My daughter’s first year of high school was coming to an end, and we both needed a weekend away to restore body, mind and soul. I thought about renting a cottage on the nearby Maine coast or getting away to a spa I had heard about. But my teenage daughter’s response to both options was less than enthusiastic. “It’ll be too cold by the ocean!” and “Why go to a spa? There is nothing to do there.”
She was right about the coast and probably about the spa, too. Then I saw an ad for a weekend gathering at Green Acre Baha’i School in Eliot, Maine, a school that was established in the nineteenth century by peace activist Sarah Farmer on the banks of the Piscataqua River and frequented by renowned poets such as John Greenleaf Whittier and religious leaders such as Swami Vivekananda. Our family, too, had enjoyed the spiritual ambience of the place many times since moving to Maine, so when I asked Shira if she would like to attend a gathering for girls and women at Green Acre, she happily agreed.
The annual “Handmaids of the Merciful” gathering is named for a form of address used by Abdul-Baha, the son of Baha’u’llah, the Prophet-Founder of the Baha’i Faith, when he spoke to the women of the community. While the dictionary defines a handmaid as a “female servant” or a “subservient partner,” the Baha’i view is that servitude is the highest spiritual station any human being can attain.
I think of Mother Teresa, who cared for the poor of Calcutta; of Albert Schweitzer, who healed the sick in Gabon; and of Harriet Tubman, who served the enslaved, guiding them, under the cover of night, to freedom. Handmaidens of the Merciful–those who serve humanity through activism, arts and professions with detachment—are communing with their Lord. As Baha’u’llah writes, “Wert thou to perceive the sweetness of the title ‘O My handmaiden’ thou wouldst find thyself detached from all mankind, devoutly engaged day and night in communion with Him Who is the sole Desire of the world.”
When we arrived in the conference room on Saturday morning, I estimated that about 40 women and girls were present. At 14, my daughter was the youngest person in the room. She and I participated in reading the devotions then took our seats while the weekend’s goals and activities were outlined by the facilitators, also a mother and daughter team.
Among them was a service project: to decorate and fill gift bags with toiletries and excerpts from the Baha’i writings. The bags would be given to Rosie’s Place, a shelter for women fleeing domestic violence. Various art supplies had been laid out on the back tables.
My daughter soon made her way to a seat at the back table. The study of a compilation of Baha’i writings pertaining to the spiritual life of women—prayer, meditation, service—was followed by a talk on women’s health by an integrative physician who specialized in healing the body through nutrition. Another physician presented on her services to UN agencies in developing countries. And in between the presentations there was group prayer, informal and formal sharing, and much laughter.
Throughout, my daughter stationed herself at the same back table, busying herself decorating small strips of paper containing quotations from the Baha’i writings to go into the bags for the women at the shelter. About halfway through the weekend, I wondered if I should have brought her at all. Perhaps she was too young? What was she getting from all this discussion? How could she relate to these women who were so much older than her and did not belong to her world or speak to it? At lunch and dinner, she chatted politely, but then she wanted to go upstairs and read the Young Adult novel she brought with her or listen to her iPod.
A spiritual feast had been laid out, but were these the right dishes to stimulate my daughter’s appetite? At least she was having a chance to rest her body in these beautiful surroundings, I thought. At least she was getting some nourishment for her mind. But what about her soul? I remembered how hard it had been for me at 14 to feel any sense of connection with adults, their concerns, their world. How to bridge the gap, I wondered. How to engage the spirituality of a teenage girl?
Saturday night passed with popcorn, smoothies and lively conversation about the day’s activities as well as some personal sharing of our experiences as girls and women in our communities. Sunday morning came, and the closing prayers. We gathered together to say a long healing prayer for all those who had come to our minds over the course of the weekend. Was there anyone she wanted to add to the list, I asked my daughter. “No,” she said. When the prayer was finished my daughter made her way to the back table.
The final session of the gathering was about to end when my daughter looked straight at me and said, “I’ve got something for you.”
She handed me an elaborately decorated quotation pasted on several different pieces of construction paper, each a little larger than the last, with ribbon threaded all around the edges. I guessed it must have taken her the whole morning to complete. I admired the artistry and then I read the brief excerpt from the Baha’i writing she had so lovingly decorated. It was drawn from a letter written by Abdul-Baha to a gathering of women:
Blessed are ye! Blessed are ye! Verily ye are worthy of every gift. Verily ye deserve to adorn your heads with the crown of everlasting glory, because in sciences and arts, in virtues and perfections ye shall become equal to man, and as regards tenderness of heart and abundance of mercy and sympathy ye are superior.
I remembered a conversation I had overheard at a youth gathering my daughter had participated in some weeks before. “I don’t want to talk about things. I want to do things,” she had said. Then I recalled one of Baha’u’llah’s Hidden Words, “Let deeds, not words, be your adorning….” My daughter had spent her weekend in quiet service to the women of Rosie’s Place, preparing gift bags and beautifying the empowering quotations to go inside them. Without ever having been told, my daughter already seemed to know what it meant to be a “Handmaid of the Merciful.”