I was feeling like I needed to read something inspiring to ease the discouragement so the other night I picked up Violette Nakhjavani's Tribute to Amatu'l-Baha Ruhiyyih Khanum. It is a book that was recently given to us but neither my husband nor I have had time to read and it's been sitting on our coffee table ever since. My Baha'i friends will know this but Ruhiyyih Khanum was born Mary Maxwell and raised in Montreal prior to marrying Shoghi Effendi. Her parents were May Maxwell and William Sutherland Maxwell and she was their only child.
The first chapter of the book was a timely reminder of the long wait May Maxwell went through to become a mother. After they were married years passed for the Maxwell's with no sign of a child. Then in 1910 May wrote a letter to Agnes Alexander describing an encounter she'd had with 'Abdu'l-Baha while in Haifa the previous year.
He had seen her walking with His daughter one evening and May had been carrying His infant grandson. He asked her, "You love that baby?"
"Oh! I love him," was her emphatic reply.
'Abdu'l-Baha asked her if she would like to have a baby and her answer was that she would be very happy to have one. He answered, "Do you know why you have never had one? It is because you were a chosen maidservant of God - you were called for the service of God - you could not have children because you had to devote your time to the service of the Cause. This is the only reason; this is the only reason."
The letter continues:
I stood with bowed head before Him and after a little silence He said, "Speak, do you choose to have a child, you may choose."The letter goes onto reveal that May did indeed become pregnant a few months later.
Then I looked at Him with all my heart and soul and adoration, and I said, "I choose whatever God chooses - I have no choice but His." Although those words were very simple - in them I renounced all hope of Motherhood. Then 'Abdu'l-Baha arose quickly and came to me and clasped me in His arms with the greatest love and joy, and He said: "That is the best choice, the Will of God is the best choice", and walking up and down the room He continued, "I will pray for you, that God will send you that which is best for you. Be sure of this, that God will send you that which is best for you - " and this He repeated several times.
What strikes me in reading this is how extraordinary May Maxwell's response was. We tend to read stories of 'Abdu'l-Baha and the early believers with a sort of fairytale quality and wonder at how blessed they were to benefit from His mystical insight. No doubt she was extremely devoted but most women who have had trouble conceiving would find it difficult to have someone tell them it's because they have been called to serve God. Then to be told that all she had to do was choose and she'd have a baby must have been very painful. To women now days it might feel like they are being blamed for their infertility if they heard that but for May it likely would have been painful for other reasons. Because of her trust in God and in 'Abdu'l-Baha for her to hear that would mean a feeling of having to choose between service to the Faith and motherhood. Her words indicate she didn't think she could have both and her choice shows a stunning amount of self-sacrifice.
Of course 'Abdu'l-Baha was no ordinary man. He had a history of knowing the right thing to say and she clearly left His presence with a sense of joy. But this story makes me think. In the hundred years since this took place our understanding of human reproduction has grown beyond anything our ancestors could have dreamed of. With that increased understanding has come very different attitudes and expectations. We have more control over how and when babies are made which has led to people making a lot of assumptions that they can have a baby whenever they want. Sometimes they can and sometime they can't.
The idea that God might have a better idea of what's best for you than you do - or that when you want isn't necessarily in your best interest - isn't really a concept anymore, even amongst many Baha'is. I know it isn't a thought that enters my mind all that much these days. I suppose it's an idea that lingers in the back of my mind but it doesn't surface that often and reading how instinctive it was for May Maxwell makes me contemplate just how badly my spiritual life needs attention. I suspect that if I made and effort to have the kind of trust that she had there would be a lot more peace in my life, not just in this matter but in all other areas as well.