In 1995 Ruhiyyih Khanum published poems she had written after the death in 1957 of her husband, Shoghi Effendi, who had been the head of the Baha’i Faith for 36 years.
On the dust jacket of her book, Poems of the Passing, she explains what she wanted to achieve by finally making the verses public.
It is the author’s ardent hope that in sharing them with others they may echo the grief of separation in this world from our loved ones, and the confident hope of reunion with them in an eternal realm of spiritual progress and mercy.
Anybody expecting an easy journey with gentle poems of love and light and describing a calm acceptance of death is in for a big surprise. Amatu’l-Baha Ruhiyyih Khanum, who passed away 15 years ago, was unflinching in her realistic approach to life, and she applied the same approach to these poems.
In emotionally wrenching and spiritually challenging verses, she uses her sublime literary skills to lay bare an incandescent agony caused by the loss of her beloved.
So deep, so harrowing is the raw pain she describes – at one point writing of the “unspeakable poison of grief” — many people may find it difficult to keep on reading despite the great artistic beauty of the poetry. Tears are likely.
But if we persist and reflect, we will surely see that the poet has indeed achieved the first of her hopes. Coming to her topic via various images and emotions, Ruhiyyih Khanum echoes at maximum decibels the grief that others suffer with the passing of dearly loved ones.
What about echoing the hope of reunion in the next world? Again she succeeds but in an unpredictable way. The poet vividly describes her spiritual battles and, in fact, yearns for that reunion to happen sooner rather than later.
The measure is too full for one poor being!
Break the cup, put out the lamp,
Dash the mind and pierce the heart—
Give one last blow!
The achievement of those goals brings with it another special gift to the reader. Emerging from the anthology is a vivid impression of the loving, tender majesty of Shoghi Effendi himself.
The obvious depth of Ruhiyyih Khanum’s love and respect for her late husband becomes a signpost to the exalted station, sterling personal qualities and immense achievements of the beloved Guardian.
In the first poem in the book we are privileged to learn of an intimate moment after his passing.
I kissed his brow and took his hands
So beautiful and soft to feel in mine
They curved about my fingers, supine
I gazed upon his blessed face
And never saw a beauty so sublime—
It was my last look for all time—
In agony and joy.
Via another poem we learn more of those moments.
When I found you cold
Upon your strange bed
Ask me not
Was laid upon my heart!
And a verse later in that same poem describes her actions as she prepares his body for burial.
‘Twas my lips, dear
That kissed your icy brow,
My hands that folded
O’er your tranquil form
The silken shroud…’
In a wonderful but ever so poignant poem Have You Seen My Love? Ruhiyyih Khanum provides us with a physical description of Shoghi Effendi, including his hands, which were said to resemble those of his illustrious great-grandfather, Baha’u’llah.
His foot is small and high, and firm his step,
His hand is quick and small and brown and strong,
His eyes are hazel and grey and oh so bright!
And his smile you will never see again…
His voice rings in a plaintive tone,
Full of command and secret tears and thoughts…
In one poem, she reminds us of his station as expressed in the Will and Testament of Abdu’l-Baha:
…that primal branch of the Divine and Sacred Lote-Tree
She contrasts his rank to hers via an appropriate horticultural image, calling herself a graft.
Kin is he not I know
But still one sacred vow
Knit to God’s mighty bough
This graft so low.
To describe this leader of the Baha’i world, the poet draws on an analogy that somehow magically depicts his energy
The master of the Hunt is gone
With coat of red and shining boots,
With steed that leapt the hedges high
And coattails flying in autumn breeze.
And in her poem, The Priceless Pearl, the title shared later with her highly readable, informative and inspiring biography of the Guardian, she writes:
So many pearls
And so many seas—
But the Pearl of Great Price
Slipped back to the sea
Leaving us desolate on the shore.
Shoghi Effendi described Ruhiyyih Khanum as his “helpmate”, “shield” and “tireless collaborator in the arduous tasks I shoulder.”
These beautiful, challenging and instructive poems are just one more piece of evidence that help us understand why he admired and loved her so. The fact that she surfaced after suffering such appalling grief and went on to perform more and more acts of service is surely a testimony to her inner character, an example to us all.
Working with her beloved fellow Hands of the Cause, Ruhiyyih Khanum helped protect the unity of the worldwide Baha’i community and arranged for the election of the Universal House of Justice. By that time she had also worked with the other Hands to oversee the successful efforts to expand the reach of the faith throughout the world in the Ten Year Crusade.
Then she plunged into Baha’i service in the often remote and challenging regions of Africa, India, the Pacific, the Americas and elsewhere, encouraging, teaching, and often sharing stories about Shoghi Effendi. At the Baha’i World Centre she took special care of the Shrines and other holy places.
Ruhiyyih Khanum did not seem to rest. She was full of life and used her oratory and her service to show us ways to live out the teachings of the Baha’i Faith and to find in its sacred Writings the spiritual resources that give power to our efforts.