November 16, 2012

May Maxwell sees ‘Abdu’l-Baha for the first time

May Bolles Maxwell was one of the first group of pilgrims from the West who, in 1898-99, visited ‘Abdu’l-Baha while He was still a prisoner in ‘Akka. Below is a segment from her memoir:

We sailed from Marseilles on February 9th, 1898, on board the S.S. Carthage bound for Bombay and arrived in Port Said on February 13th. We were met on board by Ahmad Yazdi and Nurullah Effendi. They did everything for us, got us rooms at the hotel, attended to our baggage, and during the time we were there came to us almost every hour of the day and evening, inviting us to their homes, taking us to drive, and indeed showing us a love and kindness such as we had never seen before. At the time we could not understand the spirit which animated them, but afterwards we knew that we were dead and they were living and were quickened with the love of God.

On the afternoon of our arrival Nurullah Effendi called for us and drove us to his house, where we met his dear wife and daughters with the same radiant faces and wonderful love that we had seen in our two brothers, and there for the first time we beheld the face of our beloved Master. I could not remove my eyes from this picture, and these friends gave us each a copy and a lock of hair of the Blessed Perfection. Then we were entertained with tea and many sweet cakes, and when we left, although not a word had been spoken except through an occasional interpretation of our brother, we were united in an indissoluble bond of love, and we felt that no language could have been more eloquent than that silence in which our hearts alone had spoken.

We were obliged to wait two days for the little boat running along the coast of Beirut, and we went on board about seven o'clock on the evening of the 15th accompanied by our faithful brothers. With what deep feeling they entrusted to us messages of love for their Master and with what longing eyes they watched us as we sailed away. Ah! soon I was to understand!

I remember how calm the sea was under the noonday sun when we stopped at Jaffa the next day, and we spoke of the little house of Simon the tanner and the wonderful vision St. Peter had on that housetop. We visited this historic spot on our return trip; now every hour that separated us from our Beloved seemed all too long. So we continued on our journey, sitting quietly on deck until the twilight fell about us, the shadows deepened, and with the gathering darkness the stars shone out one by one, large and effulgent in that clear atmosphere. We arose and went forward and saw looming up through the darkness, dimly at first, but growing ever more distinct and grand, the noble outline of Mount Carmel, then the twinkling lights along the shore, and the breath of the Holy Land was wafted to us laden with the perfume of roses and orange blossoms.

There were two Russian pilgrims on board who for hours had been standing motionless at the ship's rail facing the east, and now their steadfast gaze was on 'Akka, and thus we all stood in prayer and worship as the ship entered the bay of Haifa and cast anchor. Then followed a confusion of boats, lights and voices which we heeded not until we were rowed ashore and saw the faces of our American brothers beaming upon us. They greeted us cordially as they helped us out, and said, 'Our Master is in Haifa.' We were driven to the house which the Master had taken for the American pilgrims and cordially greeted by sister Maryam and others, and retired to spend our first night in the Holy Land, between waking and sleeping, waiting for the sunrise of that glorious day.

On the following morning, Friday the 17th, at about seven o'clock, sister Maryam hurried into our room and announced that 'Abdu'l-Baha would arrive in a few moments. We had barely time to dress when a sudden stir without set all our beings in commotion. We went out into a large central hall from which opened all the rooms in the house and opposite the door of one of these we saw the shoes of the believers; thus we knew that the blessed Master was within.

The others preceded me. In a moment I stood on the threshold and dimly saw a room full of people sitting quietly about the walls, and then I beheld my Beloved. I found myself at His feet, and He gently raised me and seated me beside Him, all the while saying some loving words in Persian in a voice that shook my heart.

Of that first meeting I can remember neither joy nor pain nor anything that I can name. I had been carried suddenly to too great a height; my soul had come in contact with the Divine Spirit; and this force so pure, so holy, so mighty, had overwhelmed me. He spoke to each one of us in turn, of ourselves and our lives and those whom we loved, and although His Words were so few and so simple they breathed the Spirit of Life to our souls.

To me He said among other things:

'You are like the rain which is poured upon the earth making it bud and blossom and become fruitful; so shall the Spirit of God descend upon you, filling you with fruitfulness and you shall go forth and water His vineyard. Now your troubles are ended and you must wipe away your tears, for you know the parable that Christ spoke of the sower and the seed; and so as in nature the good ground is made ready by rain and storm and ploughing and sunshine for the good seed to be sown, so is it in life, and the heart is made ready by all experience for the seed of life.'

The Russian Jews who had been on the boat the night before now arrived, their faces shining with a great light as they entered His Presence. We could not remove our eyes from His glorious face: we heard all He said; we drank tea with Him at His bidding; but existence seemed suspended, and when He arose and suddenly left us we came back with a start to life: but never again, thank God, to the same life on this earth! We had 'beheld the King in His beauty. We had seen the land which is very far off.' (May Maxwell, ‘An Early Pilgrimage)