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Why were the saints [called] saints?

Posted by Sen on September 10, 2017

There’s a quote doing the rounds, attributed to Abdu’l-Baha, that starts:

“Someone asked ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: “Why were the saints called saints?” He replied: “Because they were cheerful when it was difficult to be cheerful, patient when it was difficult to be patient, and because they pushed on when they wanted to stand still, …”

This doesn’t sound like Abdu’l-Baha at all. The “called” in the first line is inconsistent with the content, which is about how saints are saints, not why they are called saints. None of his interpreters or translators that I know of would use “push on,” it is too colloquial for the early interpreters who were Persian speakers, such as Sohrab, and too informal for a translator today working from Persian notes. And there are Persian notes, also doing the rounds, beginning :

آنها زمانی که مسرور بودن دشوار بود، مسرور بودند ؛ موقعی که صبر و شکیبایی مشکل بود، بردباری و صبوری پیشه کردند

The Persian source, at Langley Bahai, claims that the words are translated from the recollections of Curtis Kelsey (کرتیس کلسی), an American Bahai electrician working in Haifa during the last two months of Abdu’l-Baha’s life. There’s a short biography here and there’s a book-length biography by Nathan Rutstein entitled He Loved and Served, available on Amazon.

Don Calkins assures me that the words do not come from Nathan Rutstein’s book. Perhaps they are in unpublished notes from Curtis Kelsey, but the problem is, if Kelsey is the source they would have to be spoken by Abdu’l-Baha in October or November 1921, and there are multiple attestations of the same words, spoken or written by different people, before 1921.

Alice James is reported to have lived by this ‘credo’ following the death of her husband, the philosopher William James on August 6, 1910. [Susan E. Gunter, Alice in Jamesland: The Story of Alice Howe Gibbens James, page 271]

A ‘Sister Dominic’ is supposed to be the source of the words, which were given to Nurse Margaret Maconald sometime during the First World War. [Susan Mann, Margaret Macdonald: Imperial Daughter, page 124]

Also, there are very numerous citations of the words in collections of wise sayings, where it is attributed to ‘anonymous.’ In most cases, it begins “Why were the saints, saints.” The words have also been used by preachers of Christian, Theosophic, Hindu and Buddhists persuasions: one variant that appealed to me said that saints were “… agreeable when they felt an urge to scream.” I know that urge (see the “related content” below”) and I am trying to be agreeable, but I think I am no saint. A saint, as I understand it, lives perpetually in that sweet spot where there is no urge to scream.

So we can be fairly sure that the words were not spoken by Abdu’l-Baha to Curtis Kelsey in 1921. They might have been spoken by Abdu’l-Baha at an earlier date, for example in his travels to the West, and by a strange coincidence absorbed by the editors of books of quotations without noting the source, while the Bahai organs such as Star of the West and the collectors of Bahai pilgrim’s notes all overlooked them. But if I was allowed to be a betting man, I’d put money on the theory that the words were in the air from at least World War I, and were much later attributed to Abdu’l-Baha.
Short link:

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A consummate union
The world’s a stage
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Century’s end – my two cents
Red Tulips
How theocracy happened
“Matters of State” or “administrative matters”: the scope of the House of Justice

2 Responses to “Why were the saints [called] saints?”

  1. Faruq said

    The Persian translation of the attributed words was done by me long ago. They are not in Rutstein book He Loved and Served about Mr. Kelsey (which was translated by me and is a wonderful book). When the Persian translation was circulated, BWC asked me, through my brother, what was the source, to which I answered they were just in Mr. Kelsey’s memories. That was all. As about the combination of the words used, we should note that Sohrab or the other translators did the job when Abdu’l-Baha was in His Western journeys and these may be uttered in the Holy Land when Mr. Kelsey was there during the last months of His earthly life. So, anybody may have translated them into English.

  2. Sen said

    Thank you Faruq, it’s a nice translation. This does leave the question of how words that were being quoted in English as early as 1910, got to Abdu’l-Baha to say them in Persian, for Sohrab to translate them back into English for the sake of Kelsey. On the whole I think it is more likely that the words originated in English before the First World War, and were attributed to Abdu’l-Baha many years later.

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