Pilgrimage of Curtis Kelsey
By John Taylor; 2007 June 27
It is too hot to write anything today so I will let Nate Rutstein do the work for me. My first selection from his book on Curtis Kelsey is the following about a guy, Urban LeDoux, who was evidently the first French Canadian Baha’i. I used his lesson, evidently learned straight from the Master, about humility, calling himself Monsieur Zero, as a bedtime story for the kids; Silvie, who is studying French, was especially intrigued by the concept of “zeroness.” Does anybody know anything more about this guy?
“Watching Urban LeDoux practice his Faith was an unforgettable lesson in serving one's fellow human being. Mr LeDoux, a French Canadian and former Canadian diplomat, called himself Mr Zero. For he viewed himself as nothing and everyone else as greater than himself. Even the New York newspapers that covered his antics referred to him as Mr Zero. There were times when he would literally give someone the shirt off his back. His desire to serve others, especially the down-trodden, stemmed from the time he embraced Baha'u'llah. After resigning his diplomatic post, Mr LeDoux opened a soup-kitchen and boarding-house for those living in the streets of New York's skid row. He collected clothing for these people, tried to counsel them, light the lamp of spirit in their hearts. Curtis remembered how hard Mr LeDoux worked, rarely taking a day off. Urban's greatest pleasure was seeing the people he tried to help discover hope, a reason for living. And many did, some becoming Baha'is.
Mr LeDoux was a big, strong man, very much an activist. If he noticed an injustice, he didn't hesitate to alter the situation.
Upset with political corruption, he went to Washington D.C. and became one of the first White House pickets. He walked back and forth in front of the presidential mansion carrying a lantern and a placard which read, 'Looking for an honest man.' (He Loved and Served, The Story of Curtis Kelsey, by Nathan Rutstein, George Ronald, Oxford, p. 33-34)
Next, here is the chapter of Rutstein’s biography describing the pilgrimage that made a man of Curtis Kelsey. Before Kelsey had been your typical handyman, practical, uncommunicative, inclined to be happy only when working with his hands. He reminds me of an inactive Baha’i I know who only became a Baha’i after a perceptive teacher saw what he responded to and set him to work doing odd jobs around the grounds of a Baha’i summer school. When he is in a meeting, though, he is bored to tears and just wants to leave, get his hands onto something concrete. Kelsey was like that, and tall, gangly, with a long face; by this time, largely thanks to the prayers of his mother – and the experience of hearing celestial music on what should have been his deathbed, about which we shall hear presently -- he had become an enthusiastic Baha’i. He had hated school, especially after his teacher called him a “duckbilled platypus.”
But now he read the Baha’i writings and even talked a little at meetings. But he had no idea of the miracle upon a miracle that was about to happen. Before you read, recall that in 1921 you did not just jump on a plane to get to the Holy Land. Every trip was a major adventure.
Chapter 4, He Loved and Served, The Story of Curtis Kelsey
Whenever Curtis wasn't in the field, he would try to have lunch with Roy in lower Manhattan. At one of these meetings, Roy invited Curtis to come to his office, because he had something important to ask him. Why not ask me at the restaurant? Curtis wondered. But then there was always an air of mystery about Roy. It was a quirk that didn't deter Curtis; in fact he found it exciting, because Roy was the kind of person who made things happen.
When the two were alone, Roy nonchalantly said, 'How would you like to go to Haifa to do some work for the Master?'
At first Curtis thought it was a joke, but Roy appeared serious. 'Well, of course,' Curtis replied. 'But Haifa is far away, and I don't have the money to make the trip and back.' It was a response Roy had hoped for and said, 'You never know about these things - strange things happen.'
Curtis wanted to laugh, because he had heard Roy make the same statement in Tacoma. And what had happened to him that evening in his workshop had radically transformed his life. While walking back to his office, Curtis was flush with anticipation, wondering what was going to unfold next.
Several weeks later Curtis received a cablegram from Haifa. He handled it with care, making sure not to damage the contents inside the envelope. When he finally opened it, he read: CURTIS KELSEY PERMITTED, signed 'Abdu’l-Baha 'Abbas. As he studied the cablegram, a strong urge swept over him to start preparing for the trip right away. He felt he had to reach Haifa as soon as possible. But there were so many things to put in order. He knew his father, who was also his professional boss, would oppose his leaving for the Near East, especially for an indefinite period of time. Traveling thousands of miles would be costly; where would he get the money to do that? But for some reason, he felt he would get to Haifa. One of the first things he did was prepare his newly acquired Model T Ford - something he was deeply attached to -- so that he could sell it. He drove to downtown New Rochelle where a group of young men usually congregated, and showed off the freshly polished automobile. When no one showed any interest, he started driving away. But, someone in the crowd called for Curtis to stop, stating that he was interested in checking the car out. He said he would buy it for $150 if it could climb a certain hill in town. Fortunately, Curtis had cleaned the spark plugs that day and the car was able to go up the hill in high gear. Though Curtis sold a few other possessions, he still didn't have enough money to make the trip. There were no buyers for some of the other things he had for sale, things he valued highly. But at that point in Curtis' life there was nothing more precious than to be with 'Abdu'l-Baha.
After approaching most possible sources of money, and failing to secure any more funds, Baha'u'llah led Curtis back to Roy. At lunch one afternoon, Roy had asked Curtis how he was progressing in obtaining money for his trip to the Holy Land. Though admitting that he was short in collecting the amount needed, Curtis expressed optimism that he'd soon get what he needed. All he wanted, he said, was enough to get there, and he would worry about how he would get back later.
Roy knew Curtis would never ask the Master for the fare, though He would gladly have paid for his way. He sensed that Curtis was in a dilemma; and he was aware of Curtis' strong streak of independence. So in a tactful way, he persuaded Curtis to take $500 from him, explaining that it was only so that his trip could be financed. Because Curtis respected Roy's judgement, he took the money.
But there was another obstacle to going: Curtis' father.
Frank Kelsey felt a trip to the Orient would retard Curtis' professional development. He also didn't want to lose his son's services, because Curtis was a responsible supervisor in the field. In a meeting he had with Curtis, he employed every rational approach he could think of to dissuade his son from going to Haifa. When that didn't crack Curtis' resolve, Frank Kelsey told him how he really felt: 'Son, you must be taking leave of your senses. Here you are, just getting started in your work and now you plan to make this long trip and do that work for that little old man in Haifa; and they are not going to pay you for it.'
Though Curtis was hurt by his father's reference to 'Abdu’l-Baha as 'a little old man,' he knew his father didn't understand who the Master was, and at that point no amount of explanation could open his eyes and heart. 'Father,' he said, 'I must make this trip, but I haven't the time to explain why - now.'
'If you must go,' Mr Kelsey said, 'don't expect any financial help from me.'
After considerable checking, Curtis discovered there were no steamers going directly to Haifa. He had to settle for a voyage to France, where he would try to arrange connections to the Holy Land. He wanted to get there as fast as possible, so that he could be with the Master. The prospect of being near 'Abdu’l-Baha, listening to Him speak, watching Him doing things, eating with Him, working with Him, was almost too much to bear. If only he could wave some magical wand that would transport him to Haifa in an instant. But in 1921 airplanes weren't crossing oceans. The ship was still the fastest way. Without complications, it took three weeks to reach Haifa; and all he was assured of was reaching France. Every travel agent he contacted said he would never make it in three weeks, that he would be lucky if he made it in a month.
But getting to the Holy Land in time wasn't the only thing Curtis had to worry about. Several days before he was to leave, Roy revealed the primary purpose for the trip ... and that set off feelings of anxiety, even doubt about his ability to carry out the assignment. He was to design and install electrical systems at the Shrines of the Bab and Baha'u'llah and in 'Abdu’l-Baha’s house. Since there was no electricity in Bahji and Haifa, he would have to install lighting generators at the three sites. It was something that required more experience than he had, Curtis thought. Maybe an electrical engineer should be doing the job, not an elementary school dropout.
When Curtis shared his reservations with Roy, Roy didn't seem disturbed. In fact he expressed confidence that his young friend would do what had to be done. Just like Roy, Curtis thought. The man operates on a different level, and when he says that strange things happen, he knows they do. Soon Curtis realized that the level Roy was operating on was faith, and he couldn't deny that power.
When Roy explained why the Master wanted the project done, Curtis knew he couldn't back out. Besides, Roy had organized things so that Curtis had no alternative but to go. His steamship ticket had been purchased, and 'Abdu’l-Baha was awaiting his arrival.
What set off the project was Roy's reading of these words of the Bab in which He bemoans the fact that while incarcerated in the fortress of Maku He didn't have even a lamp in His cell:
'How veiled are ye, 0 My creatures ... who, without any right have consigned Him [the Bab] unto a mountain [Maku], not one of whose inhabitants is worthy of mention ... With Him, which is with Me, there is no one except him who is one of the Letters of the Living of My Book. In His presence, which is My presence, there is not at night even a lighted lamp! And yet, in places [of worship] which in varying degrees reach out unto Him, unnumbered lamps are shining! All that is on earth hath been created for Him, and all partake with delight of His benefits, and yet they are so veiled from Him as to refuse Him even a lamp!'
Roy was so moved by the statement, he immediately wrote the Master, asking for permission to send a lighting plant to Haifa to light the Shrine of the Bab. Shortly after sending the letter, he received a cablegram from 'Abdu'l-Baha, stating that three plants were necessary. Roy responded instantly. In a matter of weeks, the machinery was on its way to Mount Carmel.
The lighting plants remained in Haifa for about a year, untouched. Some of the friends in the United States were aware of the project and tried to help expedite it. One Californian believer sent a young electrical engineer over to do the work, but the Master sent him back, stating that it wasn't time yet. A Persian, Husayn-i-Kahrubayi (meaning Husayn the electrician) also traveled to Haifa to ask 'Abdu'l-Baha if he could work on the project. The Master said that when the time was right, he would be called to assist - and he was.
The dock workers serving on the steamship Olympic probably thought Curtis Kelsey was a celebrity. A crowd of Baha'is came out to bid 'Abdu'l-Baha's electrician farewell. Many of the people knew Curtis, but there were others who didn't. All were there hoping at least to catch a glimpse of someone who was going to be so close to their Lord. How they longed to be in Curtis' position. They handed him notes and gifts for 'Abdu'l-Baha. Some asked him to pray for them or someone special at the Holy Tombs.
Curtis' parents were in the crowd that surged toward him.
But Mrs Kelsey didn't have the strength to push through the crowd. She stayed back, unable even to see her son's face, while her husband pressed toward Curtis; he had to give him something important. When he reached his son, he handed him an envelope and simply said 'Good-bye,' and slipped back into the crowd. In glancing at the envelope, Curtis noticed a note attached to it, which asked that he not open the envelope until he was aboard the steamer.
Mrs Kelsey had already said her farewell that morning when she gave Curtis a gift, a Graflex camera with lots of film. She had asked him to take many pictures of the Holy Land, particularly the places where 'Abdu'l-Baha visited, the paths He walked. There was nothing she wanted more than to be with the Master; but she felt her husband would resist any attempt to go to Haifa. She didn't want to cause any discord in the household, so she let the matter rest. She would have to make her pilgrimage through her son.
Curtis remained on the deck, waving to the friends on the wharf, as long as he could see them. He was back on the Atlantic Ocean, that vast body of water he had crossed twice in recent years. But now he was heading for France, not to fight a war, but to find the next step in his journey to serve the most powerful force for peace on Earth.
When Curtis opened the envelope his father had handed him, he found $250. The gift didn't surprise him, because he knew his father cared for him. But the money symbolized a change of heart on the part of his father - that he finally respected Curtis' commitment to serving 'Abdu'l-Baha, even though he couldn't subscribe to the Baha'i Teachings. Now he could proceed without feeling guilty that he had disappointed his father terribly, or abandoned him.
Of all his sons, Frank Kelsey respected Curtis the most. He wished that he could be as close with him as Curtis was with Valeria. During the war years, Frank Kelsey worried, even brooded over his son's welfare, especially in battle. Often when Mrs Kelsey cleaned her husband's study she would discover the name Curtis written a number of times along the margins of his business papers.
Roy Wilhelm had wired the Master that Curtis Kelsey would reach the Holy Land in three weeks, and Curtis knew that. The first few days he was heartened by the progress the ship was making. There was lots of sunshine, and whatever wind blew was coming from the west, thus helping to quicken the ship's pace. It was an enjoyable trip. Sleeping in a private state room was a lot different from trying to sleep in a hammock in a cavernous room below deck, next to groaning engines, with about 500 other soldiers. The food, unlike that dispensed on the military ship, was delicious.
As the Olympic approached the English coast, visibility diminished. The ship had steamed into thick fog. Though virtually stalled, Curtis was only about 100 miles from Cherbourg, France, his landing point. He was certain the fog would soon lift. But when a day passed and the fog persisted, Curtis' fear of not reaching Haifa in time surfaced. About twenty hours later, when visibility improved, the Olympic resumed its regular speed.
Afraid that he was behind his time-schedule, Curtis practically ran to the steamship ticket-office when he left the Olympic. But there he ran into another barrier: the agent said it would be weeks before he could book passage to Alexandria, Egypt, where he had to take a train to Haifa. The agent encouraged Curtis to relax, go to Paris, have a good time - to do anything else would be a waste of energy.
Curtis heeded his intuition rather than the agent's advice and headed for Naples by train. It was night-time when the train entered Italy. Curtis was asleep in his berth when a pounding on his door awoke him. He scrambled out of bed and opened the door, and there standing in front of him were three policemen, who ordered him to open his trunk. Puzzled and anxious, Curtis tried to find out why they were searching his things, making him feel like a criminal. He was incensed. But the policemen ignored his attempts to find out what was happening. They rifled through his belongings, and when they discovered a small motor he was carrying to Haifa for the lighting project, they grew more animated. The policemen checked it over carefully, talking in Italian.
Perhaps, Curtis thought, he should have declared the motor at Customs. Maybe because he didn't do that, he would be deported, or worse yet, be locked up in jail.
The policemen placed the motor back in the trunk, excused themselves in English and slipped quietly out of Curtis' sleeping-cabin.
Curtis' encounter with the steamship office in Naples was as frustrating as his experience in France. When he told the agent that he would return the following day to check out shipping possibilities, he was told not to bother for there was no possibility of getting aboard a ship headed for the Near East. 'I know my business,' the agent protested. 'Nothing will happen, believe me. Now why don't you tell me where you are staying and I'll call you should something materialize.'
Two days later Curtis received a call at his hotel. It was the agent: 'Mr Kelsey, how did you know the Esperia would stop here?'
'I had no idea it would,' Curtis said.
'Well, it diverted its course in order to drop off a first-class passenger who had developed appendicitis. Would you like to take his place?'
'Of course, I'll be right down.'
Cruising on the Mediterranean was an improvement on the Atlantic. The ship seemed to glide through the deep, dark blue water, rarely encountering a wave. It was like sailing on one of those Maine lakes that Curtis used to visit on long summer weekend outings. Overhead the summer sun blazed, never obscured by clouds. For Curtis, every day at sea was golden; it reminded him of playing on those Long Island beaches that he and his family used to frequent. Of course, not having to worry about making a shipping connection to the Holy Land helped to make the voyage on the Esperia more relaxed. But the fact that this problem had been solved, plus the idyllic weather, didn't lull Curtis into forgetting the purpose of his trip. In fact, from time to time, between shuffle-board games and conversation with fellow passengers, his stomach would stiffen whenever he thought of the responsibility he had to carry out in the Holy Land. Who was going to help him? he wondered; and he was concerned about the source of supplies. As far as he knew, Palestine was a primitive place, a sort of pre-industrial-age land. True, Roy Wilhelm had shipped materials, but something was bound to happen which no one had planned for. Having worked on scores of construction projects, Curtis had learned that there is no such thing as a perfect plan. This challenge was different from any other, for it wasn't for some corporation, or even his father, who was a formidable perfectionist. To Curtis, it was like working for God. Everything he was to do had to be outstanding, flawless.
Meeting Mr Charles Dana helped Curtis to divert his attention from his forthcoming task. Mr Dana, a tall, slender, gray-haired gentleman, and a Presbyterian, directed a missionary service in the Middle East. Since he was based in Beirut, he would be travelling all the way to Haifa with Curtis. Beirut was on the same railroad line, about ninety miles north of Haifa.
When Mr Dana discovered why Curtis was going to Palestine, he revealed that he knew several Baha'is associated with the University of Beirut, and that he was impressed with their scholarship and character. 'What puzzles me,' he told Curtis, 'is how the Baha'i students are able to persuade Muslims to accept the teachings of Jesus Christ when the missionaries have virtually failed to make any inroads among the followers of Muhammad.'
'Well,' Curtis said, 'Baha'is are successful with attracting Muslims to their Faith, because they don't belittle the Teachings of Muhammad. In fact, they hold them sacred.' 'But what about their acceptance of Jesus Christ?'
'That's no problem for a Muslim, because he already accepts Jesus. Muhammad, Himself, stated to His followers that they must embrace all of the Jewish prophets, including Jesus. '
Curtis was surprised that Mr Dana was unaware of the fact that Muslims accepted Jesus, for he had spent many years in the Middle East. It was something he should have known, Curtis felt. Because if you are going to try to persuade people to adopt your religion, you must know something about their religion, not the rituals and trappings, but the central teachings. Perhaps, Curtis thought, Mr Dana and his associates felt it wasn't important to know about what they thought was false doctrine. Despite Mr Dana's feelings about Islam, Curtis found him charming, a real gentleman, who sincerely felt that he was doing God's work.
Mr Dana must have been impressed with Curtis, because he stayed close to the young American, who knew so much about religion and wasn't a clergyman. Most Americans he knew who weren't ordained ministers or priests never knew much about religion, especially religions other than their own.
In a way, being close to Mr Dana proved helpful to Curtis, because he learned much about the cultures of the Palestine area, practical things like how to barter with merchants and what the native food was like.
The two men traveled together all the way to Haifa. When they reached Alexandria, they didn't have to wait long for the simple Turkish narrow-gauge railroad train, which Mr Dana had taken numerous times. It was only a few hours' wait, time to absorb the sounds and smells of the Near East. But Alexandria wasn't typically Arab. It was a city with modern hotels. Palm trees, all right, but carefully planted in neat rows along the waterfront. But the language was different, and many men wore the fez and many women wore the veil; and there were a few camels in the downtown traffic.
Reaching the railroad station was easy; all Curtis had to do was stay close to Mr Dana.
Curtis didn't mind the bumpy ride, because there was so much to see. When they reached Cairo, Curtis found himself in a teeming metropolis, with its hundreds of minarets stretching into the sky, and hawks and vultures continually circled certain sections of the ancient city. East of Cairo, Curtis sensed ancient history - Moses leading the followers of Jehovah, the Hebrews, Egyptian slaves for nearly 400 years, toward the Promised Land. When he reached the Suez Canal and the train rattled across the bridge to Sinai, he thought of Moses and his brethren daring to cross the Red Sea with Pharaoh's soldiers in pursuit.
Sections of the Sinai reminded Curtis of southern Utah: craggy, treeless mountains and lots of rock on the sandy flat areas. From time to time they would pass a column of Bedouin nomads mounted on camels, and crumbling Coptic Christian monasteries that seemed to have been sculpted out of the hot native sands. The Old Testament seemed to come alive, for it was through the region the train was crossing that Moses had led the Hebrews toward the Holy Land.
Haifa in September 1921 was nothing like 'Abdu'l-Baha said it would be like in the future, a metropolis, extending around the Bay of 'Akka. When Curtis and Mr Dana stepped off the train, they found themselves in a village which probably looked like a village from the days of Jesus. There were Arab women carrying jars of water on their heads, merchants selling their wares in the open, Arab men gathered in the shade, smoking bubble pipes, a couple of camels tied to a post and unbothered by the scorching sun. Mount Carmel was a huge limestone rock, covered with scrubby vegetation, with a few houses at its base; the Shrine of the Bab was a light-colored stone structure, with a flat roof, as bare as a fortress. Near the top of the mountain was the Carmelite Monastery, which had been established centuries ago by the Roman Catholic Church to watch for Christ's return; He was supposed to return on a cloud. Being in Haifa was like stepping back in time. Certainly a different world from the Woolworth Building and its sleek elevators.
Mr Dana didn't get back on the train. He would take the later one for Beirut. Curious about the Baha'i Faith, he walked up Mount Carmel to visit the Shrine of the Bab. Curtis never saw him again.
Waiting at the train station were Fujita and Dr Lutfu'llah Hakim, two young men serving the Master, one Japanese, the other of Persian-Jewish background, in a high buckboard wagon that 'Abdu'l-Baha would ride in, when He wasn't walking or riding a donkey. Evidently they knew who Curtis was, because he was the only young American to emerge from the train, and he was the only one who stopped to gaze at Mount Carmel. When Curtis heard his name called, he turned to see two short men approaching. Obviously Baha'is, he thought. Who else would know his name? Perhaps Roy had sent his picture to the Master, and they were able to identify him by it.
Both men were smiling and waving. While Curtis waved back, he wondered if he would be able to communicate with them, for he knew only English. He remembered how difficult it was to use the several French and German survival sentences he had learned in order to negotiate his way through post-war France and Germany as an American soldier. He especially had trouble pronouncing foreign sounding words. And those were from European languages. Imagine how he would mutilate an oriental language. But Curtis' anxiety soon passed. Both men spoke English, with thick Japanese and Persian accents.
For Curtis it was an unusual greeting. Though outwardly these men appeared so different from the people he knew back home, they seemed like members of his family. It was instantaneous comradeship. He had seen a few Persians before in America, but had never met a Japanese. Despite his basic shyness, there was no sense of uneasiness, no pangs of self-consciousness. Sitting in the wagon with Fujita and Lutfu'llah Hakim, heading for the Master's house, was as natural as riding in his family's car with his parents and brothers. The three men, who shared the same room while in the Holy Land, were to grow very close.
The buckboard wagon came to a halt in front of a large stone house that faced the Bay of Haifa. It was the Pilgrim House, Curtis was told, where the pilgrims stayed while they visited 'Abdu'l-Baha. Curtis, holding two suitcases, stood in the road for a moment looking at the building, wondering what it was going to be like standing face to face with the Master. He had read many of His Tablets and heard pilgrims talk about their meetings with Him; and there were those times when he had daydreamed of being in the Master's presence. Even when he received the cablegram from Haifa, the thought that he, Curtis Kelsey, would be with 'Abdu'l-Baha didn't seem real.
Dr Hakim urged Curtis to enter the house, because the Master was waiting for him. As they entered, they were greeted by two ladies, one from the East, the other from the West, and were ushered to a large table in the front room. On it was the luncheon, a large platter of Persian pilau, with curried lamb, chopped nuts and candied orange peel; saffron was sprinkled on it. Small glasses of tea and bowls of yogurt were next to each plate. Unleavened bread was piled on a dish.
Everyone was standing and chatting, mainly about Curtis' trip from New York City, when suddenly a door opened, and 'Abdu'l-Baha appeared, heading for Curtis; He was dressed in a cream-colored 'aba and white turban, and His eyes were smiling. The Master shook Curtis' hand and said, 'Marhaba! Marhaba!' (You are welcome! You are welcome!) After washing his hands in a bowl of water that Fujita had brought over, He had everyone sit around the table. 'Abdu'l-Baha had Curtis sit next to Him and asked how the friends were faring in New York, and how he liked Haifa. When Curtis replied that he liked the atmosphere there, the Master said, looking beyond everyone at the table, 'You feel this way because the prophets of the past have visited and walked in this area.' Then he turned to Curtis and asked, 'Did you notice how easy it was to get here?'
Curtis hesitated for a moment. 'Yes,' he said, 'I had noticed this.' Immediately after making that statement, Curtis realized that he had reached Haifa in twenty days, the time he had allotted himself to get to Haifa. Amazing, he thought, considering what all the experts had told him. As he ate the pilau, Curtis knew that he had been given special assistance in reaching the Holy Land.
After lunch, the Master suggested that Curtis rest for a few hours. This was the local custom, and as Curtis soon learned, it was a wise practice, because from noon to three was the hottest time of the day, making work difficult. In fact, all of the businesses closed in the afternoon, opening at dusk.
Shortly after entering the small room he shared with Fujita and Dr Hakim, which was next to the rear door of the Pilgrim house, a young woman came by with a branch bearing about ten oranges. It was something the Master had asked her to give Curtis.
None of the Baha'is in Haifa lived in luxury. The rooms where people slept were small, and the beds, which were made of iron, had boards on them and flat three-quarter-inch-thick mattresses that did little to cushion the hardness. Netting was wrapped around the beds to keep the mosquitoes from poking at your flesh. Simple white curtains were on the windows. In the room where Curtis stayed, which was only fourteen-foot-square, there were three dressers, one for each occupant. Fujita's large trunk seemed to dominate the room; it was filled with clothes, which he enjoyed wearing when he was going to parties in California and Michigan. He even had a fancy white-tie tuxedo with tails. From time to time, Fujita would have Lutfu'llah Hakim and Curtis sit down, and he would go to his trunk, open it and exclaim, 'Look, all dressed up and no place to go!' That never failed to make Curtis laugh.
It took a few days before Curtis became accustomed to resting during the afternoon, a period of time that was considered peak working hours back home. Of course, his roommates had no trouble dozing off. Fujita had been in Haifa for two years and Dr Hakim was from that part of the world. During his first siesta, Curtis tried to sleep; he stretched out on the bed, but his first meeting with 'Abdu'l-Baha had stirred him. Being with the Master was more than he had imagined. 'Abdu'l-Baha's nobility was obvious, but he didn't flaunt it. In His presence, Curtis didn't feel like cowering; instead he felt at ease, completely accepted - and totally loved. Before meeting 'Abdu'l-Baha there were times when Curtis felt unworthy of being with Him. But he never experienced that feeling when he was with the Master. In fact, he was forgetful of self. Later on in life, in reflecting on why he always felt at ease with 'Abdu'l-Baha, Curtis realized that the Master wouldn't allow you to feel unworthy, whatever your station in life, be you pauper or potentate. Being with the Master you discovered you had value; you knew you weren't being judged; you experienced freedom - something you thought you had experienced back home, but really hadn't.
Every week Curtis would receive at least one letter from his mother, sometimes two. Judging by the dates of her letters, she had started writing the day her son left for Haifa. Like the letters she wrote during the war, they were newsy, often witty, full of genuine encouragement and advice given as a gift. It was uncanny, Curtis felt, that her letters often addressed a concern that he was keeping to himself. For example, even after the first few days in Haifa, Curtis remained anxious about his assignment. But after pondering this section of one of his mother's letters, dated September 7, 1921, his anxiety diminished: 'I know you will have so much to do and see, and that your spirit will be constantly fed, so that you will receive good from every direction, even in your physical labors and complex situations, for you will turn always to 'Abdu'l-Baha, and you will let 'Abdu'l-Baha be the real builder of the lighting system ... '
Whatever the Master asked Curtis to do, he did it immediately, without reservation or hesitation. But he wasn't asked to do much during the first two weeks he was in the Holy Land. In fact, he had the freedom to do whatever he wished. So he went about fixing whatever needed repair at the World Center. When he checked out the garage, he found two automobiles – a big Cunningham and a Ford. They had been sent to Haifa by some American friends. Neither of the cars was functioning. In a few days, Curtis had the vehicles operating and he took the Master for several rides around the Mount Carmel area.
There was no automobile traffic in Haifa in 1921 - only one other person, a young Arab, had a car. The ancient stone roads were really twisting alleyways. Curtis, who had a passion for cars and speed, found negotiating the roads an exciting challenge, except when he drove the Master about. Then he was extra careful. But despite the care he took to ensure the Master's safety, Curtis experienced a near-disaster halfway up Mount Carmel. After 'Abdu'l-Baha stepped out of the Cunningham and started walking down the mountain, Curtis noticed the young Arab, who roared around Haifa like a Grand Prix racer in competition, pushing his car at top speed, heading for the Master. Alarm seized Curtis. The speeding car missed the Master by inches. 'Abdu'l-Baha never stopped walking, never flinched, turning only to see who the driver was. It took Curtis a few moments to regain his composure.
It didn't take long to unpack and arrange all of the parts of the three lighting plants. But after that was taken care of, Curtis found that he was running out of things to do. He never liked sitting around doing nothing. He wasn't the philosophical type who expends considerable energy trying to prove his own existence, or reflecting on the origin of the universe. He was a builder, a fairly creative builder who was growing restless doing little odd jobs; and nothing had been done to launch the lighting project. Fifteen days had passed and there was still no word from the Master as to when he would start. Curtis never mentioned his concern to 'Abdu'l-Baha, for he knew that when He was ready to begin, He would tell him. But Curtis was impatient; he was like an anxious sprinter, crouched in the starting-block, waiting for the signal to go. During some of his weaker moments, he wondered about how long he would be in the Holy Land, worrying about his obligation to his father's business. He had to tell someone about his concern, and chose Ruhi Afnan, a grandson of the Master.
One day he and Ruhi were standing in the middle of the street, about 150 feet from the door of 'Abdu'l-Baha's house.
'Ruhi,' he said, 'when do you think 'Abdu'l-Baha is going to let me start the work on the lighting project?'
'I don't know ... '
Before Ruhi could complete his response, the door to the Master's house swung open and 'Abdu'l-Baha, in a booming voice, called out, 'We will start tomorrow.' He smiled, and walked back into the house. Though it was wonderful to hear the good news, Curtis was more impressed with the Master's power of knowing his very thoughts, his feelings. There was no way, he was convinced, that 'Abdu'l-Baha could have heard his conversation with Ruhi. After that experience, Curtis knew the Master knew him better than he knew himself. Who could explain the Mystery of God? Not Curtis, or anyone else.
That night Curtis learned that he was to accompany the Master to Bahji the following day. Falling asleep was difficult; how could he sleep? For he had never been to the Shrine of Baha'u'llah, and he had never traveled with 'Abdu'l-Baha outside of Haifa. The time passed so slowly. It must have been about 2 A.M. before exhaustion drew him into sleep. It was dawn when he opened his eyes. Standing in the doorway was the Master. Fujita and Lutfu'llah Hakim were awake also. Their immediate response was to sit up, but 'Abdu'l-Baha urged them not to get out of bed, that they should rest. He turned to Curtis and said, 'I cannot go to Bahji today to start the work; what shall I do about it?'
Curtis responded immediately: 'When the Master is ready I will be ready.'
'Balih! Balih!' (Yes! Yes!) said 'Abdu'l-Baha - and left. Though disappointed, Curtis didn't complain, because he was certain there was a good reason why 'Abdu'l-Baha wasn't going to Bahji. He was amazed that he didn't want to indulge in self-pity, because back home such a disappointment would have hurt him deeply. But he knew he was in a special place, and he understood, without question, that the Master was a special figure who saw and heard things that others couldn't see or hear.
Several hours later, word reached Curtis that the Master was going to Bahji, after all. Curtis was to be ready to leave by late afternoon. Somehow he knew that this time there would be no change in plans. So he rested well during the siesta. Before leaving, Curtis, Ruhi Afman and a servant by the name of Khusraw gathered the food and tools, and put them into the high buckboard wagon. With the Master aboard, they headed for the railroad station, a sleepy little place where local Arabs liked to congregate with their camels. The train, filled with chattering people and their chickens and goats, was waiting for 'Abdu'l-Baha and his party. But the Master sat down on a bench inside the station house. Outside, the conductor paced the platform. If the train arrived after sunset, the passengers would be unable to enter 'Akka, for the city closed its gates at nightfall. The conductor knew he couldn't leave without Sir 'Abdu'l-Baha 'Abbas, who had come to the Holy Land as a prisoner and now was revered as 'The Father of the Poor.' It all seemed strange to Curtis; but he never questioned the wisdom of the situation. In about five minutes an Arab, leading his camel, approached, tied the animal to a post and entered the station house and headed for 'Abdu'l-Baha. After a brief conversation, the Arab went his way and the Master boarded the train, which had windowless openings. Many passengers hung precariously out of the openings, but not because there wasn't enough room inside: they seemed to enjoy challenging the elements, much like those Americans who like riding the roller coaster. In the morning, the same train would be waiting to take most of the same people back to Haifa.
When the train pulled into 'Akka, the sun seemed to be sitting on the sea. It was cooler than when they had left Haifa, but not uncomfortable. Bahji was two and a half miles from where they were. Khusraw left immediately to prepare supper. All of the passengers rushed to 'Akka's gate, but 'Abdu'l-Baha walked to the station house and sat down on a bench. Curtis and Ruhi stood by patiently, with Curtis wondering what strange occurrence would unfold next. Only the howls of jackals could be heard, as night draped over 'Akka. In a few minutes, Khalid, a servant who lived in Bahji, appeared with the Master's white donkey. Still, the Master remained seated. A full moon graced the night sky; and the stars sparkled the way they did over the Utah desert. It was so clear that Curtis could see in the distance an Arab, mounted on a white stallion, riding hard toward the station house. It was the person the Master was waiting for. They spoke for several minutes, laughing at times. Soon 'Abdu'l-Baha emerged and mounted the donkey. The Arab headed back in the direction from which he had come, and was quickly enveloped by the night.
Walking to Bahji that evening was one of the most memorable experiences in Curtis' life. Obviously, he was on Earth, but, in a sense, he wasn't, for he seemed detached from the tensions and woes of the world. Curtis never fell freer. His heart was filled with the vibrating love or 'Abdu'l-Baha. It was a love that seemed to cleanse his inner being and move his spirit toward the wispy clouds that floated overhead. It didn't matter that nothing was said, for words were unnecessary. Who needed to say anything when you were immersed in peace and contentment? What wonderful things would happen next? Curtis thought.
After a while, the Master pulled His 'aba over his shoulders and spoke in English: 'Beautiful night, beautiful moon, beautiful clouds.' No one else commented. A moment or two later, 'Abdu'l-Baha turned to Curtis, who was on His right, and said, 'Are you finding it difficult to walk?' What could he say? Curtis thought. For in a sense he wasn't walking; rather, he was in the embrace of the Master.
'I am very happy to be walking with you,' he told 'Abdu'l-Baha. If he had been more eloquent, he would have said what he really felt. But the Master knew why Curtis felt the way he did, for He said, 'You feel this way because you are filled with love.' At that point, Curtis could have floated.
When they reached Bahji, they didn't go into the mansion because, at that time, it was held by the Covenant-breakers. Instead, they were to spend the night in a small building near the Shrine of Baha'u'llah. Its four rooms surrounded an open inner garden, with an orange-tree. In the dining room, Khusraw had spread out the dinner - a platter of small squash stuffed with rice, meat and candied orange-peel. There was a bowl of yogurt at each place, as well as a glass of tea, also a pitcher of sour milk and a large bowl with oranges, pomegranates and bunches of Damascus grapes.
The conversation was engaging, but not profound. In fact, most of the talk was about food, with 'Abdu'l-Baha pointing out how tender the grapes were and how special the tea was. For Curtis the table-talk helped to pull him out of the state of heavenly intoxication. Around 'Abdu'l-Baha people did useful things. Being enveloped in a mystical trance was not conducive to furthering an 'ever-advancing civilization.' 'Abdu'l-Baha, Curtis knew, was the epitome of moderation. Even reading the Divine Word had its limits. A flight into spiritual realms shouldn't propel you away from the cares of the world, but should inspire you to be of service to others. Having been with the Master for nearly a month, Curtis discovered that He had a way of transporting you into those mystical realms and then gently leading you back to the world, which he considered a workshop where through serving others you sharpen and strengthen your character and draw closer to God.
About halfway through the meal, someone knocked on the outside door. 'Come in - in the name of God,' 'Abdu'l-Baha called out in Arabic. When Khusraw finally removed the cross-bar and opened the door, there stood a tall Arab, about six-foot-three, with a black mustache and goatee. He didn't budge, until the Master said again, 'Come in - in the name of God.'
A chair was placed to the right of 'Abdu'l-Baha, where the man was asked to sit. They engaged in an animated discussion, all in Arabic. At that point, the Master pushed His turban back on His head, and He and the man started laughing. Soon Ruhi began to laugh. It was contagious, because Curtis was swept up in the hilarity, even though he didn't understand a word that was uttered.
After the man left, Ruhi explained what had been discussed and what 'Abdu'l-Baha had learned from the discussion. It seemed the Master had asked the Arab if he belonged to a tribe where the husband had to steal something during the day in order for his wife to allow him to enter their tent that night. When the man acknowledged that he belonged to such a tribe, the Master inquired if he had ever been denied entrance to the tent. 'Never,' the man declared. At that point 'Abdu'l-Baha knew that the man sitting next to Him was the culprit who was stealing the sweet oranges in His garden in Bahji. So the Master asked the man if he had ever tried eating sour oranges. When the Arab grimaced, 'Abdu'l-Baha assured him that they tasted delicious with sugar. The next day 'Abdu'l-Baha discovered that many of the sour oranges had been stripped from His trees.
At the World Center the day began at dawn and Curtis was awake at 5:20, eager to start work on the lighting project. After breakfast, the Master led him to the Shrine and selected the room where the lighting plant should be placed. During the rest of the morning, Curtis did some surveying work. But his eye caught more than the proportions of the Shrine's foundations. He realized how involved the Master was; that He was always serving, always putting the affairs of others ahead of His personal desires. Curtis had thought that 'Abdu'l-Baha would find time to relax while at Bahji, because Haifa was the center of the Baha'i world; and Bahji, he thought, was a refuge, where one would be cut off from the whirl and demands of civilization. But that was not the case. Somehow people who had needs found the Master; and when they appeared, He didn't show surprise - and never annoyance. Because of His attitude, those who came were calmed by Him, received assurance from Him, were fed by Him, felt appreciated and loved by Him and felt free to call upon Him again and again.
That morning several Arabs came from the countryside, seeking the Master. He fed them, gave them money, cheered their hearts. What He told them and Curtis, without saying so, was that He was their brother who would always be available in time of need. In the afternoon, the Governor of 'Akka called on the Master, spending several hours, seeking advice. Curtis felt that the Governor and many others in 'Akka, and elsewhere in Palestine, knew 'Abdu'l-Baha's true authority. For He was the one who had answers to questions that others in high secular and ecclesiastical positions were unable to fathom.
At noontime, Curtis' spiritual longings were addressed by the Master, squeezing them in between the Arabs and the Governor. It was right after lunch while 'Abdu'l-Baha was still at table, that Curtis approached Him, to share an experience that he could find no answer to. No person, however scholarly, could unravel the mystery. And how people tried, including his dear mother. 'What was that music?' he asked the Master, 'that enchanting music that permeated my room, while I was so sick in bed years ago in my parents' home, and cured me of typhoid fever?'
'It was a true spiritual experience. You heard music of the Kingdom.' 'Abdu'l-Baha said, 'and it caused your spiritual awakening. '
The day they were to leave Bahji, Curtis was up at five.
Before breakfast he pumped enough water to shower the garden, then walked toward the house. The sun was barely up. Sitting on the porch was the Master, facing the sea. A plate full of jasmine blossoms was on a chair in front of Him. As Curtis approached the porch, he could smell the blossoms. It was like being in the Shrines, where floral fragrance was always present, and there was peace. 'Abdu'l-Baha motioned to Curtis to sit beside Him, then poured Curtis a cup of tea.
'Did you sleep well?' Curtis asked.
The Master smiled and said in English, 'Last night I sleep very well.' Continuing to smile and looking at Curtis with a twinkle in His eye, He paused and then asked, 'Is my English good?'
'Yes,' Curtis responded. 'And I must learn Persian.'
'That would be very good.'
After that, nothing more was said. 'Abdu'l-Baha and his American electrician watched the dawn chased away by the brilliance of golden daylight.
Later that morning, the Master asked Ruhi and Curtis to accompany Him to the Shrine of Baha'u'llah. Before entering, they removed their shoes. There was Curtis, tall, slender, open-faced, standing beside Ruhi and about three feet behind the Master at the threshold of the sepulcher that contained the bodily remains of the Blessed Beauty. Again, this simple young man from the West had been lifted into a heavenly state. Nothing but the pleading voice of 'Abdu'l-Baha could be heard. Every other sound and thought vanished. Though he couldn't understand a word, Curtis was moved by the emotion of 'Abdu'l-Baha chanting the Tablet of Visitation. There was no semblance of self from the figure before Curtis - just a total expression of devotion, a surrendering of will, an outpouring of love so intense that it seemed the Master was offering his heart to Baha'u'llah.
After prostrating before the Threshold for several minutes, 'Abdu'l-Baha stood and asked Curtis and Ruhi to collect the rugs and ornaments in the Shrine, because they were to be taken to the House of 'Abbud in 'Akka that afternoon. When that was done, the Master asked Curtis to come with Him. Curtis didn't wonder where they were going, or what was going to happen. That no longer mattered. What was real was the Master's request.
They walked in silence toward the Mansion. Halfway there, 'Abdu'l-Baha stopped and asked Curtis how he planned to arrange the lighting of the Shrine of Bahji. A surge of confidence swept over Curtis, and without hesitating, he explained that he would place underground lighting in the inner garden of the Shrine so that light would shine up through the flowers; that he would electrify the oil lamps, thus preserving their nineteenth-century character. And finally, he would place lights around the cornice of the Shrine. The Master nodded positively and exclaimed, 'Balih! Balih!'
As they walked closer to the Mansion, Curtis noticed an elderly man approach the Master. After introducing the believer to Curtis, 'Abdu'l-Baha pointed out that the man, who was a mason, would help build the stone enclosure that was to house the lighting plant. The fact that the man didn't speak English and Curtis didn't know Persian or Arabic was never mentioned. It was understood that all would work out well. In 'Abdu'l-Baha's mind, Curtis felt, the electrification project was done; it was only a matter of time before the world would appreciate the effort. The only thing that was necessary was the implementation of the plan.
When 'Abdu'l-Baha and Curtis reached the small house where they had spent the night, they found the Master's four-seater high buckboard wagon standing at the entrance with Isfandfyar, the wagon's driver. All that had to go to 'Akka and Haifa was aboard.
They didn't go directly to the House of 'Abbud, but stopped at the Most Great Prison, where 'Abdu'l-Baha had spent two years. Nothing extraordinary occurred; 'Abdu'l-Baha simply gazed at the massive sandstone structure. In His silence, He seemed to say to Curtis that only a few people in the world knew that this foul place was where a divine Manifestation of God was sent to perish.
The House of 'Abbud was only a few minutes' ride from the prison. Inside, the dining-room table was set, with three extra places. Minutes after 'Abdu'l-Baha had arrived, the guests appeared. Three Druzes, including the chief of those people and his two sons, showed up for dinner, obviously invited by the Master, who greeted them warmly. The chief, in his nineties, did most of the speaking during the dinner and afterwards. Curtis sensed that the man, who respected and loved 'Abdu'l-Baha, was distressed. Speaking in a pleading voice, expressing puzzlement, and at times weeping, the chief searched 'Abdu'l-Baha's face for some assurance.
The Master said little - simply trying to comfort the old man, patting his back from time to time.
Several months later Curtis understood why the Druze chief was so depressed. He probably sensed that he would never see 'Abdu'l-Baha again, his adviser, his comforter, his friend, his wise counselor, and in a sense, his spiritual father. The Master's trip to Bahji with Curtis was His last visit there: about a month later 'Abdu'l-Baha passed away. The Druzes, a religious sect, shun serious association with outsiders. But they considered 'Abdu'l-Baha an honored member of the community, a rare distinction. They grieved deeply over the Master's passing.
After dinner, Curtis, Rul:If and Isfandfyar packed the buckboard wagon again and the Master led them back to Haifa via a road along the sea. It was a delightful journey. Nature seemed to soothe the senses, burying the experience of the weeping Druze chieftain deep in Curtis' memory, far from his conscious mind. Halfway back, they noticed a magnificent sunset over Mount Carmel. They stopped so Curtis could snap a picture of it. A few minutes later it was night-time. The reflection of the moon on the sea, the clusters of stars, the balmy night, the nearness of the Master were a symphony that drove every care away. Curtis didn't notice how long it took to reach Haifa; he didn't care that 'Abdu'l-Baha didn't utter a word all the way. He and Ruhi sat behind the Master, who was behind the driver. Curtis focused on 'Abdu'l-Baha's back, noticing how His long white hair fell over his shoulders. Curtis never felt more secure.
Only years after his experiences with 'Abdu'l-Baha was Curtis able to fully appreciate the tranquil and happy atmosphere at the World Center. Almost every day there was laughter. Racial and cultural prejudice was nonexistent. Persian, Arab, Japanese and American mingled naturally. No issue - pro or con - was made over someone's ethnic background. It was completely understood that all humans were part of the same family, God's family. And there was never any complaining, no sarcasm, no expressions of negativity. Backbiting wasn't experienced. And that was remarkable considering the turbulence and intrigue that swirled around the Master. The Covenant-breakers were in His midst, always plotting against Him, trying to embarrass Him before the governmental authorities and scheming to seize all of the Holy properties; and they were in control of the Bahji Mansion, neglecting to repair what would break or stop functioning. There was always news of the believers being persecuted in Persia and elsewhere, and outbreaks of discord in the fledgling Baha'i communities around the world. There was the daily pressure of guiding the infant Faith, nurturing it in such a way that the believers wouldn't lose heart, or feel so unworthy of being able to live by the Baha'i standard that they withered into apathy. Every day He would write letters, scores of letters, usually answering correspondence He had received from Baha'is around the planet; and no subject was avoided, however silly it might appear on the surface. People in the Holy Land, Jew, Christian, Druze and Muslim, often clergymen, sought Him out for advice. While carrying the weight of the world, with all of its open wounds, He managed to tend to the sick and poor in the Haifa area and be a concerned husband and father.
Though Curtis experienced tranquillity and happiness in Haifa, people worked and worked hard.
The Abha Kingdom, he reflected later in life, must be like the World Center as it was while the Master lived there. It certainly wasn't an isolated sanctuary where people floated about in pleated white gowns, perpetually smiling and strumming miniature harps. People had chores, and they believed that what they were doing was helping, in a small way, to create a brighter future, to build that world civilization that Baha'u'llah shares with us through His revelation. They worked - but without complaining, backbiting, gossip and negativity; no cheating, lying and scheming for power. For Curtis it was that atmosphere that made the World Center Heaven on Earth. While in Haifa, Curtis felt everything Baha'u'llah called for was attainable; that in time, if the believers put into practice what He urged them to do, they would be able to remake the world as He envisioned it would be. Back in America it seemed more difficult to maintain that perspective. There were so many distractions. But it could be done by developing a dependence upon the Revelation for guidance in every aspect of life. That's what Curtis - after many tests and failures - eventually learned to do.
To Curtis the World Center was light, constantly flowing; and 'Abdu'l-Baha generated it. It was easier to be happy there. In fact, while he was there, Curtis never thought about happiness because he was experiencing it. It was like the fish who was oblivious of water, because he was' always immersed in it. The Master was happy despite the troubles and problems He faced, because He understood the day in which He lived. Baha'u'llah was pointing the way. So the Master followed and rejoiced, and those near Him in spirit also rejoiced. (He Loved and Served, The Story of Curtis Kelsey, by Nathan Rutstein, George Ronald, Oxford, pp. 35 – 66)