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My great-grandfather Joseph MacDonald ran silver mines in Mexico and Alaska, and that silver made him a wealthy man.
He passed away before I was born, but I heard many stories about him from my mother. Even though I never met him, I think about Joseph MacDonald every day, because I own something that once belonged to him. My mother had one family heirloom that he had passed down to her, and before she died she gave it to me. It’s a beautiful six-sided pitcher, made out of solid silver by a Mexican or Spanish silversmith a few centuries ago. The pitcher was a gift to Joseph from his friend the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa.
Villa, the general of the northern forces in the Mexican Revolution and the governor of Chihuahua state where my great-grandfather’s silver mine was located, befriended Joseph MacDonald—and heavily taxed his mine to help pay for the revolutionary army. Villa led that army, where he came to be known as a “social bandit,” literally robbing from the rich and giving to the poor like a modern-day Robin Hood. I suspect he “liberated” my silver pitcher from a wealthy landowner before he gave it to my great-grandfather.
My great-grandfather’s pitcher has six repoussé panels—an old metalworking technique that creates a raised design. Around the circumference of the pitcher, those six panels tell a pictorial story of love—from courtship to marriage to the birth of a child. My mother told me that Villa gave my great-grandfather the silver pitcher after the birth of his first child—my grandmother.
I’ve always cherished that pitcher, not just because it’s all I have of my mother’s and my grandparents’ heritage, but because it reminds me daily, in many ways, of the meaning of true wealth. It sits in a prominent place in my home, and when I look at it, I think about its history and about the Baha’i teachings and their wise and deeply spiritual counsels on the subject of wealth.
I think about the silver that made my pitcher, mined out of the ground of Mexico, which reminds me of the humbling truth that the Earth itself is the source of all our material wealth:
Every man of discernment, while walking upon the earth, feeleth indeed abashed, inasmuch as he is fully aware that the thing which is the source of his prosperity, his wealth, his might, his exaltation, his advancement and power is, as ordained by God, the very earth which is trodden beneath the feet of all men. There can be no doubt that whoever is cognizant of this truth, is cleansed and sanctified from all pride, arrogance, and vainglory. – Baha’u’llah, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 44.
My pitcher tells a love story, which reminds me that all real, lasting wealth comes from love—love for others and love for God:
My pitcher reminds me of Pancho Villa, who went to war with the Mexican and American governments, and who lost everything when he died from assassins’ bullets:
…war is nothing but the consumption of men and of wealth. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 281.
My pitcher reminds me of my great-grandfather, who spent his life pursuing riches, but has now passed on, just as we all will, to a place where gold and silver mean nothing:
O Son of Man! Thou dost wish for gold and I desire thy freedom from it. Thou thinkest thyself rich in its possession, and I recognize thy wealth in thy sanctity therefrom. By My life! This is My knowledge, and that is thy fancy; how can My way accord with thine? – Baha’u’llah, The Hidden Words, pp. 16-17.
My pitcher reminds me, because it has tarnished and darkened with the passage of time, that all things shiny, perfect and new eventually lose their luster and grow old:
…take heed, lest in thinking too earnestly of the things of the body you forget the things of the soul: for material advantages do not elevate the spirit of a man. Perfection in worldly things is a joy to the body of a man but in no wise does it glorify his soul.
It may be that a man who has every material benefit, and who lives surrounded by all the greatest comfort modern civilization can give him, is denied the all important gift of the Holy Spirit.
It is indeed a good and praiseworthy thing to progress materially, but in so doing, let us not neglect the more important spiritual progress, and close our eyes to the Divine light shining in our midst. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, pp. 64-65.
I’ve never polished my pitcher, because its dark patina reminds me that tarnished silver, in its own way, has a kind of well-aged beauty that no shiny new surface can match.
My pitcher makes me wonder about the nature of true wealth, about the soul of my great-grandfather, and about my own soul, too.