Hands of the Cause of God:
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Each of the Hands of the Cause had some special ability, some special field of interest: Dr Muhajir’s had been teaching the Faith; Mr Faizi’s was child education – and John Robarts’ was ‘prayer’, especially the Long Obligatory Prayer.
Long before he visited Australia – and he made only one visit there – he was known for the reliance he placed on prayer and how he stressed its importance in any gathering with the friends. We were to learn at first hand how this came about and what had made this such an important facet of his Bahá’í life. We had transcripts of talks he had given and reference was made to it by others in books and so on.
His visit to Australia came in 1972 when he travelled to all the major cities and inspired the friends in achieving the goals of the Nine Year Plan that was then moving the world community towards mass teaching. We were living in Melbourne at the time of his visit and three gatherings had been planned for the fairly large and wide-spread community there. As it happened, the first meeting was well attended by those in the east of the city; the second gathering in a central area was even larger, as news of the thought-provoking and inspiring comments he had to share reached the friends; and the third gathering in the west was huge – for a home meeting – over eighty of the friends crammed into the living space that was available, which was crammed even in a fairly large home.
But the friends who met with him then and heard him speaking about the use of prayer and teaching were all greatly enthused and inspired by his visit. When he left Melbourne the airport departure lounge resembled a ‘national convention’ with so many of the friends gathered to bid him farewell. In his talks with the friends he stressed the importance of using the prayers of Bahá’u’lláh, particularly the Long Obligatory Prayer, and he set us on the course of using the Remover of Difficulties 500 times.
We learnt, too, where all this had come from. Mr Robarts told us that in the very early days of their pioneering in Africa, they had to seek medical treatment for some eye problems their young daughter, Nina, was experiencing. It was threatening her sight and the doctors gave them very little hope. But John and Audrey had more than ‘hope’; they had the Bahá’í prayers and the faith to use them. This was when they first learned to use the repetition of the Báb’s Remover of Difficulties. They found in God Passes By reference to this by the Guardian, where Bahá’u’lláh is reported – by Mírzá Áqá Ján – to have said: “Bid them recite: Is there any Remover of Difficulties save God … Tell them to repeat it five hundred times, nay, a thousand times …” They used the repetition of this for the healing of their little girl, and the doctors were amazed – they said it should not have happened but her condition improved and her sight was saved. This and many similar experiences had confirmed their faith in the use of prayer.
Later in 1990 I was able to visit John Robarts again, briefly, just one year before he left this earthly life, in Rawdon, Quebec, and also met their daughter, Nina Tinnion, now grown and still with good eye sight. We spoke of this incident so long ago in Africa, and Audrey confirmed the story we had heard about the use of the Remover of Difficulties and their lifelong reliance on prayer.
Mr Robarts – he insisted we all call him ‘John’ but I find it difficult, even after all these years – told us many stories about the use of prayer. One he related was of a visit he and another experienced Bahá’í of that time had made to a community that was experiencing difficulties of disharmony, and the teaching committee had sent them to consult with and help the friends to resolve their issues. After their initial meeting with the community, they had returned to their hotel room and his companion had said to him: “John, these friends are not using the Long Obligatory Prayer. That is their problem.” He said he was astounded. “How can you say such a thing? Prayer is so private; you cannot know.” His friend had then said: “Yes, I do know. Communities where the Long Obligatory Prayer is used just do not have these sorts of problems.”
He also spoke of the nourishing effect that prayer has on our souls – and he said that we can certainly survive on ‘astronauts’ food – concentrated and processed to the bare minimum of nourishment – but he said, “who would eat that when a delicious, cooked meal is offered us?” That was how he described the Long Obligatory Prayer that Bahá’u’lláh has provided us with – not only nourishing but delightful to the taste, and so refreshing. It was a very convincing argument.
John Robarts suffered most of his life from asthma and bronchitis, though he hid it well. At one of the community meetings in Melbourne he had noticed someone light up a cigarette, and had ceased talking, saying he just could not talk if someone in the room was smoking. The cigarette was quickly doused.
At the time of his visit Mr Robarts was not in good health; he had consulted a naturopath doctor in Adelaide and was on a strict vegetarian diet. The doctor was a Bahá’í who herself had been ill and this had led to a study and understanding of more natural healing practices. Gertie Schmelzle had treated Rúhíyyih Khánum and some members of the Universal House of Justice during a pilgrimage to the World Centre; and when she fell ill in Japan during a teaching tour in 1978, Rúhíyyih Khánum broke off the tour and came to Australia to seek further treatment from Mrs Schmelzle.
While John Robarts was meeting with the friends in Adelaide, where she lived, her husband Gerhardt had sidled up to him at a meeting and said that his wife may be able to help him; he had consulted her and this resulted in his being on a strict diet. Aware of this and knowing Mrs Schmelzle’s background – Hiroko was also receiving treatment from her – we arranged to take him for a vegetarian meal after one of his meetings. He was happy with this; he loved his steak but was permitted that only once a week, and was content to stick to vegetarian food for the remainder of the week. Ordering dinner at the small restaurant, he had said to Hiroko: “If you can eat it, then I can, so you order for me.”
After dinner he invited us to come back to his room at the hotel for a visit. We were a little reluctant because we had our two young children with us and felt it may be too much for him, but he insisted, saying that while travelling he was missing his own young grandchildren. We realized during the evening that this was true; he was a ‘family’ person and missed having them around him. Little do we appreciate the sacrifice that souls such as John Robarts made in order to serve the needs of the Bahá’í community around the world. They, too, have their lives and their families, but they are prepared to surrender these for the good of the wider community. Later in 1985, while at the U.K. national headquarters in Rutland Gate, London, I watched a youth gathering planning a teaching trip to the northern islands – fairly tough territory – and was very impressed by one of the boys there. Later through enquiry I learned that he was a grandson of John and Audrey; I think it was a son of their youngest boy, Patrick, who had accompanied them to Basutoland – it was Bechuanaland in those days.1 I remembered that Mr Faizi had once said that the families of pioneers never really ‘suffer’ from the deprivations of pioneering.
As soon as we entered his room, he switched on a cassette player with the tape of some music which he said was his favourite – at that time. It was a well-known jazz and blues saxophone player of that decade; he said he often listened to it in the quiet evenings while travelling, as he found it very relaxing. We also enjoyed it.
The only other time I was able to see John Robarts was while visiting Canada in 1990; I had work- related responsibilities in Nova Scotia and British Colombia, and a short detour enabled me to visit Rawdon, a small town north of Montreal, where the Robarts had made their home after returning from Africa. John’s health had reached the point where he could no longer be cared for at home and Audrey had secured a room for him in a nursing home within walking distance of their home where she could visit him every day – Nina and her husband, Ken Tinnion, were also living there at the time, and I understand the families of his three sons often visited. So he had his family around him, as he would have wished.
His health had deteriorated considerably and when I went with Audrey to see him, I was not even sure that he knew I was a Bahá’í – certainly with all the friends he had met around the world, he could not be expected to remember faces. He was more concerned about whether Audrey could clip his finger nails that visit than realizing that he had a visitor. But when I went to leave, after staying only a short while, he rose up in his bed, raised one hand above his head in a brief salute and farewelled me with a glorious “Alláh’u’Abhá!” With a brilliant smile on his face – I think he realized I was a Bahá’í and nothing else counted - it was the same John Robarts I had remembered from long ago. The spirit was still there and very much alive.
John Robarts’ prime characteristic, as I remember – aside from his intense devotion to the Cause and his absolute reliance on prayer – was his wonderful sense of humour and his ability to use stories to highlight some point he wished to make. He had that ability to make the ‘players’ in his stories very real – you always knew people like that – and so the message he wished to convey was also very real, and you remembered the point he was making. And his kindness – I recall in a talk he gave at the London Congress in 1963, his speaking about a pioneering couple who, with the necessary passports and visas, had offered to pioneer to different goals, far apart. And he had hoped in his heart that this would not be needed, as he could not bear to see such a couple separated. He felt for people, and everyone was part of his much loved family.
I close this brief remembrance with words from the obituary that Nina prepared for The Bahá’í World, volume 20, because it expresses my memories of him far more eloquently than I can do:
“He continually invited, urged and guided the Bahá’ís to connect with that Source of all light that guided him, that he so clearly saw lovingly surrounding us all, ready to rush to our assistance if we would but take the first step … John seemed to walk the mystical path with practical feet and a penetrating eye. It was as though his vision extended beyond this material world and into the spiritual realm, enabling him to see straight to the heart of matters, to answer the unspoken question, to respond quickly and appropriately to the unuttered need.”
Just to round off the record, I met up with this ‘young boy’ some years later in Melbourne, Australia, at a Huqúqu’lláh conference. He was, at that time (October 2010) a Deputy Trustee of Huqúqu’lláh in China – Adam Robarts – and had come for the conference. He had completed his studies in architecture at Canterbury University, U.K. and, with his wife, Karyn, was running an interior decorating business in China, with offices in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. One could easily discern in him his grandfather’s spiritual qualities.
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