Two Centuries Back: Anniversary for the World

[5-minute read. A different version of this same piece appears at, always a good place in which to wander about and think.]

Your retroactive invitation. Festivity’s over, but the party doesn’t end.

October was a big month in my little world. (Ah, but I’m always working to See the Big Picture, and to train my eyes on a World-Embracing Vision. In between laundry loads, basketball practices, and grinding away at That Book.) Just to be annoyingly clear, I’m not referring to the retail assault that was Hallowe’en, that will be BlackFriday/Thanksgiving in the Excited States of America, and which already hounds us to be frenzied consumers so baby Jesus can lay chocolate eggs under the reindeer tree — this, all over the “Christian” world and well beyond it.

No, the event I’m talking about didn’t make anybody any money. There was growing public awareness and appreciation, tributes from heads of state and spiritual dignitaries, but no ad blitzes, no junk-food tie-ins or “free” vacations on offer. No price of admission, either: come as you are, dress up if you’re able. Full disclosure: I think my wife did buy a new pair of shoes, and I bought a Dairy Queen ice-cream cake for my basketball boys. Heck, it was a celebration…

And on an October Saturday night, our family hosted a dinner party for a wonderfully mixed-up group of neighbours. Some had been our friends for a decade and a half, while others were in our home for the first time. Of course, we were celebrating the bicentenary of the Birth of Baha’u’llah. (Wait, WHAT? You didn’t hear about the 200th anniversary? Man, woman, hey kid! come ON! This wasn’t on CNN or Fox News, Al-Jazeera or ‘The World at Six’ on CBC Radio, but it’s the biggest and best behind-the-news story there IS. Seriously.)

(And I hear you over there, saying, “So how come you know about this supposedly ‘IMPORTANT’ event that most people are either totally oblivious to, or just sort of shrug about?” Answer: dumb luck.)

After my love’s famous Thai soup and other delicacies, I tried to explain what the Baha’is are so excited about. You see, I’ve been hanging around the Baha’i community for years, as many of my readers know. I try (and often fail) to live up to Baha’u’llah’s call for personal and societal transformation. I do my bit here and there, I guess, but it seems like pretty small potatoes sometimes. In October, though, it didn’t. It felt like being in a junior church choir that got to sing with a massed chorus from many congregations, one small voice in a great big HALLELUJAH! Right? So I talked about what this anniversary means to Baha’is and to the world. By doing so, at least I gave our friends a few minutes to do some main-course digestion before the unveiling of Diana’s Apple Cheesecake. I wanted to say something like this:

Friends and neighbours, as you know, Diana and I are members of the Baha’i Faith. It’s a worldwide movement dedicated to a few gigantic ideas: that the human race is one family, that we have to start ACTING like it, that there are principles and mechanisms that really can make it all work, and that it WILL work.

Peace and justice, arts and wonders and a harmonious global civilization? You bet! Baha’is believe they will blossom, on this lovely but stressed-out planet. Right here. In fact, these sweet things are growing right now, if we look for them, and they have been growing for more than a century. But we’re not naive, and we see what you see. Things are falling apart. Stubborn old ideas and creaky institutions have been crashing down around our ears.

However, all the necessities for human happiness–realizing the oneness of the human race and the equality of women and men, the elimination of racial and other prejudices, the end of the gross extremes of wealth and poverty that plague the world, and tons more–were laid out in the teachings of Baha’u’llah during the 19th century. We’re remembering the Bicentenary of Baha’u’llah’s birth tonight.

So who was he? He was born Mirza Husayn Ali, to a noble family in the former Persian empire, in 1817. On October 22, Baha’is all over the world celebrated the 200th anniversary of his birth. All kinds of festivities and tributes were offered, here in Ottawa and all over the world.

Now, what about that NAME?! Maybe it sounds strange, but it’s going to be on the lips of more and more people, more and more often. “Baha’u’llah” is an Arabic title which means “Glory (or Light) of God.” Baha’u’llah gave up inherited wealth and a high position in the King’s court to dedicate his youth to caring for the poor and needy. He spent the next 40 years in prison and exile–it’s the old story, as Jesus Christ said, that “a prophet hath not honour in his own country.” Why did Baha’u’llah walk away from such privilege? He sacrificed everything for his vision of a new world order, for a fresh new era of human civilization, which he predicted, prescribed and gave humanity the tools to build.

What’s a Baha’i, then? It’s just somebody who sees the need for a new way of doing business at this desperately (yet wondrously) important stage in humanity’s history. A Baha’i is someone who recognizes, in the words and the life of Baha’u’llah, the key spiritual message that the peoples of the world are dying to hear.

Take a look at the last 200 years. On one hand, human capacity and skill have skyrocketed, while during the same period, we’ve seen the worst depths of destruction. Baha’u’llah’s great-grandson wrote what follows during the 1930s, and it rings all the more true today:

Who, contemplating the helplessness, the fears and miseries of humanity in this day, can any longer question the necessity for a fresh revelation of the quickening power of God’s redemptive love and guidance? Who, witnessing on one hand the stupendous advance achieved in the realm of human knowledge…and viewing on the other the unprecedented…sufferings that afflict, and the dangers that beset, present-day society, can be so blind as to doubt that the hour has at last struck for the…revival of those spiritual forces that have, at fixed intervals, rehabilitated the fortunes of human society?                                   (Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u’llah)

(And now, a quick few words about that ‘God’ word. It messes people up. Baha’u’llah affirmed that there is a Source of all things, yes. But he also said that this Wellspring of Creation is beyond our capacity to understand, and warned strongly that for any of us to imagine we know what It is, or does, or thinks, is just that: imagination, useless at best and often poisonous to human happiness and community.)

Here in the 21st century, we take great pride in our inventions and abilities, yet we’re facing industrial-strength threats to human survival, let alone happiness. If there is a God, wouldn’t it seem it would be a good time for that Creator Spirit, that Higher Power to intervene (again!) in human affairs?

So it’s just that simple: we are Baha’is because we believe that, in the person of Baha’u’llah, this is exactly what has happened. As a result, the world is being renovated. It’s a mess, but there is an architect, there are plans, and we have what we need. We each play our tiny part. We try to hang tough against the destructive aspects of a flawed society’s “business as usual”. We grieve for the terrible burdens of the poor, “the wretched of the earth”, as anti-colonial thinker Frantz Fanon called them. But we also are excited by the many signs of progress, especially the growing consciousness of the oneness of humanity and the ever-clearer concept that diversity makes us stronger, makes us better.

Yup, we know how to party.

That’s it.

So, thank you for helping us honour the life of Baha’u’llah today. We’re so happy that so many of you were willing and able to come and celebrate this anniversary with us, and we hope you can stay with us awhile. Does anyone have room for Cheesecake à la Diana? Do you believe in ice cream?

Well, that was what I tried to say. I didn’t go on and on. Honest! (But I wanted to, believe me on that score, at least.)

His resting place. The ripples from his life continue to radiate.

Comments (3)

  1. Amalia

    Dang, J! I can hear your voice and almost taste Diana’s cheesecake. I love how you tie these ideas together in such a conversational tone! Sharing…on FB!
    P.S. NM in your sights yet? The summer is coming!

    [EDITOR’S NOTE: FB=Facebook. NM=New Mexico. They *love* me in New Mexico! And they’re so optimistic about summer — or maybe summer never leaves down there, at least by Canadian standards.]

  2. Gail

    Thanks, J. I didn’t get to any of the events, but I was thinking about the old Haldimand gang and wondering how everyone was celebrating.

  3. Jennifer Phillips

    Love it! I am going to forward it to a friend. You have this unique and uplifting way of conversing on paper and in person, and I love the combination of serious subject and a fun approach. It is disarming! With the current state of the world and the news media’s focus on the ‘downers’, people seem either discouraged or doing their best to avoid thinking about it altogether. You are encouraging positive collective action through inspiration, humour and a message to which people can relate. Bring on more messages! [Ed. note: Jennifer P is a brilliant and discerning person. Sometimes you can just tell.]

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