abdu’l-bahá’s visit to montreal

at the door of the shrine‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the son of the founder of the Bahá’í Faith, arrived in the city of Montreal after an eleven-hour journey from Boston, on the night of August 30th, 1912. His business, far from any material pursuits, was to spread His Father’s message of universal peace, brotherhood and unity. Settling in to the home of Mr. William Sutherland Maxwell and Mrs. May Maxwell, nestled snugly onto the side of Mount Royal, he declared, “This is my home.” A hundred years later, this house is now regarded as a national Shrine, a grace conferred onto the Canadian Bahá’í community that stands unequalled among most of its sister communities worldwide. Montreal was the only Canadian city he visited during his 239-day-long journey, bestowing a priceless spiritual heritage to that city and to the country of Canada—and, at the same time, making an important and profound social statement.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá had ample reason to come to Montreal: the Maxwell family, with whom he had already been acquainted many years earlier and who would develop a unique and special relationship to the central figures of the Bahá’í Faith, had succeeded in raising up a small but active Bahá’í group there, and it was at their invitation that he made the long trek north from Boston rather than simply cutting across the west on his way to California. But beyond being a gracious visit to long-time friends, his visit to Montreal was also, in a way, an example to the early Canadian believers, many of whom came from Anglophone and Protestant backgrounds, and who carried with them, to varying degrees, the prejudices prevailing in society regarding the French Catholics of Quebec. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, known by the Bahá’ís as the Perfect Exemplar, was no stranger to making examples when there were lessons to be learned, especially when it came to social conventions. He it was who insisted on having Louis Gregory, a black American lawyer, sit next to him at the head of the table at a luncheon in Washington, D.C.—an unthinkable act in a society for which racial segregation was just another fact of life.

It can safely be said that racism is the most challenging issue confronting America, as was stated clearly in a 1991 statement by the Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of America, The Vision of Race Unity. Canada’s challenges, though slightly more nuanced, are perhaps just as serious. Broadly, it can be said that intercultural prejudice—a combination of racism, nationalistic sentiment and economic and religious prejudice—is Canada’s most challenging issue. This issue was directly raised by the Universal House of Justice in a message to the Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Canada, dated 5 September 1999. As in many parts of the world, the letter explained, Canada is “affected by various social divisions… In Canada’s case, such issues tend to be cultural in nature, particularly those separating peoples of Native and European origin or those between Canadian of French- and English-speaking backgrounds.” These issues, the Universal House of Justice affirmed, are rooted in “long-standing conflicts that weaken the country’s basic social fabric.”

Canada, as a place, was inhabited many centuries prior to European contact. From the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean and all the way into the Arctic, hundreds of tribes had become established, each with its own language, culture, customs, and beliefs. By the time the first European settlers arrived, these tribes had evolved into nations—civilizations with complex social structures that had built expansive settlements, developed agriculture, and created stunning architectural and monumental works. The Europeans, newcomers to a strange and rugged land, turned to these nations for assistance, trading goods and gaining local knowledge that allowed them to survive and flourish.

champlainBut the newcomers carried more from the Old World than simply goods for trade. They carried their own languages, cultures, religions and beliefs—and their long-standing animosity towards each other, stoked by centuries of conflict. The French, led by staunchly Catholic kings, established the stronghold known as New France along the banks of the St. Lawrence River; the British, freshly transformed by the events of the Protestant Reformation, had established colonies along the shores of the Atlantic, in an area still known as New England. Eager to gain economic and territorial advantage over the other, the colonies established alliances and trade relations with the various native American tribes they encountered, including members of the Iroquois and Wabanaki Confederacies.

Beginning around the mid-17th century, as the colonial powers pushed further inland and came into more frequent conflict, they repeatedly engaged in more and more destructive wars. These reached a climax with the French and Indian War in 1763, which ended with the defeat of the French and the cession of New France to Britain. Exhausted and indebted from nearly a hundred years of war, Britain sought to placate its new French subjects, granting them the right to free practice of the Catholic religion, and allowing them the limited practice of French customary law and the traditional seigneurial system of land rights in the newly created province of Quebec. Though the end of the war brought a long-needed measure of stability to the Canadian colonies, the divide between English and French, Protestant and Catholic, conqueror and conquered remained.

j'affiche le nationalismeAlthough the spectre of the great wars between France and Britain had faded by the time ‘Abdu’l-Bahá set his foot in the New World, Canadian society was still gripped by the long-standing antipathy existing between citizens of French and English extraction. The differences in language, culture and religion had grown into what author Hugh MacLennan would later term the “Two Solitudes”—an unwillingness or inability for English and French Canadians to communicate with each other, each preferring the comfort of their own milieu in a nominally united, but culturally segregated, Canada. Perhaps reflecting this self-imposed segregation, Shoghi Effendi, grandson of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith, who praised the Canadian people as being “spiritually-minded”, also characterized them as being “firmly entrenched in their religious sectarianism and strongly attached to their religious doctrines and traditions”.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá, of course, was aware of these divisions. In fact, he had been reminded of them on his way to America. As he sailed across the Atlantic on the S.S. Cedric, his companions—presumably Anglophone and Protestant in background—claimed that Montreal’s French Catholics were fanatics who “have not the capability to hearken to the call of the Kingdom of God”, that they were “submerged in the sea of imitations”, and that “should the Sun of Reality shine with perfect splendor throughout that Dominion, the dark, impenetrable clouds of superstitions have so enveloped the horizon that it would be utterly impossible for anyone to behold its rays.” But ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s aim was to challenge those perceptions, which he recognized as the baseless prejudices they were. “Before My departure, many souls warned Me not to travel to Montreal,” he later wrote in his Tablets of the Divine Plan. “But these stories did not have any effect on the resolution of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.”

montreal cityscapeDisregarding, then, the imaginations carried by those around him, he, in his own words, “turned his face toward Montreal” and “observed all the doors open”. Rather than beholding closed-mindedness and fanaticism, he instead “found the hearts in the utmost receptivity and the ideal power of the Kingdom of God removing every obstacle and obstruction.” Praising Mrs. Maxwell’s superhuman efforts in coordinating the many meetings, addresses, and evening fireside talks, he recalled that “through the effort of the maidservant of God Mrs. Maxwell a number of the sons and daughters of the Kingdom in that Dominion were gathered together and associated with each other, increasing this joyous exhilaration day by day. The time of sojourn was limited to a number of days, but the results in the future are inexhaustible.”

It had been a challenge for the Bahá’ís of the time to engage francophone populations to “bridge the gap”. Not only did the early believers struggle with prejudices of their own, as related by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, but they also struggled against the collective prejudice of both sides of Canadian society—against the Two Solitudes themselves. Mrs. Maxwell, who had accepted the Bahá’í Cause in Paris and while there helped to establish the first Bahá’í group in France, was fluent enough in French to think in it, and would clearly have been interested in attracting francophones to the Faith. Her contacts in Montreal, however, were mainly Anglophone, which was reflected in the speaking engagements she was able to arrange for ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: two Protestant churches (the Unitarian Church of the Messiah and St. James’ Methodist Church), and the English-speaking Socialist Club. William van den Hoonard, in his pioneering work The Origins of the Bahá’í Community of Canada, 1898-1948, states that the slow progress of the Bahá’í community in reaching francophones was “not surprising given the fact that the Bahá’ís themselves reflected the more prevailing ethnic makeup of the country, namely Anglo-Saxon and British.”

Aware of their shortcomings, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá emphasized to the small band of Bahá’ís in Montreal the importance of reaching out to French-speaking people, outlining his hope that eventually the city would “become so stirred, that the melody of the Kingdom may travel to all parts of the world from that Dominion.” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, meanwhile, did the most he could to compensate through his talks and personal conversations. On the afternoon prior to his talk at the Socialist Club,  ‘Abdu’l-Bahá travelled alone by streetcar out of Montreal’s downtown core to refresh himself; it is thought that he headed towards the city’s east end, an area heavily populated by francophones, spending time in Parc Lafontaine. Few details exist of His actions that day, but one need only look to those souls He befriended throughout His travels in America—souls young and old, of every race, creed, culture, and extraction—to know how brightly His heart burned with loving-kindness for all those He met, regardless of differences.

jusqu'au cielIn His talks, He boldly attacked the Two Solitudes at their foundations. Addressing the Church of the Messiah, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá asserted that the major religions “rebuked all things which brought about difference and discord.” Their message was always about “the goodness of God” and they worked “for the solidarity of the [human] race.” However, he continued, “imaginary differences” had been introduced to religious practice throughout history, differences that had “nothing to do with the original teachings of the prophets,” and which merely led to “strife and contention.” These differences he described as “imaginary lines” that had no basis in reality, alluding to the borders between nations. “A river is made a boundary; one side is called France and the other Germany.” he explained. “What a superstition! An imaginary line to become a cause of bloodshed!”

His words must have struck a chord with the Canadians—then still British subjects—who, in 1912, were eyeing the increasing tension in Europe with worry. Relations between France and Germany had gone sour, and an arms race had begun. If Britain went to war, so too would Canadians be called to fight. “Just now Europe is a battlefield of ammunition ready to spark,” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had declared in an address months earlier in New York City, “and one spark will set aflame the whole world.” The Great War—now solemnly remembered as World War I—was a mere two years away. Through the waging of war, explained ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, men had become “like beasts of prey engaged in each other’s murder, wiping out homes and laying waste each other’s country.”

The imagined differences—prejudices—between peoples and nations were at the root of conflict, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá asserted. The reason war had become so rampant was that mankind, forgetful of the teachings of God, had “allowed themselves to be governed by racial and religious prejudice, or patriotic and political bias.” In the eyes of God, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá said, none of these divisions and differences mattered. True reality, he stated, was the unity of all humankind. All of humanity “came from the same elements, all were descended from the same race and all had to live on the same globe.” “Before God,” he unequivocally affirmed, “all mankind is one. There is no Germany and no England, no Frenchman, no Turk and no Persian.”

One hundred years after ‘Abdu’l-Bahá directed his steps towards Montreal, those prejucides remain, and continue to paralyze attempts at progress. As societies everywhere experience profound upheavals, lingering animosity leads to violence, as seen in the aftermath of recent elections in Quebec, in which the premier-elect’s victory celebrations were marred by a shooting death and attempted arson. The nation of Canada, tested in the fire of two calamitous, world-sweeping wars that saw its European forebears brought to ruin—wars which were widely seen as a “rite of passage” by which that nation took its own place on the world stage—continues to this day to be haunted by those “imaginary differences” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá decried so emphatically. “All this enmity and discord is the fruit of ignorance and a lack of mutual understanding,” He had affirmed to the multitudes, English and French, who heard Him speak, or who read of His message on the front pages of English and French papers alike.

The key to progress is the same now as it was one hundred years ago. “Get instruction,” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá said, that ignorance, lack of understanding, enmity and discord might be banished. “Drive all this away so that all mankind may become united.” Education, in other words, was the key to mankind’s exaltation, the means by which it could achieve its highest potential. But the education ‘Abdu’l-Bahá referred to was far more than that kind of material education which begins and ends in words. It was a scientific, yet spiritual education, one which affirmed the fundamental oneness of humanity, recognized the essential nobility of man, and resulted in the appearance of solidarity and unity between all the peoples of the earth. Through His words and actions—in Montreal, and everywhere He set foot during His travels—‘Abdu’l-Bahá thus instructed those He met, tearing asunder the veils of superstition and laying bare the foundations of world unity. If the people of Canada would set prejudice aside, investigate attentively the realities of things and seek truth, they would surely realize that they all—First Nations, French, or English, Protestant, Catholic, or otherwise—are members of one family, each equally worthy in the eye of an all-loving Creator. If they could achieve this understanding, ignorance would be banished, and they would be enabled to achieve true reconciliation, to pass from solitude to solidarity, from estrangement to fellowship. Then, achieving unity amongst themselves, the people of that young and noble nation could, as He urged them, arise to champion the “great movement for the peace and unity of the world.”

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