December 27, 2009

The story of Thomas Breakwell -- as recalled by one of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s secretaries

This young man, who had obtained permission to visit ‘Abdu'l-Baha before the renewal of His incarceration, arrived from Paris in the opening days of the imprisonment. He attained the presence of ‘Abdu’l-Baha for two days and nights and stayed at the Master's house in the midst of those dreadfully anxious times. His devotion, attraction and love were so intense that his blessed name shall endure for centuries in the annals of the Faith of God, while his wonderful life shall be retold in many accounts.

I do not know the story of his conversion, [Please see Baha’i Heroes and Heroines] but it was clear that he came from a Christian background, was endowed with spiritual sensitivity and ardour, and had accepted the Faith on the basis of the verses and prophecies of the divinely revealed scriptures of former religions, rather than a sentimental attraction to the Faith's contemporary social and philosophical principles. He would usually be seen reciting the verses of the Bible in glorification of the Kingdom of God, and while his pilgrimage was not long, yet the intensity of the fire of his love and the fervour of his longing and attraction moved the friends deeply. When in the presence of the Master he seemed enthralled by the matchless beauty of the Beloved, and as he completed his pilgrimage and received permission to depart, he evinced moving signs of deep adoration and veneration.

He did not have the opportunity of meeting the believers of ‘Akka, and when he left ‘Abdu'l-Baha instructed him, "Remain in Paris." In accordance with the Master's instructions I accompanied him to Haifa and to the port of embarkation. In Haifa he was received in the home of one of the friends for about two hours. As he awaited the arrival of his transport, he gazed longingly out of the window towards ‘Akka, fervently reciting prayers. All those present were overcome with emotion. Weeping, he asked my permission to correspond with me from time to time so that from my replies he might inhale the fragrance of ‘Akka. At last a group of the friends tearfully bade him farewell as he embarked on his journey.

His first letter contained, in addition to expressions of sincere devotion and faithfulness, the question: "The Master has instructed me to continue to reside in Paris and not to return to London. I am currently living here as a student and wish to know if I would be permitted to go to London for a day or two for a funeral ceremony if either one of my parents were to die.'' But then immediately he added: "No, please disregard the question. Christ in His fxst coming told His followers 'Let the dead bury the dead'. So please do not bother to mention me in the Master's presence. However, while you are in attendance, remember me in your heart. This will bring me all the happiness and joy of both worlds."

Still, when the time was appropriate I related the story to ‘Abdu’l-Baha. The Master said with a smile, "Write to him that today the living have to bury the dead."

Some two weeks later another letter arrived. It was brief, yet so heart rending that the mere reading of it touched the soul deeply. After expressions of gratitude he wrote: "Your response is clear. But I ask God for calamity; I desire undiminishing pain. I long for suffering without respite; I yearn for enduring agony and torment so that I may not for a moment neglect the mention of my Beloved."

Once, as the Master strolled up and down, I mentioned the letter. ‘Abdu'l-Baha said nothing. I wrote to him and acknowledged the receipt of his letter. After two weeks, another letter arrived: "My parents are asking me to go to London. I have told them that the Master's instructions are for me to remain in Paris. But, alas, my parents are old and have not recognized this supreme revelation. I ask that I may succeed in teaching them. How unworthy and undeserving I am. How did I come to merit this most supreme blessing? Please remember me in His presence."

I mentioned the matter. The Master responded briefly "Write that he will be assisted. They will accept the Faith." Exactly two weeks later another letter came: "My parents have come to take me back. I have taught my father. His written declaration is attached. My mother is very loving. But I long for pain and anguish so that 1 may become closer to God. If I were a Persian, I would have yearned for martyrdom. Please pray for me. I shall not move from Paris." I apprised ‘Abdu'l-Baha of the contents of the letter and submitted a translated version of his elderly father's declaration of faith. ‘Abdu'l-Baha remained utterly silent. After a few clays, a Tablet revealed in honour of the father was handed to me by the Master; I duly dispatched it. Two weeks later I received a strangely stirring letter: "I am ill and bedridden in the hospital for consumptives. The fire of love has well nigh consumed me. I am happy. Pray that God may not deprive me of this pain."

I informed ‘Abdu'l-Baha of the situation. He made no reply. The wisdom of silence was quite apparent.

In short, the letters continued to arrive every two weeks, and in all of them he continued to ask that he might be the recipient of the harshest torment and pain; as his illness advanced he expressed more joy and happiness. All his letters were written on small green sheets of paper, which I collected and kept with great care. Reading these letters created deep spiritual feelings. Their deep emotional impact and the dictates of my conscience obliged me to report all the details to ‘Abdu'l-Bahi. Sometimes He would say, "Pass on my greetings." And at those times when He remained silent I knew that the relationship between the lover and the Beloved, the seeker and the One sought, was such as to need no intervention from any intermediary.

Then came his last letter: "I am intoxicated with the wine of suffering and pain and am prepared to receive the supreme blessing. The intensity of my torment and the magnitude of my agony have brought me infinitely closer to my Beloved. I still yearn for longer life to continue to bear this pain but my goal is obedience to His will. Remember me in His presence.”

This was the content of His last letter; two weeks later no further news was received. It was clear what had happened. A few days later, as Dr. Arastu and I were accompanying the Master from the pilgrim house to His residence, the Master suddenly said, "Honoured Khan, have you heard?"

I responded negatively.

Breakwell has ascended. I was heartbroken. I have written a moving Tablet of Visitation for him. I wrote it with such emotion that I wept as I wrote. You must translate it well so that he who reads it will not be able to hold back his tears."

I never learned who had informed ‘Abdu'l-Baha of his death. Whether the news had reached Him in English or French or whether it had been in the form of a written note or a telegram, I never discovered, although I would have been the recipient of all such correspondence.

Two days later 1 received the Tablet of Visitation. It was heart-rending. Several times ‘Abdu'l-Baha repeats the words: O Breakwell, O my dear one!" My tears flowed uncontrollably. According to His instructions I translated the Tablet into two languages - French, and with the help of Mrs. Lua Getsinger into English -- and dispatched them.

The deeply felt impressions left by that young man lingered in the hearts for a number of years. I received no further news concerning his parents for about a year. One day I was summoned to the presence of ‘Abdu'l-BahBa to receive the incoming correspondence for translation. There were numerous envelopes from various cities, and as ‘Abdu'l-Baha reviewed each sealed envelope He suddenly selected one of them and said, "What pleasant fragrance emanates from this envelope, open it quickly and see where it comes from. Hurry up."

Since I had often experienced similar circumstances where a certain envelope was chosen by ‘Abdu'l-Baha ahead of all the others, and these invariably contained significant spiritual matters, I hastily opened the envelope. Inside was a postcard and a sealed envelope. The gold-coloured handwriting on the colourful postcard, which had a single violet attached to it, read: “He is not dead, he lives in the Abha Kingdom.” And there was the added note: “This flower was picked from Breakwell’s grave.”

As soon as I translated these words, ‘Abdu'l-Baha suddenly leapt from His seat, seized the postcard, placed it on His blessed forehead and wept. I too was utterly overcome. I opened the second envelope. It was from Breakwell's mother or father, expressing their deeply felt gratitude: "Praise be God, my dear son left this world having recognized the station of ‘Abdu’l-Baha and tasted the sweetness of His love.” I don't remember the details of ‘Abdu'l-Baha's reaction to the letter, but I do remember that the spiritual impact of the letter was no less than that of the postcard.

Although I have strayed from the main topic, yet I feel I need to complete this story Three years later, when I was in Paris in the company of Monsieur Dreyfus, he told many stories about Breakwell. ''When this young man was in the hospital," he related, "all the doctors, nurses and patients were overwhelmed by the intensity of his devotion and spiritual attraction, for he invited all to the divine Kingdom. Some were perplexed and moved, but some of the patients made spiteful and taunting remarks. Armed with only a few words of English, they sneered at him, pointing their fingers at him and repeating the words, 'You are dying, you are dying!' – to which he responded, laughing, 'I am not dying, I am going to the Kingdom of the heavenly Father. There, I will intercede for you.' "

In short, at his death all the nurses wept, and thus he left an enduring memory in the hearts of those who knew him in that hospital. One day M. Dreyfus and I visited his grave, and since I did not have the text of his Tablet of Visitation [Please see Baha’I Heroes and Heroines] with me I repeated three times, "O Breakwell, O my dear one!"
(Dr. Youness Afroukhteh, Memories of Nine Years in 'Akka, translated by Riaz Masrour)