Simple Life

"I, myself with two others," he [Nabil] relates, "lived in a room which was devoid of furniture. Bahá’u’lláh entered it one day, and, looking about Him, remarked: 'Its emptiness pleases Me. In My estimation it is preferable to many a spacious palace, inasmuch as the beloved of God are occupied in it with the remembrance of the Incomparable Friend, with hearts that are wholly emptied of the dross of this world.'" His own life was characterized by that same austerity, and evinced that same simplicity which marked the lives of His beloved companions. "There was a time in Iraq," He Himself affirms, in one of His Tablets, "when the Ancient Beauty ... had no change of linen. The one shirt He possessed would be washed, dried and worn again." "Many a night," continues Nabil, depicting the lives of those self-oblivious companions, "no less than ten persons subsisted on no more than a pennyworth of dates. No one knew to whom actually belonged the shoes, the cloaks, or the robes that were to be found in their houses. Whoever went to the bazaar could claim that the shoes upon his feet were his own, and each one who entered the presence of Bahá’u’lláh could affirm that the cloak and robe he then wore belonged to him. Their own names they had forgotten, their hearts were emptied of aught else except adoration for their Beloved.... O, for the joy of those days, and the gladness and wonder of those hours!"

Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, p. 136

As we drove up Broadway, glittering with its electric signs, He spoke of them smiling, apparently much amused. Then He told us that Bahá’u’lláh had loved light. “He could never get enough light. He taught us,” the Master said, “to economize in everything else but to use light freely.”

Juliet Thompson’s Diary, April 19, 1912

Before His wedding day, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá made the necessary arrangements for the few guests. His mother and sister made a delicate bridal dress of white batiste. A white head-dress adorned Munirih Khánum’s hair, worn, as usual, in two braids. At nine in the evening she went with the Greatest Holy Leaf into the presence of Bahá’u’lláh, Who gave her His blessing. She then went to the bridal room and awaited the coming of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. The service was very simple. At about ten o’clock ‘Abdu’l-Bahá came, accompanied by the guests, and Munirih Khánum chanted a tablet revealed by Bahá’u’lláh. ‘Later, the wife of ‘Abbud recalled the sweetness of that chanting still ringing in her ears.’ There were no choir, decorations or cake – just cups of tea. Above all, a glory and a love there were more than sufficient to bless the happy event.

Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

For his own personal use Bahá’u’lláh never ordered anything extravagant. The life of luxury to which He was accustomed in His youth had been denied Him since His imprisonment in the Siyah-Chal of Tihran when all His possessions had been confiscated. But He lived a life of austerity in a majesty such that in the words of Edward (Granville Browne of Cambridge University, He was 'the object of a devotion that kings might envy and emperors sigh for in vain'. His personal needs were simple and inexpensive . . . He Himself and the members of His family, however, lived an austere life. There were many occasions when He was in great need, but did not accept financial help from the friends.

Adib Taherzadeh, The Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh v 4, p. 248

I am so delighted by these news that my dear friend and colleague in Bahá’í studies, Hossain Achtchi has enthusiastically agreed to speak at our first cloud conference. What an extraordinary life. His father was Aqa Husayn-i Ashchi, Bahá’u’lláh's cook, who joined His household as a teenager and was thus ‘Abdu’l-Bahá's companion from when ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was 19 to the day of His passing in 1921.

Here is a photograph of him with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: he is standing second from the right:

There can't be that many people left alive a single generation apart from intimate companionship with Bahá’u’lláh Himself. Hossain will share his family's first hand recollections of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and tell us what it was like as a family to grow up in the influence of such memories.

I share below an anecdote from the autobiographical memoirs of Hossain's father recounting an episode he remembered as a teenager living in the household of Bahá’u’lláh, introduced by Adib Taherzadeh:

"One of the features of the life of Bahá’u’lláh was that although born of one of the wealthiest families in Persia and having lived many years in luxurious surroundings, He spent forty years of His Ministry in an austerity to which He had never been accustomed during the earlier days of His life. For two years he lived in the utmost poverty in the mountains of Kurdistán where many a day He subsisted on milk alone. In Baghdád He lived a simple life and had to endure many privations. 'There was a time in 'Iráq,' He affirms in a Tablet, 'when the Ancient Beauty...had no change of linen. The one shirt He possessed would be washed, dried and worn again.' In Adrianople and 'Akká He submitted Himself to the privations and hardships which a ruthless enemy had imposed upon Him.

"Although many believers through their devotion, and often by sacrificing their own needs, offered gifts to Bahá’u’lláh, He usually distributed such gifts among the poor and He Himself lived with the utmost simplicity. For example, Husayn-i-Áshchí, a youth from Káshán who served Bahá’u’lláh as a cook in Adrianople and later in 'Akká, has left to posterity the following account of the days when He stayed in the house of Amru'lláh in Adrianople.

'This house [of Amru'lláh] was very large and magnificent. It had a large outer apartment where all the loved ones of Bahá’u’lláh used to gather. They were intoxicated with the wine of His Peerless Beauty...However, the means of livelihood were very inadequate and meagre. Most of the time there was no food which could be served to Bahá’u’lláh other than bread and cheese. Every day I used to save some meat and oil and store them in a special place until there was enough to cook. I would then invite Bahá’u’lláh to a meal on the lawn. We managed to save some money and buy two cows and one goat. The milk and yoghurt which were produced were served in the holy household...

'In the winter there was a brazier in each room. It was among my duties to light them. In order to economize I used to measure the amount of coal that I placed in each brazier. Someone had informed Bahá’u’lláh of this. He summoned me to His presence and said: 'I hear you count the pieces of coal which go into each brazier!' Bahá’u’lláh smiled and was very amused. He agreed that such economy was necessary in a large house.' "

Ismael Velasco on Facebook for the first Cloud Conference

Mary Bolles (Maxwell) took an early pilgrimage to the prison city. She heard that the food man eats is of no importance, as its effect endures but a short time. But the food of the spirit is life to the soul and its effects endure eternally. She heard ‘Abdu’l-Bahá tell the touching ‘story of the hermit’. Bahá’u’lláh ‘was traveling from one place to another with His followers’ and ‘He passed through a lonely country where, at some little distance from the highway, a hermit lived alone in a cave. He was a holy man, and having heard that Our Lord, Bahá’u’lláh, would pass that way, he watched eagerly for His approach. When the Manifestation arrived at that spot the hermit knelt down and kissed the dust before His feet and said to Him: “Oh, my Lord, I am a poor man living alone in a cave nearby; but henceforth I shall account myself the happiest of mortals if Thou wilt but come for a moment to my cave and bless it by Thy Presence.” Then Bahá’u’lláh told the man that He would come, not for a moment but for three days, and He bade His followers cast their tents, and await His return. The poor man was so overcome with joy and with gratitude that he was speechless, and led the way in humble silence to his lowly dwelling in a rock. There the Glorious One sat with him, talking to him and teaching him, and toward evening the man bethought himself that he had nothing to offer his great Guest but some dry meat and some dark bread, and water from a spring nearby. Not knowing what to do he threw himself at the feet of his Lord and confessed his dilemma. Bahá’u’lláh comforted him and by a word bade him fetch the meat and bread and water; then the Lord of the universe partook of this frugal repast with joy and fragrance as though it had been a banquet, and during the three days of His visit they ate only of this food which seemed to the poor hermit the most delicious he had ever eaten. Bahá’u’lláh declared that He had never been more nobly entertained nor received greater hospitality and love. “This,” explained the Master, when He had finished the story, shows us how little man requires when he is nourished by the sweetness of all foods – the love of God.”’

Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

The gates of the Akka prison were finally opened for Bahá’u’lláh, His family and companions after a confinement of two years, two months and five days. Many of His companions were consigned to the caravanserai, an unfit dwelling-place. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá occupied one room himself. The rooms were damp and filthy. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá sold a certain gift which had been given to Him in Baghdad and with the proceeds began to repair the rooms for the companions of Bahá’u’lláh. He left the repair of His own room to the last. The money ran out and as a result His room remained unrepaired and in very bad condition. Not only were its walls damp but the roof leaked and the floor was covered with dust. He sat and slept on a mat in that room. His bed cover was a sheepskin. The room was infested with fleas and when He slept under the sheepskin, fleas gathered and began biting. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá worked out a tactic of defeating the fleas by turning over His sheepskin at intervals. He would sleep for a while before the fleas found their way again to the inner side. He would then turn the sheepskin over again. Every night He had to resort to this tactic eight to ten times.

Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

The Master kept little clothing – one coat at a time was ample. He ate little food. He was known to begin His day with tea, goat’s milk cheese and wheat bread. And at the evening meal a cup of milk and a piece of bread might suffice. He considered the latter a healthy meal. Had not Bahá’u’lláh, while at Sullaymaniyyih, subsisted mostly on milk? (Sometimes Bahá’u’lláh ate rice and milk cooked together.) ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s sparse diet also included herbs and olives – it rarely included meat.

Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

A friend had sent some fur so that the Master could have a good warm coat; He had it cut up and made into twenty caps for the elderly men of the town.

Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of "‘Abdu’l-Bahá

He does not permit his family to have luxuries. He himself eats but once a day, and then bread, olives, and cheese suffice him. His room is small and bare, with only a matting on the stone floor. His habit is to sleep upon this floor. Not long ago a friend, thinking that this must be hard for a man of advancing years, presented him with a bed fitted with springs and mattress. So these stand in his room also, but are rarely used. "For how," he says, "can I bear to sleep in luxury when so many of the poor have not even shelter?" So he lies upon the floor and covers himself only with his cloak.

Myron Henry Phelps and Bahiyyih Khánum, Life and Teachings of Abbas Effendi

In the afternoon, Fujita and some of the Persians took a short walk around Glenwood Springs. Fujita recalled that: . . . on the way back I saw a little shop, with a great big watermelon, ripe, red. So, I, myself, like watermelon, so I bought it and carried big watermelon like this, and when I brought home to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, sitting He watched me. "What do you got there?" He says. I said, "I have watermelon." "All right, come!" Immediately, He put His hand in the center of the watermelon and started eating. "Wait, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, I want to bring you a knife and fork!" "No, never mind." I was glad. And then we had to share with all Bahá’ís. And then at midnight we took train.

Earl Redman, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Their Midst, p. 208

Julia Gundy, an early pilgrim, described a beautiful supper at which many friends were welcomed by the Master Himself in Akka. He passed out napkins, embraced and found plates for each. All were individually anointed with attar of rose. He served pilau, a Persian rice dish, to each guest. There were also oranges and rice pudding. ‘Throughout the supper, which was very simple in its character and appointment, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was the Servant of the believers. This was indeed a spiritual feast where Love reigned. The whole atmosphere was Love, Joy, and Peace.

Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

Mary Lucas, a pilgrim to Akka in 1905, found that the Master usually ate but one simple meal a day. In eight days He was present at most meals, often coming just to add joy to the occasion, though He was not hungry. If He knew of someone who had had no meal during a day, the family supper was gladly packed up and sent to the needy.

Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

On the occasion of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s first dinner in the home of Lady Bloomfield in London His hostess had prepared course after course in her eagerness to please Him. Afterwards He gently commented: ‘The food was delicious and the fruit and flowers were lovely, but would that we could share some of the courses with those poor and hungry people who have not even one.’ Thereafter the dinners were greatly simplified. Flowers and fruit remained in abundance, for those were often brought to the Master as small love tokens.

Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

The husband of Amelia Collins, a devoted American Bahá’í, was a very sociable man. He would take part in any discussion with perfect freedom and ease. But once, before entering the Master’s home, he was so excited that he arranged his tie just right, smoothed his clothes and repeatedly asked his wife what he should do when they arrived there. She told him, ‘Nothing! In the family of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá simplicity reigns, and nothing but love is ever accepted.’

Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

Tudor-Pole described a typical day for ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: he rises about 5 AM, and works for some hours at his correspondence. Interviews commence soon after 9 AM and last until midday. After lunch he takes a short rest and then usually rides out into the parks or to visit various people who were deeply interested in his work. Gatherings of the friends take place nearly every evening and he has given some wonderful discourses at such times… He is quite vigorous and looks both well and cheerful.

Earl Redman, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Their Midst, p. 30

‘Abdu’l-Bahá told a story about a Persian believer’s journeys and how he could not sleep at night while in the wilderness for fear of someone stealing his new shirt, a new gift from a prominent person. After several sleepless nights he decided to get rid of the shirt so he could relax.

Rafati, Vahid, Sources of Persian Poetry in the Bahá’í Writings, Vol. lll, p. 80

‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s family was taught to dress in such a way that they would be ‘an example to the rich and an encouragement to the poor.’ Available money was stretched to cover far more than the Master’s family needs. One of His daughters wore no bridal gown when she married – a clean dress sufficed. The Master was queried why He had not provided bridal clothes. With candour He replied simply, ‘My daughter is warmly clad and has all that she needs for her comfort. The poor have not. What my daughter does not need I will give to the poor rather than to her.’

Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

During one or two of those summers early in Shoghi Effendi's ministry he told me he had bought a bicycle and cycled over many passes.  His bicycle--the poor man's car--became a favourite of Shoghi Effendi.  He sometimes climbed the highest passes in Switzerland, pushing it up and riding down.

Rúhíyyih Khánum, The Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith, p. 61

‘Abdu’l- Bahá has His meals  as follows:

7 A.M. Tea and bread

1:30 P.M. Dines with the family

4 P.M. Tea

7:30 P.M. Sits with the family at dinner but partakes of no food Himself

10: P.M. Simple meal

Agnes Parson’s Diary, ©1996, Kalimát Press, Footnote #6, p. 13