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A fascinating story of how the Beloved Master’s intuition guided him to find a receptive soul and teach him, in this case indirectly, about one of the fundamentals of religion, namely the reality and existence of the spiritual world, and of the superiority of that dimension over the material one.
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The Master and the museum watchman
On Monday, 9 July, the Master invited me, with the Persians to go to the Natural History Museum. It was a broiling afternoon and I couldn’t imagine why He should want to go to that Museum, and in the hottest part of the day. But wherever He went, there I wanted to be.
When we reached the Ninth Avenue corner of the Museum the Master, exhausted by that time, sank to a low stone ledge to rest. Between us and the main door on the Central Park corner stretched a long cross-town block in glaring sun, not a single tree on the sidewalk.
“My Lord,” I said, “let me try to find a nearer entrance for You.” And I hurried along the grass, keeping close to the building, searching the basement for a door. The employees’ entrance was locked. Just beyond stood a sign: “No Thoroughfare.” I was rushing past this when a shrill whistle stopped me, and I turned to face the watchman of the grounds. He was a little bent old Jewish man with a very kind face.
“Oh excuse me,” I said, “for breaking the rules, but I must find a nearer door than the main one. See Who is sitting on that ledge! I must find it for Him.”
The watchman turned and looked at the Master, looked and looked, at that Figure from the East, from the Past — the Days of the Old Testament — and his eyes became very soft. “Is He a Jew?” he asked.
“A descendant of Abraham.”
“Come with me,” said the watchman. “Ask Him to come with me.”
I went over and spoke to the Master and He rose and followed with the Persians, I dropping back to walk with them. There was not a nearer entrance, but the watchman, taking a risk perhaps, led us across the grass, where at least it was cooler and the way shorter.
In the Museum we passed through a room in which a huge whale hung from the ceiling. The Master looked up at it, laughed and said: “He could hold seventy Jonahs!”
Then He took us straight to the Mexican exhibit, and this seemed to interest Him very much. In the great elaborately carved glyphs standing around the room He found traces of Persian art and pointed them out to me. He told us this sculpture resembled very closely the ancient sculpture of Egypt. “Only,” He said, “this is better.” Then He took me over to the cases where He showed me purely Persian bracelets.
“I have heard a tradition,” I said, “that in the very distant past this country and Asia were connected.”
“Assuredly,” answered the Master, “before a great catastrophe there was such a connection between Asia and America.”
After looking at everything in the Mexican rooms, He led us to the front door and out into the grounds again. Then, stepping from the stone walk to the grass, He seated Himself beneath a young birch tree, His back to us, while we stood behind Him on the flags. He sat there a long time, silent. Was He waiting for someone? I wondered.
While He — waited? — the old watchman stole quietly up to me from the direction of the Museum.
“Is He tired?” he whispered. “Who is He? He looks like such a great man.”
“He is ‘Abdu’l-Bahá of Persia,” I said, “and He has been a great Sufferer because of His work for the real Brotherhood of Man, the uniting of all the races and nations.”
“I should like to speak to Him,” said the watchman. And I took him over to the tree under which the Master still sat with His back to us.
At the sound of our footsteps He turned and looked up at the watchman, His brilliant eyes full of sweetness.
“Come and sit by Me,” He said.
“Thank You, Sir, but I am not allowed.”
“Is it against the rules for Me to sit on the grass?”
The old man’s eyes, softly shining, were fixed on the Master. “No, You may sit there all day!”
But the Master rose and stood beneath the tree.
Such pictures as I see when the Master is in them could never be put upon canvas — not even into words, except by the sublimest poet — but I always want to try at least to leave a trace of their beauty. The Master, luminous in the sunlight, His white robe flowing to the grass, standing beside the white slender trunk of the birch tree, with its leafy canopy over His head. The Jewish watchman standing opposite Him — so bent, so old — his eyes, like a lover’s, humbly raised to the face of his own Messiah! As yet unrecognized, his Messiah, yet his heart worshiped.
Eagerly he went on, offering all he could think of to this Mysterious One Who had touched him so deeply.
“You didn’t see the whole of the Museum. Would You like to go back after You have rested? You didn’t go up to the third floor.” (Unseen by us he must have been following all the time.) “The fossils and the birds are up there. Wouldn’t You like to see the birds?”
The Master answered very gently, smiling.
“I am tired of travelling and looking at the things of this world. I want to go above and travel and see in the spiritual worlds. What do you think about that?” He asked suddenly, beaming on the old watchman.
The watchman looked puzzled and scratched his head.
“Which would you rather posses,” continued the Master, “the material or the spiritual world?”
Still the old man pondered. At last he brought forth: “Well, I guess the material. You know you have that, anyway.”
“But you do not lose it when you have attained the spiritual world. When you go upstairs in a house, you don’t leave the house. The lower floor is under you.”
“Oh I see!” cried the watchman, his whole face lighting up, “I see!”
After we parted from the watchman, who walked with us all the way to the Ninth Avenue corner, leading us again across the grass, I began to blame myself for not inviting him to the Master’s house, forgetting that the Master Himself had not done so. Every day I meant to return to the Museum to tell the old man where the Master lived, but I put off from day to day.
When, at the end of a week, I did run over to the Museum, I found a young watchman there, who seemed to know nothing of the one he had replaced.
Had our friend “gone upstairs?”
Why had the Master visited a Museum of Natural
History in the hottest hour of a blistering July day? Had He instead visited a soul whose need was crying out to Him, to open an old man’s eyes so that he might see to climb the stairs, to take away the dread of death?
(Many years later, in 1947, Juliet wrote: There may have been two meanings to that visit to the Museum and the second meaning I could not have thought of till 1940, when I became so deeply involved in the Bahá’í work in Mexico and completely at one in heart and spirit with the believers there.) (The Diary of Juliet Thompson)
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Under all conditions the Message must be delivered, but with wisdom. If it be not possible openly, it must be done quietly. The friends should be engaged in educating the souls and should become instruments in aiding the world of humanity to acquire spiritual joy and fragrance…
Souls are liable to estrangement. Such methods should be adopted that the estrangement should be first removed, then the Word will have effect. If one of the believers be kind to one of the negligent ones and with perfect love should gradually make him understand the reality of the Cause of God in such a way that the latter should know in what manner the Religion of God hath been founded and what its object is, doubtless he will become changed; excepting abnormal souls who are reduced to the state of ashes and whose hearts are like stones, yea, even harder.
– ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Tablets, p. 391)
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Some illuminating reflections on, and pointers about the teaching process as seen in different localities and situations through nine stories. The list of learnings at the end nicely summarizes the varying experiences gained through the teaching process.
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Spiritual conversations build bonds, confidence
Baha’is in the…area are discovering anew the joys of spiritual conversation.
Inspired by reflection at the start of a new cycle of outreach to area residents, they looked for opportunities to share how Baha’u’llah’s teachings can change lives and build community, says M…
Oh, did they find opportunities! Quite literally everywhere — in a chapel, a farmer’s market, a chiropractor’s office — as several of them share below, in their own words.
Story 1: Comforting words in a comforting place
A dear Baha’i friend wrote the following words as she encouraged my first tentative steps:
“The heavenly hosts will be with you! The Lord of Lords will be with you! All the angels will descend upon you! And you will feel the light of the spirit like you never have because you stretched so far.”
Since that letter, I’ve been thinking about those heavenly hosts, about the Lord of Lords, and about all those angels! I admit, it’s pretty intimidating to think they are waiting for me to do something.
On the first day I try this approach, with angels close at hand, I chat with a co-worker. We talk about gardens and nature but, no matter what I say, the conversation doesn’t go any further.
Disappointed, I walk into our Catholic chapel (part of our nursing home) and pray to the Concourse: “Where are you? I need your help!”
As I leave, I gather my courage and introduce myself to a Catholic nun whose office is at the back of the chapel. I learn that it is the anniversary of the death of her niece, who was killed in a car accident at the age of 8.
We talk about the nature of the soul and about life after death. Somehow or other (with the angels nudging me), I say that I’m a Baha’i. She’s never heard of the Faith so I tell her about Baha’u’llah as we sit inside a Catholic church.
She gives me a big hug when we part. I plan to give her a Baha’i prayer written on a card, in memory of her niece. Coincidentally, I now see her all the time!
Story 2: A not-at-all-wrenching experience
At the last cluster reflection meeting, I was able to find and be part of a teaching team for the first time ever.
We talked about what we could do together and the first commitment was to say prayers together every day, even if it had to be over the phone. I found this very supportive.
I then got sick with a bad cold and I couldn’t get together for the prayers in person, nor could I go out walking in the neighborhood with my teaching team like we planned. But the intention of reaching out to people stayed with me.
That first week, we had to call a plumber to our home. He was very conversational about the affairs of the world and was really concerned about the world.
Because I was sick, I normally would have gone back to bed while he was doing his work. Instead, I prayed for guidance as to how I could bring up the Faith in a way that was natural.
When he finished his work, I said: “Even though the world has so many problems, I have a lot of hope. What gives me hope is the Baha’i Faith. Have you ever heard of it?”
He was curious about the Faith, so I gave him a teaching card with a picture of the Shrine of the Bab and contact information if he wanted to learn more. He seemed really excited and said he was going to look it up.
I felt as if Baha’u’llah had given me a wonderful gift. Having gone to the cluster meeting, I received the support of my teaching team as we shared our intention of teaching others.
It helped me rise above my illness so that I could see the teaching opportunity more clearly. We always talk about meeting receptive souls. The cluster meeting helped me become more receptive to teaching!
Story 3: An invitation and a realization
My teaching team is planning to host devotional gatherings for our neighbors. We want to keep them small and intimate, and invite our friends and neighbors who are not Baha’is.
But, first, we have to invite someone to attend! I decided to summon up my courage and invite a neighbor whom I know only a little.
She had come to an Ayyam-i-Ha party in 2010. Except for what was written on that invitation, I have not told her anything about the Faith.
I saw her pull her car into the parking lot and decided to invite her; one of our teaching team members continued walking, silently saying the Greatest Name.
As I told her our plans to share prayers and sacred writings together with our neighbors, she became very enthusiastic and said: “Of course! It’s so much better to pray together than praying alone!”
Why hadn’t I ever asked her sooner? What a lesson I’ve learned. I plan to continue my personal teaching expansion phase even after the cluster’s expansion phase ends!
Story 4: Making a connection via the Covenant
On my way to a Ruhi Book 8 class, I was approaching the Baha’i Center from the museum parking lot down the street and noticed three men walking toward me.
Two kept walking by but one stopped right in front of the Center and was looking toward the door.
As I approached him, I decided to say hello and added, “I see you’re looking at the Baha’i Center. I’m taking a class there at one o’clock.”
He actually asked what the class was, and I said we were studying the covenant between God and humanity.
And then he asked, “Which covenant is that?” (Great question!) I said it was the Covenant of Baha’u’llah, who was the founder of the Baha’i Faith.
Anyway, we chatted a bit more, and he said he knew a couple of Baha’is but couldn’t remember their names. With a bit more conversation, I identified them!
He then said he’d have to learn more about the Faith sometime. Since his friends were waiting for him, I offered to go inside and get him a book; then I suggested he come inside with me. (I didn’t want him to leave.)
So he was then greeted by all the class members while I got the book. Ironically, they were sharing teaching stories for this expansion phase!
We went back outside and I wrote my contact information inside the book, and he went on to catch up to his friends.
I found out the next night that he’ll be seeing those two Baha’is he knows this coming weekend!
Story 5: Discussion, here and now, of the afterlife
My goal has been to walk in my neighborhood to meet people I don’t know and to mention the Faith to them. Today I said a teaching prayer and went out for my walk.
It was mid-afternoon so there weren’t many people outside. However, there was one woman out weeding her garden.
She began the conversation by saying something like, “What a wonderful day the Lord has made.” I kept thinking about how I could bring the Faith naturally into the conversation.
She moved the conversation to the strength of the mother of the little boy who had recently died on the school playground. Her sister had also recently passed away after painful complications from diabetes.
I shared with her that I was a member of the Baha’i Faith and that I believed that God was like the gardener who knows what is best for the plant. He moves it to the place where it can grow and flourish. She agreed.
We talked about taking our good qualities with us into the next life and how we can pray for those in the next world as they can pray for us. At the end of the conversation I found out that she is 85 years old and still living in her own home.
She ended the conversation by saying, “I made a new friend today.” I told her I had, too.
I learned that I need to prepare prayerfully, begin to walk, and trust that those who are receptive will be in my path. I plan to go back to visit her again.
I would like to say prayers for her sister. Next time I would like to mention Baha’u’llah’s name and share a quote from the Writings.
Story 6: Seeds planted at a farmer’s market
Saturday was the first day for our community’s farmer’s market, and I was looking forward to going.
Two other Baha’is came with me. It was the first time all three of us were doing something together.
I noticed a lady [of another race] looking at the same plant I had an interest in. We started to ask each other if we knew anything about this particular plant.
Just then another woman came in front of us and picked up the plant we were discussing, announcing sweetly she had just bought it.
For some reason, this lady and I started laughing about what just happened. Then we started talking.
She is a relocated, retired educator from California who wasn’t planning on going to the market that day. She lives nearby and wanted to take a shortcut through the parking lot.
She said she didn’t know why she stopped when she had an errand that she wanted to do someplace else. Fairly soon after the four of us were talking, she asked if we were Christians.
We told her we are Baha’is. She asked for a little background on the Baha’i Faith, then said, “This is of God.” She said she thought God brought us together for her to meet each of us.
The conversation shifted, and she told us a little bit of her life. At one point she said she had “chutzpah” when working with a difficult principal who seemed to like her gutsy spirit.
I said I’m going to have “chutzpah” and invite you to something I think you might like. I told her about the Unity Night (at the Baha’i Center) that was going to be held that very evening.
We all invited her and she came. She liked the talk.
Toward the end, the speaker discussed a social experiment where one participant interacted with another participant of a different race.
At first their anxiety levels were high. As the participants continued with more interactions, their anxiety levels lowered.
She leaned over to me and asked if there was any anxiety in our interaction. She seemed to expect the answer I was about to give her: ”None.”
Story 7: An appointment with receptivity
During the expansion phase, I had an appointment with my chiropractor. He is a capable and caring doctor, but I’ve never thought about sharing the Faith with him.
Could I tell him about Baha’u’llah? I had to try. I prepared in advance by praying and by bringing a few small teaching cards, writing the Baha’i website on them.
As I was getting adjusted in his office, I couldn’t imagine how I was ever going to bring up the Faith. Then he asked what my plans were for the rest of the day.
A Continental Counselor was visiting us, so I told him we had Baha’i guests from out of the area. He had not heard of the Faith and asked about it. Somehow or other, I mentioned unity and the oneness of humankind.
He said: “It’s interesting that you say that. I’ve been a Roman Catholic for many years but I haven’t gone to church for a while. I’ve been thinking lately that there must be other religions that are also right, that everyone else can’t be wrong!”
I told him about Baha’u’llah and offered him one of the teaching cards. I pointed out the website and he plans to investigate it further.
What I’ve learned is that I have to keep praying for opportunities to meet receptive souls and then to be prepared to actually say something!
Story 8: Handwritten card opens the door
I’ve learned that offering to pray for a friend can be the first step in forging a deeper bond of the spirit.
[Recently] my supervisor, who is only 32, told me she has breast cancer. She knows I’m a Baha’i but I’ve never shared a prayer with her. Well, she needed prayers now.
It doesn’t matter whether she ever wants to learn more about the Faith. The prayers would be an offering, from one soul to another.
I bought a greeting card and decided to enclose a smaller card with the short healing prayer on it.
I’ve used preprinted prayer cards before, and they are very beautiful. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any. My efforts to make a card on my computer failed miserably!
I couldn’t wait any longer. I wrote the prayer, by hand, on a pink index card. It’s all I had.
With more than a little hesitation because of how it looked, I gave her the two cards. I never did mention my misgivings.
Later that day, she sent me an email:
“Thanks so much for your card. I absolutely will carry the pink one with me. I like that it’s in your handwriting which will remind me of you. :)”
I couldn’t believe what she wrote. I’m humbled by the thought that offering a prayer — with all my heart and for no other reason than the love of God — brought such a response.
I think we both know that this opens the door for future spiritual conversation, if she ever desires it.
Story 9: An answer to the teacher’s prayer
A couple of months ago, we made a new friend who wanted to know about the Baha’i Faith. We talked with him a little and were able to share some of the concepts we had just reviewed while studying Unit 3 of Arising to Serve [Book 2 in the sequence of Ruhi training courses] about how ‘Abdu’l-Baha conversed with others on spiritual matters.
We mentioned many of the activities in which Baha’is and others are engaged in our communities for the betterment of society. We particularly thought he would be interested in the junior youth program and invited him to learn more about it.
Several weeks went by and I was praying for guidance. When the expansion phase began, I thought I needed to act and so I wrote an email asking him what he wanted to do next in his spiritual journey. He enthusiastically wrote back and invited us to come to the youth center where he volunteers.
On the last day of the phase, just before going to bed I was reflecting on the day and was feeling that it had not been as fruitful as I had hoped. I hadn’t heard anything from our friend and thought to myself, “‘Abdu’l-Baha, it sure would be nice if we had an email, phone call, or something from him to guide us to the next steps.”
Just then there was a knock at the door! Our friend, who lives nearby, had biked over in the rain and said he just wanted to stop in to say hi.
He did not want to stay long but I asked him if he would like to join others in a study of Reflections on the Life of the Spirit [Ruhi Book 1], which we had shown him before. He thought that would be great and we asked if he would like to invite anyone else. We set a time to meet that week.
Today he and his friend (who also works at the youth center) and another youth who lives nearby gathered at our home to reflect on the life of the spirit.
- Calling to our aid those spiritual forces upon which the efficacy of our efforts depends is crucial.
- Being ready with how ‘Abdu’l-Baha entered into conversation is helpful.
- Taking the initiative to act is important.
- Inviting others to explore together on equal footing and asking if they have anyone else they would like to invite resulted in new friendships.
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