Most nights, as I lie in bed drifting closer to sleep, my mind meanders through the events of the day, one random thought leading to another as my consciousness streams away toward stranger and stranger scenarios, until at last the rational succumbs completely to the emotional and symbolic.
But on some nights, I direct my thoughts, and I picture what it will be like during those first few moments in whatever that next realm is, in the afterlife.
When – in my mind – I arrive at that place, I am in a white, featureless room. There is person there to greet me. The person’s face is warmth and light itself. It is love itself, a love that is all-consuming, all-embracing. It is the face of ‘Abdu’l-Baha.
I am self-conscious of my shortcomings, but He greets me with a smile, takes my hands firmly, and telegraphs all I need to know through a gentle stare from his pale blue eyes. My chest is flooded with love, radiating out through my limbs and engulfing my whole being. He then leisurely escorts me through a succession of other rooms in which He introduces me one by one to all of the Manifestations of God. Starstruck, I behold each of Them, Who are distinct and yet somehow the same. And finally, He leads me to a room where all those who have gone before me — grandparents, aunts and uncles (and yes, in this half-waking dream, pets) — await.
What explains this mysterious connection I seem to have to Abdu’l-Baha, a man who died 46 years before I was even born? Who lived and died in another part of the world. Who did not speak my language. Why is He — one whose existence I’ve only been aware of for a decade, and not someone more familiar like Jesus or even my own parents — the One Who greets me in my mind whenever I imagine the afterlife?
Perhaps it has to do with the fact that in this realm too, Abdu’l-Baha was the greeter, the gatekeeper, the arranger of meetings with the Ancient Beauty.
Perhaps it is the power of His words combined with the familiarity and relatability of His person, a familiarity facilitated by the ubiquity of His early-century photos in Baha’i places.
Perhaps it is that He brought the Faith to the West and I am from the West, and though He did not speak very much English, He did speak the language of logic and of rational proofs, and this is a way to my heart equal to the mystic utterance. His travels, the way He talked, the subjects He chose, the metaphors He used, all of these factors make Him the most familiar of the Central Figures.
But I suspect it is something deeper still, something mystical and not entirely given to explanation in mere words.
When I think of the person of Abdu’l-Baha, I am reminded of Baha’u’llah’s words in Gleanings:
Considering what God hath revealed, that ‘We are closer to man than his life-vein,’ the poet hath, in allusion to this verse, stated that, though the revelation of my Best-Beloved hath so permeated my being that He is closer to me than my life-vein, yet, notwithstanding my certitude of its reality and my recognition of my station, I am still so far removed from Him.
It is as if, Abdu’l-Baha, someone on Whom I have never laid eyes, and Who had ascended long before I was even born, is closer to me than the blood that courses through my innermost being. The irrationality of my love for Him – that He has, somewhat effortlessly, moved to the front of the line to be my afterlife greeter — is among the strongest proofs to me of the Faith. The mystery of His life touches me on every level.
But is there something even more? In his book Religion for Mankind, early American Baha’i and Hand of the Cause of God Horace Holley wrote:
Now a message from God must be delivered, and there was no mankind to hear the message. Therefore, God gave the world Abdu’l-Baha… There were only tribes, creeds, classes, etc., but there was no man except Abdu’l-Baha, and Abdu’l-Baha, as man, took to Himself the message of Baha’u’llah and promised Got that He would bring the people into the oneness of mankind, and create a humanity that could be the vehicle for the laws of God.
His unique station in the history of religion notwithstanding, He shares and perfects the station of all of that vast majority of humanity that are not Manifestations. He is that exemplar of the perfect human life. As Holley said, He is our emissary to the Kingdom, the receiver of the Word.
None but a scant few can claim to know what death is like. It might be a universally identical experience; it might be subjective and unique to every individual; or the experience might fall into classes. It might be nothing like I imagine; it might be precisely as I imagine. We don’t know any more about it than the proverbial fetus can guess about the experience of birth. But I do believe that when it is my time to cross into the light, He will be my greeter. Perhaps my believing will make it so.
This week we observe the Ascension of Abdu’l Baha, the moment He left this earthly plane. But in truth, His whole life was an ascension – and He lifts all of humankind on His wings still and forever more.