Bahá’ís everywhere will feel a deep sense of gratitude to Canada’s National Spiritual Assembly for its decision to republish Messages to Canada, letters written by or on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, which has been out of print for all too many years. The new edition will be welcomed even more enthusiastically because of the fact that the compilation as now made available has grown from the thirty communications constituting the original publication to a total of over two hundred letters and cables addressed to the National Spiritual Assembly itself, to Local Spiritual Assemblies and groups, to committees, and to a great many individual Canadian believers.
Clearly, the task of identifying and assembling this large body of new material and of integrating it into the original volume has been a long and painstaking labour of love on the part of the editors. No more appropriate occasion could be imagined for the launching of the resulting work than the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of Canada’s National Spiritual Assembly as an independent Institution of the Bahá’í Faith and “ninth pillar” of the Universal House of Justice. To remember that historic occasion is to ponder deeply the significance of the body thus created. This meaning is powerfully expressed in words which Amatu’l-Bahá Rúhíyyih Khánum addressed to the first national convention assembled in the drawing room of her girlhood home in Montreal:
Whenever one thinks of Canada one thinks of cultivation. Out of her virgin forests, her wildernesses, her barren North lands and lakes, has already been wrung a great and promising nation. The darkness of nature, as the Master said, has given way to cultivation and out of imperfection has arisen the splendour of government, industry, trade, settlement, and the arts and sciences of human life. But spiritually the land is still dark, promising, but dark. Primarily the measure of spirituality radiated by your national body will be the measure of Bahá’u’lláh’s light directly available for Canada. For He created the concept of your institution. You exist because of the functions He desired you to perform, and your fundamental function is to be the spiritual heart of Canada.
On April 30, 1949, barely twelve months after the new National Spiritual Assembly had come into existence, it was formally incorporated by special Act of Parliament, an event twice hailed by Shoghi Effendi in the documents published here as “a magnificent victory unique in the annals of East and West”. In retrospect, the achievement provided a dramatic illustration of the immense potentialities with which, as the Guardian repeatedly reminded Canadian believers, Providence has endowed their community and their country. Today, as Canadian Bahá’ís contemplate the results of fifty years of struggle and sacrifice they begin to catch a glimmer of the dazzling panorama that lay open to the eyes of Shoghi Effendi as he penned the words of appeal, advice, and encouragement that constitute the heart of this book: Local Spiritual Assemblies established in the most remote corners of a vast land — the second largest on the face of the planet; an enviable record of work carried out quietly but with great effect by succeeding generations of Canadian pioneers and travel teachers in every part of the world; an outpouring of funds that has nourished the activities of the Cause at its World Centre and throughout the globe and that truly merits the term sacrificial; the impetus given to the international community’s proclamation of Bahá’u’lláh’s message by Canadian Bahá’í creativity in the arts and the media; and the growing involvement in the work of the Faith on the part of believers from Canada’s many ethnic and cultural backgrounds, a hope which is the unflagging theme of so many of Shoghi Effendi’s letters.
Canadian readers who note the Guardian’s poignant references to the suffering of their fellow Bahá’ís in the land of their Faith’s birth will derive a feeling of profound satisfaction from the leadership which both their community and their nation have since demonstrated in mobilizing international condemnation of such persecution, in providing homes for several thousand of the victims, and in winning the agreement of many other nations to similarly open their own doors.
Above all, given the letters’ urgent emphasis on the qualities of “loyalty”, “vigilance”, and “unswerving fidelity”, Canadian Bahá’ís will reserve their deepest expressions of gratitude to Bahá’u’lláh for the Divine protection which, since the moment of the Faith’s arrival in their country a hundred years ago, has so remarkably shielded their community from all efforts to undermine its record of unyielding commitment to the Covenant.
All of these developments were possible because of the hours of patient care which Shoghi Effendi devoted to the community’s development at the very dawn of its collective history as a distinct national community. It was the blazing ardour of these messages that inspired Canadian Bahá’í pioneers to endure years of isolation in Arctic posts, remote island settlements, and regions of the earth which seemed initially to display as little in the way of spiritual receptivity as they offered with respect to the comforts of life. It was letters in this book — cherished treasures in homes across the country, treasures grown fragile through constant re-reading — which awoke in individual believers the courage to look within themselves for capacities quite outside their daily experience. Through the guidance the messages contained, Local Spiritual Assemblies learned gradually to be patient not only with the failings of the communities entrusted to their care, but also with the slow processes of their own institutional growth.
At all times, Shoghi Effendi held up before the eyes of Canadian believers — conditioned by everything in their culture to the virtues of modesty and prudence, and confirmed in this mindset by sobering historical experience — the breathtaking mandate which has been conferred on them by the Centre of the Covenant. They must strive to appreciate, he insisted, that they are a “co-heir” of the Tablets of the Divine Plan, “chosen prosecutors” of that Plan, “sole partner” and “chief ally” of their sister community in the United States in its worldwide implementation, and endowed with that “primacy with which the twin Bahá’í national communities labouring in the North American continent have been invested by the unerring Pen of the Centre of Bahá’u’lláh’s Covenant”.
Whenever response was unduly slow or energies flagged, Shoghi Effendi was in no way reluctant to press those matters which deeply concerned him. Perhaps the most vexed single issue was the difficulty which the National Spiritual Assembly appeared to have in acquiring a suitable site for its first Mashriqu’l-Adhkár and even an appropriate property for its national Hazíratu’l-Quds. As delay followed delay and one after another of the Assembly’s optimistic expectations proved illusory, letters from the Guardian’s secretaries expressed growing concern. Eventually, Shoghi Effendi himself addressed the subject in the course of a major message in 1955:
[From the Guardian:]
[The] purchase of the site of the Mother Temple of the Dominion of Canada and the establishment of the national Hazíratu’l-Quds constitute a double task that can brook no further delay, as the entire Bahá’í world, having hailed the erection of such an indispensable institution in no less than eighteen countries scattered throughout the continents and oceans of the Globe, is now intently fixing its eye on this community, so richly blessed by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá….
Principally, however, one is struck by the gentleness and restraint that the messages display over failures which, however serious in themselves, were clearly seen by Shoghi Effendi as the result not of obduracy or folly, but of ineptitude on the part of a very young community desperately concerned to learn and to fulfil the expectations of the incomparable figure on whom all its love and hope were fixed.
A startling feature of Shoghi Effendi’s letters to Canada — and indeed of the Tablets of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá that inspired them — is their linking of the spiritual destiny of the country with its brilliant material future. Repeatedly, the Guardian returns to the theme of the Master’s emphasis on this dual process. In an especially provocative passage, he points to the vital role which, in the fullness of time, the Bahá’í community itself is destined to play not only in the nation’s spiritual development, but in its social and economic advance:
[From the Guardian]
May this community, the leaven placed by the hands of Providence in the midst of a people belonging to a nation, likewise young, dynamic, richly endowed with material resources, and assured of a great material prosperity by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, play its part not only in lending a notable impetus to the world-wide propagation of the Faith it has espoused, but contribute, as its resources multiply and as it gains in stature, to the spiritualization and material progress of the nation of which it forms so vital a part.
Here, we touch with that mystery that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá termed “the secret of Divine civilization”. Increasingly, Bahá’ís will feel impelled to consider the impact on Canadian consciousness of Shoghi Effendi’s messages and the long term effects on the nation’s life. Prior to World War II it might well have been impossible to identify a society more provincial, more resolutely self-absorbed than that of Canada. Today, in its place, stands a nation for whom a global perspective is the norm, that has established a perhaps unparalleled record of service to the cause of international peacekeeping, and that is justly renowned for its willingness to provide economic assistance without attaching to it political or other conditions.
Readers will note that the major messages in the book were all written during the nine year period — 1948 to 1957 — which coincided with this great turning point in the orientation of Canada’s people. The letters’ immediate effects can be traced in the lives of only the several hundred persons to whom they were directly addressed. Their broader influence, an influence deriving its force from the direct intervention in Canadian history of the Centre of Bahá’u’lláh’s Covenant, was prefigured in words with which ‘Abdu’l-Bahá described the significance of the brief but incalculably precious days He spent in the country: