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Recollections of Pilgrimage:
Nine Days with the Guardian in 1957

by Bill Washington

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Chapter 8

Highlights from the Guardian's table

During those evening dinners with the Guardian, he spoke of many aspects of the Faith – opening up new vistas in our understanding of the Faith. Much of the conversation was directed by the Guardian himself as he shared with the pilgrims the news of the time – the progress of the Faith throughout the world, and it was this that really made him happy. Habib Sabet told us that out of his twenty or so visits to the Holy Land, he had never seen the Guardian as happy as he was this time. And the reason for this was clear – the Faith was making great strides ahead in many places: there was the beginning of mass enrolments in some countries – in Uganda, in Mentawai, on the fringe of Indonesia, and in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands in the heart of the Pacific (now Tuvalu and Kiribati). It was the time for the darker skinned peoples of the world, the Guardian said; first to accept the Faith had been the Caucasians, the white races; now it was the turn of the black and brown races – and the Faith should have a majority of dark-skinned peoples because the black and brown were the majority of the peoples of the world.

The numbers were relatively small: some 1,100 in Uganda; 500 in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands; and over 1,100 in Mentawai. Other areas, mainly in Africa and the Pacific, also had an increasing flow of new believers – and the names and numbers rolled off his tongue. It was truly a lesson in geography, as many were places the pilgrims had never even heard of but their names meant so much to the Guardian; he also knew who were there as pioneers and how much they had suffered for the Cause. He told us that some pioneers had been forced to leave their post, and he would have to cross them off in his book. He kept a small book in which he recorded all the statistics of the Faith; Rúhíyyih Khánum told us later that if news came through of more that two pioneers leaving their post at the one time, he would mark off one that day, and the others the following day. He could not bear to cross off all at once – so precious to him were these pioneers and what they were achieving.

Topics of conversation on some evenings were generated by questions from the pilgrims and the Guardian's response to them – and he gave the pilgrims ample opportunity to ask the questions that were closest to their hearts. On one evening Rúhíyyih Khánum, noticing my silence, asked if I had any questions for the Guardian. I did not, but it was an opportunity to ask a question on behalf of another believer who had asked me to do so. But I had no questions myself; I had hardly any mind at all, really. I remember thinking afterwards that I was like a small dog with a very large bone: sitting there, wagging the tail and wondering what to do with it. All thought of questions had completely gone from my mind; it was enough just to be there, listening to the Guardian and trying to soak up as much as possible of his words and the wondrous atmosphere.

The Guardian also seemed to direct his comments and the course of conversation to what each pilgrim might be interested in. If he sensed that someone had a particular interest in some aspect of the Faith, he would direct the discussion in that way. And he seemed to know this instinctively. As he made some statement, often one of the pilgrims would respond with keen interest and it became obvious that this was an issue they wanted to raise but were struggling with the words to phrase it. Rúhíyyih Khánum told us one evening that on an earlier occasion a lady had come on pilgrimage at a time when no other pilgrims were there and the Guardian had invited her non-Bahá'í husband to accompany her. And he had directed the conversation in channels completely away from the affairs of the Faith, discussing issues her husband had shown some interest in. Such was the natural courtesy and kindness of Shoghi Effendi; he ensured that people felt comfortable and ‘at home' while they were his guest.

He would often speak of the needs and progress of the Faith in the country where each pilgrim was from, asking some question about the progress of the Faith in that region. I remember that he spoke a great deal about Australia and the Pacific: he was very happy with the progress of the Faith in Australia, and said that it was especially commendable as the Australian community had done what they had without much assistance from outside, without outside pioneers except for the original two. He spoke of Mother Dunn in warmly endearing terms, of how much she and Father Dunn had suffered in the early days. He spoke of the great achievements of the Australian community in launching the Faith out into the Pacific in response to the call of the Ten Year Crusade. His comments often showed that he knew more about the Australian community than I did, and I felt this was the same for the others at the table.

He spoke much about the Australian aborigines and the Maoris of New Zealand, and how important it was that the Faith be taken to them as quickly as possible. At one stage he asked me where most of the aboriginal people of Australia lived, and I responded that there were some living all over but mostly in the far north and west of the country. He then asked me where most of the Bahá'ís were, and I told him the large communities were in the south-east, between Adelaide and Brisbane (there were at that time only a handful of elderly Bahá'ís in Perth – their single ‘youth' member was Ottalie Strempell, probably in her mid-forties – I knew this, because I had been there, to catch the boat to Italy). He smiled – in the way that only he could – and said no more. He did not need to; I had caught his point – and I guess that was why I eventually settled in Darwin.

But his interest in the indigenous peoples across the world was obvious. He made the point that it was amongst them that we would find truly spiritual people, not in the educated and affluent Western world. He was thrilled with the progress of the Faith in Africa and the Pacific, which at that time were just beginning to show their potential. Many times his comments would open up completely new vistas of thought for the pilgrims. I remember he was speaking of the potential of the Soviet Union which at that time was virtually sealed off, but he said there were Bahá'ís there, even in Siberia, where they had been sent to work in the gulags. And he spoke of this as though he had had recent news of them, not just that they ‘must be there' because they had gone several decades before. Then he said: "We must be very careful not to criticise communism or the communists, because we now have ‘communist' Bahá'ís, just as we have ‘democratic' Bahá'ís" – and this immediately opened up a new line of thought for me: that we are what we are much because we were born that way, not by choice, and the tags we put on people beyond the Faith were really meaningless. Believing and being a Bahá'í was the important thing, not what we were or where we had come from before. Our allegiance to Bahá'u'lláh took us far beyond all man-made divisions.

He spoke several times about the pending crises and suffering that humanity needed to pass through before people would respond to the Faith in large numbers; that humanity faced grave dangers if it did not shorten this time of suffering through its early recognition of Bahá'u'lláh. When asked about the nature of these calamities, he said they would come in many ways: both natural disasters and man-made calamities would combine to chastise a wayward humanity – this was part of God's Plan. He spoke of what he termed the Minor Plan of God and the Major Plan of God; both were from God but one would occur through the persistent efforts of mankind – this was our part in the plan, the Minor Plan, promoting the interests and growth of the Faith, and the response of humanity to those efforts – and the other more indirectly, through calamities of nature and other disasters caused by mankind's rejection of the solution that God had provided, all stemming from the rulers' rejection of the call of Bahá'u'lláh in His Tablets to the Kings.

Shoghi Effendi used very strong language in speaking of these dangers; he referred to a "blood-letting" to draw off the "bad blood" that had accumulated; he said that mankind needed this and, without it, we could not move forward as God had destined for us. His words were truly chilling, and then he would suddenly relax and say we should not think too much of these things, but move on with the work of the Faith, with teaching the Cause. This was the only real answer and this was within our hands. We should not ponder over and speculate on what or how this chastisement from God may come, but get on with our work. It was as if Shoghi Effendi wished to alert us to what was coming, but urged us not to dwell on it too much. I have reflected during the years since that what we had considered as great tragedies in the 1950s, natural disasters that would have then taken over the world's headlines, have now become such common and everyday occurrences, continually repeated in news broadcasts, that we have really become immune to their effect. Perhaps this is the mercy of God that will enable us to get through this time of testing unscathed.

Some of the comments made by the Guardian, some even on relatively minor issues, gave one much food for thought. At that time Pope Pius XII, who was elderly and had held the office for many years, had been in the news with a prolonged attack of hiccups that had the medical authorities quite baffled, and one of the pilgrims commented, half in jest, that perhaps this was caused by the close proximity of Ugo Giachery who had lived for some time in a block of apartments just outside the colonnaded square of St Peter, in a property belonging to the Vatican – this was the address I had first gone to, before finding Dr Giachery's new address. Rather than brushing off the comment, the Guardian had replied that this was quite possible. The Pope, he said, was a very spiritual person, and it was possible that having Dr Giachery offering his daily prayers so close to the Pope's residence could have adversely affected his health. He took it quite seriously. And I was also surprised at his comment on the Pope's spirituality; he viewed him as a person, quite apart from the office he held in the Catholic hierarchy. I was reminded of this by some comment – by Violette Nahkjavani, I think it was – that Rúhíyyih Khánum had never criticised or made any negative remarks about any of the missionaries they had met during their travels together, because they were all spiritual people, doing what they thought was best.

On my final evening there, the Guardian spoke a great deal about Australia – this was the evening he spoke so lovingly about Mother Dunn – and presented me with a small metal vial of attar of roses, to be used when greeting the friends on my return to Australia, so as to share with them something of the fragrance of pilgrimage. That evening Rúhíyyih Khánum told us the story of another pilgrim some months before who was pioneering amongst the Eskimos in northern Canada, and had asked the Guardian if, when translating the Hidden Words, we could substitute something for the word "rose" as the people she was teaching had no idea of what a rose was. He had replied that these were the words of Bahá'u'lláh and could not be changed. On her final evening he had given her the same vial of attar of roses, saying that she should share its fragrance with those whom she was teaching, so they would have some idea of the fragrance of the roses that Bahá'u'lláh had spoken of.

My return journey after pilgrimage had been planned by air, flying through Tehran where I intended to stay a while, looking forward to the opportunity of meeting with the Bahá'ís there. When the Guardian learned of this, he said one evening that it would not be wise for me to stop over in Iran: conditions were still more than a little uncertain for the friends there and, while it would not be dangerous for me, it might cause some trouble for the Bahá'ís whom I made contact with in Iran. The clergy there were still greatly opposed to the Faith and were always looking for some excuse to attack the Bahá'ís – a visit from a Westerner may provide just the excuse they were waiting for.

The next morning Jessie Revell took me down town, to a travel agent whom they used, to find an alternative route home, and the agent suggested flying through Istanbul, Bahrain Island, Karachi and onwards. It suddenly dawned on me that Bahrain was where Mr Faizi had pioneered and still lived, and this would be an unexpected chance to visit him. I confirmed the booking for that route with an unsuppressible feeling of excitement; Mr Faizi was the one who had brought me into the Faith. He had visited Australia with Hand of the Cause Alí-Akbar Furútan following the intercontinental conference in New Delhi that had launched the Ten Year Crusade – Mr Faizi was at that time Auxiliary Board member and skilled in languages, so he was to assist Mr Furútan who spoke very little English at that time.

They had visited Leeton where I lived because Mr Furútan had been instructed by the Guardian to meet with every Bahá'í in Australia, which was physically possible then, as the numbers were so small. It was planned that most of the Bahá'ís would attend summer school that year (the end of 1953) and the visitors would travel widely to meet up with those who would not be at summer school. There were two young Bahá'ís pioneering in Leeton at that time, Noel and Margaret Bluett, from whom I had borrowed some books that had aroused a keen interested in the new concepts of religion that the Faith offered, and when I learned that the two Bahá'í visitors were coming to meet with them, I too was eagerly looking forward to seeing them. They asked if I would pick them up from the airport and later drive them on to Wagga, which I was very happy to do and, when I met Mr Faizi (he had much more impact because he spoke English and everything Mr Furútan said, we received through Mr Faizi's translation), I was determined to attend that summer school. From this meeting onwards, my life changed completely; I felt that if this religion could produce a human being like Mr Faizi, it really had something – and it was something I dearly wanted.

So faced with the totally unexpected opportunity of meeting Mr Faizi again, I was really excited. That evening the Guardian was advised of the change of route and he approved – but said that conditions in Bahrain were also not too favourable for the friends, and I should keep my visit there short. When I later arrived in Bahrain and found Mr Faizi, the first thing he asked me was whether the Guardian had given any instructions about the visit. I told him, and he immediately – and firmly – said "Five days will be okay – no more" So five days it was, but that is a story for another day.

On my final evening in Haifa, the Guardian said to me: "You have experienced one pilgrimage in Haifa; you will now experience another pilgrimage with Mr Faizi in Bahrain Island." I felt that expressed the deep love and admiration he had for Mr Faizi. He called Mr Faizi the "Conqueror of Arabia" even though he had never been in Arabia, not on the mainland. But when I went to Bahrain I understood more fully what it meant – it was Mr Faizi who had prepared and sent many of the early pioneers into Arabia, one of the most difficult places in the world to be teaching the Faith.

It seemed to me, looking back on my experience of pilgrimage, that there were two separate entities: Shoghi Effendi, the warm and loving host who made sure his guests were comfortable and at ease, ensuring that each pilgrim found his or her heart's desire, and achieved all they had hoped for from their pilgrimage; and then there was another quite distinct entity of the Guardian, the Sign of God, that "most wondrous, unique and priceless pearl", the "Primal Branch of the Divine and Sacred Lote-Tree". Leroy Ioas, who probably knew the Guardian better than most, said to us once that on one hand Shoghi Effendi was so humble and self-effacing, and yet when he was representing the Faith or the Cause was being threatened in some way, he was "like a roaring lion" in its defence. I have referred here to both but in reality for most of the time it was Shoghi Effendi whom I saw and listened to, and only occasionally did I catch a glimpse of ‘the Guardian'.

One such time was when Leroy Ioas was explaining to the Shoghi Effendi how they were having difficulties with the purchase of land for the House of Worship in Germany. The National Assembly there had tried to acquire different plots of land but was constantly being hampered by other interests, mainly the church authorities who were determined to block the progress of the Cause there, and Leroy Ioas was detailing some of these difficulties that were delaying the achievement of the goal. Suddenly, with a raised hand, Shoghi Effendi interrupted him and, slowly bringing his hand down onto the table, palm downwards, he said in a quiet voice: "Leroy, we must have that land." But it was like a clap of thunder; there was such a power in his movement and voice. There was a brief moment of silence, and then Mr Ioas said, meekly: "Yes, beloved Guardian." No more, that was it - just a simple action and a brief comment, but it carried such a force that I felt a shock-wave go through me. I am not sure how the others felt, but for me it had such a tremendous impact. And in that moment I felt I had experienced the ‘Guardian', the authority of the Guardianship.

Bearing in mind that before coming to Haifa to assist the Guardian, Mr Ioas had been a senior executive with one of the major railroad companies in the United States; his responsibilities had been heavy and he was used to giving the orders – and others would jump. He was a large man, with a powerful aura that commanded respect. But in his relationship with the Guardian, there was nothing but meekness and absolute obedience.

Another time was when, in response to a question from one of the pilgrims, Shoghi Effendi was speaking about pilgrimage in the future, and how it would differ from pilgrimage in our day. His response was that it would be different; and for the pilgrim of the future the experience would be both lesser and greater. It would be ‘lesser' because, with the passing of time, the personal contact with the Head of the Faith, which was possible at that time, would gradually diminish; with the increase in the number of believers wishing to make the pilgrimage in the future it would not be possible for them to meet with the Guardian over the dinner table and experience such a direct and personal contact. On the other hand it would be ‘greater' because the power presently latent in the Holy Shrines would increase immensely.

Shoghi Effendi then said that pilgrims in the future will not be able to enter the Shrine of Bahá'u'lláh, as we do today, nor even approach it beyond the Haram-i-Aqdas (Most Holy Precinct), marked by the pathway that circles the shrine gardens. He must have meant this figuratively, not literally, as he went on to explain that with the vast increase in the number of believers in the future turning each day to the Qiblih, the Shrine of Bahá'u'lláh, for their prayers, a tremendous spiritual force would be channelled through the Shrine to the Abhá Kingdom. With that, the Guardian raised his hands together, above the table – those hands which the Greatest Holy Leaf had once held in hers and said: "These are the hands of my Father, these are the hands of Bahá'u'lláh" – while explaining that, as in the world of nature where for every physical force there is a counter-force, this would attract a tremendous flow of confirmation from the Kingdom on High which would flow down through the Shrine to humanity. And with that he suddenly lowered his hands, spreading them apart, and voiced a sound that I can only describe as ‘Whoosh' – and said: "The force of this will be such that the friends will not be able to bear it; they will not be able to enter or even approach the Shrine."

At that instant, too, I ‘saw' the Guardian, or felt I had experienced the full force of Shoghi Effendi in his station as Guardian of the Cause. They were both only moments, flashes that passed quickly, leaving that ever-present meekness and humility that so characterised Shoghi Effendi.

The beloved Guardian had become so much part of the Bahá'í fabric that it was extremely difficult to accept that the Faith must go on without him, and his completely unexpected passing later that year was an earth-shattering shock to the Bahá'ís all over the world. Having the experience of meeting with him so recently, I felt deeply the sudden loss and could not imagine what the future would bring. I guess it must have been so for all the believers at the time of the passing of ‘Abdu'l-Bahá less than forty years before. We had grown so much accustomed to relying on the Guardian, referring questions to him, seeking his guidance and prayers. For long centuries man had relied on an individual leader, some one person to look up to, and we were now in the process of being ‘weaned' off this age-old custom and moving to an institutional leadership. Bahá'u'lláh had placed all future authority in the hands of divine institutions – the ‘Houses of Justice' – but it was going to take some time for mankind to adjust. We had turned first to Bahá'u'lláh Himself, then to ‘Abdu'l-Bahá, and we had been given the Sign of God on earth, Shoghi Effendi, to lead us through what turned out to be a transition period.

I recall receiving a letter from Mr Featherstone a couple of weeks after his passing. I was by that time in Port Vila, New Hebrides (now Vanuatu), experiencing the loss in isolation – and he mentioned the plans being made for him and Mother Dunn to meet with the other Hands of the Cause for the first of what became their annual ‘Conclave'. One comment he made in that letter indicated the state of mind of most of the Bahá'ís of that time; he wrote that "we will now find out who the next Guardian will be". Not having another Guardian was just not in the thinking of even the most experienced of believers.

But it seems to me that this was part of the Major Plan of God – leading us into a future that was quite beyond our comprehension. Following the Guardian's funeral, Rúhíyyih Khánum referred to some statement of Bahá'u'lláh – I guess to comfort the believers who felt so bereft – that nothing could happen to the Faith unless it was the will of God. And looking back with the wisdom of hindsight, it is much easier to see that now. In fact, it seems to have already there in the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, but we could not see it at the time. The passage in His Most Holy Book, the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, referring to the payment of Huqúqu'lláh in the future (section 42), points to this:

Endowments dedicated to charity revert to God, the Revealer of Signs. None hath the right to dispose of them without leave from Him Who is the Dawning-place of Revelation. [Bahá'u'lláh] After Him, this authority shall pass to the Aghsan, [plural: ‘Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi] and after them to the House of Justice - should it be established in the world by then – ….

and this was the crucial phrase, indicating a possibility – not certainty but possibility – that the line of Aghsan would end before the Universal House of Justice came into being. And then the Hands of the Cause are referred to:

Otherwise, the endowments shall revert to the people of Bahá who speak not except by His leave and judge not save in accordance with what God hath decreed in this Tablet - lo, they are the champions of victory betwixt heaven and earth -

That brief ministry of the Hands of the Cause was something truly unique in human history but that, too, is a story for another day. The premature passing of the beloved Guardian was clearly indicated by Bahá'u'lláh Himself but we could not see it at the time. The Kitáb-i-Aqdas was not available in the West until recent years and, being revealed in Arabic, it was not readily available to most of the believers unless fluent in Arabic. It has taken the wisdom and guidance of the Universal House of Justice to show us this: that God's Faith is secure from all mishap, and whatever befalls it is indeed God's will.

I realized later how little I comprehended the true station of the beloved Guardian. On my return journey following pilgrimage, one stop-over was in Bombay (now Mumbai) where I met with an early believer, a very old man who had heard of my passing through and had come down from Quetta (in Afghanistan) just to meet someone who had "held the hand of the beloved Guardian". He embraced me and strongly expressed his feelings in Farsi – which I could not, of course, understand – and I was told that he had been a believer all his life, serving the Faith and pioneering, but had never felt himself worthy of meeting the Guardian. Yet I – inexperienced, and so new in the Faith – had had the temerity to seek that great honour. How fortunate I am that I did not fully realize at the time what a bounty I had been granted.

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