Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Prayer by the Chair

What We Did On Our Summer Vacation

By John Taylor; 2008 Sep 03, 15 Asma, 165 BE

This summer we spent our week-long vacation in Michigan. For the first half we visited my big brother Bob in Chelsea, the second half we spent at Louhelen Baha'i School near Flint. I needed to get away and now my energy is restored, my spirits renewed.

Bob was a better host than we could have hoped for. He lives in a beautiful state park, the roads embowered in trees in a very pretty home with several gardens, all of it surrounded by four rows of pine trees. Roads are never covered over by trees here in Ontario; this is unusual to see. Hereabouts, any tree that dares show its face near a road or power line is shot on sight. When that does not stop them we take chain saws and mutilate them as an example to the recalcitrant. I asked my American sister-in-law, Louise, if they ever have ice storms in Michigan. It seems that they do, but all they do is take another route home. How very non-violent an attitude to tree-kind! And what a pleasure it was to sleep in a place that does not have the ubiquitous, unavoidable traffic noise that plagues my life! The night darkness and utter tranquility was worth the trip alone.

Bob showed us around both their properties, the house in Chelsea where we stayed and another small farm-like lot in Leslie. The highlight of the visit for nine-year-old Tomaso was the golf cart that he could ride himself around the grounds. He was also kind enough to take us to the Henry Ford Museum, a huge campus full of antique cars (the bicycles were the highlight for me), trains, farms, houses, workshops, on and on. The greatest pleasure for me was a much-anticipated tour through the only surviving Dymaxion house designed by Buckminster Fuller. This model was made just before he backed out of the project and, instead, invented the geodesic dome. I videotaped the whole spiel by the tour guide, a very well-informed woman who impressed me when she said afterwards that she had met Allegra Fuller, the great man's daughter.

My 14 year-old daughter Silvie and I went to see some legitimate theatre at the Purple Rose Theatre Company. Showing was "Panhandle Slim and the Oklahoma Kid," a play written by Jeff Daniels of "Dumb and Dumber" fame. Turns out the guy is not as stupid as he looks; he wrote the music as well as the words to this play, and, having seen the film, I recognized that the screenwriter of the "Dumber" film had certain turns of phrase that were recognizable. The acting in this production was far and away better than anything I have ever seen in person. A very enjoyable experience for both Silvie and myself.

What can you say about Louhelen? It was Homecoming weekend; even now I am not sure what that is, but it seems to be a good thing. A family thing.

Mornings were when we had speakers.

The featured speaker, artist Otto Don Rogers, was ill and could not come, but his place was ably taken by his son-in-law, another painter, Sky Glabush, a lecturer at Western. I learned a lot about art from him and was very pleased with what he had to say about the role of creativity in Baha'i life. The next speaker was a surprise, June Thomas, the author of Planning Progress, a book we reviewed extensively on this blog a couple of years ago. Her husband, a lecturer in American History, spoke the next day about the contributions and struggles of early Black Baha'is in America.

In the morning of the last day, Ernestine Tedla engaged us in a very stimulating session called "Spiritual Conversations." Basically the group just shared stories about our teaching experiences, problems and successful strategies. Some of the audience member's stories had me choking back tears all through the coffee break. Then her husband, Mehdun Todla spoke about obedience to the institutions and the stories he collected while teaching the Baha'i Faith in Ethiopia, mostly in the 1960's. He is very much old-school Baha'i, very spiritual, full of stories of past victories in the Cause. He shared some visuals about the principles that I hope to share later on this blog.

It was our first time at this remarkable institution and everything was new and very impressive. It has good people, nice accommodations, large play structures and a prayer refuge featuring a chair -- well, I will talk about the chair anon; spacious, beautiful halls decorated with art and statues, buffet meals and a large dining area, well-appointed conference rooms, a large "Unity" auditorium, ample recreation facilities and grounds with nature trails; a lovely old Baha'i library packed with rarely-seen books; an extensive Baha'i bookstore right next to it, packed with books priced to sell.

Especially prayer books.

Here in Canada our publishing trust seems to think, hmm, people have to pray, it is like food, so gouge them all you can. In the States they seem to think, people have to pray, it is like food, so let us price prayer books low to encourage more prayer. Our Haldimand Baha'i community, starved for prayer books, asked me to purchase twelve prayer books for them when we were there. Some of the prayer books I saw there, by my calculation cost as little as a fifth of what we pay here.

The library featured two computer terminals, a mixed blessing for me as a parent. On one hand it made it easy to find them. They did not wander off and I could be sure exactly where to find my kids on the huge grounds. On the other hand, just as at home I constantly had to be dragging them out of cyberspace and forcing them to join the human race.

Afternoons were spent in a variety of activities, including crafts, which kept Silvie and Marie active, and athletics, which almost killed me, especially the two-on-two three-minute basketball tournament. Somehow I persuaded Silvie to join me; I knew we had no chance, but it was fun we were after. Basketball is my worst sport. I could take two or three hundred shots and get none in. So I tried charging our opponents from the start, hoping maybe for a scoreless tie. It worked for about a minute, they were nonplussed, until my body hit its limit and I remembered about pacing oneself. We lost three to zero. There were several good volleyball games in those hot afternoons too. Plus, I showed some youth how to play Ping-Pong using something like the real rules of the game. These active afternoons destroyed my stereotype that Persians are not athletic. They really are, the men at least. Not a woman was to be seen though, now that I think of it.

For me the heart and soul of the weekend was the early morning prayer sessions in the Refuge, an entire building devoted to, well, devotions. Usually only one or two other non-Iranians turned up, and I had all that gorgeous Persian and Arabic chanting to myself. My appreciation increased with contact. Before leaving I bought a CD collection of chants by a vocalist named Jena; I have been listening to her chants, accompanied by the sitar, every morning since then. It is quite addictive, this strange, un-western sort of devotional expression.

Oh yes, the chair. I saw that a sign was sitting on this black rocker indicating along with a pillow and ribbon that you better not sit there. These bureaucrats, always coming up with rules for things you cannot do; what is the point of a chair if you cannot sit on it? The room being full of silent worshippers I was not so crass as to go up and read the sign, so for the first day I just sat down on the surrounding benches and prayed and meditated with the others (to my annoyance, even here in silent meditation you could still hear the dull roar of those never to be avoided automobiles whizzing by on the highway outside).

The next day I sat nearer the chair and felt a desire to wait until everybody was gone and say alone the long healing tablet, one that I suddenly realized that I had hardly said much at all since my desperate days of never-ending migraines back in the 1980's (again, one reason is that it is not in the prayer book I had). Accommodatingly, a migraine was creeping up on me again, so I had good reason to say the tablet, and here the long healing prayer was here in this prayer book all along and I had not noticed it. I plunged into this seemingly endless tablet and, even more annoyingly, a couple guys, a father and son, wandered in when I had barely begun. Was I being selfish? Then, worse, I found myself choking up periodically; I would stop, pause for a time, calm down, and continue. How sad and hopeless were my spirits when last I read these words! This tablet is my last resort in difficulties, and here I was reading it by this empty black chair and these two impatient souls who obviously came just to pray the minimum and get out and on with their lives. All the bad times, the oceans of despair through those years came back to me and it was hard times wrapped up in a nutshell again. Hard as it was, the incipient migraine was alleviated a little when I walked out of there.

The next day I again waited until the end, hoping to be alone with that chair. I knew that there must be a good reason you cannot sit on it, and that it probably had something to do with the Master. I knew that but did not want to think about it. Patiently, I waited, in silent meditation. Finally the only other person left was this bent over, crippled old Persian woman who got around with the aid a walker. She obviously was waiting to be alone too. Hey, put me one on one with a bent old crippled woman and I can out-wait her anytime. I sat, my eyes closed. Finally, she waddled over and gently, reverently approached the chair. I opened an eye briefly and glimpsed her gently kiss the back of the chair, then, quietly, she left. Okay, if I had any doubts about whether the Master sat in that chair, they were dispelled now.

I was alone, finally.

At last, my prayers and reflections over, I went over to read the sign. Yes, the Master had sat on this chair in Philadelphia. The sign points out that sitting on this chair is where the Master made his famous declaration about the destiny of spiritual leadership rather than economic and socio-political global hegemony that is America's. But that, interesting as it is, is not what popped into my mind. I immediately remembered the very unusual photograph of the Master which was taken in Philly. It is the only portrait I know of where he is reaching His elbow way over to rest it on an end table. Is this the chair? I suppose He sat on more than one chair in that town, but I will include the shot here if I can, just in case it is. (Upon closer examination of the photo I found that it is a different type of chair.) I have a feeling that it may be the one.

Before we left Louhelen I dragged the rest of the family over to the Refuge to at least visit the place once before they left. Silvie read the first prayer from the new prayer book that I bought for her (the best in the bookstore, for only TEN DOLLARS), thus giving a prayer book the best "launching" you could ask for. Hey, they break Champaign on the bow of ships, so why not say the first prayer from a new prayer book in a place thus sanctified by a souvenir of the Master?




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