Academic journal article The Journal of Baha'i Studies

Emblems of Faithfulness: Pluralism in Meaning and Beauty in the Ordinary 1

Academic journal article The Journal of Baha'i Studies

Emblems of Faithfulness: Pluralism in Meaning and Beauty in the Ordinary 1

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

Storytelling is an ancient method of consciousness raising and meaning making.2 It is intuitive and widespread across cultures.3 On a symbolic level, stories capture the conventional and reveal the possible. A story can help us notice what has been taken for granted and can give meaning to the commonplace. Yet it can also help us imagine what might otherwise be formless or imperceptible, and express our dreams and aspirations by creating archetypes that inspire and influence.

Our ability to tell stories is central to the construction of our sense of self.4 At the collective level, the sharing of stories also creates an "interpretive community" that shapes our cultural life and identity. It has been said that stories are "a culture's coin and currency" (Bruner 15). As the prototypical experience told by the story gains wider circulation over time, it becomes a "collective coin" that carries meanings that are gradually shared.

Circulating in different corners of the worldwide Bahá'í community is a collection of sixty-nine stories about the lives of more than seventy early followers of the Bábí-Bahá'í Faith, titled Memorials of the Faithful. It consists of stories told by 'Abdu'l-Bahá to weekly gatherings of Bahá'ís in Haifa in the latter part of 1915, during World War I. The ravages of war brought fear everywhere. The people of Haifa and its environs were gripped by anxiety and despair. Bahá'ís in the Holy Land were isolated from the rest of the Bahá'í world, as the war interrupted communication channels. Activities of the Faith also came to a relative standstill. It was against this gloomy backdrop of the war that 'Abdu'l-Bahá encouraged the Bahá'ís around Him by speaking to them about the stirring stories of the early faithful (Balyuzi 410-30, Banani 73). Memorials of the Faithful captures those moments of storytelling shared by 'Abdu'l-Bahá with the Bahá'ís during the war years.

The stories are characterized by a variety of archetypes that are destined to inspire generations of Bahá'ís to come, and illustrate through living examples many core tenets of the Bahá'í Faith. The book shares the same literary category as Some Answered Questions in that both works are transcriptions of 'Abdu'l-Bahá's talks, which He later examined and approved for publication.

However, like a precious coin waiting to be rediscovered and put into re-circulation, Memorials of the Faithful has, for a variety of reasons, not received the kind of broad attention that its sister book, Some Answered Questions, has been given by Western Bahá'ís. One reason might be its relatively brief circulation in the West. While Some Answered Questions was published in English in 1907, Memorials of the Faithful was translated and published in English only in 1971, although 'Abdu'l-Bahá approved the original text in 1915-the same year in which the talks were given-and the original was published in Persian in 1924 (Banani 73). Another reason might be the foreignness of its style to Western readers. As Amin Banani explains, the text builds on a Persian literary tradition which has a spirit and aesthetic alien to Western sensibilities (73).5

Regardless of the lack of attention paid to it so far, Memorials of the Faithful is part of the legacy left to us by 'Abdu'l-Bahá. This essay takes a step toward unwrapping this gift and exploring its insights. The focus is on two readily apparent aspects of the text. First is the diversity of personalities described, while the other is the sheer ordinariness of many of those remembered lives. The discussion explores how these two aspects of the text highlight some of the broader questions raised by the Faith itself.

PLURALISM IN MEANING

Readers will find a wide variety of personalities and experiences represented in Memorials of the Faithful. There are stories about individuals who served their faith through such simple acts as cooking and cleaning (Áqá Mirzá Mahmúd and Áqá Rid. …

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