Abdu’l-Baha by Lake Geneva
Posted by Sen on September 25, 2009
In an Arabic language chat room I came across a claim that Abdu’l-Baha addressed the Zionist Congress in 1911, and a little searching showed that this claim is repeated in many places. I’ve listed a handful in the first comment to this page. In researching the claim, I came across a charming account of a few days Abdu’l-Baha spent beside Lake Geneva, which is not available in electronic form. Since the story is worth sharing in itself, and because this claim about Abdu’l-Baha and the Zionists will eventually be picked up by anti-Bahai writers in English and Persian, I’m sharing them both in a searchable form here.
Abdu’l-Baha and the Zionists
The claim about Abdu’l-Baha addressing the World Zionist Congress in 1911 is quite simply disposed of. First, there is the lack of evidence: no such talk is published or even mentioned in any of the sources that record his travels. Moreover, the tenth World Zionist Congress in 1911 was held in Basel, in Switzerland, from the 9th to the 15th of August. The dates are important.
Abdu’l-Baha and four companions sailed from Egypt on the SS Corsica, bound for Marseilles, in early August 1911. A letter from Mason Remey published in Star of the West in October 1911 reports that Abdu’l-Baha sent Remey a cable from Marseilles on August 19th, and another cable “a day or two later” from Switzerland. So by the time Abdu’l-Baha reached Switzerland, the Zionist Congress was over and the delegates had departed. End of story: there was no speech to the Zionist Congress.
However a very different Congress, and the Jews, are both mentioned incidentally in the charming account of Abdu’l-Baha’s time by Lake Geneva that follows.
Abdu’l-Baha by Lake Geneva
Abdu’l-Baha stopped at the town of Thonon-les-Bains, which is midway on the southern side of Lake Geneva, and in France, not Switzerland. One of those who was with him there was Juliet Thompson. At the request of Gertrude Buikema, editor of the Star of the West, she recorded her memories of those days. Parts of here account are available online, in The wisdom of the Master: the spiritual teachings of ‘Abdu’l-Baha (Kalimat Press, page 11), and her diary contains a different version of those days.
Star of the West, Vol. 2, No. 13, p. 9, November 23, 1911
WITH ABDUL-BAHA IN SWITZERLAND.
LETTER FROM MISS JULIET THOMPSON.
Dear Friends: Miss Buikema has asked me to write you, through the STAR OF THE West, an account of my recent visit to Abdu’l-Baha; and it is a joy indeed to share this with you – as well as I can; for, though when one leaves Abdul-Baha after such a visit, one’s greatest longing is to share the divine experience with all others, – to make as real as possible such an experience to those who have not had this blessing, and to recall it to those who have, – yet such deep things make one mute. I feel I can only speak stumblingly of that which I saw. Therefore, I beg you, beforehand, to forgive the inadequacy of this letter.
My great experience last summer in London at the Universal Races Congress, where I saw all the nations of the world represented by each nation’s noble thinkers, assembled in the name of the human unity in their endeavor to find the way to that unity, was a very wonderful prelude and preparation to my meeting with Abdu’l-Baha in Europe.
To witness such a great and universal endeavor, – to see men from the uttermost parts of the earth – of every color and creed – meet thus fraternally, was indeed a proof of the power of the Spirit in the world today, – a proof that as our sister Miss Buckton said in her inspired ode (with which, as you know, the Congress opened)
The Voice that cried: Let there be Light!
Hath rent the veil of a darker night:
Let there be Love!
Significant indeed is the fact that immediately after that gathering together of the world’s truest thinkers in a meeting which was like a great plea to humanity, the Spiritual Educator – he whose life has been a long sacrifice for the sake of the world-unity – should begin his world-journey.
Never before has the Spiritual Educator himself come to the West – that is to say, never in any past Dispensation, – but this is the day of universal spiritual knowledge and of universal love – the day of maturity and brotherhood.
It was on the Lake of Geneva – a spot of ethereal beauty – that I saw him, during those few days of rest before he proceeded to London to his world-work.
They were quiet days, full of parable and symbol, which are just unfolding to me. The story of them is a beautiful and simple one, – so simple that it is difficult to tell, for its great beauty lies in the tender personal touches, and that which my spirit perceived – impossible to communicate.
If I could only picture to you Abdul-Baha in the West; Abdu’l-Baha with the power of his peace in the restless West; Abdul-Baha in the complex West with the power of his simplicity; Abdu’l-Baha with his noble and illumined beauty in the artificial and skeptical West; – so strongly defined in his completeness against our undevelopment!
And that illumined beauty – that dignity, not of this world – that majesty of spirit that marks him a king among men, never went unheeded; for wherever he passed, eyes turned to follow, and the crowds, with involuntary reverence, stood back.
M. and Madame Dreyfus Barney and I staid at the hotel with Abdu’l-Baha, at Thonon, a great white hotel overlooking the lake, two mountains meeting in a beautiful line behind it.
Our dear friend and teacher, Mirza Assad Ullah was with him and five other Persian brothers. Mirza Baghar Khan from the south of Russia, M. Dabud, now of London, two others whose names I am sorry I cannot give you, Tammadon-ul-Molk, of whose service in London we have read so much lately, and Kosro, the faithful servant. Mirza Ahmad Yazdi came later, also Mirza Raffle, Dr. Hakim of Teheran and Riaz Effendi of Cairo.
Abdu’l-Baha not being very much occupied during those days, we were with him constantly, sailing on the lake or driving through the mountain roads with him. The day of my arrival one of the Persian brothers, returning from a drive with him, told me this story:
Abdu’l-Baha, he said, to relieve the horses in a steep climb had gotten out of the carriage and walked. They passed through a village. The villagers clustered around him. They bared their heads and called him “Father.” One woman ran into her house and brought out some country bread and cheese. “Accept this, dear Father,” she said. (Blessed are the pure in heart!)
One drive I shall never forget. It was a drive through scenes of rare beauty, – roads winding among great hills that were as steps to the near Alps. Sitting opposite Abdu’l-Baha in the carriage, I saw him in a way I should like to leave to the future – were it possible for me to express it! – his powerful head vividly defined against the most sublime of backgrounds; for those near mountains of the Alps, their heads hid in rolling clouds, were his background – perfect symbol of mystery!
As an artist I should like to say to those who have not seen Abdul-Baha that his head is the strongest and most nobly sculptured that it is possible to conceive.
One more touch I must give – a few words overheard in passing two ladies:
“He has so kind, so simple an air,” said one.
“Yes,” replied the other, “and eyes of fire!”
We passed fertile hills, covered with vines and corn – or fruit trees; we passed foaming mountain torrents; we passed little villages, and always the background of these verdant scenes was the panorama of the lonely Alps, their heads wreathed with clouds. And nothing escaped his eyes. Never shall I forget his keen, sympathetic, eager, delighted observation, – his tender interest in all human traces – his joy in the beautiful. He particularly seemed to enjoy the gentle hillsides – the green – the signs of verdure (think of his life spent in arid, stony Acca!). Whenever he passed a village – a human habitation – we saw his heart went out to it – though how much that heart went out these hearts could not know! We never passed a church, its spire delicately rising among the hills, but that he pointed it out to us. Once in the drive we saw a little village built on a barren height. This seemed to concern – even to trouble him greatly, and he referred several times to it. “How cold it must be for them there in winter!” he said, and told us of just such a village in Persia where the people in winter moved down to the valley.
Once he broke a silence thus: “There was no one in the world who loved trees and water and the country so much as BAHA’O’LLAH!”
We were too moved to answer and again there was silence. And in that silence some realization came to me of the sacrifice of these Holy Ones, who accept with joy all privation, all suffering to lead us in the way of freedom – to imbue mankind with that love which will make us brothers – to purify, then unite the hearts. How great must be their love for us – how their hearts must bleed over us – that they can joyously court such suffering! A great enough love indeed to enkindle the whole world from one heart! How else save “with heart and life” could we respond to such love? One day he said to me: “The child does not realize the love of the parent, but when it becomes mature, it knows.” “Can the creature,” I asked, “ever realize the love of the Creator? “Yes, if not in this world, then in the next – as a sleeping one awakens.”
To turn to the day of our drive. We came to a great waterfall, – a sparkling, snowy torrent, dashing down a black precipice. He had us stop the carriage, and walking to a spot at a little distance from. us, on the very edge of the embankment, he watched for a long time in silence that immaculate outpouring. I can still see the figure of quiet power – the face of luminous purity – the Perfect Man – intent upon that manifestation of the power and purity of Nature.
Nature then had an added glory to me. I realized as never before her beauty and significance. That great Hidden Word recurred to me: “All things in the heavens and the earth have I ordained for thee except the hearts which I have appointed as the place for the descent of the manifestation of My beauty and glory.” I saw Nature not only as a book of divine allegories, but fascinating for her own sake – for the sake of her loveliness and her secrets, which in this day when “the earth is revealing her news” she is giving up ever more freely to man. Watching Abdu’l-Baha as he communed with the bounty of Nature, I felt deeply the spiritual value of the arts and sciences. And ever since that drive – that little journey through country and town with the one of the perfect understanding and sympathy, this world has been God’s world to me. I have understood better the subtleties of detachment – have seen where the emphasis should be placed. As one of our sisters, who also saw Abdu’l-Baha this summer, said very beautifully on her return: “In himself, he uplifts humanity into the spiritual station.” Does not this clothe the whole of humanity, comprising the world of nature, with a new dignity, and disclose boundless possibilities?
The simplicity of Abdul-Baha, his normality, give one the real clue to the spiritual life. His teaching is a Religion of Joy – of “expansion and fulfillment” on every plane – not of deprivation and asceticism. And this leads me to touch on another most beautiful attribute of his. We know well that his frequent injunction is, “Be happy!” Perhaps his most frequent question is: “Are you happy?” – and his own abundance of perfect happiness, of undimmed joy, is ever overflowing in the most delicious humor – the most irresistible humor that ever won a heart. Religion in the past took on an aspect of fear. This Abdul-Baha smiles away, teaching us the perfect repose and joy of the spirit’s confidence in God as Love – the “radiant acquiescence” in Divine Guidance.
As we drove away from the waterfall, Abdul-Baha said, smiling, to me: “If I come to America, will you invite me to see such waterfalls?” “Does your coming,” I smiled in return, “depend on my invitation?” “My invitation to America,” was the reply, “will be the unity of the believers.”
We drove to an old inn in a cleft between two mountains, and sitting in the open porch at a rough table, had the simplest of country refreshment.Just as we were entering the inn a little group of peasant children, bunches of violets in their hands to sell, pressed around Abdul-Baha. They did not seem to see the rest of us. I can still see the dull little peasant faces raised wonderingly to that face – the outstretched hands full of violets. He took from his pocket a handful of francs and gave to them abundantly. How he gives – gives – gives! His love seems never content with giving. Tirelessly he gives of his spirit and heart – like a tender father he gives of material things – little keepsakes, or, in lovely symbol, flowers.
In the future I am sure stories will abound in that country-side of the sojourn there of Abdul-Baha. Then those little peasants, looking back to that moment of wonder at the sublimity of a face, will muse: “Was it he? Did we see him? It must have been he!”
I should like to speak here of something which was of unparalleled beauty to me: His power of attraction for the children. It was moving indeed to see their upward glances when he passed or stood near them, and the looks of love which he bent, as he lingeringly fondled the little heads, on those pure baby souls, so fresh from their Creator! Not that they could know, but in their innocence they felt. If only all might remember!
To return to the drive. As we passed a little church in Thonon, Abdu’l-Baha expressed a wish to attend it on Sunday. And this leads me to another, most vital subject: His attitude of perfect accord with the churches, demonstrated in St. John’s and in the City Temple in London, where he freely gave the Message of Unity.
That these churches should have opened their doors for our Message is indeed beautiful, and a proof of two things: Of the freedom and illumination of the men who serve as their ministers, and of the wisdom of the London Bahais. For it was the Bahais who took the first step by connecting themselves with these two churches, some having pews and working in the City Temple and some in St. John’s church. Thus, by demonstrating clearly, through sympathetic action, our oneness with the Christian world, they have been instruments to open these churches to the benediction of Abdul-Baha. And I, having witnessed this beautiful demonstration and the result of it, feel that we cannot live too close to the Christians.
But not only do the London Bahais make connection – or rather, manifest oneness with the Christian world, but with all progressive thought and activity, so that again through their instrumentality, we find the Universal Races Congress opened to the presentation of our Message, The Christian Commonwealth and the Theosophical Society of Bristol sending cables of greeting to Abdu’l-Baha on his arrival in Europe, and later becoming firm friends; the Theosophical Society in London, the Brahma Sohmaj center, the Settlements, more centers than I can name, reverently welcoming him, while many distinguished individuals have sought his wisdom, to receive the unequalled blessing.
This wonderful harvest has been the result of diligent and wise seed-sowing in the world of thinkers and workers. While I was in Thonon, Abdul-Baha said to a little group of us: “This is the time for sowing the seed. The most important thing now is to spread the Cause of God. When harvest time comes, think how sad it will be if there is nothing to reap!”
So again I repeat I feel that we cannot be too active now.
The subject of our real oneness with all that is true and good in every progressive movement reminds me of a very beautiful message which I read while in London from Abdul-Baha to a socialist. Socialism, he said, was one of the leaves on the Tree of Life. Then he called this soul to come into the shade of the Tree of Life that he might partake of all its fruits.
At luncheon one day in Thonon we had a distinguished visitor who asked Abdul-Baha about our economic questions. He said there were many who felt that material problems should be solved first; that, in order to level the way for the spiritual advance, we should first better social conditions, and he spoke of a friend who felt this so strongly that, though connected with the church, he was making it his life work.
“Such people,” said Abdul-Baha, “are doing the work of true religion.”
Then he went on to say that a new order of things must come but it must have a solid foundation, and that no foundation was solid save religion, which was the Love of God. When this unshakable basis of the Love of God was established in the world, then inevitably would the structure of a new social justice rise, and a new individual love and justice.
Before I close I must tell you the story of one day. We were to go to Vevey that day by boat, and in a little group of eight, we accompanied Abdul-Baha to the landing. It was in the freshness of early morning. The fishermen had hung out their nets in the sun. The dew was on the lilies in the grove in the shade of which we waited for the boat. Suddenly the Master left us to stray off alone. When we saw him next he was walking in the distance on the very edge of the lake, beyond that golden film of fishnets. It was then that the “veils of plurality were rent” for me – and I saw the essential oneness of all the Holy Messengers – the One Flame in many lamps.
The morning was misty, the veiled lake and mountains were like the world of dream. We gathered around him in the boat while he sat in our midst, the embodiment of command, yet of holiest sweetness; a combination of utter evanescence and supreme power impossible to convey in words. Suddenly he broke a silence by saying:
“Others are going from an immortal to a mortal kingdom, but the Bahais are journeying in the Ark of the Covenant from a mortal to an immortal world.
“The Jews had turned towards an immortal kingdom, but when they looked backward to mortal things they became dispersed.
“Again Christ led men on to an Immortal Kingdom; therefore their signs remained.
“ God be praised for now you are on a Ship bearing you to Immortal Worlds. Day by day your signs will become clearer.”
Could I only make clear to you that picture, the bow of our boat cleaving the mists, till we seemed to be actually navigating the ether; could I only make clear the figure sitting in our midst, I know you would feel there was no “looking backward” for those who had seen that journey so symbolized.
That night, when I sat for the last time at the table of Abdu’l-Baha, our dear sisters, Elizabeth Stewart and Lilian Kappes on their way to a life of consecration in Persia, were with us.
Breaking a revealing silence, with that speech which uplifts the soul in joy indescribable, Abdu’l-Baha said: “To the refreshing water of the Teachings of BAHA’O’LLAH come many and various bird from many lands and at these cooling streams slake their thirst.
“When the Lamp is ignited the butterflies flutter around the Light.”
“May we,” said Lilian Kappes, “be ready to singe our wings at that Light.”
“Good!” said Abdul-Baha, “I am very much pleased with your answer!”
In the Love of that Light, your sister,
Juliet Thompson says that Abdu’l-Baha was not “very much occupied during those days.” But it seems to me he was: he was making his curious assembly of disciples from East and West into a fellowship that could do great things.
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