In its message “Who Is Writing the Future? Reflections on the Twentieth Century” (February 1999) the Universal House of Justice expatiates upon the “mainspring of Bahá’u’lláh’s message” as “an exposition of reality as fundamentally spiritual in nature”, stating that “the entire enterprise that we call civilization is itself a spiritual process”. It further asserts that “The central spiritual issue facing all people, Bahá’u’lláh says, whatever their nation, religion, or ethnic origin, is that of laying the foundations of a global society that can reflect the oneness of human nature”, and that “the essential challenges of the age we have entered are global and universal, not particular or regional.” I find myself re-reading the message, challenged by internalizing such assertions: Reality is spiritual in nature and so the process of building a civilization is fundamentally spiritual as well. In this process of civilization building, the central issue facing the whole of humanity is recognizing its inherent oneness. Further, when I think about practicability, I question what steps or tools are at my disposal. How can I contribute? Where do I even start? The following paragraph resonated with me, shedding some light on the path ahead:
No aspect of contemporary civilization is more directly challenged by Bahá’u’lláh’s conception of the future than is the prevailing cult of individualism, which has spread to most parts of the world. Nurtured by such cultural forces as political ideology, academic elitism, and a consumer economy, the “pursuit of happiness” has given rise to an aggressive and almost boundless sense of personal entitlement. The moral consequences have been corrosive for the individual and society alike—and devastating in terms of disease, drug addiction and other all-too-familiar blights of century’s end. The task of freeing humanity from an error so fundamental and pervasive will call into question some of the twentieth century’s most deeply entrenched assumptions about right and wrong.
This basic unexamined assumption, this “cult of individualism”, certainly pervades my consciousness. Yet, when thinking about confronting this great paradox—the daunting yet necessary task of civilization building in light of the rampant and devastating effects of egotism and individualism—I am empowered, for into the arena enters service.
As society commits itself—however hesitantly and fearfully—to these and related moral principles, the most meaningful role it will offer the individual will be that of service. One of the paradoxes of human life is that development of the self comes primarily through commitment to larger undertakings in which the self—even if only temporarily—is forgotten. In an age that opens up to people of every condition an opportunity to participate effectively in the shaping of the social order itself, the ideal of service to others assumes entirely new significance.
What is this new significance? How can service lend itself to the building of a civilization free from the fetters of egotism, individualism, and self-centeredness? I find inspiration—that is, inspiration to live a life of service, to strive to free myself from the cult of individualism, to live a life dedicated to “laying the foundations of a global society that can reflect the oneness of human nature”—in reading the following story. A story that brought ease and peace to my heart and soul. Friends, there is a kingdom we all wish to enter; if only our service can be carried out with that special spirit that warrants a welcome. May you too find inspiration in the following selection from “Stories of Muriel Ives Newhall Barrow: Grace Robarts Ober” (1998):
There are many stories about beloved Grace Robarts Ober who, for so very many years, dedicated every moment of her life to the service of our glorious Cause. And this experience, she felt, was the ‘first small step’ – to use her words, that set her feet on the path.
Grace had been introduced to the Cause by that early dedicated soul, Lua Getzinger, and Grace had, at once, recognized Bahá’u’lláh and become a Bahá’í. Not long afterward, Lua came to Grace and told her that very soon Abdu’l-Bahá was to arrive in New York and she, Lua, had been asked by Him to go to Chicago and prepare a place there in which he might stay when he arrived in that city. Would Grace like to go to Chicago with Lua and help with this preparation? Of course Grace would! So, together, they went to Chicago from Los Angeles, found a suitable apartment, prepared it and, eventually, Abdu’l-Bahá came to live in it.
When His stay in Chicago was nearly over, suddenly one morning Grace realized what it would mean to go back to the dead stuffiness of her former life and leave this clear and radiant glory in which she’d been living while she helped Lua keep house for the Master. So she went to Abdu’l-Bahá and begged that, when he returned to New York, she might help with that household too, as she had been privileged to do in Chicago. Abdu’l-Bahá looked at her very searchingly and said, “Greece (His loving nickname for Grace) Greece, are you SURE you wish to serve ME?” Grace said, with great enthusiasm, “Oh, YES! More than anything else in the world!” Abdu’l-Bahá made no answer but walked away. The next morning this scene was repeated. On the third morning, Grace, frantic at the realization that this was the last morning before He was leaving to go farther West, went to Him a third time – and this time He became very stern. Are you VERY SURE you wish to SERVE ME? Grace was startled at the sternness but she didn’t waver. “YES I am VERY SURE.” So then he nodded. “Very well go, settle up your affairs, and we will meet in New York.” Jubilant and radiant, Grace settled up her ‘affairs’ – which consisted of subletting a cottage she had taken at Greenacre for the summer and doing a few other things. Then, with wings on her feet, she went to New York. Lua was already there and together they prepared for Abdu’l-Bahá’s return. The day came. Many Bahá’ís had gone to meet Him, though Lua and Grace had remained at the house to welcome Him. The door opened, He came in. He welcomed Lua warmly, glanced at Grace as at a complete stranger, and turned away. Grace was appalled, shocked. Hadn’t He recognized her? Had He forgotten her? Had she misunderstood the permission to come to New York? Or had she displeased Him and was this punishment?
Whatever it was, it continued with no let-up. During all the days that followed Abdu’l-Bahá never showed by word or glance that He recognized her in any way – except to put her to work. Whenever she relaxed at all throughout any day, word would come at once, through Lua, setting her to work harder at some new task. She worked in that household until long after midnight – cleaning, cooking, scrubbing, and then she would rise at five in the morning to begin all over again. She worked as she had never worked before in all her life and Abdu’l-Bahá ignored her completely. If they ever chanced to meet he would draw aside His robe for her to pass and his glance would go through her as if she were not there.
At last came the day when the movies of Abdu’l-Bahá were to be taken over in Brooklyn at the home of Howard MacNutt. And Grace thought, wearily, “at least I will be included in THIS since EVERYONE in the household is to go.” But, an hour before the several carloads of people were scheduled to leave, Lua came to Grace to say that Abdu’l-Bahá felt that someone should remain at the house to welcome two ladies who were expected that morning, and Grace was to be the one to stay behind. So when the cars left – Grace stood at the top of the flight of brownstone steps and watched them all roll away. Then, she turned and went into the empty house. For a moment she stood there, fighting the feeling of desolation and abandonment and loneliness, and then she thought of the white roses that had been delivered that morning, as they were daily, for Abdu’l- Bahá’s room. The one bright spot in these dreadful days for Grace had been that she was the one to arrange these roses each morning. So, with the long florists’ box in her arms, she climbed up to Abdu’l-Bahá’s room at the top of the house, where He had wished to be. She reached the top of the third flight – and found the door not only closed, but locked against her. And always before it had stood wide open! This, for Grace, was the last straw. Overwhelmed by all the hurt and bewilderment of all these days, she sank down on the floor and wept with the fallen roses scattered around her. At last, the sobs faded, her tears spent themselves, and, exhausted, she gathered up the roses and went back downstairs.
The expected ladies had not arrived, nor did they ever arrive. But Grace – it was now past noon – was hungry. So, she went down to the kitchen to get something to eat. And in that house that fed, each day, so many dozens of people, there was nothing to eat but one egg and a small piece of leftover bread in Abdu’l-Bahá’s bread-box. (this bread was especially baked for Him by a Persian believer who had begged to come on this journey just so he might cook Abdu’l-Bahá’s food). So Grace boiled her one egg and put her small portion of bread on a plate. Putting the egg in an egg cup, she chipped the shell – and the egg, as bad as an egg can get, exploded in her face. She cleaned up the mess and returned to her bit of leftover bread. And, as she crumbled the bread, eating it crumb by crumb she realized, suddenly, exactly what she was doing – she was, blessedly, eating the crumbs of the bread of life from Abdu’l-Bahá’s table. She began to eat even more slowly as the spirit of prayer came to possess her.
Not long after this the household returned from Brooklyn – and that evening Lua came to Grace and said, “The Master has asked me to tell you that He knows you wept.” And this was the first time it had occurred to Grace that all this dreadful experience might have a reason, a pattern. And – if this were true she must find out what the reason could be. So she went up to her room to pray about it. To pray for illumination and wisdom and the selflessness to understand. And as she prayed she heard a small voice saying ‘Are you as happy scrubbing the garbage pails as you are arranging the roses?’ And she suddenly realized what the spirit of true service was. It was to rise to selfless joy in offering the service, no matter what form that service might take.
And as this truth swept over her, suffusing her, illuminating her, the door opened, and Abdu’l-Bahá walked into the room. His arms were outstretched; His dear face was glorified. “Welcome!” He cried to Grace, “Welcome to the Kingdom!” And he held her close, embracing her deeply. And never did He withdraw Himself from her again.