those chains were the necklace of a king on a throne in heaven. Content with God’s will, utterly resigned, my heart surrendered to whatever fate had in store, I was happy. For a boon companion, I had great joy.
In that place of soulful surrender to which ‘Abdu’l-Bahá arrives by abandoning Himself to the Will of God, the wound becomes a source of joy. Anguish becomes “a paradise of delights.” Chains become “the necklace of a king on a throne in heaven.” And as things change for ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, so they do for the community as well. It is only when “the friends turned inconsolable, and abandoned all hope,” that “the morning dawned, and flooded all with unending light.” Of this shift in circumstances, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá writes:
The towering clouds were scattered, the dismal shadows fled. In that instant the fetters fell away, the chains were lifted off the neck of this homeless one and hung round the neck of the foe. Those dire straits were changed to ease, and on the horizon of God’s bounties the sun of hope rose up. All this was out of God’s grace and His bestowals.
And what is ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s response to this happy twist of fate? It is to become “saddened and despondent.” Why? He writes: “From what pain, in the time to come, could I seek comfort? At the news of what granted wish could I rejoice? There was no more tyranny, no more affliction, no tragical events, no tribulations.”
There is no wound into which the light may enter. And without this wound, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá feels at a loss for, as He explains in the next part of the tablet, in the path of God, joy and pain are one:
My only joy in this swiftly passing world was to tread the stony path of God and to endure hard tests and all material griefs. For otherwise, this earthly life would prove barren and vain, and better would be death. The tree of being would produce no fruit; the sown field of this existence would yield no harvest. Thus it is my hope that once again some circumstance will make my cup of anguish to brim over, and that beauteous Love, that Slayer of souls, will dazzle the beholders again. Then will this heart be blissful, this soul be blessed.
We cannot help but be astonished at the supreme detachment that inspires the closing supplication:
O Divine Providence! Lift to Thy lovers’ lips a cup brimful of anguish. To the yearners on Thy pathway, make sweetness but a sting, and poison honey-sweet. Set Thou our heads for ornaments on the points of spears. Make Thou our hearts the targets for pitiless arrows and darts. Raise Thou this withered soul to life on the martyr’s field, make Thou his faded heart to drink the draught of tyranny, and thus grow fresh and fair once more. Make him to be drunk with the wine of Thine Eternal Covenant, make him a reveler holding high his cup. Help him to fling away his life; grant that for Thy sake, he be offered up.
The “sincere soul,” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá explains, “aspires to whatever condition his beloved is experiencing. If the beloved were sad, he would wish for sorrow. . . .” It is the rare one to whom the cup of martyrdom is given, but the wine of certitude is offered to anyone who wishes to drink of it.