At the commemoration of the centenary of Abdu’l-Baha’s visit to Montreal in 2012, I witnessed something profound at an event organized at St. James Methodist Church – the last place where the Master spoke publicly during His brief sojourn in Montreal. The current minister talked about the admirable qualities of Abdu’l-Baha and the unifying impact of His visit. I have never seen a person of authority of another religion lovingly praise this Cause at such length in their own place of worship. A feeling of unity between the congregation of the church and all the visiting Baha’is was palpable. I thought, this is what it must have been like in 1912!
Historical accounts of the life of the Master are bursting with similar exaltations and expressions of amity. Everywhere He went, notable religious leaders praised Him publicly and people were united in their love for Him. Perhaps most moving, is the symphony of tributes after His passing on November 28th, 1921 and the common grief everyone felt over losing Him. In his biography on the life of the Master, Hasan Balyuzi writes:
In the land we know as the Holy Land, in all its turbulent history of the last two thousand years, there had never been an event which could unite all its inhabitants of diverse faiths and origins and purposes, in a single expression of thought and feeling, as did the passing of Abdu’l-Baha. Jews and Christians and Muslims and Druzes, of all persuasions and denominations; Arabs and Turks and Kurds and Armenians and other ethnic groups were united in mourning His passing, in being aware of a great loss they had suffered.1
Balyuzi’s book is a wealth of information about what happened in the hours and days after His ascension. He quotes extensively from an account written by Shoghi Effendi and Lady Blomfield called The Passing of Abdu’l-Baha and includes this descriptive passage:
The High Commissioner of Palestine, Sir Herbert Samuel, the Governor of Jerusalem, the Governor of Phoenicia, the Chiefs Officials of the Government, the Consuls of various countries, resident in Haifa, the heads of various religious communities, the notables of Palestine, Jews, Christians, Moslems, Druses, Egyptians, Greeks, Turks, Kurds, and a host of his American, European and native friends, men, women and children, both of high and low degree, all, about ten thousand in number, mourning the loss of their Beloved One.2
This throng of mourners wended its way up the slopes of Mount Carmel, carrying the precious remains of the Master. After two hours of walking, they reached the Shrine of the Bab where the casket was placed on a table covered in white linen at which point “some on the impulse of the moment, others prepared, raised their voices in eulogy and regret, paying their last homage of farewell to their loved one. So united were they in their acclamation of him, as the wise educator and reconciler of the human race in this perplexed and sorrowful age, that there seemed nothing left for the Baha’is to say.”3
Shoghi Effendi also wrote about this sorrowful event in his seminal work, God Passes By. He includes a report of Sir Ronald Storrs, Jerusalem’s Governor at the time, which stated:
I have never known a more united expression of regret and respect than was called forth by the utter simplicity of the ceremony.4
What followed the funeral was characteristic of the Master’s loving generosity. Shoghi Effendi writes:
During the week following His passing, from fifty to a hundred of the poor of Haifa were daily fed at His house, whilst on the seventh day corn was distributed in His memory to about a thousand of them irrespective of creed or race. On the fortieth day an impressive memorial feast was held in His memory, to which over six hundred of the people of Haifa, ‘Akka and the surrounding parts of Palestine and Syria, including officials and notables of various religions and races, were invited. More than one hundred of the poor were also fed that day.5
At that fortieth day feast, the Governor of Phoenicia addressed those gathered. He said:
Hail to ‘Abba, the pride and glory of the East, in an age that has witnessed the rise of knowledge and the fall of prejudice; he who has attained the glorious summit of greatness; he whom the Standards of triumph have hastened to welcome; he whose star arose in Persia, shedding light upon the minds of men, the signs of which have multiplied in the heaven of glory till it set in full radiance on this our horizon; he whose principles have humbled the peoples and kindreds of the world even as Baha himself had done before him…
Let us then in our thoughts and meditations pay our tribute to him. And though the other day at his door I made you weep, yet now it is my duty to appeal and ask you to forget your sorrow and refrain from lamentation and cease from shedding tears. Truly, Sir ‘Abbas departed from us in body, but he ever lives with us in his abiding spirit, in his wondrous deeds. Though he has passed away, yet he has left us a glorious heritage in the wisdom of his counsels, the rectitude of his teachings, the benevolence of his deeds, the example of his precious life, the sublimity of his effort, the power of his will, his patience and fortitude, his steadfastness to the end.6
Years prior to His passing, Abdu’l-Baha revealed a tablet that is now recited when visiting His shrine and by Baha’is all over the world in commemoration of His ascension. The preface of this prayer states:
…whoso reciteth this prayer with lowliness and fervor will bring joy and gladness to the heart of this servant; it will be even as meeting him face to face.7
While I struggle to pray with increasing sincerity, devotion and pure-mindedness, I can admit that what I experienced in Montreal on that commemorative day felt as if 1912 was only yesterday.