The Baha’i Faith was born in the spring, in 1863, in a garden in Baghdad. During Ridvan, the festival that commemorates that beginning, Baha’is around the world celebrate the declaration of Baha’u’llah, whose claim to be the Promised One foretold by all the religions of the past was astonishing to some, incredible to others and to a few, the answer to long search and much prayer.
A spring festival and a time of beginnings, Ridvan also marks the end of Baha’u’llah’s time in the city of Baghdad, a time not only of renewal but of renewed exile. Afraid of the growing popularity of His message of peace as well as the high esteem in which He was held by the people of Baghdad, officials saw fit to exile Him further and further from the seat of power in Persia and the Ottoman Empire of the day. He went willingly in submission to God’s will as it worked itself out in a series of banishments that would take Him, at last, to the furthermost regions of the Ottoman Empire: the penal colony of Akka in present day Israel, where today the holy places of the Baha’i Faith draw thousands of pilgrims each year.
When my daughter was born in Hong Kong in 1997, she was born in exile. The British had just handed the colony back to the Chinese, and the Chinese did not grant citizenship to anyone not ethnically Chinese. Born in a private hospital on top of the highest mountain in Hong Kong, Shira was landless, without formal ties to any country. And it would be a number of weeks before my husband and I would receive Canadian and American papers for her through our respective embassies. We were about to leave Hong Kong after three years of expat life, a life of few wants and many luxuries that stood in stark contrast to the year I had spent in mainland China as a teacher in a remote part of Anhui province some ten years before when I had lived out my own exile after foreigners were evacuated from China in the wake of the Tiananmen incident. It was spring when the student protests began, and I remember well how the magnolia tree outside my window bloomed in the weeks before the government crackdown.
My own sudden and hasty departure from China in the spring of 1989 had left me shaken, unsure, in exile in Hong Kong while I waited to get a flight back to Canada. As I waited, I wondered: how would, how could a religion of peace such as the one in which I professed my faith blossom and grow in a world in which political problems escalated into confused acts of violence? How to hold to belief in an unbelieving world, how to see renewal in the social tragedies to which we are daily witnesses when we follow world news? How to convey hope to our children? How help them believe, in this spring season, that the world they are destined to inherit is being made new?
Baha’is believe that human society is revitalized with the advent of each new revelation. The message of the prophets of each of the world religions has issued, we believe, in a rebirth of art and culture: witness Byzantium, the flower of Christian art and culture. And so my family and I, when we celebrate this Ridvan, will assert our faith in the world-renewing power of religion, all religion, in its progressive transformation of our planet into one world, without divisions of culture, race, religion, a world in which no one ever need to feel a sense of “exile” from their homeland since the earth itself is one country, and all humanity its citizens.
The earth as one country–it is a noble vision. And now that we are living in rural Maine, in a small and supremely peaceful university town, where I teach and my husband works as an archivist, I can see truth of this vision embodied in action. Last night residents of our village held a first meeting to discuss how to make Orono a “transition town” in what is now a global movement of people in local communities who have made decisions to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels in all kinds of ways, including by growing and buying food locally. To our amazement, the meeting room was packed, and each person present had his or her own story of a journey towards a deep conviction in the importance of community. Some were young and others were old. But all shared the vision, all found themselves on the same path, regardless of ideology, culture, or religion.
It was a cold April night and an icy rain pelted down as we walked towards the library, where the meeting was to take place. A brief spell of “almost summer” had presaged an early season, but we had been fooled again, or, at least, reminded that in Maine a wave of cold weather can follow a temperate spell well into June. I remember how surprised I was our first year in Maine that I had had to wait until July 1st to put in my garden because of the surprise attacks of frost. But after ten years in Maine, I felt confident that winter was really over. Spring was brewing underneath, and I sensed that everyone felt the same way.
In those bursts of winter, it is important to remind ourselves of spring, for our own sakes and for the sake of our children. It gives us the strength to come forth after long exile and take roots in the social transformation in which we believe so deeply. On the last day of Ridvan, my husband, my twelve year old daughter, and I will picnic in a state park by the ocean. The weather might be cold, but our hearts and hands will be warmed by the presence of others in our faith community who share our vision of the springtime of the world. Now is the time for us to remind ourselves that those days of exile only bring us closer to our real home–one world shared by all.