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Memorials of the Faithful
Memorials of the Faithful
Memorials of the Faithful
Memorials of the Faithful
Memorials of the Faithful
Memorials of the Faithful
Memorials of the Faithful
Memorials of the Faithful
Memorials of the Faithful
Memorials of the Faithful
Memorials of the Faithful
Memorials of the Faithful
Memorials of the Faithful
Memorials of the Faithful
Memorials of the Faithful
Memorials of the Faithful
Memorials of the Faithful
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Memorials of the Faithful

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So much of my life has been a 'life-in-community' that I thought I would give some of the last words on the subject to that brilliant tactician of the personal & interpersonal, 'Abdu'l-Baha. He …

So much of my life has been a 'life-in-community' that I thought I would give some of the last words on the subject to that brilliant tactician of the personal & interpersonal, 'Abdu'l-Baha. He survived a most difficult community and advised us on how to live in community in our time. Since our own communities have been, are and will be challenges for us to live in, this analysis of some of 'Abdu'l-Baha's final words before He passed away several years later will be timely. This section of my autobiography, then, will deal with biography, ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s treatment of the subject.

"With penetrating detail, crisp style and emphasis on the compression of facts; with vivid images, usually not more than three or four pages as he discusses the life of each individual,, with a concision of explanation or commentary, with a specific point of view, a style of biography has continued from classical times into the twentieth century. This is biography in miniature. It has a certain bias toward the person over the event, toward art as smallness of scale, toward structuring the confusions of daily life into patterns of continuity and process. There is a broad intent to sustain an interpretation or characterisation with facts teased, coloured, given life by a certain presentation and appraisal. Facts about the past are no more history than butter, eggs, salt and pepper are an omelette. They must be whipped up and played with in a certain fashion." -Ron Price with appreciation to Ira Bruce Nadel, “Biography as Institution,” Biography, Fiction, Fact and Form, St. Martin’s Press, NY, 1984, pp.13-66.

Nadel, whom I quote in the opening passage of this essay, goes on to say that the “recreation of a life in words is one of the most beautiful and difficult tasks a literary artist can perform." Freud said the recreation of a life, the getting at the truth of a life, can not be done; and if someone does do it, as inevitably biographers try, the result is not useful to us. People have been trying to write about the lives of others for millennia and, even if Freud is right, they will probably go on doing it anyway..

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  • 1. VOLUME FIVE CHAPTER SIX (Part 1) As we approach the end of this somewhat rambling autobiography, the inclusion of this essay seemed perfectly appropriate. So much of my life has been a 'life-in-community' that I thought I would give some of the last words on the subject to that brilliant tactician of the personal and interpersonal, 'Abdu'l-Baha, who survived a most difficult community and advised us on how to live in community in our time. As our own communties have been, are and will be challenges for us to live in this analysis of some of 'Abdu'l-Baha's final words before He passed away several years later will be timely. This section of my autobiography, then, will deal with biography, ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s treatment of the subject and, then, a few brief notes of mine. "A Study in Community," Pioneering Over Four Epochs," 2003.1 "With penetrating detail, crisp style and emphasis on the compression of facts; with vivid images, usually not more than three or four pages, with a 1 This essay was originally written March 2000 and significantly edited in a second draft on May 2001 for the Baha'i newsletter ABS(English Speaking Europe) Issue 35. An important portion was added at the end of this second draft after reading Derek Pearsall's comments on The Canterbury Tales.
  • 2. concision of explanation or commentary, with a specific point of view, a style of biography has continued from classical times into the twentieth century. This is biography in miniature. It has a certain bias toward the person over the event, toward art as smallness of scale, toward structuring the confusions of daily life into patterns of continuity and process. There is a broad intent to sustain an interpretation or characterisation with facts teased, coloured, given life by a certain presentation and appraisal. Facts about the past are no more history than butter, eggs, salt and pepper are an omelette. They must be whipped up and played with in a certain fashion." -Ron Price with appreciation to Ira Bruce Nadel, “Biography as Institution,” Biography, Fiction, Fact and Form, St. Martin’s Press, NY, 1984, pp.13-66. ___________________________________________________________ ____ Nadel, whom I quote in the opening passage of this essay, goes on to say that the “recreation of a life in words is one of the most beautiful and difficult tasks a literary artist can perform." 2 Freud said the recreation of a life, the getting at the truth of a life, can not be done; and if someone does do it, as inevitably biographers try, the result is not useful to us. 3 People have been trying to write about the lives of others for millennia 2 Ira Bruce Nadel, "Biography as Institution", Biography: Fiction, Fact and Form, St. Martin's Press, NY, 1984, pp.13-66. 3 Sigmund Freud in Freud: A Life for Our Time, Peter Gay, W.W. Norton and Co., NY, 1988, p.xv-xvi.
  • 3. and, even if Freud is right, they will probably go on doing it anyway. ‘Abdu’l-Baha gives the exercise a parting shot, to put it colloquially, in the evening of his life, when He was in His early seventies. His work, Memorials of the Faithful, is squarely in the tradition Nadel describes above: commemorative, didactic, ethical, psychological. His is a work of art as well as information, a work of pleasure as well as truth. His is a work of selection, as biography must be if the reader is not to be snowed in a mountain of useless detail. He unravels the complexities of seventyseven lives and in doing so he answers Virginia Woolf’s questions: ‘My God, how does one write a biography?’ and ‘What is a life?’ If one can not answer these questions, Woolf wrote, then one can hardly write a biography.4 The act of reading Memorials of the Faithful is an opportunity to see how ‘Abdu’l-Baha answers Virginia Woolf’s seminal questions about life, how He answers them again and again in the more than six-dozen of His biographies in miniature. Biographers and autobiographers arguably have one freedom, a freedom that overrides the genetic and social forces that determine so much of human life. 5 It is the freedom to tell the story, the narrative, the freedom to explain a life, any life, even one’s own life to themselves and others the way they desire. This freedom is part of that 4 Virginia Woolf in Nadel, op. cit., p.141. Arnold Ludwig, How Do We Know Who We Are? Oxford UP, Reviewed in New Scientist, 8 November 1997. 5
  • 4. active force of will that ‘Abdu’l-Baha wrote, in his pithy summation of the historico-philosophical issue of ‘freewill and determinism,’ 6 is at the centre of all our lives. Of course, it is incontrovertible that what has happened in a life has happened. There is no going back to change any one of the events, decisions or results. Life bears the stigmata of finality in a certain sense. There has been a relentless succession of facts, at once inflexible and in some ways arbitrary. All story-tellers are slaves to these facts, if their story is to enjoy the imprimatur of truth. Charles Baudelair once wrote that a biography “must be written from an exclusive point of view, but from the point of view which opens up the greatest number of horizons."7 There are many ways in which one could define the point of view in this subtle and deceptively simple book. The point of view is that of a lover of Baha’u’llah, one who wants to be near Baha’u’llah, one who wants to serve Baha’u’llah. The point of view is really quite exclusive. All the men and women in this biographical potpourri were lovers of the Manifestation of God, the most precious Being ever to walk on this earth, or so they believed, and they all had some 6 'Abdu'l-Baha, Selections, 1978, p. 198. 7 Charles Baudelair in Baudelair, Claude Pichois, Hamesh Hamilton, 1987, London, p.xiv.
  • 5. relationship with Him during the forty year period of His ministry: 18521892. Restlessness is a dominant theme, a strong characteristic, in the lives of many people 'Abdu'l-Baha describes. They 'could not stay quiet', 'had no rest', were amazingly energetic', 'awakened to restless life', 'plagued by yearning love'. Nabil of Qa'in was 'restless, had no caution, patience or reserve'.8 Shah Muhammad-Amin "had no peace" because of the love that smouldered in his heart and because he "was continually in flight'. 9 This restlessness 'Abdu'l-Baha sets down among a galaxy of other qualities and a multitude of other people. Some of the most outstanding believers had this restlessness. Tahirih was 'restless and could not be still'. Quietness is also valued highly. One does not have to be a great talker to attract the attention of 'Abdu'l-Baha. Quietness also has its place in Baha'i community life. There are people who are 'inclined to solitude' and keep 'silent at all times'. They possess an 'inner calm'. They are souls 'at rest'. The gregarious types and the type who keeps to himself are part of this quintessential dichotomy, a dichotomy that was as much a part of 'Abdu'lBaha's world as it is our own, although there seem to be a slight 8 9 'Abdu'l-Baha, Memorials of the Faithful, Wilmette, 1970, p. ibid.,p.51
  • 6. preponderence, a dominance, of the gregarious person. Ustad Baqir and Ustad Ahmad both kept to themselves and "away from friend and stranger alike".10 Mirza Muham- mad-Quli "mostly...kept silent". He kept company with no one and stayed by himself most of the time, alone in his small refuge".11 The more sociable type, like Haji 'Abdu'llah Najaf-Abadi "spent his days in friendly association with the other believers." 12 Ismu'llahu'l-Asdaq "taught cheer- fully and with gaiety".13 "How wonderful was the talk,"says 'Abdu'l-Baha of Nabil of Qa'in, "how attractive his society".14 There are all of the archtypes that the various personality theorists have given us in this century. In addition to Jung's introvert and extrovert, there is the artist, the suffering artist-soul within us all, Mishkin-Qalam. He survives in all his seriousness, as we might, with humour. There are the types who William James describes in his Varieties of Religious Experience: the personality constitutionally weighted on the side of cheer and its opposite, the somber, more reflective even melancholic type. The two carpenters, Ustad Baqir and Ustad Ahmad were examples of the former.15 The examples we find of the latter were often the result of the 10 ibid., p.46. ibid., p.73. 12 ibid.,p.71. 13 ibid.,p.6. 14 ibid.,p. 53 15 ibid.,p.73 11
  • 7. many difficulties these lovers of Baha'u'llah were subjected to and it wore them "to the bone."16 ‘Abdu’l-Baha addresses all of us, all of us on our journeys while He describes many of those He came to know in His life. For He is describing not only the lives of these men and women in the nineteenth century, He is describing us in our time. He is addressing us on our own travels. He addresses the restlessness in us all. He speaks to us in our victory and our loss. He speaks about what Michael Polanyi calls the tacit dimension, the silent root of human life, which is difficult to tap in biographies, the inner person. This private, this inner person, is the one whom He writes about for the most part. He sets this inner life in a rich contextualization, a socio-historical matrix. He describes many pilgrimages and you and I are left to construct our own. We all must shape and define our own life. Is it aesthetically pleasing? Intellectually provocative? Spiritually challenging? ‘Abdu’l-Baha shapes and defines these lives given the raw-data of their everydayness added up, added up over their lives as He saw them. How would He shape my life? Yours? How would we look in a contemporary anthology of existences with ‘Abdu’l-Baha as the choreographer and the history of our days as the mise en scene? 16 ibid.,p.96.
  • 8. Some of the lives of the obscure, the ordinary and representative members of the Baha'i community are recovered for history and for much more. Their private aspirations and their world achivements, their public images and their private romances, their eventual successes and their thwarted attempts are lifted onto the pages of a type of Baha'i scripture. 'Abdu'l-Baha is setting the stage, the theatre, the home, in these pages, for all of humanity. The extrovert is here, the introvert, those that seem predisposed to cheerfulness and those who seem more melancholy by nature. All the human dichotomies are here, at least all that I have come across in my own journey. They are the characters which are part and parcel of life in all ages and centuries, all nations and states, past, present and, more importantly, future. Here is, as one writer put it, the rag-andbone-shop, the lineaments of universal human life, the text and texture of community as we all experience it in the crucible of interaction. It is somewhat ironic that the host of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s contemporaries that we find here were resurrected and for us, found, at a time when the lost generation between 1914 and 1918—were getting lost in the trenches of Europe. Memorials of the Faithful is what might well be this age’s Canterbury Tales, that compendium of personalities who exemplify, as William
  • 9. Blake once put it, “the eternal principles that exist in all ages.”17 We get a Writer Who delights in other people but Who has an active and incisive mind, a practicality that He brings to bear on what are often difficult personalities. He dwells only on the essentials; His purpose is inveterate; His feelings sincere and intense; they never relax or grow vapid during His cursory analyses. He is exquisitely tender, but clearly wily and tough to survive in the burly-burly life of exile, prison and the unbelievable difficulties He had to bear along life’s tortuous path. Interest in biographies of Baha’is in the 19th century Iranian Bahá'í community is not exactly a booming business these days. But that time will come sensibly and insensibly in the decades ahead as this new world Faith comes to play a critical part in the unification of the planet. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s work is more than a little prescient. The heroic age was coming to a close when ‘Abdu’l-Baha put His pen to paper; and it was over by the time the Haifa Spiritual Assembly published this His final book.18 A remanant remained, Baha’u’llah’s sister, the Greatest Holy Leaf who died in 1932. ‘Abdu’l-Baha had played a prominent role in the epic that was the heroic age. He played a dominant role in writing that epic’s story. Memorials of the Faithful is an important 17 William Blake in Geoffrey Chaucer: Penguin Critical Anthologies, editor, J.A. Burrow, 1969, p.82. If one considers the Tablets of the Divine Plan a book, then Memorials of the Faithful was 'Abdu'l-Baha's penultimate book. 18
  • 10. part of that epic. This epic tradition was not essentially oral but quintessentially written: a written tradition par excellence. Since The Growth of Literature by the Chadwicks(1924-1926) the heroic epic has been seen in literature’s epic studies “as a cultural rather than a literary phenomenon.”19 The Baha’i epic has grown out of a complex and fascinating set of cultural conditions. Indeed ‘Abdu’l Baha’s work has contributed to the resolution of problems involving the relationship, the transition, between oral narrative and written text. But this relationship is a question to occupy epic enthusiasts and is not our principle concern here. Within three to four months of completing this last of His books, ‘Abdu’l-Baha had begun His Tablets of the Divine Plan 20, the action station within which the community He was addressing could put into practice all the good advice He had given it in His Memorials of the Faithful. Like The Will and Testament, though, it may take a century or more to grasp the implications of this surprisingly subtle and, deceptively simple, book. 19 Heroic Epic and Saga: An Introduction to the World’s Great Folk Epics, editor, Felix J. Oinas, Indiana UP, London, 1978, p.1. He began writing His Tablets of the Divine Plan on March 26th 1916; Balyuzi informs us in his biography of ‘Abdu’l-Baha that He worked on Memorials in the last half of 1915(p.417). 20
  • 11. In the next two decades we shall see the end of the first century of the Formative Age. Perhaps the time has come to begin to seriously grasp the implications of these shining pages from ‘Abdu-l-Baha and His interpretive genius. We do not know much about the circumstances of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s writing, at least I don’t. Some writers we know, like Beethoven, are intensely physical people who seem to fight their thoughts onto the page, splattering the ink, breaking nibs, even ripping the paper in the process. Beethoven had none of the serene penmanship of a Bach or the hasty perfection of Mozart or the quasi-mathematical constructs of Webern. But we do know some things. We know, for example, that ‘Abdu’l-Baha often worked all night with a large part of the night devoted to prayer and meditation. It was then He did His writing; He was too busy to scribble down things in the daytime as some writers do. He had a short sleep after lunch. After writing one of the biographies he would often read or tell the story at one of the meetings in the next few days. Now, we can read them in a book or access them on the internet, in very readable English, in authorized translations. Gone is the Persian and Arabic in which He wrote; gone is ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s innimitable script or that of one of His secretaries. Having flashed onto the screen with the speed of light or into the book in some electronic form with every character proportional, every
  • 12. paragraph in alignment, these words, written six years before His passing, are now free to penetrate our own lives as the lives He wrote about penetrated His. FOOTNOTES The material on Chaucer that follows was obtained from Derek Pearsall's The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer: A Critical Biography, Blackwell, Oxford, 1992, pp. chapter 6. The following is not a quotation.-Ron Price, Tasmania The whole organization of Chaucer's narrative is in the historical latticework of a world of ecclesiastical routines and needs. 'Abdu'l-Baha's narrative, played as it is in the lives of seventy-seven souls, exists in the interstices of lives transformed by a manifestation of God. Instead of the ubiquity of the Christian Faith and its practices we have a new religion emerging in the soil of people's lives. Both books give us a narrative of faith. Women are dominant in Chaucer and men in Memorials of the Faithful. Both books provide us with a spiritual journey. There is a gusto and carnivalesque spirit, a contempt for marriage and sexual urges, in Chaucer while none of this is to be found in 'Abdu'l-Baha's work. There is no sense of social and moral commitment in Canterbury Tales. Chaucer's London is a turbulent and dangerous place; so too in 'Abdu'lBaha'is world. He writes of the domestic world rather than the politics of
  • 13. power. Both men possess a remarkable acuteness of observation; there is little of the sense of outrage. Chaucer makes a magpie-like raid on scholarly texts, perhaps more from conversations. The pilgrims are infinitely various. The sense of dramatic vitality is so strong the temptation to read the tales as principally an expression of the characters of their tellers is strong. Chaucer is a self-concealing and evasive character. This father of English poetry is a figure who eludes the biographer's grasp even more fully than Shakespeare. There are no private letters or journals, no anecdotal reminiscences of friends, and precious few autobiographical clues in the poems themselves. The tools for understanding Chaucer are literary history, philology and the history of patronage and court politics in the 14th century. These disciplines need to be part of a biographer’s strong suit if he or she is to excel in their recreation of Chaucer’s life. In dealing with the life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá none of these problems exist for the biographer. Chaucer’s audience in the imagination is "a miscellaneous company, of lettered London men, to be appropriately scandalized and delighted by the Wife of Bath and the fabliaux, flattered by the invitation to share in a gentleman scholar's easily carried burden of learning and intrigued by the
  • 14. novel expose of London low life in the Cook's Tale. The audience is, probably exclusively an audience of men. ‘‘Abdu’l-Bahá has no audience until 1928 more than a decade after He has finished writing the book. A mission to Genoa and Florence on the king's service in the early 1370s was especially important for Chaucer’s poetic development because it gave him the opportunity to discover the riches of Italian literature. Fifteen years later he began writing The Canterbury Tales his maturer reflections upon the life of men and women in society and in the Christian faith. They were written in the last dozen years of his life, 1387-1400. He was almost entirely occupied with writing 'The Canterbury Tales' in these last years. For Chaucer poetry was an accomplishment and a vehicle for selfdisplay, a means for his advancement at court rather than an activity of his profession. His poetry benefited his career and vice-versa: his earlier works, coinciding with his French connections, were influenced by French poetry, notably the great allegorical love vision of the Roman de la Rose, while his middle period, inspired by the Italian journey, was
  • 15. dominated by his version of the Troilus and Cressida story, written in imitation of Boccaccio's treatment of the same subject.21 He refrained from direct allusion to public events and it is difficult, unsafe, to make any deductions about specific connections between his life, his works and the events of the time. Some scholars prefer to see his work as chaotic and inexplicable. The comparisons and contrasts with the work of 'Abdu'l-Baha make a fascinating study to those interested in both Chaucer and the Baha'i Faith. But even those who hold no particular interest in Chaucer can find the contrasts and comparisons valuable in helping them understand the work of this Central Figure of the Baha'i Faith writing as He was at the very beginning of the Lesser Peace and the new Age the world was entering in all its tragic swiftness, amazing perplexity and fascinating juxtapositions. In my nearly fifty years of pioneering and sixty involved as I have been in the Baha'i community, I find this seminal work of 'Abdu'l-Baha’s absolutely crucial in my attempt to understand and deal with the complexities and problems that arise in Baha'i community life. It is as if 'Abdu'l-Baha has given me the Baha'i community in microcosm. Jonathan Bate, “Slim Biography and Slim Pickings: A Review of Peter Ackroyd’s Chaucer,” Telegraph.co.uk, 29 March 2004. 21
  • 16. Although He wrote the book nearly a century ago, it speaks to me about my life and so I pass the dialogue I have had with this book to you, dear reader….and a final word on Chaucer…. NO STRUGGLE TO INVENT Chaucer had a simplicity and directness of style. He was able to step into a child’s mind and an adult’s; indeed, he could take on the life, the mood and the personality of anyone or anything he knew or could know. That is the basis of the vividness, the individuality of his characters. He pleads authenticity, faithfulness to actual life and speech. -Ron Price with thanks to Collier’s Encyclopedia and Encyclopedia Britannica. Oh Father of English poetrythe King’s English-when English was finding its East Midland dialect and first being used in Parliament, some six hundred years ago1, whose poetry was in the language of the manin-the-street, with simplicity, naturalness, freshness and vitality—which we have recently rediscovered in our time and which I strive for in my poems and in what I write of history and character in
  • 17. my pioneering tale, pilgrimage-like across the world, painting some realistic portraiture, with no struggle to invent, only to suit my purpose. 1 George H. McKnight, The Evolution of the English Language: From Chaucer to the Twentieth Century Dover Publications Inc., NY, 1968(1928), p. 18.—25/5/97. __________________

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