Sermon at St. John’s Church, Westminister

September 17, 1911: after the evening service at St. John’s Church, Westminster, September 17, 1911.

A provisional translation from Khetabat-e Hazrat-e `Abdu’l-Baha dar safr-e-Europa (Talks of ‘Abdu’l-Baha in his European travels), page 26. Some notes are included in the first comment below this post.

He is God!

The Manifestations of God inform us of the bounties of the unseen world; they are reflections of the sun of reality. The divine reality is sanctified above human understanding. Whatever enters our understanding is a form in the world of imagination: it has a mental rather than a real existence. It is circumscribed. But a human person has a true reality, which encompasses other realities.

The concept of divinity, which is one of our intellectual constructs, is nothing more than an insubstantial concept: it is not the divine reality. The divine reality is encompassing, it is not encompassed; it has a true existence, not an intellectual one. One can understand this question through an analogy. Although the mineral, the vegetable, the animal and the human are all realities of this world, the mineral has no knowledge of the animal kingdom: it cannot picture it, or comprehend it. Similarly, however much a plant may advance, reaching the highest degree of perfection, it knows nothing of the animal world and cannot comprehend it. It knows nothing, having no vision or hearing, and being incapable of understanding and reflection. Again, the animal that has progressed within its own plane, whose senses and susceptibilities have reached their fullest power, still knows nothing about the rational faculty in humans, and cannot imagine it. It is a captive of the senses. It cannot imagine that the sun stands in its place and the earth moves, or that the earth is a sphere. It cannot conceive of the power of electricity, and the ethereal substance does not enter its mind. Although the mineral, vegetable, animal and human are all realities of this world, the difference between their stations prevents the lower from comprehending the higher. In view of this, how could a contingent being comprehend the reality of the Absolute? How could the dust encompass the Lord of Lords? It is clear that this is completely impossible!

The Essence of Divinity, the Sun of Truth, shines forth upon all horizons and is spreading its rays upon all things. Each thing has some portion of that bounty, but the human reality, which combines the perfections of the mineral, the vegetable and animal, and as an additional token of grace, possesses the human perfections, is the noblest of created beings. It encompasses all contingent beings. It uncovers the realities, enigmas and inherent properties of all created things, which had been hidden mysteries and well-guarded secrets. It brings them from the plane of the invisible world into the visible world. Consider the sciences, inventions and discoveries that exist today: each of them was at one time hidden, but the human reality has uncovered them and brought them from the plane of the invisible world into the visible world. For example, magnetic attraction and other hidden forces were once unknown things, concealed in the plane of the invisible, but the human reality uncovered those hidden mysteries and revealed them in the visible world. Thus it is established beyond any doubt that the human reality encompasses all created things and is the noblest created thing.

This is especially true of the perfect exemplar of the human reality. That perfect individual is like a mirror that reflects the sun of reality with the greatest purity, clarity and immediacy. The perfections and light of God are manifest and apparent, in their full splendour, in this stainless mirror. If we say, “the sun is in this mirror,” we do not mean that the sun has come down from its lofty sanctity and alighted in the mirror! It is impossible. The essential nature of any thing cannot be transmuted into something else. The eternal cannot become transient, and the transient is not eternal. Rather, the Immortal Being casts its splendour in this mirror and its heat and light radiate and are revealed and manifest to the greatest degree. “God is Truth: nothing exists beside the Truth except for manifest error.” (From letter 65 of the Nahj al-Balagha, cf Quran 10:32)

O God! Thou giver, and forgiver of sins. This assembly is honoured by Your remembrance and is turning to Your Kingdom. Therefore, our hearts are full of joy and glad tidings. O Thou kind Lord! Cheer us, confirm us in your Kingdom, forgive our sins, and be a refuge for us. Make us aware and call us to Thy Court in the Kingdom. Thou art the Giver, the Generous, the Benevolent. Amen.

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3 thoughts on “Sermon at St. John’s Church, Westminister

  1. Regarding the texts

    The text in Khetabat gives the date for this talk as 23 Ramadan 1329 and September 16, 1911, while the Star of the West version (in Persian) does not have a date. Abdu’l-Baha in London dates it September 17, which is a Sunday, and is likely to be correct.

    I have compared the texts in Star of the West and in Khetabat. Most of the differences can be described as sensible amendments that could plausibly have been made on Abdu’l-Baha’s instructions. In two places the text in Star of the West makes no sense and an amendment was required, and the one chosen is very plausible. In one place Abdu’l-Baha uses two different auxiliary verbs, for stylistic variation, and these are transposed in Khetabat: this is likely to be a typesetting error, but does not affect the sense. In another place the * that marks the end of a sentence has been placed after the first word of the next sentence: again, a typesetting error is the most logical explanation, as the sense requires the break to be where it is indicated (by a space) in Star of the West. The text in Khetabat can be described as carefully prepared by a competent author, perhaps with Abdu’l-Baha’s input, although one must allow for the possibility that the typesetter has introduced errors into the editor’s work. In the case of the Star of the West, my sense is that the copyist was not always conscious of the meaning of what he wrote, or perhaps he felt that his vocabulary was limited, and simply supposed that the strange words Abdu’l-Baha used had a meaning, when in fact the notes the copyist had were incorrect or the copyist had not construed the handwriting correctly.

    I have also compared the Persian text with the translation in Abdu’l-Baha in London. It appears that Abdu’l-Baha prepared his talk in writing, in Persian, and an English translation of his text was given to Bishop Wilberforce, who read it. (See Baha’i World, Volume 12, p. 915) The differences at the beginning and end, in particular, could be due to Abdu’l-Baha editing the Persian text before allowing its publication in Star of the West. The translator of the version in Abdu’l-Baha in London has substituted a Biblical verse for a quotation in Arabic from the Nahj al-Balagha, the letters of Imam `Ali, and has added a New Testament text at one point.

    It is noteable that the publisher’s introduction to the 1982 edition of Abdu’l-Baha in London states that as “the original material is no longer available the Universal House of Justice has approved that we state that it is no longer possible to verify the translation of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s words.” This is not entirely correct, as there are notes in the original language for this sermon, and my translation from the original is, essentially, just a revision of an “early translation.”

    It is not reality itself; it is circumscribed. But a human person has a true reality, which is encompassing.” In the Persian, circumscribed and encompassing (or circumscribing) are cognate words.

    “Which encompasses other realities.” The text in Khetabat says simply, “it is encompassing.” The text in Star of the West specifies what is encompassed: ‘that which is not itself.’ In this case I think a typesetting omission is more likely than that Abdu’l-Baha or the editor thought these words out of place and removed them.

  2. Parallels in the Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha

    Thou hast asked regarding the phrase, “He is God!” written above the Tablets. By this Word it is intended that no one hath any access to the Invisible Essence. The way is barred and the road is impassable. In this world all men must turn their faces toward “Him-whom God-shall-Manifest.” He is the “Dawning-place of Divinity” and the “Manifestation of Deity.” He is the “Ultimate Goal,” the “Adored One” of all and the “Worshipped One” of all. Otherwise, whatever flashes through the mind is not that Essence of essences and the Reality of realities; nay, rather it is pure imagination woven by man and is surrounded, not the surrounding. Consequently, it returns finally to the realm of suppositions and conjectures. (Volume 3 of Tablets of Abdul-Baha Abbas, on page 485)

    Now concerning the essence of Divinity: in truth it is on no account determined by anything apart from its own nature, and can in no wise be comprehended. For whatsoever can be conceived by man is a reality that hath limitations and is not unlimited; it is circumscribed, not all-embracing. It can be comprehended by man, and is controlled by him. Similarly it is certain that all human conceptions are contingent, not absolute; that they have a mental existence, not a material one. Moreover, differentiation of stages in the contingent world is an obstacle to understanding. How then can the contingent conceive the Reality of the absolute? As previously mentioned, differentiation of stages in the contingent plane is an obstacle to understanding. Minerals, plants and animals are bereft of the mental faculties of man that discover the realities of all things, but man himself comprehendeth all the stages beneath him. Every superior stage comprehendeth that which is inferior and discovereth the reality thereof, but the inferior one is unaware of that which is superior and cannot comprehend it.

    Thus man cannot grasp the Essence of Divinity, but can, by his reasoning power, by observation, by his intuitive faculties and the revealing power of his faith, believe in God, ….
    (Tablet to August Forel, p. 14)

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