Thornton Chase: chapter 17 Chapter Seventeen

A NEW NAME

      Immediately upon his return, Thornton began to write about his pilgrimage to Akka. Surprisingly, he says little of the trip in his letters to friends; and when he does, the passages were often later incorporated into his book about his experience, In Galilee.[1] Probably the reason that few letters describing the pilgrimage survive is because Thornton wrote the original version of the book as a letter to circulate among his friends. The Thornton Chase Papers contain the original typescript of In Galilee, which consists of a single forty-five-page letter, addressed anonymously to "Dear Friend in the Cause of Truth." By December 1907 the letter was completed and was being copied for others by Gertrude Buikema, a Chicago Bahá'í.[2]

      The typescript immediately proved popular. A Hawaiian Bahá'í wrote that she had been "living in Acca" ever since reading it, and that "I now feel like I know my Lord. . . I have caught a glimpse of heaven." Chase was asked to publish the typescript as a book. The Bahai Publishing Society had no money for the printing, consequently the cost was borne by several "intimate friends" of Chase. Thornton's business travels slowed the proofreading of the galleys, but on 19 August 1908 two-thousand copies of the book came off the press.[3] It was extensively illustrated by photographs that Thornton Chase had taken with his own cameras and which he had developed himself.

      In Galilee is characterized by a kind of soberness, best commented upon by Chase himself:

      We find on our return here that the friends look with eagerness to us for some great message, something new and strange, and some seem disappointed that we do not tell them of marvelous miracles, appearances, sensations, or experiences. It is not easy, indeed not possible to meet such expectations. One can describe the appearance of Abdul-Baha' as that of any man, but that is only the outward, not the reality. That which is born of flesh is flesh, and that which is of the Spirit is Spirit. The outer can be told, that which appeals to the record of the senses; that which is inwardly perceived, although sure and certain, can not be told; it can only be experienced.[4]

      But In Galilee's success can be attributed to Thornton's remarkable ability to describe the Spirit as well as the flesh. In a sense, the "marvelous miracles," the "sensations and experiences" are there, but they are `Abdu'l-Bahá's qualities and the experience of them. Those who expected, while on pilgrimage, to see `Abdu'l-Bahá behaving in a spiritually superhuman fashion--performing acts such as healing people and predicting the future--were not disappointed, because he had the ability to be all things to all people. There are stories in pilgrim's notes of `Abdu'l-Bahá's healing people, or appearing to them in dreams, or predicting events that later occurred in their lives. But Thornton's vision was deeper--he had no need for superficial miracles--and his pen was able to recount his more profound observations.

      Thornton's pilgrimage also made a significant impression on `Abdu'l-Bahá. In Thornton's presence `Abdu'l-Bahá revealed a tablet for him. In it `Abdu'l-Bahá reiterated the importance of spiritual and loving living, thereby reinforcing the potentialities of Thornton's character:

O Lord! O Beloved!

      The truthful servant, Mr. Chase, abandoned home, left his native land and crossed the great ocean until he reached the shore of the Holy Land and arrived at the Blessed Spot. He laid his head upon the threshold of the sacred dust; he implored and supplicated the Gateway of Unity and sought confirmation and strength. . . .

      O Lord! Confirm him, aid and strengthen him through the hosts of the Kingdom, so that he may become the cause of the spread of the Word of God, the cause of joy and happiness to the friends and the means of awakening the negligent. Thou art the Mighty and Powerful and Thou art the Precious, the Almighty, the Wise!

      O thou truthful servant of the Beauty of ABHA! With a power of the Kingdom, a divine attraction and a spiritual breath, return thou to that land; fill to overflowing the lives and hearts with the wine of the love of God; be the cause of joy to all and the means of unity and agreement to all; because through unity and agreement do the beloved of God hoist the standard, shine with the light of the love of God and are tender to one another.

      This is the attitude of the beloved of God and this is the example and life of the sons of the Kingdom of God.[5]

      Thornton received a translation of the tablet in Chicago on 5 June 1907, the thirteenth anniversary of his accepting Bahá'u'lláh. Two months later he received yet another tablet, in response to some questions about which he had written `Abdu'l-Bahá. In addition to answering his inquiries, it contained a momentous statement:

O thou herald of the Kingdom!

      Thank God that thou didst come to the holy shrine, put thy head upon the holy dust, reached the gathering place of the spiritual ones, became a member of the assembly of the Merciful, found friendship with Abdul-Baha and with utmost love and joy spent a few days there. Then thou didst receive permission to return so that thou mayest serve the Kingdom on the continent of America and show (to the people) the ways of heaven and lead them toward the Lord of Hosts. I hope that, with a divine strength and a godlike personality, with a heavenly guidance, with a divine attraction and with a spiritual zeal, thou wilt educate the people. . . .

      O thou firm one in the Covenant! We give thee Thahbet [Thábit][6] (the Firm) for a name, so that this name be an example of firmness, and in the future thou mayest, even more than before, be confirmed in service, and upon thee be El-Baha-el-Abha [the glory of the Most Glorious]![7]

      `Abdu'l-Bahá often conferred titles on individuals. Americans would write and ask for a name for their newborn child, and `Abdu'l-Bahá would suggest the name of a Bahá'í martyr or a biblical personage. This was how Ruh Ullah Agnew and Joseph Ioas had received their names.[8] One American woman who wrote beautiful music was given the title of Shahnáz, "melody." Lua Getsinger, one of the most zealous American Bahá'í woman teachers, was given the title of lívá, "banner." Edward and Carrie Kinney were given the names afá and vafá, "serenity" and "fidelity" respectively.[9] Only rarely did the Americans adopt the titles as their legal names, though they were often called by them.

      But thábit was a title of quite a different quality. As `Abdu'l-Bahá explained to the Bahá'ís of Philadelphia in 1911, "It is easy to advance toward the Kingdom, but it is difficult to remain firm and steadfast. Therefore endeavor ye as much as ye can to make your faith firm like unto a well-rooted tree and produce blossoms and fruits."[10] His sister, Bahíyyih Khánum, once said that "all the virtues of humankind are summed up in the one word `steadfastness', if we but act according to its laws."[11] Bahá'u'lláh described steadfastness as "the first and foremost duty prescribed unto men, next to the recognition of Him Who is the Eternal Truth" and "the king of acts."[12]

      Thus `Abdu'l-Bahá had conferred upon Thornton Chase a title that, for a Bahá'í, represented the pinnacle of spiritual aspiration. The title was not one to be conferred lightly. Thábit simultaneously represented Thornton's great potential and his significant spiritual progress.

      Thornton was overwhelmed by the title. To Mírzá Munír Zayn he wrote "O my dear Brother: pray to God for me that this servant may prove worthy of that glorious name!"[13] Even four and a half years later he still felt unworthy. In December 1911 he noted to Ida Finch, a Seattle Bahá'í, that the name was a test similar to the one Jesus had given to Peter by calling him by the title of "rock"; and Peter had failed the test of steadfastness, and denied his Lord three times.[14] To `Abdu'l-Bahá, Thornton expressed his feelings most fully:

      Thou hast offered to this servant the name "Thahbet"--the "Firm."

      O dearest Lord! Pray for this servant that he shall remain in all humility steadfast, and be confirmed in the Kingdom of El Abha, until that name shall become the crown of his existence. Praise be to His Holy Name--

      O Abdul-Baha: Accept this servant as Thy servant and guide him to a wise, true and right service in the Kingdom.[15]

      Thornton did not reject the title given him by `Abdu'l-Bahá, but took it as a challenge and guide to his spiritual development. `Abdu'l-Bahá wrote a tablet of reply to express pleasure at Thornton's reaction and to explain further the significance of the name:

O thou Thahbet (Firm) in the Covenant!

      Thy letter was received. It indicated firmness and steadfastness; therefore, it gave me joy and gladness.

      Today the greatest of all affairs in the Cause is firmness and steadfastness. A tree will not give fruit unless it be firmly rooted. A foundation will not last unless it be firm. There is nothing in this world of man greater than firmness. A soul who is firm will become a son of the Kingdom of God and will be confirmed with the power of the Holy Spirit.

      For this reason I have named thee Thahbet (meaning firmness) and I ask the True One and supplicate Him that thou shalt remain firm in the Cause of God as an unshakable mountain and that the whirlwinds of tests shall never have any effect upon thee; nay, rather that thou shalt be the cause of the firmness of others.

      With me thou art beloved and I ask God that thou mayest become the lighthouse of guidance in those regions and that thou mayest shine with the lights of oneness in this world of man.[16]

      Thornton had made a very strongly positive impression on `Abdu'l-Bahá; subsequently he received many tablets from `Abdu'l-Bahá. The title and the tablets encouraged Thornton to make a greater effort to sacrifice for the Bahá'í Faith and be an example to others of the Bahá'í spirit. It also fostered his literary effort to capture the essence of the Bahá'í Faith and put it on paper, for others to consider and accept.

Footnotes

[1]For example, see Thornton Chase to Helen Goodall (copy), 27 June 1907, TC. The second paragraph on the first page appears in modified form on pages 33 and 34 in Thornton Chase, In Galilee, 2d ed. (Los Angeles: Kalimát Press, 1985). The last half of page two appears, modified, on page 50. The description of inventions in the middle of the third page appears on pages 53 and 54. The bottom of the third page contains the description of a rainbow that appears on pages 11 and 12. Similarly, Thornton Chase to Mrs. and Mrs. Bailey (copy), 19 June 1907, TC, has many passages that appeared in In Galilee. The first paragraph may be found on pages 24 and 25. The first paragraph on the second page may be found on page 29. The second paragraph appears on page 55. The text on the third and fourth pages of the letter appears on pages 56, 58, 59, and 60. The text of the fifth page appears on pages 48-49. Only page six seems not to have been used by Chase in his later work. Many of the passages in these two letters are the most distinct and succinct ones in In Galilee; for this reason, many appeared in the previous chapter.

[2]Thornton Chase to Harlan Ober (copy), 1 November 1907, 2, TC.

[3]Agnes Alexander to unknown (copy), January 1908, TC, quotes the Hawaiian Bahá'í's praise of Chase's letter-version of the typescript. Its subsidy is mentioned in Albert Windust to Ethel Rosenberg (copy), 29 February 1908, House of Spirituality Records, National Bahá'í Archives, Wilmette, Ill. The size of the print run and the time the book came off the press are given in Thornton Chase to Ethel Rosenberg (copy), 5 September 1908, 1, TC.

[4]Thornton Chase to Mr. and Mrs. Bailey (copy), 19 June 1907, 1-2, TC.

[5]`Abdu'l-Bahá to Thornton Chase, revealed in Akka on 15 April 1907, translated by Ameen Fareed in Chicago on 5 June 1907, in Tablets of Abdul-Baha Abbas, volume 2 (Chicago: Bahai Publishing Society, 1915) 340.

[6] Pronounced in Persian saw-bet. Today it is usually translated "steadfast."

[7]`Abdu'l-Bahá to Thornton Chase, translated by Mirza Raffie in Chicago on 8 August 1907, in Tablets of Abdul-Baha Abbas 2:341-43.

[8]The Agnews received a tablet, no longer extant, that gave their son his name. The source of the Ioas baby's name is mentioned in Viola Tuttle, Margarite Ullrich, Monroe Ioas, Paul Ioas, and Joseph Ioas, "Part of the Baha'i History of the Family of Charles and Maria Ioas," TS, 10, author's personal papers.

[9]O. Z. Whitehead, Some Early Bahá'ís of the West (Oxford: George Ronald, 1976) 48-49.

[10]`Abdu'l-Bahá to the believers of God and the maidservants of the Merciful in Philadelphia, translated by Mirza Ahmad Sohrab on 28 April 1911, in Star of the West 2.5 (5 June 1911): 5.

[11]Bahíyyih Khánum, in Bahíyyih Khánum, The Greatest Holy Leaf: A Compilation from Bahá'í sacred texts and the writings of the Guardian of the Faith and Bahíyyih Khánum's own letters, comp. Bahá'í World Centre (Haifa: Bahá'í World Centre, 1982) 148.

[12]Bahá'u'lláh, in Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, comp. trans. Shoghi Effendi (Wilmette, Ill.: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1939) 290.

[13]Thornton Chase to Mírzá Munír Zayn (copy), 27 February 1908, 3, TC.

[14]Thornton Chase to Ida Finch (copy), 17 December 1911, TC.

[15]Thornton Chase to `Abdu'l-Bahá (copy), 27 February 1908, 1, TC.

[16]`Abdu'l-Bahá to Thornton Chase, in Tablets of Abdul-Baha Abbas 2:343-44. The tablet has conflicting translation information; one source says it was translated by Mirza Ahmad Sohrab on 16 July 1908, another that it was translated by Mirza Raffie on 19 July 1908. Perhaps it was translated twice.
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