The Smell of Mortality
By John Taylor; 2006 May 31
"Therefore, do not look at the shortcomings of anybody; see with the sight of forgiveness. The imperfect eye beholds imperfections. The eye that covers faults looks toward the Creator of souls." (Abdu'l-Baha, Promulgation, 93)
Yesterday I wrote my daily contribution at the last minute, while I was online, something I rarely do. To my chagrin I hit the "send" button instead of the "save" button. The send button is an executioner that knows no reprieve. I had intended not only to revise more, but also to include the following further bit of feedback from another Badi' list reader to Monday's controversial review of the conference and the new counselor:
"Thank you so much for your reflections on the Inter-institutional conference. Your observations and conclusions are very accurate and I am going to forward your message to all the members of the St. Catharines Assembly as not everyone was able to attend. Your reflections will provide them with a very good sense of what now needs to happen to accomplish the goals of the Five Year Plan and make Entry By Troops a reality. Thank You So Much John."
I had in mind at this point cracking some joke along the lines of, "Oh no, please do not spread my faultfinding around, I am in enough trouble with the institutions of the Faith already!" But I have had leisure to think better of even hinting at such an attitude, for the whole thrust of the weekend for me was the astonishing maturity of the Ontario Baha'i Counsel. I had been prepared to some extent by attending a similar conference run by them a couple of years ago in Oshawa. As far as my relations with official bodies, the likes of the OBC I had never encountered in all my days, within the Faith or out. I did get the chance in the interval to buttonhole an OBC member last year and beg to hear what their secret was. Her explanation was nothing magical (I had half expected a magic lantern or some contract with darker powers to turn up in the story). She said that when they formed they were encouraged to study "the guidance" and they did so, together and apart, intensively over many months and years. She told me what specific letters they studied but unfortunately that information has slipped my mind.
Last night I viewed on DVD an old theatre performance of John Paul Jones in the role of King Lear. I pointed the old king out to the kids and informed them that here was the actor who played the voice of Darth Vader. They could scarce credit my words; he had no helmet and seemed frail and vulnerable. Darth Vader was nothing like Lear. Darth Vader had light swords, not metal ones.
Anyway, the whole play as I view it at this juncture of my life seemed to be about the difference between true power, a house build on stone, and false tyranny, a house built on sand, about the distinction between the betrayal of idle flattery and the truth of loyal love. Cordelia refuses to exaggerate her love to her father, saying, "I love thee to the extent of my bond, no more." Lear at that point does not realize that this is not minimizing love, it is saying as much as can be said about any human relationship. Lear was her father and king and she loved him as such but she recognized that when she married most of her thoughts, time and effort would go to her husband and children, not to her father. The Cause of God asks nothing more or less than just that, our bond, being faithful to the Covenant, living up to what truly exists between us and God. It is a serious mistake either to ignore or misrepresent that bond in thought, word or deed. Cordelia understood that, and even when called openly to flatter her father, she could not distort that sacred bond, even at the price of his loss of face, and of her life. He was stung by her affront to his prestige and summarily banished her. Before leaving she offered this prophesy to her two false sisters,
"Time shall unfold what plaited cunning hides:
Who cover faults, at last shame them derides.
Well may you prosper!"
Here is an interesting definition of flattery, a determined covering over of faults. Covering faults is a good thing, and when it is your boss or king, it is a very profitable thing too. Indeed, it is too much in our interest. Fault covering then blocks out sincerity. One must not break the greater bond we all have with reality by carrying our fault covering an inch further than the hard and strict bounds of truthfulness. As it is with father and king, so it is with God. God in teaching us to pray does not ask for false flattery, he wants our bond, nothing more. He wants the truth, nothing more. I can go through the whole prayer book every day but if I leave out my Obligatory Prayer, I will have broken my bond. There is no way around that, and my prayers would be nothing but flattery, attempts to ingratiate myself with my Creator. As Mr. Scott pointed out in the insightful maiden speech in question here, the Writings teach that the soul progresses not by self fulfillment but by submission, by obeying the command of God. Nothing more nor less than complete obeisance is going to cut it.
Shakespeare also pointed out, I think it was in Troilus and Cressida, that there is a similar power imbalance between the sexes.
"Though men can cover crimes with bold stern looks,
Poor women's faces are their own fault's books."
As always with poetry, this can mean several things. When I read that, I think of a foul mouthed and verbally abusive neighbor I have. Her profanity to husband and children float over the fence between us every day. She is a young woman but as Shakespeare warns, her perpetual scowl has already written deep lines of anger into what could have been an attractive face. She shows the "book of her faults" to all the world, and all unawares. In fact I thought of her often last weekend when people came to the microphone sharing their successful experiences asking people to sit down and go over a prayer with them, as Ruhi Book One stipulates. It would be pretty funny if I asked her to do that, and if she accepted and was transformed by the Word. It would be astonishing. On the other hand, if she rebuffed me, would I have in hand a "Ruhi refutation?" Considering the many unpleasant run-ins I have already had with these neighbors, the latter seems more likely.
In any case, flattery between men and women, and children and parents, is a more common and insidious danger, perhaps, than with distant authority figures. The fact is that Lear was both, father and king. That is an argument for royalty, for everyone has a father and, whether they consciously realize it or not, the quality of their relationship with their father conditions how they feel about government. And about God. That is why scripture openly encourages us to think of the Manifestation as a father. The Hidden Words especially starts off every verse with "O Son of..." Every virtue, every flaw, is an outcome of the filial bond, of what kind of a son or daughter we are, whether we can truthfully say, "I love thee according to my bond, no more." Or, no less. The truth is that this is no small thing, it is the hardest thing in the world. It is harder than the world itself.
The climax of the play, I think, comes when the two betrayed and exiled fathers, Gloucester and Lear, meet. Both can say with great understatement that they are "more sinned against than sinning." The former has been brutally blinded for his loyalty to Lear, the latter driven far beyond the brink of madness. But only now can they truly say that they know what love and loyalty mean. Only fifteen words pass between them.
GLOUCESTER: "O, let me kiss that hand!"
KING LEAR: "Let me wipe it first; it smells of mortality."
I was in tears here, the first and only time in this performance. Baha'u'llah outlawed the kissing of hands in the Aqdas, and here, I feel in my bones, is the reason why. The only time that act can be done sincerely, without flattery or pretension, is in their situation, in the middle of a remote field with nobody look, when the king has lost his kingdom and the servant has given his very eyes out of loyalty. Otherwise, it is an invidious act.
Warmed by my own "unmanly tears" (as they are called in the play) I was reminded of another dramatic event in Baha'i history. A perfidious brother of the Master asked for forgiveness and was taken back into the fold, as it turned out only temporarily. A moment worthy of a thousand screenplays, you can read Youness Afroukhteh's eyewitness account of it in "Memories of Nine Years in Akka." One of the believers was so overcome with joy that this Aghsan had repented that he broke the law of the Aqdas and spontaneously fell to the brother's feet and kissed his hand. Afroukhteh was watching the Aghsan's face carefully and saw the man positively puff up with ego, so gratifying was it for him once more to be the object of the adoring obeisance of the Baha'is. Truly, the man was not aware at all of the "smell of mortality." Had he been, he would not have broken the Covenant, his Bond, and erased his own honor forever.
Still in tears, I wondered, is the believer who fell at that egomaniacal man's feet and kissed his hand to blame for what happened, did that cause his eventual reversion to betrayal? Would the Aghsan have shown himself loyal in the end if the Baha'is had loved and welcomed him more temperately? I do not know, perhaps we are in part to blame when such things happen. We have a duty to love, but not more than our bond, to adore rather than merely to love is to put the objects of our immoderate affection to sore testing. I think we should be aware every minute of what we are doing when love servants of the Cause in high places, even when we are covering up their sins. We must ask: Is covering it over an act of affection and charity, or is it flattery, ego feeding? Think of Lear's unfaithful daughters. Was he to blame for their immoral life and eventual betrayal? Should he have intervened earlier? Part of me wants to say yes, to blame the father, but consider the following:
"Those who are unfamiliar with the workings of the Faith of Baha'u'llah may find it difficult to understand the reasons why these hypocritical, proud and ambitious men were not cast out of the community by Baha'u'llah Himself during His lifetime since He was well aware of their corruption and deceit. To appreciate this important point, one must remember that although the Manifestation of God continually urges the believers to purify their motives in the service of the Cause and exhorts them to remove every trace of hypocrisy from their hearts, He does not question those motives. Rather He looks upon them with a sin-covering eye and instead of examining their hearts to find their faults and shortcomings, He calls upon them to serve His Cause and praises them when they do so. Through the outpouring of loving kindness and encouragement He seeks to improve the character of those who have embraced His Cause. Only if a believer arises to actively oppose the Centre of the Cause will he then need to be cast out of the community." (Adib Taherzadeh, The Covenant of Baha'u'llah, 166)