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In these days of self-isolation, restraint, and uncertainty, we might yearn for times of social connection and joyful celebration. Whenever I think of the latter, I recall a sublime instance: the twelve days Baha’u’llah, the Prophet-Founder of the Baha’i Faith, spent in the garden of Ridvan.
The word “Ridvan” (pronounced “rez-wan”) means “paradise.” It is the name given to a garden outside of Baghdad, where Baha’u’llah announced to his followers in 1863 that he was the latest messenger of God. That’s a pretty weighty claim! But many of these followers had long suspected it and had been waiting for such an announcement.
The days were spent in joyful wonderment. The garden was full of roses, and nightingales warbled their melodies through the night as Baha’u’llah revealed new verses and teachings. He asked the gardeners to gather the roses and bring them to his tent, and when the pile was so high that those present could not see each other over it, he had those gathered deliver the roses to the villagers nearby, thus sharing the spiritual bliss they were experiencing.
In a special “Tablet” Baha’u’llah revealed to commemorate that time, he describes the glory and majesty of the occasion:
The Divine Springtime is come, O Most Exalted Pen, for the Festival of the All-Merciful is fast approaching. Bestir thyself, and magnify, before the entire creation, the name of God, and celebrate His praise, in such wise that all created things may be regenerated and made new. –Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah
Baha’u’llah goes on to proclaim that “This is the Day whereon naught can be seen except the splendors of the Light that shineth from the face of Thy Lord, the Gracious, the Most Bountiful. Verily, We have caused every soul to expire by virtue of Our irresistible and all-subduing sovereignty. We have, then, called into being a new creation, as a token of Our grace unto men. I am, verily, the All-Bountiful, the Ancient of Days.”
Religion, in fact, had been renewed, representing a new chapter in human evolution. In the Garden of Ridvan, Baha’u’llah revealed new verses and teachings for the entire human race. He forbid the use of the sword (weapons). He said that no other Manifestation of God would appear before a thousand years, and he proclaimed the advent of a new Day.
Hearts vibrated with joy during the days of the Festival. Yet a shadow lingered over the gathering, as those assembled knew Baha’u’llah soon would be exiled to Istanbul (then called Constantinople). At the end of the Festival period, everyone lamented as he was escorted away on a red roan stallion.
Ridvan has been my favorite Baha’i Holy Day to commemorate, and over the course of the last 30 years, I’ve put together many programs, working with my husband Tim, who is skilled with technical aspects of theatre, and many other talented friends — musicians, dancers, readers, costume makers, and technical assistants. Some have been quite large; in one case, over 700 people came! In another case, we had a live horse in the procession. Artistic elements such as music, dance, costumes, lighting, scenic backgrounds, the sounds of birds and water, and of course roses have been used to depict a sense of what that time period was like.
Baha’u’llah asks us to “Rejoice, with exceeding gladness … as ye call to remembrance the Day of supreme felicity, the Day whereon the Tongue of the Ancient of Days hath spoken, as He departed from His House proceeding to the Spot from which He shed upon the whole of creation the splendors of His Name, the All-Merciful.” (Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah).
So, even in this day of isolation, restraint, and contagion, I plan to celebrate paradise as I recall those days in the Garden of Ridvan between April 21 and May 2. Maybe positive thinking, prayer, meditation, and reaching out to others in new ways could become contagious and can counter the devastating impact of the news and of the virus itself. In a strange way, the world is becoming closer through our common challenges in facing COVID-19. Despite social distancing, we might still experience spiritual proximity. Perhaps, as Baha’u’llah’s son, Abdu’l-Baha, assures us: “This will be the paradise which is to come on earth, when all mankind will be gathered together under the tent of unity in the Kingdom of Glory.” (Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks).
Perhaps a tent larger than we’ve imagined and a paradise we can’t fully envision is unfolding, as a whole new world invites our attention. Shall we pass the virtual roses and see?
To see photos of the various Ridvan pageants the Perrys have done (with music by Elika Mahony) click here.