I wish to God I knew where I was.
Not the Black Place—although my desires often blind me;
not the Ancient Place—even though I age faster every day;
not the Fearless Place—where courage cannot take me;
nor even the Remote Place—despite anger chaining me afar.
And certainly it is not the Most Great Place,
whereby I do not mean the cell that was cleaned,
painted and aired…
I’ve been there and only felt Your presence dimly.
No, I mean the Other Spot,
the Prison where Your companions go,
still, even to this day,
but outside which I sit, yearning,
hoping to find the way.
Bahá’u’lláh, the founder of the Bahá’í Faith, was, for the forty plus years of His Ministry, and until His passing, a prisoner and an exile, first at the mercy of the Iranian government, and then under the ever more fearful eye of the waning Ottoman Empire. The story of His successive banishments under these twin ruling powers is the historical backdrop of this poem.
It commences in 1852, with Bahá’u’lláh’s imprisonment in the Síyáh-Chál, literally the Black Pit (the Black Place of the poem) a loathsome and disgusting jail converted from an abandoned water reservoir. Released in 1853, He, despite being sick and in poor health, was exiled with His Family from Iran to Baghdad (the Ancient Place of the poem) and then called on to Constantinople in 1863. In the poem, Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman Empire—and now Istanbul—is referred to as the Fearless Place because it was here that Bahá’u’lláh resolutely refused to curry favor and beg for sympathy with the government officials of the Empire, as was expected of all prisoners. Instead He stated that He had put His faith in God and trusted in Him, further stating that nothing any man could do could curtail or thwart the Will of God.
As a result of this stance, Bahá’u’lláh and His family were further exiled to Adrianople and arrived there in the waning days of 1863. Adrianople—now Edirne—is one of the remotest parts of Turkey in what is actually Europe, and is referred to in the poem as the Remote Place, the furthest point from His home of Tehran that Bahá’u’lláh would travel.
But the most difficult place of His exile was set in 1868 when He and His entourage were forced to relocate to ‘Akká, in what is now Israel, a penal colony and known at the time for its pestilential airs and filthy conditions. Upon arrival there Bahá’u’lláh designated the prison where they were incarcerated as the Most Great Prison (the Most Great Place of the poem); it was in this city, and despite the loathsome conditions under which they lived, that His Mission reached its zenith. Bahá’u’lláh officially remained a prisoner until His death in 1892. However, after years of His living among the local populace, such was the admiration that was esteemed to Him that He was, by then, able to rent a home in the countryside and be surrounded by the gardens and verdure He loved most.
The last place mentioned in the poem, the “Other Place” is harder to describe. In one of His prayers revealed specifically for the Fast, Bahá’u’lláh first talks of ‘Thine ardent lovers…they who have been so inebriated with the wine of Thy manifold wisdom that they forsake their couches in their longing to celebrate Thy praise and extol Thy virtues, and flee from sleep in their eagerness to approach Thy presence and partake of Thy bounty.’ Later He goes on to say, ‘These are Thy servants, O my Lord, who have entered with Thee in this, the Most Great Prison, who have kept the fast…’
On the face of it, this prayer was written when Bahá’u’lláh was, with His companions, incarcerated in the prison in ‘Akká and He is extolling their fortitude and grace. But there is much more, I think, to this prayer then this single face.
The prayers of Bahá’u’lláh were written for all peoples of all times, and so as I was reading this prayer, I felt that there must be a dimension of the words that went beyond referencing a purely physical spot at a specific point in time. In the end, I came to believe that it is possibly for anyone today, who approaches the Fast with a sufficient degree of humility and submission, to meet with Bahá’u’lláh in a spiritual ‘Most Great Prison’, a place where one is held captive not by chains, but by love, to become, in effect, out of devotion to Him, a thrall to His Will. The irony of this is deliciously sweet to a poet: to find the true freedom of love is to yield the bondage of will.
Or so I think; for while I can believe in such an “Other Place” I have never been there except for a few fleeting minutes. But, if you will, please forgive an old poet his chance to dream…
Thank you so much for reading in exile. I sincerely hope you have enjoyed it and I humbly appreciate your visiting the Book of Pain. As always, I look forward to your comments.
© 2013 by John Etheridge; all rights reserved. This poem, either alone or with the notes that accompany it, may be printed and distributed—in part or amalgamated with other works—as long as the copyright notice and the address, https://bookofpain.wordpress.com, are also clearly printed with it and there is no fee charged.