Sunday, June 10, 2007

Baha'i Hymns

This morning I forwarded the following letter to the annual meeting of the choir in which my wife sings.


Dear Voices of Unity,

The centenary of Abdu'l-Baha's visit to the Montreal is only five years away, and I am writing to suggest that it may be a service to the Faith to begin to include one or more of the following hymns and songs associated with that time.

The most important song, one that you never hear today in our meetings, is "Nearer My God to Thee." Hasan Balyuzi wrote of one of the darkest times in the Master's ministry:

"Lua Getsinger sang well, and whenever she sang the famous hymn, 'Nearer my God to Thee', her gaze directed towards the Shrine of Baha'u'llah, it brought tears to the eyes of 'Abdu'l-Baha. Cut off from that sacred Shrine, 'Abdu'l-Baha had a wooden cabin built on the roof of His house in 'Akka, where a commanding view could be had of the vast plain extending as far as Bahji; and there many a dawn saw Him, during those years of oppression, rapt in prayer." (H.M. Balyuzi, Abdu'l-Baha - The Centre of the Covenant, p. 97)

Later on, when He had just arrived back from Boston and His physical powers were at a low ebb and Abdu'l-Baha was about to give a talk at Mount Morris Baptist Church in New York, the congregation happened to sing that hymn. Leaning against a pillar, He gave one of His most significant and powerful talks, beginning,

"As I entered the church this evening I heard the hymn 'Nearer my God, to Thee'. The greatest attainment in the world of humanity is nearness to God. Every lasting glory, honour, grace and beauty which comes to man comes through nearness to God..." (26 May, 1912, Promulgation, 147)

Another hymn is associated with a dramatic moment during the master's travels, this time in London.

"The hymn `O God our help in ages past' was sung by the entire assembly standing, as 'Abdu'l-Baha and the Archdeacon passed down the aisle to the vestry hand in hand." (Abdu'l-Baha in London, 21)

The Guardian, in God Passes By, mentions this dramatic event first among his list of the most memorable moments in the Master's travels.

When the Master had just returned to England from America, on December 15, 1912, another hymn was sung, followed by the revelation of a prayer. The order, talk, hymn, prayer, suggests an order that could be repeated again at an upcoming commemoration. The talk ended,

"Rest not from your endeavors until international peace become established. This is my request of you and my earnest hope for you is that you may always be protected."

The Star of the West recorded what happened next:

"After the hymn, `People That on Earth Do Dwell,' Abdu'l-Baha pronounced the following benediction in Oriental fashion, with hands outstretched and upturned.

"O Thou most kind Lord, this reverent assembly is calling on Thy name. These souls are seeking Thy good pleasure. They are seeking the prosperity of the world of humanity. O Lord, confer upon their souls life evermore.

"O Lord, forgive their sins and keep them in Thy protecting shade in both worlds. O Lord, confer upon them Thy great pleasure. All are servants of international peace, all are servants of humanity. Thou art The Merciful, The Generous, The Forgiver, The Almighty, The Praiseworthy." (SW, Vol. 3, No. 17, p. 5)

Two of the most dramatic events in the Master's travels happened in New York, when the Master spoke at Percy Grant's Episcopal Church. On the second occasion, Dr. Grant introduced the Master by first quoting the lyrics of a hymn that had just been sung (the title is not given), saying that these words convey the spirit of this portentous meeting,

Hasten the time appointed,
By prophets long foretold,
When all shall dwell together,
One Shepherd and one Fold.
Let all that now unites us
More sweet and lasting prove,
A closer bond of union,
In a blest land of love.
Let war be learned no longer,
Let strife and tumult cease,
All earth, His blessed kingdom,
The Lord and Prince of Peace.

Dr. Grant then said,

"Abdu’l-Baha is doing what we all pray to have done, simplifying the intellectual side of religion, intensifying the spiritual side of religion and getting to work in the practical cause of bringing men together by showing (them) directly the loveliness of personal effort." (SW, Vol. 3, No. 10, p. 24)

Another dramatic moment, involving Dr. Grant, happened when a hymn about the second coming was sung while the Master caressed the head of that same priest. Juliet Thompson breathlessly recorded in her diary that the recessional hymn was `Christ our Lord has risen again,' and that,

"Dr Grant asked the Master to give the benediction. Apparently He gave no blessing but asked for one for us. Against His high background of lilies He stood, His face uplifted in prayer, His eyes closed, the palms of His hands uplifted. I seemed to feel streams of Life descending, filling those cupped hands. On either side of Him knelt the clergymen, facing the altar. Percy Grant's head was bowed low. It was a breathless moment. Then the Master raised His resonant voice and chanted. How can words tell what I realized, or thought I realized, at that incomparable service?"

This too, the Guardian mentioned as one of the most memorable events of these travels.

Another point you may wish to consider. Shanaz Waite was a pianist and original composer, and yet you never hear her compositions. Her composition, written for the occasion, was played at the dedication of the Temple grounds, in the presence of Abdu'l-Baha. Mahmud records in his diary another event where her music was featured, on November 1, 1912,

"'Abdu'l-Baha delivered a public address in the hotel's salon, giving decisive proofs of the greatness and power of the Cause. As a result, many people learned of the divine teachings and were attracted to the fragrances of God. After dinner Mrs Waite sat at the piano and sang a song she had written in praise of the Beauty of the Covenant." (Mahmud, 362)

It would be great to find this piece, for this month of November marked the climax of the Master's visit to America, when on at least two occasions He revealed the power of His station as center of the Covenant, and what steadfast fidelity means.

Also, several hymns were sung in Montreal when He spoke, and these too would be good to learn soon, before the big commemorations of these events come closer.


1 comment:

Barney said...

I was brought up in the Church of England before I became a Baha'i at the age of 18. "Oh God our help in ages past" and "All people that on earth do dwell" were (and still is) one of my favourite hymns.

Now I know why!