Friday, July 30, 2010

A Commandment and a Covenant

Towards the end of the last article, I referenced a quote from 'Abdu'l-Baha. I said that it was a bit of a digression from the main point, and that perhaps I would analyze it at a later time. Well, a couple of people asked for the full quote and an analysis of it, so I might as well do it now. No time like the present, and all that.

Here is the quote that I was excerpting from:

And now I give you a commandment which shall be for a covenant between you and Me -- that ye have faith; that your faith be steadfast as a rock that no storms can move, that nothing can disturb, and that it endure through all things even to the end; even should ye hear that your Lord has been crucified, be not shaken in your faith; for I am with you always, whether living or dead, I am with you to the end. As ye have faith so shall your powers and blessings be. This is the balance -- this is the balance -- this is the balance.
So, here I am, sitting in my living room, watching the birds (seagulls and eagles) and the deer, drawing inspiration from the majestic trees across the street. As you can tell, I am not used to this environment yet, and this seems to me to be a major starting point for any religious train of thought: never take it for granted. The moment that we begin to take our faith, and God's grace, for granted, then we cease to be instruments for His work. How many great teachers fell from their position because they began to think that they were the one doing the work?

Perhaps this is one of the many reasons I keep reminding you, dear Reader, that this is only my own opinion. I won't presume to be in the same category as those great teachers of the past, but it still holds true for one doing as little as myself. The ones I feel sorry for, in this respect, are those dear souls that serve as Auxiliary Board members or Counsellors. What a burden they bear, and with such humility, too. I can't imagine it.

Sometimes I think I have it fairly easy. After all, who am I? Just a lone guy on a computer typing his meager thoughts.

Enough of that for now. Let's get to the text.

"And now I give you a commandment" - This forcefully reminds me of Moses, for Who else can you think of when you read that word? But here it is no Messenger of God; it is 'Abdu'l-Baha giving us this commandment.

Then He adds in an interesting phrase right after that. It is not a commandment like the 10 found in the Torah. It is not a list of imperatives, a series of Thou-shalt-nots. No, He says that it "shall be for a covenant between you and Me". So here we have an unusual combination, a commandment / covenant.

A commandment is an order given by one in authority. You do it, or else you face punishment.

A covenant is an agreement between two or more parties, with obligations on both sides. In the socio-religious context, it often refers to the promise God made the Israelites in which He would protect them if they obeyed His law and were faithful to Him. In the Baha'i context, it is a very obvious reminder of 'Abdu'l-Baha's station as the Centre of the Covenant.

This almost seems to be a covenant within the Covenant, or a rider to the original. In fact, it could quite easily be seen that way, for if you have not accepted Baha'u'llah as a Messenger of God, and have not formally engaged in His Covenant, then 'Abdu'l-Baha does not have the authority to command. I will not go into the fact that He is the Centre of the Baha'u'llah's Covenant with all mankind, for that could easily get confusing here, and I prefer simplicity. So if you have accepted to be a party to the Covenant, then this new covenant seems to help clarify your role within it.

But what exactly is our role in this new covenant? It is stated in three parts, as far as I can tell.

First, we must have faith. That seems easy enough, but as it is the foundation of the other two parts, we need to be certain we know what it means. Faith, by definition, is a confidence or trust in someone or something.

But what is He asking us to have faith in? Himself? I would tend to doubt it. My guess is that He is asking us to have faith first in God, and then in Baha'u'llah as His Messenger. Faith in God seems to me to presume an acceptance of His various promises in the sacred traditions. One of those crucial promises that occur over and over again in His promise to send a Redeemer, titled various things depending upon the Book you look at.

Many people believe in God but don't believe in the "end of days". Or if they do, they either seem to believe that that promised time won't occur in their lifetime, or else that they are somehow exempt from the trials that must herald that time. In all the traditions, we read that most people will not recognize Him when He comes.

There is a famous tradition in this vein which Baha'u'llah quotes in The Book of Certitude: Our Cause is sorely trying, highly perplexing; none can bear it except a favorite of heaven, or an inspired Prophet, or he whose faith God hath tested.

Most people, to use another quote from the Blessed Beauty, "admit that none of these three specified conditions is applicable to them. The first two conditions are manifestly beyond their reach; as to the third, it is evident that at no time have they been proof against those tests that have been sent by God..."

In the context of the phrase from the Master, it seems to me that we must first have faith in the promises of God. Then, if we are Baha'i, we must accept Baha'u'llah as the fulfillment of those promises. Once we do that, we have to accept the authority of 'Abdu'l-Baha or else we have failed to accept everything that Baha'u'llah has said and written. The order of this is quite clear, if you ask me (which you didn't, but hey). After all that, we now have to accept this new addition to the Covenant in the above quote.

But the foundation of all of this is the degree of our faith. Without that, nothing else can follow.

The second part, which further clarifies the first, is that our "faith be steadfast as a rock that no storms can move, that nothing can disturb, and that it endure through all things even to the end". In other words, if our faith isn't strong enough to withstand some tests, what good is it?

In this phrasing, I am reminded of who His audience was: the first Pilgrimage group from the West. This group included such luminaries of the Baha'i firmament as May Bolles (Maxwell) and Lua Getsinger. Interestingly enough, it also included that "great teacher" who opened up the West, enrolling hundreds under the banner of the Most Great Name, including Lua Getsinger and Thornton Chase, and who later violated the Covenant causing such turmoil within that nascent community: Ibrahim Khayru'llah.

Here were two of the greatest exponents of the Faith from the West with the one who would be the cause of such "storms" in that very community.

You also had in that remarkable group Phoebe Hearst, who provided such incredible services to the Cause, but whose own involvement in the community was later tested by others who violated the Covenant.

It seems as if this group would provide the backdrop for our response to this command: do we violate the Covenant akin to Khayru'llah, become tepid in our involvement as per Mrs Hearst, or do we strive to rise to such heights as Lua or May?

Lua, in case we have forgotten, was later to be called the "Herald of the Covenant". May Bolles Maxwell was so remarkable a soul that the Guardian himself is said to have claimed that he married Ruhiyyih Khanum because she was May's daughter. What greater testimony can we ask for? (And I need to find my thesaurus, for I use the words "remarkable" and "incredible" too often here, but am at a loss for suitable adjectives.)

So not only do we have a backdrop for this quote, and a spectrum for our own response to it, but we also have a context. They were ardent Christians, eagerly seeking the Return. Here, in this phrase, 'Abdu'l-Baha uses language and imagery that would resonate deep within their hearts. The very images He calls up bring to mind the storm that swept across the sea before Jesus walked across the water, the rock of Peter's faith, and even imagery from both John and Revelation. With just a few words, He calls to mind such a rich history, laden with so much meaning.

He is giving us clear guidance from history as to the importance of having a strong faith that nothing can shake.

Yet He doesn't end there, for there is still a third part to this command and covenant. We are to not be shaken in our faith, even when faced with the unimaginable, that our "Lord has been crucified".

Not only is He likening these people, and hence us by extension, to the Apostles of Jesus, but He is asking them to rise above even those Saints, to learn from their mistakes.

How many times must the Apostles have lamented their lack of Faith after the crucifixion? How often must Peter have berated himself for denying his Lord, not once but three times? Remember, it took the miracle of the resurrection to restore their faith.

'Abdu'l-Baha is reminding them of this.

He is also forshadowing the trials that are to come in His own life. In just a few years after this speech, representatives of the Turkish Empire would threaten Him with this very torture. Jamal Pasha will forever go down in infamy for uttering this threat towards the end of the First World War, thereby emboldening the British Baha'is to campaign to get General Allenby to march on Haifa faster than expected.

Our role is to never be shaken in our faith, no matter what happens.

But what about 'Abdu'l-Baha's side of the Covenant?

He says, "I am with you always, whether living or dead, I am with you to the end". Isn't this the promise of His guidance, carried forward by the Guardian and acted upon by the Universal House of Justice? Not only do I see it as the promise of His guidance, but also a reminder that there is another Messenger to come, for that is what I think is meant by "the end". I mean, sure the guidance will still be there, but with the next Messenger, God will do as He wills.

To get more on this, just read His Will and Testament. It's all there, both His role in relation to the Guardian and to the Universal House of Justice.

Finally, tempting as it would be to look at the last two sentences seperately, I think I need to look at them together: As ye have faith so shall your powers and blessings be. This is the balance -- this is the balance -- this is the balance.

Here is the final promise. Actually, it is more of a revealed truth than a promise. Our powers and blessings are directly proportional to our faith. Of course, this should not be seen in the guilt-laden sense, such as the poor child who is handicapped and is told that they are not healed because they don't have enough faith. No. That is not guidance, but a cruel form of blackmail.

Here we are told that we can accomplish things. If we want to do even more, then we need to act on faith. If we want to be aware of the blessings in our life, then we will see more when we have more faith.

Remember, May Maxwell was an invalid most of her life, and yet look at what she accomplished.

There is a balance between our faith and what we can do. So important is it that we recognize this balance that 'Abdu'l-Baha tells us to be aware of this relation three times.

As you know, emphasizing something by repetition is His way of calling to our attention its importance. So important is this lesson that it is repeated three times.

I could go on and on further analyzing this, but really, I think I've said the main points I wanted to put forth. Instead, I'd be very interested in what others see in this marvellous quote.


  1. I am having trouble with the authenticity of this quote.

    Can these words be classified as being authentic and exact words of the Revelation of 'Abdu'l-Baha?

    Can they be quoted as such?

    Can the text be classified as possessing the power and station of Baha'i Prayer?

    1. It is from a Pilgrim's Note, by May Maxwell, in An Early Pilgrimage, page 40.

      It is also strikingly similar to a quote from Him in Baha'i Scriptures, page 503.

      Regardless of its exact authenticity, it's still a beautiful quote and has been used by many for peace and solace. It was also quoted by Adib Taherzadeh in his book The Revelation of Baha'u'llah, volume 4.

      So take it as you will. I place it in the same category as those other beautiful pieces, like the quote that begins "My home is a home of peace..." They're beautiful and have their own power. Whether it is the full power of sacred Text or not is beside the point, to me.

      But thanks for checking.