Say: God sufficeth all things above all things. and nothing in the heavens or in the earth but God sufficeth. Verily, he is in Himself the Knower, the Sustainer, the Omnipotent.
– The Báb
On July 9 around noon, a friend and I were searching for the entrance to Elizabeth Park on Fern Street. “It’s like the entrance to Narnia,” she said. And like magic, it appeared.
I had been invited to join her family for a public observance of one of the the Bahá’í holy days, the commemoration of the Martydom of the Báb. The Báb, an honorific which means “the Gate” in Arabic, was the prophet-herald of the Bahá’í Faith. On May 23, 1844, in Shiraz, Persia, He announced the imminent arrival of Bahá’u’lláh, the prophet-founder of the faith. On July 9, 1850, the Báb was executed for His message, which had threatened the ruling theocracy.
Bahá’ís don’t have local houses of worship, and therefore meet in their homes or in other accessible spaces. The Local Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Hartford has been holding its annual observance commemorating the Martydom of the Báb in Elizabeth Park for several years.
I was a little nervous. I’ve been in a period of discernment about becoming a Bahá’í, and this was my first religious gathering and an opportunity to meet Bahá’ís other than my friend’s family and a welcoming couple I had met while living in Massachusetts. I had a minor panic concerning what to wear, as I actually think about what is appropriate dress for houses of worship. I have mixed feelings about sleeveless tops, for example, and don’t even get me started on strapless wedding gowns in churches. Given the fact that the Bahá’í Faith had developed out of Islam, I wondered if my somewhat conservative approach to “worship wear” might be seen as immodest regardless. I was assured that my “typical sensibilities about modesty (would) be totally appropriate.”
We rode our bicycles to the park. When we arrived we looked around for Bahá’ís who were already there. The plan had been to meet near the Rose Garden if the weather was good, and in the Pond House if the weather was bad. My friend found some people she knew sitting in the gazebo at the center of the garden, and noticed that others were sitting in the shade along the side of the lawn. That’s where we headed.
One of the central teachings of the Bahá’í Faith is that there is only one human race, and that prejudice must be overcome if justice and peace are to take hold in our world. If you want to see this teaching made manifest, just attend a Bahá’í gathering. I don’t want to sound trite, but the gathering incarnated the very rainbow of people I’d colored so diligently in church nursery school, but had never actually seen in church. The group was international, and ranged widely in age. There were tons of kids. The organizers estimated that there were about 50 people in attendance.
I have to say, I have never, ever felt as welcome at a religious service as I felt at this gathering. I’m accustomed to being ignored, handed an Order of Service by an usher who has already moved his gaze to the person behind me, or asked to stand up and announce that I’m visiting or attending for the first time. I’ve watched as the passing of the peace has transitioned from enthusiastic hugs to polite and distant waves. But I’ve never been led from person to person to say hello, shake hands, share a little about myself and learn something about the person I was meeting. At least not before Coffee Hour.
Bahá’ís don’t have clergy, so devotional meetings and observances are planned and facilitated by the believers themselves. This gathering had been planned by the Bahá’ís of New Britain. Among others, members of the Local Spiritual Assemblies of the Bahá’ís of Plainville, West Hartford, and Hartford were in attendance. There were many non-Bahá’ís present as well. I was introduced as a “friend of the Faith.”
The only thing “official” about the observance of the Martydom of the Báb it its starting time. The Martyrdom took place at noon, and is observed at noon locally throughout the world. As we follow Daylight Savings Time, the event shifted an hour to start at 1:00.
As children and adults sat quietly on blankets and benches, a quiet child’s voice began to read a prayer:
O Lord! Thou art the Remover of every anguish and the Dispeller of every affliction. Thou art He Who banisheth every sorrow and setteth free every slave, the Redeemer of every soul. O Lord! Grant deliverance through Thy mercy, and reckon me among such servants of Thine as have gained salvation.
– The Báb
The devotional program used was from a website called Uplifting Words. It included prayers, a song, and what seemed to be historic readings or commentaries.This particular program is commonly used for the observance of the Martyrdom of the Báb. As my friend explained later, although it’s technically correct to say that the time of the observance is the only “official” thing about it, there are features typical to this observance. One is recounting the story of the execution, and the other is reading the Tablet of Visitation. As she said, “We are free to carry out the observance however we want. If we left out the Tablet and neglected to tell the story, though, people would feel like something was missing.”
I sat in the shade of tall trees and faced the Rose Garden for most of the observance. I rested my bare feet on the grass. I was utterly aware that there is no more beautiful house of worship than creation itself. At one point the wind picked up and drowned out all human voices. As I see divinity in all of nature, it was easy to hear the voice of God in the wind. I was particularly moved by this, as the Bahá’í writings I’ve read are full of nature imagery, which speaks very strongly to me.
As the observance approached its end, we were invited to rise and face the Qiblih while the Tablet of Visitation was read. The Qiblih is the most holy place to Bahá’ís, the location of the Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh, which is located in Akka, Israel. For those in New England, the shortest distance to the shrine is northeast, which is the direction we faced. (It was at this point that I actually had an opportunity to contribute to the devotional gathering! I know where northeast is!)
When the observance concluded, we had a feast. People had brought more than enough food to share, from pizza to chips and salsa to cookies to salad. We all sat around eating and talking. I had tons of questions and not only was I able to ask them, the answers weren’t declarations or pronouncements. Rather, they were invitations to conversation, and the conversations I shared that day were deep, meaningful, and honest.
While we sat together, my friend’s daughter honored me by asking if I would help her to plan a devotional gathering. I said yes.
I guess I’ll be returning to a Bahá’í house of worship, wherever that may be.