Monday, March 9, 2020

The Artistic Dimension

"All art", said 'Abdu'l-Baha, quoted in The Chosen Highway, "is a gift of the Holy Spirit." And like all gifts, it should not be squandered, but used and treasured.

Sometimes, to our surprise, the arts transcend what we think of as the norm, and not just in the way they are presented. Sometimes the very message goes far beyond what we, perhaps as the artist, ever dreamed.

There is a beautiful story in The Dawn-Breakers of Mulla Husayn visiting the Bab in the prison of Mah-Ku. They were looking over the river Araxes, when the Bab said, "That is the river, and this is the bank thereof, of which the poet Hafiz has thus written: `O zephyr, shouldst thou pass by the banks of the Araxes, implant a kiss on the earth of that valley and make fragrant thy breath. Hail, a thousand times hail, to thee, O abode of Salma! How dear is the voice of thy camel-drivers, how sweet the jingling of thy bells!' The days of your stay in this country are approaching their end. But for the shortness of your stay, we would have shown you the `abode of Salma,' even as we have revealed to your eyes the `banks of the Araxes.'"

Nearby the prison was another town called Salmas, which was the reference in the poem.

Continuing on, the Bab further remarked, "It is the immediate influence of the Holy Spirit that causes words such as these to stream from the tongue of poets, the significance of which they themselves are oftentimes unable to apprehend. The following verse is also divinely inspired: `Shiraz will be thrown into a tumult; a Youth of sugar-tongue will appear. I fear lest the breath of His mouth should agitate and upset Baghdad.' The mystery enshrined within this verse is now concealed; it will be revealed in the year after Hin." This, of course, is a reference to Baha'u'llah, and His time in Baghdad.

As an artist and a writer, I find this idea that the artist is unaware of the significance of what they are doing intriguing. But that is part of the beauty of being open to the worlds of the spirit. "Treasures lie hidden beneath the throne of God; the key to those treasures is the tongue of poets."

Another beautiful example many of us are familiar with is that marvelous song, Battle Hymn of the Republic. Julia Ward Howe heard the tune as part of a regimental military review. It was suggested to her by Reverend James Freeman Clarke that she write new lyrics for the piece. I can only imagine what the old lyrics were, but I suspect they were less than appropriate. That night, 18 November 1861, while Baha'u'llah was in Baghdad, she had the following experience, which she described later:
I went to bed that night as usual, and slept, according to my wont, quite soundly. I awoke in the gray of the morning twilight; and as I lay waiting for the dawn, the long lines of the desired poem began to twine themselves in my mind. Having thought out all the stanzas, I said to myself, "I must get up and write these verses down, lest I fall asleep again and forget them." So, with a sudden effort, I sprang out of bed, and found in the dimness an old stump of a pencil which I remembered to have used the day before. I scrawled the verses almost without looking at the paper.

How often have we heard of artists who, upon suddenly having a vision, rush to put down what they have seen, only to look back in wonder at the profundity of it.

Here are some of the words she wrote down that wondrous morning:
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.
Glory, Glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
His truth is marching on.
Over and over we read of such incredible happenings, such profound, and yet unrecognized, insights into the spiritual realm. It reminds me of those words at the end of the Book of Daniel where the prophet wrote down all these beautiful visions, but had no clue what they were about. "Go thy way, Daniel", said the Lord, "for the words are closed up and sealed till the time of the end."

So why, you may be wondering, am I writing about this today? What triggered this article?

I'm glad you asked.

For those of you who don't know, mathematics is one of my first loves. My father used to say that I could count before I could speak. I probably would have been a maths teacher if it were possible to teach in the current educational systems in North America, but that's another issue altogether.

Anyways, one of the books that has long fascinated me is Flatland, by Edwin Abbott. I've known about it for a long time. I also loved the explanation Carl Sagan gave of it in the original Cosmos series. But the other day, as I was talking with my son, I realized that I'd never read it myself. So I went to the library and got a copy.

The story, as you probably know, is about a square in a two-dimensional world. His name, astonishingly enough, is Square. Since the whole world is just 2-d, everyone in it is also 2-d. You have the lines, the various triangles, the squares, and on and on up to the highest of classes, the circles. He gives a marvelous description of the society, even though it is quite sexist by today's standards, and a detailed analysis of how they all see each other and interact.

One night, Square has a dream in which he is talking to someone in Lineland, a one-dimensional world. He tries to describe width to these people who can only experience length, and, of course, they just don't get it. In fact, they get angry with him for talking such nonsense.

When he wakes up, he thinks about this experience a lot, and is still puzzling over it that evening, when they are getting ready to celebrate the new millennium. The book, written in 1884, is set in the year 1999.

At the end of the day, as he's getting ready to head off to bed, he is visited by a stranger, a circle that miraculously appears and then gets bigger and bigger. It turns out that he is being visited by Sphere, a mysterious creature from the third dimension.

Now he finds himself in the same position that the people in Lineland were in when he visited them in his dream.

A conversation ensues, and by this point, I am beginning to see this entire book as a metaphor for Baha'u'llah visiting this world.

But when I turn the page, as Square is angry with Sphere for spouting such nonsense, and even goes to attack him, I read something that stops me in my tracks. I read it again, and then I go find my wife to read it to her.

Sphere, wondering how to convey the truth to Square, says, "I had hoped to find in you - as being a man of sense and an accomplished mathematician - a fit apostle for the Gospel of the Three Dimensions, which I am allowed to preach once only in a thousand years: but now I know not how to convince you. Stay, I have it. Deeds, and not words, shall proclaim the truth."

From that point forward, I was fairly convinced that Abbott had been inspired by someone in that Concourse on High to write this book.

Sphere goes on to talk about how he can see, not only the outlines of the people as Square can, but into the very hearts of the people, too. He can reach into seemingly locked boxes and remove their contents, as if it were a miracle. He even lifts Square off the page, allowing him to get a glimpse of this miraculous new perspective, that of three dimensionality.

By looking down, from this new vantage, Square is momentarily able to see his whole planet from above, instead of from the side. He, too, can see inside what were previously viewed as borders. He, too, would be able to life things up and out of sealed areas, if he were to stay there.

But, alas, he doesn't. He has to go back to his own 2-dimensional plane and try to share what he has learned with others.

So what happens? Well, as you can guess, he is not believed, arrested, and put into prison for life, knowing this greater truth, but only able to share it with those that are truly pure in heart and open to radical new concepts.

Shoghi Effendi, in numerous Pilgrim notes, encouraged us to read a variety of literature, both fiction and non-fiction, spiritual and secular. He said that it would help us get a broader and more comprehensive view of the Writings and how they apply to the world.

I knew for years that I had wanted to read Flatland, but I never dreamed that it would give me that significant a new perspective on the world. You never know which artist has been inspired by the light cast by Baha'u'llah, to what degree, and how their perspective will add to your own.

"The light which these souls (the Prophets and Messengers of God) radiate is responsible for the progress of the world and the advancement of its people. They are like unto the leaven which leaveneth the world of being and constitute the animating force through which the arts and wonders of the world are made manifest." Baha'u'llah - Gleanings, page 157


  1. Amazing! I had read that book before I had found the faith so it's lovely to think about it again from this perspective. There are some musicians, like Howe, whose lyrics are so profoundly in tune with the Writings that it makes sense to think the Concourse is assisting them. Mind (and heart and spirit) blowing!

  2. I agree - Flatland is remarkably insightful and its reference to 1000 years is spooky. I love how Square is given the experience of visiting Pointland and Lineland to better appreciate that there might be a third dimension.

    Doesn't this
    "Stranger. Yes: but in order to see into Space you ought to have an eye, not on your Perimeter, but on your side, that is, on what you would probably call your inside; but we in Spaceland should call it your side."

    sound like,
    "...until, like Jacob, thou forsake thine outward eyes, thou shalt never open the eye of thine inward being; and until thou burn with the fire of love, thou shalt never commune with the Lover of Longing."(Baha'u'llah)