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Recollections of Pilgrimage:
Nine Days with the Guardian in 1957

by Bill Washington

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Chapter 4

First meeting with the Guardian

Shoghi Effendi had told pilgrims - and had stressed this many times – that the essence of pilgrimage was to visit the holy Shrines of Bahá'u'lláh and the Báb; this was the purpose of pilgrimage. Yet our hearts are still attracted and attached to the' personal' – to the person of the Manifestation, to the person of those who came after Him – and the beloved Guardian was the last remnant of Bahá'u'lláh's family, His great-grandson, the scion of the Manifestation, and to that our hearts were still attached. So for many pilgrims during the time of the Guardian, Shoghi Effendi was himself the real focus of pilgrimage, and I guess this was so for me too. Pilgrimage was all about the Guardian: what did he say? What did he look like? Was he in good health? How was he?

In those days I was still a very new Bahá'í, inexperienced and lacking in any deep understanding. True – I had been ‘pioneering', but that was the thing to do! It meant little as a measure of real understanding of what the Faith was all about. Frank Wyss, who had been the year before, had primed me well. Drawing on his own experience, he had kindly told me all I needed to know. At his prompting, I had learned by heart the Tablet of Carmel, because he said that I would need to be able to chant it in the Shrine of the Báb. That never happened, but it was still in my memory for many years. He also told me I needed to read God Passes By – and this I did along the way, on the long sea voyage – because every question he had asked the Guardian received a kindly response, and then the comment and question: "I answered this in ‘God Passes By': haven't you read ‘God Passes By'?" It was good advice and I benefitted much from reading that precious book, but that never happened to me – perhaps because I never asked the Guardian any questions. But every pilgrimage is individual and different. The only thing that was common for all pilgrims of that time was, perhaps, the focus on ‘meeting with the Guardian'.

I was aware that each pilgrim, on their first evening in Haifa, would enter the dining room first - and alone - to be greeted by the Guardian. I was well prepared for this but, when the time came, felt a ‘rush' of anxiety and trepidation – unsure, I guess, of how I would feel, being alone with the one person whom all Bahá'ís longed to meet. As I entered the dining room and saw, for the first time, the short but stocky figure of the Guardian, standing beside the dining table, dressed in a camel-coloured overcoat (it was mid-winter and he has just come in from the cold), with the Turkish fez which he habitually wore at an angle on his head. But it was the smile and the eyes that entranced me – and as he embraced me, Persian style, which I was still unaccustomed to, I found I had to reach down to respond to his embrace and I realized how short in stature the Guardian was. I knew from my reading at that time that Bahá'u'lláh was small in stature – and all pilgrims became aware of that when viewing the couches He slept on in the various rooms He occupied in 'Akká and Bahji, but had not been aware that the Guardian was also so short. I learned later that ‘Abdu'l-Bahá was the tallest of the three, that Bahá'u'lláh was very short in stature, and the Guardian was only a little taller – between the two in height. Initially it was quite a shock but, after that first moment, the Guardian always seemed so tall, whether standing or sitting (which was how the Western pilgrims usually saw him) – the impact of his person was such that physical height did not matter, did not even register, as one was overwhelmed by his spiritual stature which seemed to tower above all else.

The person who greeted me is very clearly depicted in Rúhíyyih Khánum's book about the Guardian, The Priceless Pearl – itself a priceless record (the photo opposite page 377, which shows the Guardian preparing for the funeral of an old believer of 'Akká – a funeral which I probably attended during my pilgrimage.) That is how I remember the Guardian, physically.

But beyond that, there was something much more powerful in that first meeting. The Guardian's greeting expressed a welcome that is hard, even now, to express in words; it conveyed the feeling of a warm and welcoming embrace such as no other host could have done – it was truly a message that "this is your home". At that instant a feeling swept over me that I had truly "come home"; not the ‘home' that one grows up in or lives in, but a ‘spiritual home' – a ‘home' where one has always been, where one ‘belongs'. It was a strange feeling, and a feeling that persisted throughout the pilgrimage – a feeling that wherever I might be, this was my real ‘home'

Perhaps this is the essential memory that one carries through life after the experience of pilgrimage, that the World Centre is one's true home, and going on pilgrimage simply reminds one of this. I have heard other pilgrims over the years express similar feelings – that they felt strangely ‘at home' during their pilgrimage. Perhaps it is the close proximity that one attains to the mortal remains of the Manifestation – of two Manifestations, the Forerunner and the Supreme Manifestation of God – in Their Shrines that creates this feeling. One is as close as one can approach, in this physical realm, the spiritual world that is our true habitation, the ‘home' where our soul belongs, where it came from and where it must return. There is some reminder of this feeling in that most puzzling of the Persian Hidden Words No. 19, where Bahá'u'lláh says: "Have ye forgotten that true and radiant morn, when in those hallowed and blessed surroundings ye were all gathered in My presence beneath the shade of the tree of life, which is planted in the all-glorious paradise?

Of that first evening, I remember very little. The Guardian indicated to me where I was to sit and the others filed in and took their places. I think that on that occasion and other evenings later, I sat at the table on the other side to where the Guardian sat, because I can remember watching him eating, speaking – watching his every movement. He was fascinating to watch as he spoke much with his hands, as the French do – and I remembered hearing before that he was fluent in French (some of his early schooling had been in French) as well as Persian, Arabic and Turkish. Others at the table asked some questions, and much of the conversation was between the Guardian and Hand of the Cause Leroy Ioas, who was at that time Secretary-General of the International Bahá'í Council, and much of what they were talking about were issues that I was not familiar with and it all went over my head. It was rather overwhelming.

And this was another thing that I soon realized: not only were the pilgrims welcomed as though it was their own home and favoured with the experience of sharing the evening meal with the ‘Beloved of all hearts' but they were privy to the consultation process of the first truly international institution in the world, the forerunner of the Universal House of Justice. No doubt due to the pressure of time and the intensity of the work they were involved in, the evening meal time when the Guardian and the members of the International Bahá'í Council were together became a de facto meeting of the council, a time when the Guardian received reports of what council members were doing and they received his instructions. And the pilgrims fortunate enough to be there at the time, being part of the ‘family', were privy to all this consultation – and sometimes it covered issues that were still very confidential. But more of that later.

The International Bahá'í Council had been formed some six years earlier, in 1951 – though the creation of such a body had been in the mind of the Guardian since 1926 and steps to create the institution had been taken by him late in 1950 when he cabled a number of individual believers, inviting them to join him in Haifa to assist with his ever-increasing work. Those so invited had been Dr Lotfullah Hakim, a Persian believer who had been pioneering for many years in England (he had been there when the Guardian was studying at Oxford, prior to the passing of ‘Abdu'l-Bahá); Jessie and Ethel Revell, two sisters whose mother had been one of the early believers in America and whose home in Philadelphia ‘Abdu'l-Bahá had visited during His travels in North America; Amelia Collins, a generous supporter of the work of the Guardian for many years; and Mason Remey, who had joined the Faith in Paris during the time of the Master and was then living in Florence, Italy. To this group, along with two others - Gladys and Ben Weeden, who were already there assisting the Guardian in his work - he announced his intention of constituting, with them, a council to assist him with the international work of the Cause, and this intention he announced to the Bahá'í world on 9 January 1951.

During that year Gladys and Ben Weeden were forced to leave Haifa, due to poor health, and Leroy Ioas, long-serving member of the American community and corporate executive with a major American rail-road company, offered his services to the Guardian through a message sent with Amelia Collins, an offer that was eagerly accepted by the Guardian. The appointment of the council was announced in a cable on 8 March 1952, with a membership of Rúhíyyih Khánum, liaison between the council and the Guardian; Mason Remey (President); Amelia Collins (Vice-President); Ugo Giachery (member-at-large); Leroy Ioas (Secretary-General) – these four had very recently been appointed also as Hands of the Cause, as Rúhíyyih Khánum was some days later, on 26 March, following the death of her father – Jessie Revell (Treasurer); Ethel Revell and Lotfullah Hakim (Western and Eastern Assistant Secretary). Membership of the council was increased in May 1955 with the appointment of Sylvia Ioas. All members lived at the Western Pilgrim House, with the exception of Amelia Collins, who had a room in the House of ‘Abdu'l-Bahá, Lotfullah Hakim, and Ugo Giachery who remained domiciled in Rome, Italy, from where he was able to assist the Guardian immensely with the purchase and shipping of marble for the construction of the Shrine of the Báb and the International Archives building.

The council operated informally, with infrequent meetings as all members were busy with tasks allotted them by the Guardian. As Rúhíyyih Khánum explains in her book The Priceless Pearl: "… its members received their instructions from him individually, in the informal atmosphere of the dinners at the Pilgrim House table, and not formally as a body …" And that is precisely what I witnessed and experienced, and the pilgrims were all privy to this consultation between the Guardian and his council, and some of it was truly momentous.

During the nine days that were to come, some of the pilgrims who were there when I arrived completed their allotted period and had left, while others had arrived – no doubt each one experiencing the same first-day feelings as I had, although for one of these I'm sure the experience was different. That was a pilgrim who had arrived while I was in Bahji for two days – so I did not personally experience his arrival but rely on the story as told by Hand of the Cause Leroy Ioas at a later time. But I include it here because it was part of my pilgrimage ‘experience', and I feel it speaks volumes for at least one aspect of the Guardian's multi-faceted personality.

Leroy Ioas told the story at the Intercontinental Conference in Djakarta in 1958, one of a series of conferences planned by the Guardian to mark the midway point of the Ten Year Crusade. As it turned out, with his untimely passing in November 1957, these conferences became tributes to his memory – each one attended by his own appointed representative who spoke lovingly of their experiences with the beloved Guardian. The conferences were held in Kampala, Sydney, Chicago, Frankfurt, and the fifth was planned for Djakarta but, as the political situation in Indonesia at that time was such that many believers from other Asian communities were not permitted to attend, the conference was held in two locations – Djakarta and Singapore. Leroy Ioas's talk about the beloved Guardian was given at Djakarta, which a number of Australian believers were able to attend.

Mr Ioas related the story of a pilgrim who arrived on the steps of the Western Pilgrim House and, as Mr Ioas himself said, appeared so shabbily dressed that he was about to send him around to the side entrance where the poor were often provided with food, when he announced himself as a pilgrim. His name was Charles Dunning. Mr Ioas led him to the room where he was to sleep, but felt deeply disturbed that anyone would come on pilgrimage in such shabby clothing. So he asked the newcomer whether he was aware that on pilgrimage he would be meeting with the Guardian of the Cause, and said he hoped he had brought clothes suitable for such an occasion. Charles beamed and said, "Yes, I have," indicating the old and worn suit he was wearing. Mr Ioas said he left him then without a further word, but still felt terribly concerned.

That evening Mr Dunning was ushered in first, as was the custom, and the members of the household including Mr Ioas followed. When they entered the room, Shoghi Effendi was standing beside Charles still embracing him, with his arm around his shoulder and, looking straight at Mr Ioas, said: "This man is a Knight of Bahá'u'lláh. He will sit on my right." – and led the still beaming Charles to his seat of honour beside him. Mr Ioas said that he felt as small as a 5 cent piece and had learned a signal lesson from it: that the Guardian did not judge people as our society does; he always judged people not by what they were or how they looked, but by what service they had rendered Bahá'u'lláh. That was the all-important thing.

As I say, I did not experience that evening but on our return from Bahji, I did sit at the dining table for two more nights, and watched Charles Dunning tell the Guardian virtually how to run the Faith, and the Guardian loved him so much, and encouraged him. Charles was a Yorkshireman, with that delightful brogue, elderly – he must have been in his early seventies – but full of spirit. He had joined the Faith in Manchester in 1948, recognising instantly the truth of the Revelation of Bahá'u'lláh, and within a fortnight of declaring had offered to pioneer to Belfast, in Ireland, one of the most difficult goals of the teaching plan of the time. Here, in an atmosphere of "terrifying bitterness" as he later described it, he learned what it needs to be a pioneer, and with the launch of the Ten Year Crusade in 1953, he offered himself for another most difficult goal of Orkney, the island group north of Scotland, and settled in Kirkwall. Here again he met with deep-seated prejudice and direct opposition, but he persevered – with the qualities he had, of tenacity, devotion and sacrifice – and laid the foundation for the Faith to be established in those remote islands. He was, indeed, a true Knight of Bahá'u'lláh, and it was these qualities which the Guardian could see in him, as well as the service he had rendered the Cause, that endeared him so much. So, again, that was another side of the Guardian that was revealed during my pilgrimage: he valued humour – he had a great sense of humour himself – and highly valued the down- to-earth qualities that Charles possessed.

Some years later in England I heard another story about Charles' pilgrimage – or, rather, I was asked to confirm whether it had happened at all, and the story was that the Guardian had commented that some certain task may be too difficult for the British Bahá'ís, and Charles had instantly responded: "Bunkum (that's rubbish), Guardian, bunkum. They will do whatever you ask of them." I could not confirm it, as it did not happen while I was with him, but I assured the person that it was well in keeping with what I had heard from Charles, and I could see him saying just that.

Speaking of the Guardian's sense of humour, it was very subtle and one incidence I remember was when he was speaking of the goals that had been opened and how some of the pioneers had been forced to leave their pioneering posts after a very short period, and he commented that this was a case of a goal "regaining its virginity – something that was not usually possible, it could only happen in the Faith" – and he said it so quickly and moved on, that it seemed to have gone past the others at the table, though I could see a glimmer of a smile on his face as he said it – and later that evening it came up in discussion, as others had caught it and felt the same way, and Rúhíyyih Khánum assured us that it was typical of his humour.

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