28 November 2008

‘Abdu'l-Bahá and Black Elk

On this day, Bahá'ís around the world commemorate the Ascension of ‘Abdu'l-Bahá, the head of the Bahá'í faith from the passing of his father Bahá'u'lláh in 1892 until his own death in 1921. Throughout his life he was most commonly known as ‘The Master’, but the name he chose for himself means ‘servant of Baha’. ‘Abdu'l-Bahá was an examplar of servant leadership long before Robert Greenleaf coined the term.

‘Abdu'l-Bahá was the author of many prayers, and one of the most typical begins like this:

He is the All-Glorious!
O God, my God! Lowly and tearful, I raise my suppliant hands to Thee and cover my face in the dust of that Threshold of Thine, exalted above the knowledge of the learned, and the praise of all that glorify Thee.

Tears come naturally to a servant leader, especially when he contemplates the state of the world and the condition to which so many of its people are reduced because of human ignorance and error. I see another example in the Ogalala Sioux visionary Black Elk — especially in the ‘Dog Vision’ chapter of Black Elk Speaks. At the age of 18 he was acutely aware that his visionary power had been given to be used in service to his people, but also that he didn't yet know how to render that service.

I had made a good start to fulfill my duty to the Grandfathers, but I had much more to do; and so the winter was like a long night of waiting for the daybreak.

When the grasses began to show their faces again, I was happy, for I could hear the thunder beings coming in the earth and I could hear them saying: ‘It is time to do the work of your Grandfathers.’

After the long winter of waiting, it was my first duty to go out lamenting. So after the first rain storm I began to get ready.

When going out to lament it is necessary to choose a wise old medicine man, who is quiet and generous, to help.

Black Elk chose a medicine man named Few Tails to guide him through the long and arduous preparation for ‘lamenting’.

Few Tails now told me what I was to do so that the spirits would hear me and make clear my next duty. I was to stand in the middle, crying and praying for understanding. Then I was to advance from the center to the quarter of the west and mourn there awhile. Then I was to back up to the center, and from there approach the quarter of the north, wailing and praying there, and so on all around the circle. This I had to do all night long.

Black Elk's prayer was essentially the same as ‘Abdu'l-Bahá's — despite many obvious differences — and motivated by the same spirit of servant leadership. And for me there is a special poignancy in this passage from that same chapter in Black Elk's story:

And now when I look about me upon my people in despair, I feel like crying and I wish and wish my vision could have been given to a man more worthy. I wonder why it came to me, a pitiful old man who can do nothing. Men and women and children I have cured of sickness with the power the vision gave me; but my nation I could not help. If a man or woman or child dies, it does not matter long, for the nation lives on. It was the nation that was dying, and the vision was for the nation; but I have done nothing with it.

A century and a half later, the same forces of greed and ignorance which nearly destroyed the Sioux nation are still at work, only on a much bigger scale — the entire planetary ecosystem is at risk, and the suffering people of far outnumber the entire human population of the earth in Black Elk's time. I certainly feel like crying when i think about it, and even more so when i think of how little i have done to help — for i haven't even healed a single person, as Black Elk did many times. Yet i see that Black Elk's vision lives on through the story told in Black Elk Speaks, and may yet make a difference — perhaps even because this blog post has directed your attention to it!

I am neither a visionary like Black Elk nor a servant leader like ‘Abdu'l-Bahá; neither my work in progress nor this blog can begin to compare with what they accomplished. Yet i confess to a faint flickering hope that my work may serve some purpose, especially in its blending of spiritual and scientific visions. ‘Abdu'l-Bahá said that ‘religion and science are the two wings upon which man's intelligence can soar into the heights, with which the human soul can progress.’ And i'm encouraged that at least one precursor along this double path — C.S. Peirce — did his best work in his mid-60s. That's why i haven't succumbed entirely to despair …


Marty said...

We can't really do anything on our own. Everything we do of any value is a gift from God. I once had a dream of Baha'u'llah where He was above me on a ladder against a wall of books. He asked me to get Him a piece of paper. When I woke up I knew immediately wha the dream meant. He wanted me to make myself blank like a piece of paper. Only when we are completely empty of personal goals can we really turn to God and be of use to others.

gnox said...

Thanks, Marty -- I'm sure both Abdu'l-Baha and Black Elk would agree. Prayer is certainly one way of becoming "blank like a piece of paper". Is that how you do it?

And if you don't mind a few more questions -- Did you succeed in blanking yourself, after your dream? If so, can you say what got written on you? And if you can -- how could you tell that your personal goals had no influence on it?

I hope you don't mind all this inquisitiveness -- i just like to hear the testimony of others about these things.

Sacredflower said...

Hi gnox,
I came upon your blog through my daughter who is a Montesorri (opps)teacher in Greensboro, NC. I went to visit with Chief Frank Fools Crow in S.D. in 1987. He gave me a Medicine bag and a story to tell. My daughter has been a bridgebuilder every since.She is educating her students about Black Elk as a result of my visit.Thank you for this blog.Visit me sometime at ladyinredatthewriterscafe.com