BAFA © 2010. All material here is copyrighted. See conditions above.
Alison Marshall writer, mystic and poet
Aotearoa / New Zealand.
Alison is a writer and mystic.
She works as a writer and editor for her
company, Right Words. She also studies the Bahá´í writings, particularly in
the areas of mysticism, theology and philosophy.
She has degrees in
Philosophy and Law.
Her personal website is at
Letters of nearness: love, mysticism and ghazals
Excerpts of an article by Alison Marshall.
I sought to gain Our union everywhere; I scrawled
letters of nearness on all earth.
-- "Ode of the Dove",
learning with being in love, or with being committed to, or caring about,
something. I have always been a sensitive person. On a Myers Briggs assessment,
I come out an INFP, which means in practice that I am stuck in my head
theorising about feelings and relate to the world accordingly. Perhaps because I am feelings based, I am also naturally straightforward
with others about my inner life.
This usually put me out of step with society. I learned many counselling
skills from a close friend who was a therapist, but I did not want to
become a counsellor. I was too much of a philosopher for that. I had studied
philosophy at university and was good at it, but found the Western philosophical
tradition dry and academia too narrow for me.
Reaching, 1988, acrylic and pastel on paper,
30 x 40 inches,
by Hervé Constant
...In 1998, some life-changing events took place. I had a mystical experience
that lead me to realise that reality was a partnership of intellect and
heart. One did not rule the other, they needed each other and worked together
I suddenly realised that I had been using my intellect all along, but hadn't
been aware of it...
earlier, just before the fast of 1998, I decided to commit myself to creating
a meaningful devotional life. I was inspired by the example of my dear
friend, Terry Culhane, who taught me that the Bahá'ís were in desperate
need of Mashriqu'l-Adhkars in their local communities...
... Then I noticed a church close to my office and it suddenly occurred
to me that it was there for praying in: why wasn't I using it! I began
going there regularly, and so began my new mystical journey.
Over the following months, I had experiences I had never imagined possible.
At that time, again inspired by Terry's example, I'd developed a special
interest in the mystical writings of Bahá'u'lláh. In particular, I loved
the "Tablet of the Houri" (Lawh-i Huriyyih) and "Ode
of the Dove" (Qasidiy-i Varqa'iyyih). Both of them contain passages
in which Bahá'u'lláh speaks to The Houri (the Being who brought
him the Revelation in the spiritual world) with words of love that I had
never expected to hear from a manifestation. I had thought it was beneath
manifestations to talk to women like that because in the 'real' reality
the Intellect still ruled the heart. So Bahá'u'lláh's expression of intense
desire for The Houri was a bit bewildering, although not unwelcome.
All I knew was that this was Bahá'u'lláh talking, and that in itself made
it all right. The Tablet of the Maiden (http://
www-personal.umich.edu/~jrcole/houri.htm) struck me because
of the way Bahá'u'lláh and The Houri spoke to each other. I couldn't
believe the tenderness of it. After reading it over and over, it dawned
on me that this was the way women and men ought to talk to each other.
By revealing the tablet, Bahá'u'lláh was giving us an example of ideal
communication. The tone of the voices started to ring in my head and I
noticed them changing the way I spoke. The other important thing about
the tablet was the caring nature of The Houri. She was all heart,
but Bahá'u'lláh didn't treat her as silly for being that way, he loved
In fact, the whole tablet demonstrated that she was his crucial support
system. She was the reason he coped with humanity's rejection of him.
I began to believe that my femininity and feelings were an indispensable
part of creation.
The Ode of the Dove (http://
www-personal.umich.edu/~jrcole/ode.htm) captivated me because
the poetry revealed intense emotion. It is probably the first mystical
poem I climbed into. One of my favourite lines was: "My
joy refined the daylight's clarity" (verse 90).
I thought, 'gosh, Bahá'u'lláh is so in love, his perception of the world
around him is heightened by it, just like mine is!' And I liked the way,
at the height of the drama, he stood up for himself and effectively said
to The Houri, 'I know what I experience, don't you try to tell me I don't
love you completely!'
If I had limits, they appeared from Thee;
If I had traits then they derived from Thee.
And then he goes inside himself, as if he has reached the end of what
he can endure and is ready to expire:
I call on thee, life-spirit,
within Me, no part is left of the whole.
Transcendent spirit, climb down from thy throne;
for thee, My stigma is no source of blame.
(verses 94 and 95)
I recognised that place inside myself. I go there when
my back is against the wall. It's interesting that at that point she
stops criticising him and starts encouraging him. I think God is like
that. He knows when I am pushed to the limit, and that's always the
point at which things change.
Towards the end of 1998, another important event took place - I discovered
Sufism (Islamic mysticism). I had wanted to learn about Sufism because
it was the next step in my personal study of the Faith. I started reading
Corbin's "Spiritual Body and Celestial Earth" (London:
I.B. Tauris, 1990). It's difficult to explain, but I related
immediately to the mystics' religious experience. I got very excited.
They talked about the spiritual world as though it was a real part of
their lives on a moment-to-moment basis. They argued for the existence
of the imaginal or spiritual world, which we read using our inner selves;
that is, our imaginations, hearts, minds and so forth.
The movie "What dreams may come" shows how this works.
This imaginal or spiritual reality exists alongside the physical reality
and it gives our everyday life meaning. The Sufis believed that their
dreams and visions occurred in the imaginal world and looked upon them
as a vital part of their spirituality. Dreams had always been important
guides for me. I had relied on them to inform me of work I needed to
do on myself.
Reading that book was like becoming a Bahá'í again. I realised that
there was a long tradition devoted to questions I was already dealing
with, and there was much to learn. A big part of the attraction was
the philosophy. It was Islamic philosophy this time. It didn't waste
its time proving the existence of God - it flew! It was a magical combination
of philosophy, logic and the examination of reality; of feelings, love
and relationships; and dreams and imagination and their interpretation
in the self. The other exciting discovery was the intimate connection
between Sufism and the Bahá'í Faith. Most Bahá'ís know that the Faith
is derived from Islam, but don't appreciate the debt it owes to the
mystical dimension of that religion. So not only had I found Sufism,
but I had also found a way into the heart of the Faith. All those years
of thinking that I was crazy because I never fitted anywhere, and then
I find my home is the heart of the Faith and that I am a mystic!
was overjoyed to discover that the heart of the mystic's experience was
being in love. The mystic spends her energies devoted to understanding and
enhancing that experience. Many people look at being in love as an embarrassment
we experience in courtship, but then we get over it and get on with real
life. This is not how the mystics see it. For them, it is the heart of the
religious experience. That is not to deny that there are other expressions
of religion, such as formal study, but the mystics would argue that love
is the reason why we do things. It gives religion meaning. This state of
love looks to the objective observer like a life of self-imposed pain. It
is intense, dramatic, overwhelming and devastating. But such is the experience
of those who do not regulate their emotions in order to conform to social
etiquette. The mystics often used the analogy of being drunk to describe
the ecstatic feeling they experienced....
Beatrice and Rapheal
(I, my Beloved -my Houri-), 1998,
postcard by Sonja van Kerkhoff,
is the beloved? Ultimately, the beloved is God, but because we cannot
have a direct experience of God, the beloved is the divinity we experience
in creation; for example, in Bahá'u'lláh or in other people. 'Abdu'l-Bahá
tells us in his "Commentary on the Islamic Tradition 'I
was a Hidden Treasure' "
that there are five loves: the love of God for God; God for creation;
creation for creation; creation for God; and the individual for his or
her self. But he also tells us that these five loves are one. This can
For example, Bahá'u'lláh says we should have only love for him in our
hearts: "Hast thou ever heard that friend and foe
should abide in one heart?" (Persian Hidden
Word nr. 26) We think this means we cannot love people,
we must love God. But no, the various objects of love in our lives are
like the manifestations. There are a number of manifestations, but we
are asked to look at them from the point of view of their one Reality.
T he same is true of the many objects of love in our lives. Whether it
be the people we love, with varying intensities and in varying situations,
or God or Bahá'u'lláh, they are all objects of the one Love. From a subjective
point of view, they all take us to that sanctuary of the love of God in
I decided to write about my experiences of love too. I had never written
poetry before, but was driven to do it. My inner life was so intense that
I had to express it somehow or go mad. Someone had said that putting one's
feelings into a poem gives them a reality independent of oneself, and
this seemed to be what I needed to do. I was also struck by the courage
that shone through in Bahá'u'lláh's example.
Despite being surrounded by enemies, he still had the courage to write
intimate poetry. Moreover, I believed that Bahá'u'lláh's writings about
his beloved were at the heart of reality and, as such, were the "hidden"
of the manifest Revelation.
They were the spiritual reality upon which the Revelation was based. It
occurred to me that my "hidden" was similarly the pole of my spirituality
and that I should follow Bahá'u'lláh's example and courageously speak
of it. I draw on this idea of the "hidden" in the second ghazal
that I discuss in this essay...
...Gradually, I found myself
using the language of poets I had read, especially Bahá'u'lláh, and using
the terms and concepts that I had learned from my study of mysticism....
acrylic on plexiglass
by Keith Eldridge, Canada.
I could do it, I attempted my first ghazal. The ghazals I had read were
all translations and many did not attempt to capture the metre and rhyme
of the original. So the 'ring' of the ghazal in my head was different
to the 'ring' in the original language. However, I liked the refrain
("radif") at the end of both lines of the first couplet and every second
line of the others and tried to reproduce it.
I was encouraged by Gene Doty's essay
in which he coined the term "free
were coming at me in all directions and the words almost put themselves
together. I showed the poem to my dear friend Mark, and he was very excited
and talked me into submitting the poem to The Ghazal Page (http://www.rollanet.org/~gino/ghazal-page/index.html).
He told me that the poem did not belong to me but to humanity and that
I had a duty to let it go. I trusted his judgement and sent the poem off.
It felt like I was giving away my soul. You can hardly imagine my astonishment
when Gene said he wanted to put it up!
Through the veil of love, the beloved's face is a long
way from the beauty of the one for which she longs.
Shamed by her wretched state, she cowers before the thought
of him; he sees her through it, she can't hold it for too long.
It "bestows the nourishment of beauty without measure",
and that is a food she has not been used to for long.
If you glance at me, Wild One, I will die. Come
now! Produce the bloodstained hands in which I belong.
Hold this moon to you; impress your spirit's sweet form
on the waters of this melted soul, for which you long.
He is the curved wave of her breast's soft form. It is the lover's
humility that is the beauty for which the beloved longs.
Foolish ones! Reign from the poverty of your heart. Break
your covenant with fear; no need to bring arrogance and pride along.
Go now, Zaynab, and beg his heart be kind to me.
It is the gateway to heaven, and the passage through which I long.
Parts of the poem are derivative of Rumi. I was very influenced by him
at the time. I was working through some of his theories on love and was
finding a number of applications for them in my life. The opening couplet,
for example, is from the Rumi quote found in the Seven Valleys
Love is a veil betwixt the lover and the loved one;
than this I am not permitted to tell.
I was perplexed by this. At the time, I was aware that my image of my
beloved was nowhere near the reality, in the sense that no matter how
much we try, we can never have an image of God or a true image of another
person. I accepted that the love in my heart was the creator of my image
of my beloved and, in that sense, was a 'veil' from the real thing.
But it was not a veil that I could rid myself of because it was built
into the structure of creation. Also straight from Rumi is the idea that
humility is beautiful.
"It is the lover's humility that is the beauty for which the beloved longs."
...The idea is that love experienced subjectively is a devastating experience.
The Sufis refer to it as "ruin". I have tried to capture this in thesecond
couplet. Usually, we resist this feeling of degradation and shame because
it is like being naked. But from the point of view of the spiritual beloved,
that humility comes across as beauty. A person who is experiencing love
has a face that shines, and the beloved has the eyes to see the lover
glowing. The word "shame" came from Bahá'u'lláh's "Ode of the Dove",
where he describes this pathetic feeling in himself:
I waken thee, My heart: thou must depart;
thou hast no honor in this realm of shame. (verse 96)
In fact, the experience of love as ruin is fundamental to mysticism. A
person in that state will experience many times over an inner death of
self, which the Sufis call fana' or annihilation. This is the point where
mysticism becomes magical and powerful. If you let yourself pass through
that 'death' process, although at the time you believe yourself to have
lost everything, you find on the other side that you have gained a new
This is illustrated in the ‘Valley of Knowledge’ in The Seven
Valleys by Bahá'u'lláh, when the lover finds his beloved on the
other side of the wall. It is a trick of perception. If you have the courage
to let yourself pass through this inner death each time your journey leads
you to it, you discover that it is the path to achieving your soul's aspirations,
and rather than being a place of defeat, it is in fact a place of power.
In effect, you transcend the set of circumstances that appears to defeat
you to reach another that appears to favour you. Reality changes when
your perception of it alters.
The impossible proves easy, you realise that there is no such thing as
defeat or death because God is the All-Merciful, the All-Loving, the All-Powerful.
But if you resist the fana' experience by creating a false self out of
denial, you lock yourself into that set of circumstances that appears
to defeat you. You think that reality is something to fight and control
and believe you are keeping evil at bay by standing up for what's 'right'.
But all you are doing is standing in the way of your own growth. You become
mean and inflexible and never learn that reality is something in which
you can relax, explore and play...
...The final line of my ghazal is drawn from Bahá'u'lláh's statement: "The Word is the master key for the whole world, inasmuch as through its potency the doors of the hearts of men, which in reality are the doors of heaven, are unlocked"
(Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh, p 173).
I am grateful to Terry for pointing out to me that the hearts are the doors of heaven. I experience love as the act of walking into heaven using the passageway of a person's heart when it has been opened by the Word of God. Tradition tells us that the heart alone can contain God: "Earth and heaven cannot contain Me; what can alone contain Me is the heart of him that believeth in Me, and is faithful to My Cause."
When I am in another's heart or exploring the place where my beloved lives in mine, I meet God and find my home in paradise. Rumi expresses the same idea when he says: "love means to fall into a goldmine"
(Annemarie Schimmel's: "The Triumphant Sun. A Study of the Works of Jalaloddin Rumi" p 335).
The goldmine is the heart of one who feels like a mirror image of yourself. The God in you meets the God in them and it feels like perfection and bounty have descended upon you.
After that, I wrote several more poems...
Excerpts from Arts Dialogue, October 2000, pages 12 - 17.
Arts Dialogue, Dintel 20, NL 7333 MC, Apeldoorn, The Netherlands