“Gardening,” May Sarton writes, “is an instrument of grace.” And where there is grace, I might add, there is the potential for a change so radical it might better be described as transformation. Such change may seem miraculous, sometimes even inevitable: no matter how hard we try to resist it, change will come, whether we want it or not. In literature and in scripture, the garden often serves as the scene of such transformation. I think of the “secret garden” in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel of the same name, of the transformation of the sickly young orphan from India into the robust, nature-loving child who finds friendship in a Yorkshire garden; and of Elizabeth, the heroine of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, who reconsiders her initial negative impression of Mr. Darcy when she surveys his grounds, his gardens. And who can forget Titania, the Fairy Queen in Shakespeare’s delightful comedy, a compelling character whose judgment is so transformed by a love potion made from a flower plucked from a woodland garden, that she falls in love with a man with the head of a donkey!
In scripture, too, the garden is a site of transformation. In the Quran, paradise itself is imagined as a series of gardens; and in the Torah, it is in a fragrant garden in Lebanon that Solomon, a symbol of the Godhead, meets his bride, Israel. But as the Garden of Eden story so clearly demonstrates, in the moral universe of the scriptural garden, transformation does not begin with love potions or attractive flower beds; rather, it finds its roots in the choice we must make each day either to follow the path of love and submission to the divine will or to step away from it. And, as the Garden of Eden story makes clear, stepping away from the path can lead to enduring tragedy. If we decide to eat of the forbidden fruit, we alone are responsible. As the native abode of the soul, gardens are intended to sustain and uplift us; if they do otherwise, it is we who have failed them, not they us. How does it happen that we fail to tend our gardens? How is it that, in living our lives, we forget our own souls — just leave them behind in the course of our busy days? And once we have left them behind, how do we find our way back to the garden of paradise that lies within us?
In Bahá’í scripture, there is no garden more important than the one in which Bahá’u’lláh, in the spring of 1863, declared Himself to be the Promised One, the long-awaited Savior of the world whose teachings would bring peace, at last, to our beleaguered planet. Only days before His declaration, Bahá’u’lláh had received a letter from the governor asking Him to leave Baghdad and proceed to Constantinople. As news of His impending exile spread, Bahá’u’lláh’s home in Baghdad became so crowded with visitors that His family was unable to prepare for its journey, so He decided to leave the city for an island in the Tigris River, where He could pitch His tent in a garden large enough to accommodate the many friends, acquaintances, and well-wishers who were coming to bid Him farewell. It was in this garden, a garden known to Bahá’ís today as the Garden of Ridvan or Paradise, that Bahá’u’lláh lifted the veil shrouding His true identity and made His mission known to a handful of family members and friends. His claim was a momentous one, and to those who accepted it, Bahá’u’lláh was no longer simply a respected Babí leader, but, rather, the Messenger of God for this day. To commemorate the twelve glorious days He and His followers passed in that garden, Bahá’u’lláh established the Festival of Ridvan.
Most years, as this festival approaches, my thoughts turn to the garden on the island just outside of Baghdad. But this spring, as the deadly pandemic the world still struggles to conquer has, quite unbelievably, been upstaged by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the threat of a global war, I am thinking of another garden: the Na’mayn Garden just outside of Akka, a garden Bahá’u’lláh Himself referred to as the Ridvan Garden because of the deep personal significance it had for Him during the final years of His life. A lush strip of vegetation bordered by two streams in the midst of a desert land, this Ridvan Garden truly was a garden of paradise, an oasis of peace to which Bahá’u’lláh, weary from long years of confinement within the walls of the congested, foul-smelling prison city of Akka, could go to restore His soul. Even though the garden offered the most basic of accommodations, in the form of a rustic summer house, Bahá’u’lláh sometimes chose to sleep there. On His last visit to the garden, He declared that He had never seen a more beautiful garden nor had He enjoyed one more.
Those who have accepted Bahá’u’lláh’s claims cannot help but feel a special affection for this garden just outside of Akka. How can we fail to love what is loved by Our Beloved? But for those familiar with the “Tablet of Ishraqat,” the “Tablet of Tarazat,” and Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, the garden near Akka has an additional significance as the site of one of Bahá’u’lláh’s most remarkable visions — of a maiden standing on a pillar of light. The vision is important enough to be mentioned by Bahá’u’lláh three times in His Writings, the first time in the “Tablet of Ishraqat”:
One day of days We repaired unto Our Green Island. Upon Our arrival, We beheld its streams flowing, and its trees luxuriant, and the sunlight playing in their midst. Turning Our face to the right, We beheld what the pen is powerless to describe; nor can it set forth that which the eye of the Lord of Mankind witnessed in that most sanctified, that most sublime, that blest, and most exalted Spot. Turning, then, to the left We gazed on one of the Beauties of the Most Sublime Paradise, standing on a pillar of light, and calling aloud saying: ‘O inmates of earth and heaven! Behold ye My beauty, and My radiance, and My revelation, and My effulgence. By God, the True One! I am Trustworthiness and the revelation thereof, and the beauty thereof. I will recompense whosoever will cleave unto Me, and recognize My rank and station, and hold fast unto My hem. I am the most great ornament of the people of Bahá, and the vesture of glory unto all who are in the kingdom of creation. I am the supreme instrument for the prosperity of the world, and the horizon of assurance unto all beings.
We will never know what Bahá’u’lláh saw when He looked to His right, but we do know that when He looked to His left, He saw a maiden standing on a pillar of light. When I reread the tablet this past winter, I was struck afresh by the power of Bahá’u’lláh’s vision — how compelling are the maiden’s words, how vast the scope of her claim! Trustworthiness, the maiden seemed to be saying, was not just another virtue, but a north star in the firmament of virtues, a cardinal virtue upon which the very health of a society depended. It was nothing less than “the supreme instrument for the prosperity of the world, and the horizon of assurance unto all beings.”
I looked elsewhere in the Bahá’í Writings for reference to this virtue and was surprised to learn how frequently Bahá’u’lláh mentioned it and how lofty were the metaphors He used to describe it. In His Writings, trustworthiness was a “cord,” a “sun,” an “effulgent light,” a “goodly adornment,” one of “God’s beauteous adornments,” a “robe,” a “raiment,” the “goodliest vesture,” a “vesture of holiness,” and a “mantle” received as a “sign of God’s acceptance . . . from the hands of divine favor.” It was also a “token of glory,” one of “God’s binding commandments,” a “sentinel,” a “companion,” a “guardian,” a “door of security,” a “charge that God hath entrusted to the safe-keeping of His servants,” a “citadel of strength to His well-favored ones,” and one of the “means for the exaltation of the Cause and the education of the human race.”
I noted, too, that in Bahá’u’lláh’s Writings, trustworthiness was often linked to truthfulness or to piety or godliness, and I was astonished to learn that the appearance of this virtue, together with godliness, sincerity, and goodwill, was the primary reason for the creation of the world:
The first, fundamental purpose underlying creation hath ever been, and will continue to be, none other than the appearance of trustworthiness and godliness, of sincerity and goodwill amongst mankind, for these qualities are the cause of peace, security, and tranquility.
Trustworthiness was the “greatest portal leading unto the tranquility and security of the people.” It was that virtue upon which “the stability of every affair hath depended and doth depend on it.” So great was this virtue that it would be better to adorn oneself with its “raiment” than to “journey on foot towards the holy court and be blessed with meeting the Adored One.”
As I read on, it became clear to me that the impact of this remarkable virtue was far-reaching, its scope was virtually limitless. Trustworthiness was not only a blessing to oneself and to one’s intimates, it was a necessity within communities and between nations. Truly, the virtue was “one of the Beauties of the Most Sublime Paradise.” Standing on a pillar of light, Trustworthiness had invited Bahá’u’lláh and, through Him, all humanity, to behold her “radiance,” her “revelation,” and her “effulgence.” She had promised a recompense to all who recognized her “rank and station” and to all who held fast to the hem of her garment. What kind of recompense? The answer lay in the final lines of the passage. Anyone who put on this “most great ornament,” this “vesture of glory,” anyone who embodied this virtue in their thoughts and deeds, would be rewarded by reflecting the beauty of the maiden herself.
While the presence of the maiden can be felt throughout the Bahá’í Writings, there are only a few passages in which we meet her face to face, the most memorable of which is, for many readers, the passage in which Bahá’u’lláh recalls His initial encounter with her in the Dark Pit of Tehran, where she apprised Him of His mission as a Manifestation of God. The maiden makes an appearance in a handful of other tablets as well, but, in my view, nowhere does she present herself more strikingly than as the personification of trustworthiness. Why did Bahá’u’lláh not convey this teaching about trustworthiness in a more expository form? Why did He feel the need to present it in the context of a vision? We cannot hope to enter the mind of Manifestation or presume to know His thoughts or intentions. What we do know, however, is that, as readers, we emerge from our encounter with a maiden named Trustworthiness, with a deeper appreciation of the power of this remarkable virtue.
When Bahá’u’lláh presents us with trustworthiness in all her earth-shattering beauty, we experience something of the power of His radiant vision. I myself have not found another passage in His Writings more memorable, nor have I found one that spoke more powerfully to my soul. And when my thoughts turn to the maiden who appeared to Bahá’u’lláh standing on a pillar of light, I think of the garden just outside of Akka, that “Verdant Isle,” that “Green Island” in a desert land, to which Bahá’u’lláh retreated from time to time to restore His soul. I call to mind one very special day when He “repaired” to that garden and found “its streams flowing, and its trees luxuriant, and the sunlight playing in their midst.” I remember the oranges that grow in that garden, oranges whose sweetness I have tasted more than once, and the simple summer house, with its ladder leading up to the room in which the Beloved liked to pass the night. At times, I imagine I can detect the scent of roses perfuming the air around me or feel the spray from the fountain on my arms. Sometimes, I can almost feel the smooth wood of the blue benches with their white filigree backs, benches on which I have passed many moments wondering how it could be that this garden, this verdant isle, resembled so closely the spiritual world as I imagine it. And always, when I remember the Ridvan Garden, I see before me the passage from the “Tablet of Ishraqat,” where it hangs framed on the wall of the summer house for pilgrims to read and ponder, and I am heartened by how much hope Bahá’u’lláh’s vision of a maiden named Trustworthiness holds for the healing our broken world.
A garden is, indeed, as May Sarton asserts, an instrument of grace. But as Bahá’u’lláh makes clear not only in this passage, but throughout His Writings, it is so much more! The native abode of the soul, the garden is a symbol of the paradise we can choose to cultivate within ourselves by practicing the virtues that so beautify the human world. And if we cultivate that inner paradise, we may just remember the spiritual world from which we came “trailing,” as Wordsworth puts it, “clouds of glory” — that paradise, that Eden of the spirit in which, as Bahá’u’lláh tells the story in one of the Hidden Words, we sat together beneath the tree of life and were addressed by God as His friends. (Hidden Word # 19, from the Persian)
A garden is not merely an instrument of grace: it is a place of potentiality, a site of transformation, a radiant node where power might be harnessed and light embodied, a place where beauty might be imbibed to nourish our souls and to fortify the soul of the world. If we are to find our way back to that garden, that haven, that heaven that lies within us, we must cultivate a host of virtues, among them the cardinal virtue of trustworthiness, who appeared to Bahá’u’lláh in a garden, as a maiden standing on a pillar of light. And if we cultivate this and other virtues, we may just find ourselves drawing closer to that inner paradise, that garden where we can live in harmony with our Creator and His creation. Trustworthiness calls us back to that paradise, to the true and radiant morn on which we were gathered together in the garden beneath the tree of life.