Friday, January 20, 2012

A Pilgrimage Thought

Most of the time these articles are quite simply nothing more than a few thoughts about a simple subject within the Baha'i Faith. Well, the subject isn't simple: my thoughts are.

But today I want to write something a bit more heartfelt, so if you're not in the mood for heartfelt, please skip this. You probably won't enjoy it, and I would hate to be responsible for you not enjoying a bit of your reading time.

I was looking through my bookshelves the other day, looking for a good book to read. I didn't want anything too heavy, intellectual-wise not gravity-wise, and was about to grab the new bio of Patricia Locke, which has been sitting there for a while. But then, right near it, my eye was caught by a slender green volume: Our Beloved Guardian: An Introduction to the Life and Work of Shoghi Effendi, by Lowell Johnson. I don't know when I got it, or how long it has been on the shelf, but it couldn't have been there for too long. (That makes me think that it was probably part of Fariborz Sahba's collection, which I purchased from him just before he moved.) (Oh, I buy collections of used Baha'i books, if you have any you want to sell.) (I also sell them, if there are any you're looking for.) (Hmm. I didn't expect a sales pitch here today.)

Anyways, there it was. There I was. And thus we met.

It opens with a reference to a pilgrimage made by William and Marguerite Sears, and that got me thinking about my own pilgrimage a number of years ago.

Then I remembered something that really struck me at the time: Shoghi Effendi said that the purpose of pilgrimage was not to meet the Guardian. Meeting him was not part of the pilgrimage. The pilgrimage was the visit to the holy shrines.

He went on to say that you don't go on pilgrimage because you are worthy, but rather that you go to become worthy in order to go out into the Vineyard to serve the Lord.

So how does that relate to me? (What was that? How does it relate to you, dear Reader? I have no idea. You have ask yourself that.)

Well, most of us simply fill out an application for pilgrimage and then just go when we are called. We save up some money, get a ticket and a hotel room, and there we are. While we are there, we are overwhelmingly moved by the spirit of the place, and are at a loss to describe it. Then we come home and talk with others about it as if it were a really amazing vacation. (Of course, I only speak for myself. I know that you are far more spiritual about it than I am.)

But what changed for me after pilgrimage? Well, for one thing, I always have my prayer book with me, now. That is new. Before then, I used to pray regularly, but now, ever since 1993, that prayer book is always with me, and I use it far more often than I ever did before.

Aside: Ok. This aside will seem like a total non-sequitor, but it really makes sense for me. It was shortly before I went on pilgrimage that I had a dream. In the dream I was standing on Linden Avenue looking at the Temple in Wilmette. While I was watching, a crane swung over with a man standing at the end of the long chain. (I'm sure my terminology is wrong, but you can just picture it.) As the crane swung towards the Temple, he hooked the chain around one of the panels, which was promptly lifted away. As it swung away, another crane came in with a replacement section that was far, far brighter then the piece removed. As the new piece was being put into place, a third crane swung in and removed another panel. This was just as quickly replaced by another super bright panel. Faster and faster it went, pieces swinging out and new brighter pieces replacing and rebuilding the Temple. As this went on, the light just grew more and more intense, so intense that it woke me up with the image of a new Temple planted firmly in my mind.

This is how I think my view and understanding of the Faith changed when I went on Pilgrimage. Piece by piece, over those few days, my poor understanding was replaced with a vision that was so much brighter. I never missed a talk while I was there, and took as many notes as I could, but still failed to learn even a fraction of what I could have. And yet now, years later, I realize that this was not important. What I learned on an intellectual level actually paled in comparison to what changed in my heart.

Perhaps this is why the Guardian said that visiting him was neither the purpose nor part of the Pilgrimage. What he did, and the value of it cannot be overestimated, was inspire the friends with a vision of the Faith that they could not have had before. Pilgrimage, however, inspires the heart, and leads the friends to do things they never could have before.

I finished the book in a very short time, that afternoon, I believe. It was very inspirational, but what really stands out to me is the memories of Pilgrimage that it evoked. And for that I am so grateful.

Today, when I think about this experience, two things really stand out. The first is that when I say my prayers, I almost always feel myself there at the Shrines. Interestingly enough, though, I don't picture myself when I was there with my family on a 3-day visit. No. I envision myself during that precious time of Pilgrimage, which a 3-day visit is not. There really is something sacred about the Pilgrim that I can't explain, but I know that I experienced it in a way that I didn't when I returned as a visitor. So today, when I am saying my prayers, it brings me right back to that time of my life when I was a Pilgrim.

Secondly, when I think of the friends in Iran, or any of the other Baha'is who are suffering today, or when I'm reading any part of the history of the Faith, especially those trials that the friends have had to endure, I remember the Prison Cell. I happened to be there in July, the last Pilgrimage group of the season before they closed down for the summer, so the windows were open, as they must have been in the time of the Blessed Beauty. In fact, there was no glass in the windows when He was there.

I remember sitting there, on one of the mats, hearing a cock crowing in the distance, thinking how poignant this was, as Baha'u'llah called the world to recognize a new dawn. How long, I wondered, will humanity remain unaware of this Divine Bird Who has called. As I thought this, I felt something on my leg, which was odd, since I was wearing pants. But there, under my knee, was a feather that I had not noticed before. This feather remained in my prayer book for years until I loaned it to a friend whose father was dying. When the book came back, all the flowers were still in it, but the feather was gone, winged away with her father's soul.

In the cell, though, I sat there, holding the feather, wondering. And then I noticed the iron bars in the windows, iron that was rusting away, and has since been replaced, but was there at the time. I saw the iron and I swear I saw it crying. There, in that cell, on that hot and dry day, I thought I saw drops rolling down the bars in the same manner as tears rolling down cheeks. For some reason it could not be mistaken for rain, and besides, there was not a cloud in the sky. Even the iron, I realized, weeps at the thought of having kept in the Blessed Beauty.

Oh, and there is a third thing that stands out, now that I think about it. My last time in the Shrine of the Bab, when I didn't know if I would ever return there again, I found myself standing there, saying a prayer in the nearly unbearable heat. It happened to be a particularly hot day, and most of the other Pilgrims only stayed in the Shrine a very short time. But I'm weird. I love the heat. So there I was, saying a prayer, practically alone, my eyes bone dry. But then I had the most unusual sensation. I began to sweat, except that it didn't feel like sweat at all. My body, all over my skin, began to weep. It didn't sheen like sweat usually does in those circumstances, but beaded, with exactly the same sensation that tears do when they well up in the eyes. While my eyes were dry, unable to produce a single drop, my body wept in their place.

Pilgrimage is a special time in our life, and if we are open to it, nothing is ever quite them same afterwards.

We are enjoined to make this journey at least once in our lifetime, and when referring to it in the Kitab-i-Aqdas, Baha'u'llah calls upon God, "the All-Bountiful, the Most Generous." It truly is a bounty to be able to go, and to share one's experience with others. And it also does show the overwhelming generosity of God.

I can only pray to be worthy of having had such an experience.

1 comment:

  1. You're right, Mead! A 3 day visit doesn't feel the same!

    I remember on my pilgrimage, walking through 'Akka, with the song running through my head: "Soon will all that dwell on earth, be enlisted under these banners". I couldn't get it out of my head! Later my pilgrim guide told me that this is where these words were revealed!

    I've also penned some thoughts on pilgrimage and marriage