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Under the Dome: The Eternal Art of the Universe

Andréana Lefton | Oct 1, 2016

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

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Andréana Lefton | Oct 1, 2016

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

You enter the gardens. You climb the blinding white steps. As you walk into the Baha’i House of Worship in North America, you tilt your head back, as if scanning the sky on a clear night. You inhale the beauty. That luminous sieve tipped over you, whorls of sky and shadow, light and foam.

So much movement, captured in quartz and concrete. You look around, find an empty chair.

Depending on the time of day and the weather, the colors inside are variations on mother-of-pearl. You’ve stepping into a seashell and have found the sea and the stars and the forests waving around you.

The craftsman who created the intricate forms that pattern the Baha’i House of Worship in Wilmette, IL, wrote this about its beautiful, lacey dome in 1932:

When at night we look into the sky we see only the stars but could we see the orbits of the stars how wonderful it would be… Ovals, circles, and vesicas of endless variety twisted and woven into some great cosmic fabric. This is the theme of the dome, the courses of the stars woven into a fabric.

But this is not all, interwoven with the courses of the stars… are the tendrils of living things, leaves, and flowers, because no symbol of creation would be complete without a symbol of life. Lifted above the dome are nine great ribs, nine aspirations that mount higher than the courses of the stars. – John Earley

My father taught me to love the universe. He taught me to gasp in amazement at the connections between our stardust bodies and our light-filled souls. We would go for long drives in the countryside, and talk and talk and talk. We talked about black holes and uncertainty and what it means to be human, to be alive and awake at this particular time in eternity.

With my father’s support and encouragement, two years ago I moved to Washington DC. He helped me find a tiny apartment, and every day I walked to work, up and down 16th Street. Daily, I passed through Meridian Hill Park, a stretch of shade trees and cool fountains in the midst of midtown craziness.

For over 18 months, I walked up and down Meridian Hill. I passed by the statue of Joan of Arc, offering prayers for the souls of liberatrices everywhere. I watched families picnic there in summer. I even joined the periphery of a drum circle, where children, youth and elders all danced together.

Baha'i House of Worship in Wilmette

Baha’i House of Worship in Wilmette

Then, a call came and life sent me to Wilmette, to serve at the Baha’i House of Worship. Several weeks after I land, settling into my new home after weeks on the road, I pull out my Dad’s copy of The Dawning Place, a book documenting the building of the Temple. For the first time, I learn about John Earley.

I learn that before he designed the ornamentation of the Baha’i House of Worship, he was commissioned to invent and install the special concrete for – you guessed it – Meridian Hill Park.

I slam the book shut as if electrocuted. How could this be? How could my feet touch the DC handiwork of John Earley hundreds of times – completely unaware of this remarkable connection? And now – to be living a mere 7 minutes’ walk from the Temple he also adorned!

I don’t know. All I know is, I am here now. I have circled back to my father’s home, to the city where he was born and became a Baha’i. I feel the magnitude of our spherical lives enter me.

When you sit beneath the Temple’s dome, you see the courses of the stars and all created things, entwining endlessly. You feel these infinite orbits as a pulse. Their rhythm is our pulse.

For men…a soul was given formed from those everlasting fires, which you mortals call constellations and stars, that, round and spherical in form, alive with divine intelligences, complete their orbits and circles with marvelous swiftness… – Cicero

Souls have appeared in the world who were pure and undefiled, who have directed their attention toward God, seeking the reward of God, attaining nearness to the threshold of God, acceptable in the good pleasure of God. They have been the lights of guidance and stars of the Supreme Concourse. Consider these souls, shining like stars in the horizon of sanctity forevermore. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 186.

For millennia, the stars have been used as a metaphor to represent the heavens and the souls of the dead. In the Pyramid Texts, sacred poems by the ancient Egyptians, this line struck me, written thousands of years ago: “May the soul of the dead person fly into the fire beneath the holy ones. They make a path for the soul…” One scholar interprets the holy ones as the stars, and the fire as the light of dawn. The light of the stars at dawn make a path for the soul.

The Baha’i House of Worship is known by another name. In Arabic, a language which still holds traces of old Egyptian, it is called the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar, the Dawning Place of the Mention of God. Here in Illinois, in the dome of the first Western Dawning Place to be built, the wheeling stars and braiding leaves are written, symbolizing the universe and our place as conscious souls within it. Everyone’s experience of entering the sacred varies, of course. Always, these moments are beyond words. But I believe that language is simply an attempt to share what is beyond its scope. I’d love to hear one of your sacred moments, and I’ll try to share one of mine:

Under the Dome

You sit in a rose-velvet chair.

Shafts of light warm your inner chaos.

Time paces the rim, along with pilgrims

Who come and go and leave

Not their souls but a trembling

In the air. Rain clouds and sun-fall

Turn sky the same color as the chair

That holds you. Shadow of night

Passes over you, gentle bruise

Of all you’ve been through

Surfaces, for an instant,

Then fades.

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  • Andrew B Lefton
    Jan 30, 2018
    You've helped me see, really see, the House of Worship in a new way. Reading your words is like receiving new sight. The world becomes context - renewed. Creation becomes stone and concrete becomes spirit. Thank you.
  • Oct 4, 2016
    Wonderful poem. Reminds me of being there. And of the music festival where we performed as the thunder and rain crashed all around us.
  • Andrew B Lefton
    Oct 2, 2016
    A father's inner smile...
  • Oct 2, 2016
    ...monumental Edifices, each designed to serve as a house for the indwelling Spirit of God...
    (Shoghi Effendi, Messages to the Baha'i World - 1950-1957, p. 119)
    • Oct 3, 2016
      Shoghi Effendi's insights about this sacred institution never fail to astonish me...Thank you Paul!
  • Gail Bennett Owens
    Oct 1, 2016
    My first visit to the House of Worship is still fresh in my mind. I became a Baha'i 30 years ago and have never had the opportunity to visit. Until last Monday . Sept 26. All I can say is it is magnificent! I was awed by the ceiling especially! Thank you for bringing it alive. For sharing your knowledge. For giving us all those quotes. I live in Victoria, Canada. I know it won't be 30 years before I visit again. I will be returning very soon, God willing.
    • Oct 3, 2016
      Thank you for this lovely and inspiring remembrance Gail! I very much hope you can visit again soon, we'd love to welcome you...Truly, A.
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