O Son of Spirit! Noble have I created thee, yet thou hast abased thyself.
Rise then unto that for which thou wast created.
When a person has fallen into the depths of misery or sin we must be kind to him, take him by the hand, help him to regain his footing, his strength; we must guide him with love and tenderness, treat him as a friend and not as an enemy.
In this posting (which I actually began writing over a month ago), I would like to share with you the stories of three men in the Carib Territory, whose names I’ve changed to respect their privacy. They are three stories, but really just one story. It is a story about the nobility of the human spirit, and the struggle to rise up after we fall; a story about my own prejudices, judgements, and fears; and a story about the ever-present hope of transformation.
The three gentlemen I speak of are “Jaron,” “Ray,” and “Thomas.”
Jaron is the father of two young children whose mother is one of my dearest friends here. When I first met her, she’d recently severed ties with him, as he’d begun selling all of the family’s possessions (including the cooking stove, and the children’s shoes) to buy drugs and rum. She reconciled with Jaron a few months later, as he’d sobered up and promised to try to change…but he soon relapsed, and this time—in an intoxicated rage—he went after her with a cutlass. The police took him away that night, and we were told he’d serve at minimum sentence of two years in the national prison.
Ray is, I believe, the only man to have ever elicited physical violence from me. When—during our first week in Dominica—he groped Roushy as we walked past him on the road, I spun around and punched the offending hand as hard as I could (a knee-jerk reaction, and not one I’m proud of). Since then, I’d basically just given him a wide berth, making no attempts to be subtle in moving to the other side of the road when I saw him approaching.
I considered Thomas to be just another one of the drunks. He never said or did anything disrespectful to me as many of the others did, but—deeming him guilty by association—I steered clear of him and his drinking buddies. I’d hear them singing in the rum shops, see them stumbling—barefooted—down the road, reeking of sweat and liquor, covered in filth and sometimes in blood…and, witnessing their degredation from a safe distance, a feeling of deep repugnance began to develop in my heart.
In the presence of these men—and the countless other Jarons, Rays, and Thomases in the community—I felt vulnerable and on edge. But even stronger than my feeling of discomfort was my feeling of disdain towards them. So I didn’t give them a chance to be anything other than agressors. Certain that all I’d hear would be catcalls and taunts, I blocked my ears to their voices. I ducked away from them when they beckoned to me. And I refused to look them in the eye… which meant that I never actually saw them.
In early December Christine arrived, bringing forth a sea change in my own heart and, I think, in the community. She came here with new eyes…and a kind of an x-ray vision that could pierce through the veils that usually shroud our perception. For her, there were no categories of perpetrator/victim, oppressor/oppressed, guilty/inncocent. Instead, she saw only potential. And in her conversations with people—including the men in the rum shops—she addressed each soul as a bearer of divine light.
I observed these interactions skepctically at first—convinced that Christine was wasting her time. But I began to notice that the men, whom I’d deemed incapable of dignity, were treating Christine with the utmost respect. Their eyes would shine when they spoke with her—and not just as a result of all the liquor.
It’s interesting how, when the truest, most beautiful part of us is addressed, it’s that part that responds. In my twelve months here, I’d viewed these men as animals, and, in turn they acted as such. But Christine saw through to their nobility, to their goodness. When I—still hiding behind my fears—recounted to her some of the things these men had done, Christine shared a quote from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá with me:
O ye friends of God! Show ye an endeavor that all the nations and communities of the world, even the enemies, put their trust, assurance and hope in you; that if a person falls into errors for a hundred-thousand times he may yet turn his face to you, hopeful that you will forgive his sins; for he must not become hopeless, neither grieved nor despondent. This is the conduct and the manner of the people of Bahá.
I began to realize that the only cure for the cancerous loathing that had taken root in me was forgiveness. I needed to open my heart to it…and I needed, also, to humble myself before these men who I had judged and disdained, and to ask that they forgive me.
In the Ruhi Book 1 course “Reflections on the Life of the Spirit,” we study about our true identity, investigating the question of what it means to be human. We learn through the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh that we are spiritual beings having a very brief material experience. Our reality is our soul, which associates with the body only for the duration of its sojourn through this world. What this means, then, is that the essence of who we are has nothing to do with gender, culture, or life circumstance. Bahá’u’lláh tells us that our true essence, our soul, was created noble. We are, He says, His lamps, molded from the clay of love, and each one of us has been given the capacity to reflect His light.
But there is a material element to our reality that we cannot deny. Those of us whose souls happen to be associated with a female body are in a position of physical vulnerability in relation to men. Violence has been perpetrated against women’s bodies since perhaps the beginning of human existence, and women throughout the world continue to be oppressed at the hands of men. But there are a myriad forms of oppression…and I think that when we look deeply within ourselves, many of us will find that we, too, have been oppressors.
“What oppression is more grievous,” Bahá’u’lláh asks us, “than that a soul, seeking the truth, should not know where to go and from whom to find it?”
Jaron was released from prison after six months—much earlier than anticipated. I remember the day (right after returning from my trip to the States) that I saw him sitting in the doorway of his girlfriend’s home. I stared at him, stunned…and proceeded to turn on my heels without a word. Furious with my friend for letting this criminal back into her life, endangering her and her children, I refused to visit her for over a week. When I’d see Jaron on the road, I’d avert my eyes. But, sometime in mid-December, the local pre-school teacher invited me and Christine to an end-of-year trip to the beach, with all the pre-school students and their parents. Lo and behold, Jaron came along too. Once again, I sat on the bus in stony silence, while Christine reached out to “the enemy.” She hadn’t officially met him yet, so she introduced herself, and asked him about his life. I, feeling I knew plenty about his life already, just stared out the window. But when we arrived at the beach, something began to shift in me. I watched Jaron with his children. I watched as he gently took the hand of his four-year-old daughter and walked with her along the surf. I watched him build a sandcastle with his son, and heard the two of them laugh as the waves lapped at their feet. I watched him being a father…I watched him trying to be good.
I walked up to him and his children, my heart beating fast, not quite knowing what I would say, but certain that I had to say something. I had a half-eaten packet of biscuits in my hand, and I awkwardly offered one to Jaron. He took it, said thank you, looked at me quickly and then looked away. “Jaron,” I told him, “please forgive me for how I’ve been treating you.” In my fumbling, inarticulate manner, I began to explain to him that the way I’d acted was the opposite of how Bahá’ís are supposed to be. But, I told him, I was scared for his family, who I loved very much. I was scared, I said, that he would hurt them again. Jaron was silent for a while, staring at the sand. Then he told me that he held the same fears. He said he knew he could relapse at any moment, but he also believed that he could change, even if no one else thought it possible. “I’m trying,” he said. And I knew that he was.
That night, Christine suggested that we start saying the Long Healing Prayer for him every evening. She also proposed that we make him a CD of life-affirming songs, like “See Me Beautiful”* (lyrics below). We ended up making him two CDs, and he listens to them with his kids every day. We gave him a prayer book—and last week, his girlfriend told me that they’ve been saying prayers as a family every night. He has begun to help her with her children’s class. I visited them a few days ago, and Jaron cooked me a lunch of chicken and dumplings. As we ate, he told me how he’s recently been singing, and how it’s his favorite form of praising God. In between bites of chicken, we sang “By the Rivers of Babylon” together.
I know that Jaron’s road to recovery may be long, and laden with setbacks. Cycles of addiction and violence are not easily reversed…but as he struggles and strives, I will strive too. I will strive to see him beautiful.
We were washing clothes in the river earlier in the week when Ray appeared…and I tensed up the moment I saw him. Even though Christine was there with me, and we were just a shout away from the home of mighty Mam Liz and her cutlass, I was frightened. “Please go away, please go away,” I prayed. He was bathing in a lower part of the river from where we were washing, and I wasn’t sure if he saw us. I tried to concentrate on soaping, scrubbing, rinsing…but the next time I looked up, Ray was walking towards us. Christine, who was across the pool from me, greeted him first, and he sat down beside her. With the crash of the small waterfall behind me, I couldn’t really make out what they were saying, but I detected no sign of tension or hostility in either of them (“She doesn’t have clue what he’s capable of,” I thought). Ray, I noticed, had a large crayfish in his hands, and was showing it to Christine. Their conversation was still muffled, but a word suddenly rang out loud and clear: Bahá’u’lláh. It dawned on me that they were talking about the Faith, and I realized that I had to get up and go over there.
I was still on my guard as I sat down on a smooth rock beside them, but I tried to at least show some common courtesy toward Ray. I nodded to him, mumbled “Good Morning,” but remained silent and he and Christine talked about God. Ray said that he carries his Bible around with him in his backpack every day. He doesn’t go to church, he told us, but he prays as he walks, and feels his only source of strength is the Word of God. He told us that he never knew his father, and wishes he could have. We learned that he has a beautiful 7-year-old daughter, but her mother doesn’t permit him to see her. He spoke openly about his struggles with drug additction, about his violent past…and he told us that he loves to come to the river, because it makes his soul feel at peace.
I had kept my gaze downward, toward the rocks in the river, throughout most of this conversation…but when Ray began to speak about his daughter, I had to look up. I looked at him. And I didn’t see a beast anymore. I saw a yearning soul, a human being, a brother. And then the three of us prayed together, right there in the river. We bowed our heads, and Christine and I offered Bahá’í prayers for healing, for spiritual strength. Ray prayed from his heart. In his prayer, he asked the Heavenly Father for forgiveness, for mercy…and he asked Him to please bless the two sisters in his company today.
As we prayed, I was reminded of a passage from Marzieh Gail’s Dawn over Mount Hira:
…the desire to be understood is common to us all. And yet no one understands us. We do not understand ourselves. We all know what we mean by “understood” but the term is hared to define…
A noted writer has said that human beings are each on individual islands, shouting to each other across seas of misunderstandings. But prayer is the great simplifying factor and a dispeller of confusion. Through our communion with God we become explained to ourselves and enabled to express our best and truest selves to others.
Thomas stopped me on the road one afternoon when I was walking home from a children’s class in Mahaut River. Before the Christine Era (haha—BCE), I might have just assumed he was drunk, and continued walking. But this time, something prompted me to stop, and to hear what he had to say. He extended his hand to me, and a shook it, still a little hesitatingly. “Good afternoon,” Thomas said. “I just wanted to tell you that I’ve observed the work you Bahá’ís are doing, and I admire it. I can see that it is good.” Well, that certainly disarmed me…enough to try to show this gentlemen a bit of respect, rather than reproach. I asked him his name, told him mine, shared with him a bit more about the Bahá’í Faith and the work we’re striving to carry out. He listened, nodding, and asked me before we parted ways if I’d be willing to visit him and his family this weekend, to share more with them. I told him yes, I would, it would be an honor.
Christine and I visited his small, bright home the following Sunday. He had hibiscus flowers in his yard, a neatly trimmed lawn, and a view of the sea. There to greet us, along with Thomas himself, were his mother, sister, and two radiant children. We sat on a small wooden bench under an orange tree, and Thomas told us about his life. He’s battled with addiction for decades, he said, and his deepest regret is when the grips of rum prevent him from reading bedtime stories to his children. But he is trying so hard to raise them right, and prays every day that they’ll grow up to be better, stronger. He wants desperately to pull himself up, he said, but it’s a mighty struggle. There are no rehabilitation Centres that he knows of in Dominica, and certainly not in the Carib Territory. “And,” he added, “no one but my children believes I can change.”
The conversation soon turned to the Faith, and we discussed his questions—wonderful questions—about the life of Bahá’u’lláh, the purpose of His mission, our understanding of prayer. At the end of the visit, Thomas asked if we could leave him with some words of Bahá’u’lláh to read, and we gave him a copy of The Hidden Words.
The following week, I saw Thomas on the road again, in that same spot where we’d first met. “I read your book,” he told me. “Well, I tried to read it. I opened it up to a passage that made no sense to me. I studied it, and thought about it. Then I closed the book, because I still didn’t understand. The next day, I read it again, and again. And now, I think I finally understand. God is telling me that I am noble.”
During a recent training course for children’s class teachers, while discussing appropriate methods of discipline and punishment, Christine shared a story with us. She’d learned about a community in Southern Africa where discipline was reinforced through love and encouragement. When a child committed a transgression, the entire village would come together and—seated in a circle—each person would recount something about the child that was good: a positive memory from the child’s earlier years, a beautiful qualitiy they’d observed in him or her, an acknowledgement of the unique contributions the child had made in the community…and by the time everyone in the village had shared an affirmation of the child’s nobility, the child, too, began to see it, to feel it, to believe in it…and to want to live up to it.
I know that transformation doesn’t always come easy, especially when working against the weight of generations of oppression, violence, and dysfunction. At times, I feel powerless before this weight. But I also know that, while I can’t change the behavior of these men, I can contribute to their process of healing by changing my own heart and eyes. I can pray for them, and love them. And I can try to see them for who they really are.
*See Me Beautiful” by Red Grammer
See me beautiful
Look for the best in me
It’s what I really am
And all I want to be
It may take some time
It may be hard to find
But see me beautiful
See me beautiful
Each and every day
Could you take a chance?
Could you find a way
To see me shining through
In every thing I do
And see me beautiful