Stories about 'Abdu'l-Bahá

Juliet: April 14 - Church of Ascension: First church in America visited by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

Diary of Juliet Thompson
April 14, 1912
New York, NY

When I try to express the perfection of that service—I mean, the arrangement of it—I can find no words. It was the conception of an artist, of a true poet. The altar and the whole chancel were banked with calla lilies. On the back of the Bishop’s chair hung a victor’s wreath, an exact reproduction of the Greek victor’s wreath, classically simple: a small oval of laurel with its leaves free at the top. Its meaning went to my heart.

Dr Grant read first a prophecy from the Old Testament pointing directly to this Day, to Bahá’u’lláh; then the thirteenth Chapter of Corinthians. These were not the lessons for the day but specially chosen.

At the end of the Second Lesson, just as the choir began to sing in a great triumphant outburst “Jesus Lives!” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá with that step of His, which has been described as the walk of either a shepherd or a king, entered the chancel, “suddenly come to His Temple!” Percy Grant had quietly left his seat and gone into the vestry-room and had returned with the Master, holding His hand. For a moment they stood at the altar beneath that fine mural, The Resurrection by John La Farge; then with beautiful deference Percy led the Master to the Bishop’s chair. (This broke the nineteenth canon of the Episcopal Church, which forbids the unbaptized to sit behind the altar rail!)

The prayers over, Dr Grant made a short introductory address, speaking not from the pulpit but the chancel steps. Never shall I forget what I saw then. Percy, strong and erect, with his magnificently set head (“like the head of some Viking” as Howard MacNutt says), giving, with a fire even greater than usual—with a strange, sparkling magnetism—the Bahá’í Message to his congregation; and behind him: a flashing Face, unlike the face of any mortal, haloed by the victor’s wreath, visibly inspiring him. For with every flash from those eyes, which were fixed on Dr Grant, would appear a fresh charge of energy in him. There was something wonderfully rhythmic in this transmission of fire to the words and the delivery of the man speaking. Was it the sign of some susceptibility in this hitherto unyielding man to the power of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá? Or was it just that Power: transcendent, irresistible, quickening whom it chose?
“May the Lord lift the light of His Countenance upon you.” Ah, what happens when the Lord does!

How can I tell of that moment when the Master took the place of Percy Grant on the chancel steps? When, standing in His flowing robes there, He turned His unearthly Face to the people and said:

Dr Grant has just read from the thirteenth Chapter of Corinthians that the day would come when you would see face to face.”

It was too great to put into words; it was almost too great to bear. The pain of intense rapture pierced my heart. Could the people fail to recognize? Oh, had they recognized what would He not have revealed to them? But He could go no further. He swerved to another subject.

I have come hither,” He said, “to find that material civilization has progressed greatly, but the spiritual civilization has been left behind. The material civilization is likened unto the glass of a lamp chimney. The spiritual civilization is like the light in that chimney. The material civilization should go hand-in-hand with the spiritual civilization. Material civilization may be likened unto a beautiful body, while spiritual civilization is the spirit that enters the body and gives to it life. With the propelling power of spiritual civilization the result will be greater.

His Holiness Jesus Christ came to this world that the people might have through Him the civilization of Heaven, a spirit of oneness with God. He came to breathe the spirit into the body of the world. There must be oneness in the world of man. When this takes place we will have the Most Great Peace.

Today the body politic needs the oneness of the world and universal peace. But to spread the feeling of peace and firmly implant it in the minds of men a certain propelling Power is required.

It is self-evident that spiritual civilization cannot be accomplished through material means, for the interests of the various nations differ. It is self-evident that it cannot be accomplished through patriotism, for countries differ in their ideas of patriotism. It is impossible save through spiritual power. Compared with this all other means are too weak to bring about universal peace.

Man has two wings: his material power and development, and his spiritual understanding and achievements. With one wing alone he cannot fly. Therefore, no matter how far material civilization advances, without the other, great things cannot be accomplished. … Humanity, generally speaking, is immersed in a sea of materiality …”

Dr Grant asked the Master to give the benediction. Apparently He gave no blessing but asked for one for us.

Against His high background of lilies He stood, His face uplifted in prayer, His eyes closed, the palms of His hands uplifted. I seemed to feel streams of Life descending, filling those cupped hands. On either side of Him knelt the clergymen, facing the altar. Percy Grant’s head was bowed low. It was a breathless moment. Then the Master raised His resonant voice and chanted.

The recessional hymn was “Christ our Lord has risen again.”

How can words tell what I realized, or thought I realized, at that incomparable service?

This church had been my cross for years, from which I had never been able to escape—though twice I had made the attempt, twice wrenching myself away, only to be guided back by what seemed to me in each instance the clear Will of God, expressed through a striking miracle. Guided back to mortal pain. Was I seeing, this morning, divine results of this pain?

And not only had I suffered more vitally here than in any other place, prayed more passionately; not only had it been the scene of my deepest inner conflict, but the cause of all this had been dramatically enacted here. Here in this pulpit, with all his great force, his disturbing magnetism and the fire of his eloquence, Percy Grant had opposed my unshakeable belief, thundering denunciations of “the subtle”, “the Machiavellian Oriental” (God forgive me for quoting this)—of the slumbering and superstitious Orient—the Orient that brought to the West “nothing but disease and death”—determined to conquer this Faith of mine which made me resistant to him. He had even gone so far as to openly name “the Bahá’í sect” in his pulpit and to warn his flock against it.

And now, framing that matchless head of the Master, who sat there so still in His Glory, hung the victor’s wreath! Oh for words vivid and sublime enough to make you see Him sitting there, in the very spot where He had been so violently denied!

The Master took me back into the Rectory, into the big, dark front room. Percy rushed in for a moment, still in his surplice, his cheeks flushed, his eyes very bright and blue.

Juliet,” he called, looking in from the dining room, “ask if the Master wants anything: tea, coffee, water—anything; then tell Thomas” (the butler).

But the Master wanted nothing except to wait to see Dr Grant (who was being detained in the church) and He filled me with indescribable joy by inviting me to wait with Him, sitting beside Him.

I sat there, happier it seemed to me than I had ever been in my life. I was in the Presence of my Lord, and the one I loved best in all this human world had at last recognized Him. For what else had that exquisite service meant, with the Resurrection stressed all through it? Such a bold acknowledgement, such a daring action in the very church itself could not have been insincere. It never occurred to me to doubt it.

But time passed and Percy did not come back. A great crowd arrived before he did. Someone, using the private way from the church, had left the door open and the people began to surge in. And then (while my heart sank with disappointment) the Master made a swift exit.

Too late Mrs Grant, Percy’s dear mother, entered the room. It was a dramatic entrance. She ran in, distractedly, glancing from side to side, obviously looking for the Master. Not seeing Him there, she exclaimed: “If only I could have had His blessing! That Figure makes me think of the plains of Judea.”

At that very instant Mr Mills, who had gone out with the Master, reappeared. “‘Abdu’l-Bahá,” he said, “is asking for Mrs Grant.”

I stood at the street door and watched. The Master was sitting in Mr Mills’ car, just in front of the house. I saw Mrs Grant approach it, kneel in the street and bow her head. I saw Him place His hands on her head.

A year ago I had a dream. I was in the People’s Forum, stooping and kissing Mrs Grant. She looked up through tears. “I have seen the Master,” she said in my dream. “He spoke to me. Oh there was never such a Face in the world!”

Now, on the steps of the Rectory, as she returned from the car, she looked up through tears.

I got my blessing, Juliet,” she said, “and I didn’t have to ask for it.”

I went back to the church to thank Percy Grant and found him alone. His last parishioner had just gone. For a moment we stood with clasped hands.

You made everything so beautiful. I can’t find the right words to thank you.”

My darling,” he said, “my darling—”

Something in his look—something false—woke me. Sick at heart, I turned away.

That night how I hungered to see the Master. My heart burned to see Him. I went to the telephone. Ah, these days when just by a telephone call we can reach Him! One of the Persians answered my call.

Is the Master well tonight? Is He resting?” I asked.

He is in His room, reading Tablets.”