Memories of the Sojourn of 'Abdu'l-Bahá in ParisBahá'í World, Vol. 6 (1934-1936)
Wilmette, IL: Bahá'í Publishing Committee, 1937
‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s first stay in Paris in 1911 was documented by Lady Blomfield, a Bahá’í from London, who penned this memoir of the four month visit. The notes taken by her daughters and their friend Beatrice Platt were later published as the book Paris Talks.
Much has been written of the journeys of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, ‘Abbás Effendi. Having been released from the prison fortress of ‘Akká, after forty years of captivity, he set himself to obey the sacred charge laid upon him by his Father, Bahá’u’lláh. Accordingly he undertook a three years’ mission into the Western World. He left the Holy Land and came to Europe in 1911.
During that and the two following years, he visited Switzerland, England, Scotland, France, America, Germany and Hungary.
When the days of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s first visit to London (in the autumn of 1911) were drawing to a close, his friends, Monsieur and Madame Dreyfus-Barney, prepared an apartment for his residence whilst in the French capital. It was charmingly furnished, sunny, spacious, situated in the Avenue de Camöens (No. 4) whence a flight of steps led into the Trocadero Gardens. Here the Master often took solitary, restful walks. Sheltered in this modern, comfortable Paris flat, he whom we revered, with secretary servitors and a few close friends, sojourned for an unforgettable nine weeks.
I shall try to describe some of the events which took place, but these events owe their significance to the atmosphere of otherworldliness which encompassed the Master and his friends.
We, at least some of us, had the impression that these happenings became, as it were, symbols of Sacred Truths.
Who is this, with branch of roses in his hand, coming down the steps? A picturesque group of friends - some Iránians wearing the kola, and a few Europeans following him, little children coming up to him. They hold on to his cloak, confiding and fearless. He gives the roses to them, caressingly lifting one after another into his arms, smiling the while that glorious smile which wins all hearts. Again, we saw a cabman stop his fiacre, take off his cap and hold it in his hands, gazing amazed, with an air of reverence, whilst the majestic figure, courteously acknowledging his salutation, passed by with that walk which a friend had described as “that of a king or of a shepherd.”
Another scene. A very poor quarter in Paris - Sunday morning - groups of men and women inclined to be rowdy. Foremost amongst them a big man brandishing a long loaf of bread in his hand, shouting, gesticulating, dancing.
Into this throng walked ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, on his way from a Mission Hall where he had been addressing a very poor congregation at the invitation of their Pastor. The boisterous man with the loaf, suddenly seeing him, stood still. He then proceeded to lay about him lustily with his staff of life, crying “Make way, make way! He is my Father, make way.” The Master passed through the midst of the crowd, now become silent and respectfully saluting him. “Thank you, my dear friends, thank you,” he said smiling round upon them. The poor were always his especially beloved friends. He was never happier than when surrounded by them, the lowly of heart!
Shortly before Bahá’u’lláh “returned to the shelter of Heaven,” He laid a sacred charge upon his eldest son, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (literally Servant of God, the Most Glorious). This charge was that he should carry the renewed Gospel of Peace and Justice, Love and Truth, into all lands, with special insistence on the translating of all praiseworthy ideals into action. What profit is there in agreeing that these ideals are good? Unless they are put into practice, they are useless.
I hope to indicate, albeit too inadequately, something of that Messenger, the “Trusted One,” who came out of an Eastern prison to bring his Father’s message to the bewildered nations of earth. During the Paris visit, as it had been in London, daily happenings took on the atmosphere of spiritual events. Some of these episodes I will endeavour to describe as well as I can remember them.
Every morning, according to his custom, the Master expounded the Principles of the Teaching of Bahá’u’lláh to those who gathered round him, the learned and the unlearned, eager and respectful. They were of all nationalities and creeds, from the East and from the West, including Theosophists, Agnostics, Materialists, Spiritualists, Christian Scientists, Social Reformers, Hindus, Súfís, Muslims, Buddhists, Zoroastrians and many others. Often came workers in various Humanitarian societies, who were striving to reduce the miseries of the poor.
These received special sympathy and blessing.
‘Abdu’l-Bahá spoke in Iránian which was translated into French by Monsieur and Madame Dreyfus-Barney. My two daughters, Mary and Ellinor, our friend Miss Beatrice Platt, and I took notes of these “Talks” from day to day. At the request of the Master, these notes were arranged and published in English. It will be seen that in these pages are gathered together the precepts of those Holy Souls who, being Individual Rays of the ONE were, in divers times and countries, incarnated here on Earth to lead the spiritual evolution of human kind.
The words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá can be put on to paper, but how describe the smile, the earnest pleading, the loving-kindness, the radiant vitality, and at times the awe-inspiring authority of his spoken words? The vibrations of his voice seemed to enfold the listeners in an atmosphere of the Spirit, and to penetrate to the very core of being. We were experiencing the transforming radiance of the Sun of Truth; henceforth, material aims and unworthy ambitions shrank away into their trivial obscure retreats.
‘Abdu’l-Bahá would often answer our questions before we asked them. Sometimes he would encourage us to put them into words.
“And now your question?” he said.
I answered, “I am wondering about the next world, whether I shall ask to be permitted to come back here to Earth to help?”
“Why should you wish to return here? In My Father’s House are many mansions—many, many worlds! Why would you desire to come back to this particular planet?”
The visit of one man made a profound impression upon us: “O ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, I have come from the French Congo, where I have been engaged in mitigating the hardships of some of the natives. For sixteen years I have worked in that country.”
“It was a great comfort to me in the darkness of my prison to know the work which you were doing.”
Explanations were not necessary when coming to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá!
One day a widow in deepest mourning came. Weeping bitterly she was unable to utter a word.
Knowing her heart’s grief, “Do not weep,” said ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, wiping away the tears from the piteous face. “Do not weep! Be happy! It will be well with the boy. Bring him to see me in a few days.”
On her way out, this mother said, “O my child! He is to go through a dangerous operation today. What can I do!”
“The Master has told you what to do. Remember his words: ‘Do not weep, it will be well with the boy. Be happy, and in a few days bring him to see me.’”
In a few days the mother brought her boy to the Master, perfectly well.
One evening at the home of Monsieur and Madame Dreyfus-Barney, an artist was presented to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.
“Thou art very welcome. I am happy to see thee. All true art is a gift of the Holy Spirit.”
“What is the Holy Spirit?”
“It is the Sun of Truth, O Artist!”
“Where, O where, is the Sun of Truth?”
“The Sun of Truth is everywhere. It is shining on the whole world.”
“What of the dark night, when the Sun is not shining?”
“The darkness of night is past, the Sun has risen.”
“But, Master! how shall it be with the blinded eyes that cannot see the Sun’s splendor? And what of the deaf ears that cannot hear those who praise its beauty?”
“I will pray that the blind eyes may be opened, that the deaf ears may be unstopped, and that the hearts may have grace to understand.”
As ‘Abdu’l-Bahá spoke, the troubled mien of the Artist gave place to a look of relief, satisfied understanding, joyous emotion.
Thus, interview followed interview. Church dignitaries of various branches of the Christian Tree came. Some earnestly desirous of finding new aspects of the Truth—“the wisdom that buildeth up, rather than the knowledge that puffeth up.” Others there were who stopped their ears lest they should hear and understand.
One afternoon, a party of the latter type arrived. They spoke words of bigotry, of intolerance, of sheer cruelty in their bitter condemnation of all who did not accept their own particular dogma, showing themselves obsessed by “the hate of man, disguised as love of God”—a thin disguise to the penetrating eyes of the Master! Perhaps they were dreading the revealing light of Truth which he sought to shed upon the darkness of their outworn ecclesiasticism. The new revelation was too great for their narrowed souls and fettered minds.
The heart of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was saddened by this interview, which had tired him exceedingly. When he referred to this visit there was a look in his eyes as if loving pity were blended with profound disapproval, as though he would cleanse the defiled temple of Humanity from the suffocating diseases of the soul! Then he uttered these words in a voice of awe-inspiring authority,
“Jesus Christ is the Lord of Compassion, and these men call themselves by His Name!
Jesus is ashamed of them!”
He shivered as with cold, drawing his ‘abá closely about him, with a gesture as if sternly repudiating their misguided outlook.
The Japanese Ambassador to a European capital (Viscount Arawaka—Madrid) was staying at the Hôtel d’Jéna. This gentleman and his wife had been told of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s presence in Paris, and she was anxious to have the privilege of meeting him.
“I am very sad,” said her Excellency. “I must not go out this evening as my cold is severe and I leave early in the morning for Spain. If only there were a possibility of seeing him!”
This was told to the Master, who had just returned after a long, tiring day.
“Tell the lady and her husband that, as she is unable to come to me, I will call upon her.”
Accordingly, though the hour was late, through the cold and the rain he came, with his smiling courtesy, bringing joy to us all as we awaited him in the Tapestry Room.
‘Abdu’l-Bahá talked with the Ambassador and his wife of conditions in Japan, of the great international importance of that country, of the vast service to mankind, of the work for the abolition of war, of the need for improving conditions of life for the worker, of the necessity of educating girls and boys equally.
The religious ideal is the soul of all plans for the good of mankind. Religion must never be used as a tool by party politicians. God’s politics are mighty, man’s politics are feeble.
Speaking of religion and science, the two great wings with which the bird of humankind is able to soar, he said, “Scientific discoveries have greatly increased material civilization. There is in existence a stupendous force, as yet, happily, undiscovered by man. Let us supplicate God, the Beloved, that this force be not discovered by science until Spiritual Civilization shall dominate the human mind! In the hands of men of lower material nature, this power would be able to destroy the whole earth.”
‘Abdu’l-Bahá talked of these and of many other supremely important matters for more than an hour. The friends, wondering, said, “How is it possible that having spent all his life imprisoned in an eastern fortress, he should so well understand world problems and possess the wisdom to solve them so simply?”
Truly we were beginning to understand that the majesty of greatness, whether mental or spiritual, is always simple.
One day, I received a disquieting letter, “It would be well to warn ‘Abdu’l-Bahá that it might be dangerous for him to visit a certain country, for which I understand he proposes to set forth in the near future.”
Having regard to the sincere friendship of the writer, and knowing that sources of reliable information were available to him, this warning obviously could not be ignored.
Therefore, as requested, I laid the matter before the Master.
To my amazement, he smiled and said impressively, “My daughter, have you not yet realized that never in my life have I been for one day out of danger, and that I should rejoice to leave this world and go to my Father?”
“Oh, Master! We do not wish that you should go from us in that manner.” I was overcome with sorrow and terror.
“Be not troubled,” said ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. “These enemies have no power over my life, but that which is given them from on High. If my Beloved God so willed that my lifeblood should be sacrificed in His path, it would be a glorious day, devoutly wished for by me.”
Therefore, the friends surrounding the much-loved Master were comforted and their faith so strengthened, that when a sinister-looking man came to a group who were walking in the gardens and threateningly said, “Are you not yet sufficiently warned? Not only is there danger for ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, but also for you who are with him,” the friends were unperturbed, one of them replying calmly, “The Power that protects the Master protects also His other servants. Therefore we have no fear.”
The man departed, abashed, saying nothing more.
Two days before the close of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s visit, a woman came hurriedly into the gathering at the Avenue de Camoëns:
“Oh, how glad I am to be in time! I must tell you the amazing reason of my hurried journey from America. One day, my little girl astonished me by saying: ‘Mummy, if dear Lord Jesus was in the world now, what would you do?’ ‘Darling baby, I would feel like getting on to the first train and going to Him as fast as I could.’ ‘Well, Mummy, He is in the world.’ I felt a great awe come over me as my tiny one spoke. ‘What do you mean, my precious? How do you know?’ I said. ‘He told me Himself, so of course He is in the world.’ Full of wonder, I thought: Is this a sacred message which is being given to me out of the mouth of my babe? And I prayed that it might be made clear to me.
“The next day she said, insistently and as though she could not understand, ‘Mummy, darlin’, why isn’t you gone to see Lord Jesus? He’s told me two times that He is really here, in the world.’ ‘Tiny love, mummy doesn’t know where He is, how could she find Him?’ ‘We see, Mummy, we see.’
“I was naturally perturbed. The same afternoon, being out for a walk with my child, she suddenly stood still and cried out, ‘There He is! There He is!’ She was trembling with excitement and pointing at the windows of a magazine store where was a picture of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. I bought the paper, found this address, caught a boat that same night, and here I am.”
The above was written down as it was related to me. It is again the second instance of the pictured face of’ ‘Abdu’l-Bahá arresting the beholder with a compelling force. The first incident was that of a man in deadly despair, about to take his own life; and now this innocent child!
It was of great interest to notice the effect the presence of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had upon some children. One little girl whispered, “Look, that is Jesus when He was old.” Perhaps their unstained nature sensed the breath of holiness which was always with Him and caused them to liken Him to the Most Holy One of whom they were conscious.
One day a certain man of high degree came to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. “I have been exiled from my country. I pray you intercede for me that I may be permitted to return.”
“You will be allowed to return.”
“Some of my land has been bought by one of the Bahá’í friends. I desire to possess that property once more.”
“It shall be given back to you and without payment.”
“Who is the young man standing behind you? May he be presented to me?”
“He is ‘Aga Mírzá Jalál, son of one of the martyred brothers of Isfáhán.”
“I had no part in that crime.”
“The part you took in that event, I know. Moreover, your motive I know.”
This man, with his fellow conspirator, the “Wolf” (so named because of his ruthless cruelty and greed) had borrowed large sums of money from the two noble and generous brothers of Isfáhán. To accuse them of being followers of Bahá’u’lláh, to bring them before a tribunal which condemned them to be executed, and to have the brothers put to death, was their plot to avoid being required to repay the loans.
After the death of the “Wolf” some documents were discovered, relating to the borrowed money. This, with the addition of the interest which had accumulated, now amounted to a considerable sum. The lawyer who was in charge of the affair wrote to the son of the martyr, asking into what bank the moneys should be paid. The reply sent, with the approval of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, was that he declined to accept repayment of money which had been one reason for the shedding of his father’s blood.
‘Aga Mírzá Jalál was now married to a daughter of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.
Whilst these episodes were taking place, we who witnessed them seemed to be in a higher dimension where there were natural indications of the presence of the Light which in all men is latent and in ‘Abdu’l-Bahá transcendent.
The constant awareness of an exhilaration, which carried us out of our everyday selves, and gave us the sense of being One with the Life-Pulse which beats through the Universe, is an experience to be treasured rather than an emotion to be described. The reader will understand that it is impossible to find fitting words for the thoughts and feelings which were with us in those Paris days.