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My pilgrimage to the Baha’i Shrines in Haifa, Israel involved a combination of tests and difficulties, unique and surreal experiences, joy, and spiritual growth. Due to the international conflict occurring at that time, we pilgrims became accustomed to dealing with changing programs and restricted access to the Shrines and gardens.
The activities planned for us often shifted at the last minute as air raid sirens blared and we rushed to safety. Sometimes groups of us would huddle in a bomb shelter, with diverse responses to the stressful situation: some people praying, others quiet and contemplative, some playing cards or telling jokes, and still others singing songs. We’d often drink hot tea, a trick the Persian Baha’is taught us, which seemed counterintuitive but miraculously helped us deal with the extreme heat and humidity of Haifa’s July weather. In short, we found ways of enduring, and even enjoying ourselves.
One day, my husband and I were lucky enough to pray at the resting places of Baha’u’llah’s beloved wife, their son, and daughter; we visited the gravesite of the wife of Abdu’l-Baha; and we visited Abdu’l-Baha’s final resting place. Each Shrine we visited offered a serene center for meditation and reflection. Each Shrine was meticulously cared for, the gardens surrounding each Shrine of the utmost beauty.
The international fighting occurring in that region grew to such a high level that one day we were confined to our hotels. We were all a little stir crazy, waiting with bated breath to continue on with the pilgrimage program. A surprise visit by Universal House of Justice member Mr. Hooper Dunbar delighted us and helped us forget our confinement inside the hotel walls. The experience also humbled us, helping us appreciate further what Baha’u’llah might have experienced when he was imprisoned. We were only confined for one day, in a nice hotel–can you imagine 40 years of imprisonment, in wretched, filthy conditions, solely for your beliefs in unity, peace and equality? That is what Baha’u’llah endured.
The majority of the inhabitants of Haifa had fled when the bombing and fighting started. So very few grocers, shops, or restaurants remained open, and our hotels didn’t serve food during Shabbat. Thus, the Universal House of Justice again lovingly cared for us. They provided supper for all of the pilgrims on several occasions, and we felt honored and humbled every time.
On one visit to the Seat of the Universal House of Justice, we attended a talk by a Hand of the Cause of God, an appointed position in the Baha’i Faith whose main function involves edifying the souls of humanity and promoting learning. The speaker’s name was Dr. Ali-Mohammad Varqa, and his surname means “the dove.”
Dr. Varqa was the last surviving, and longest living, Hand of the Cause. Born in Tehran in 1911 to a family with a long Baha’i history, his grandfather, a renowned Persian poet, had been one of the early believers in Baha’u’llah, and his father Valiyullah had been a Hand of the Cause, too.
After obtaining a doctorate at the Sorbonne in Paris, Dr. Varqa returned to his place of birth and taught at the universities of Tabriz and Tehran. For 52 years he served the global Baha’i community as a Hand, traveling the world and attending the first Baha’i national conventions of various countries. We were so blessed to have a chance to see him; Dr. Varqa passed away the following year, in 2007. After his talk, we all waited in line, excited about meeting Dr. Varqa. When it was my husband’s and my turn, we introduced ourselves and shook his hand. His twinkling, youthful eyes seemingly looked into my soul, and his powerful grip belied his advanced age. He signed our prayer book, which contains one of my favorite Baha’i writings:
Intone, O My servant, the verses of God that have been received by thee, as intoned by them who have drawn nigh unto Him, that the sweetness of thy melody may kindle thine own soul, and attract the hearts of all men. Whoso reciteth, in the privacy of his chamber, the verses revealed by God, the scattering angels of the Almighty shall scatter abroad the fragrance of the words uttered by his mouth, and shall cause the heart of every righteous man to throb. Though he may, at first, remain unaware of its effect, yet the virtue of the grace vouchsafed unto him must needs sooner or later exercise its influence upon his soul. Thus have the mysteries of the Revelation of God been decreed by virtue of the Will of Him Who is the Source of power and wisdom. –Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 136.