May Maxwell, Defender of the Covenant
Yesterday, the day of the celebration of the Birth of Baha’u’llah, I devoted mostly to reading from Volume II of "The Maxwells of Montreal" -- and most of that reading centered around the spiritual relationship of four glorious souls -- the three Maxwells, and Shoghi Effendi. In 1937 Shoghi Effendi had married Mary Maxwell, and drew into an intimate spiritual connection with her and with both of her parents, Sutherland and May Maxwell.
Sutherland and May Maxwell with Frank Ashton, on the steps of the house of Sarah Farmer, at Green Acre Baha'i School in Maine, 1919. Photograph courtesy Baha'i National Archives, Wilmette, Illinois
I would like to give a small glimpse into that wonderful, powerfully-written book, and particularly into the exalted spirit of May Maxwell.
It is not well known that May Maxwell played an important role in protection of the Baha’i Faith, dedicating herself to educating the believers, particularly the young believers, in the great forces flowing through the Covenant. In His Will and Testament, (page 11) Abdu’l-Baha had written that after Him the believers should “turn unto Shoghi Effendi -- the youthful branch branched from the two hallowed and sacred Lote-Trees”. He also wrote, with great emphasis and clarity,
“The sacred and youthful branch, the Guardian of the Cause of God, as well as the Universal House of Justice to be universally elected and established, are both under the care and protection of the Abha Beauty [Baha’u’llah], under the shelter and unerring guidance of the Exalted One [the Bab] (may my life be offered up for them both). Whatsoever they decide is of God. Whoso obeyeth him not, neither obeyeth them, hath not obeyed God; whoso rebelleth against him and against them hath rebelled against God; whoso opposeth him hath opposed God; whoso contendeth with them hath contended with God; whoso disputeth with him hath disputed with God; whoso denieth him hath denied God; whoso disbelieveth in him hath disbelieved in God; whoso deviateth, separateth himself and turneth aside from him hath in truth deviated, separated himself and turned aside from God. May the wrath, the fierce indignation, the vengeance of God rest upon him! The mighty stronghold shall remain impregnable and safe through obedience to him who is the Guardian of the Cause of God…” (Ibid.)
One of the Baha’is, Mirza Ahmad Sohrab, was intensely jealous of Shoghi Effendi, and sought to turn the believers to himself. Sohrab had enjoyed great blessings from the hand of Abdu’l-Baha. He had accompanied Him throughout America as one of His translators. A few years later, he was chosen as the secretary to whom Abdu’l-Baha revealed the Tablets of the Divine Plan. It was Sohrab who brought the original Tablets to America, and introduced the Baha’is to them. (More about this is written in a blog about the Tablets)
After the Master’s passing, Sohrab worked against Shoghi Effendi, criticizing his decisions and his leadership, and refusing to accept the authority of the National Spiritual Assembly over him. As Mrs. Nakhjavani writes,
“May Maxwell was keenly aware of it. She was acutely conscious of any kind of criticism against the Guardian and well aware of how some old and well-established Baha’is might be seduced into limiting his rank and sphere of influence and even thinking themselves his equal, on the basis of his modesty. When she sensed the odor of intellectual arrogance, among the young Baha’is in particular, she was vigilant in her response.” (p. 121)
The Master had directed the believers to turn to both the Guardian and the Universal House of Justice. For reasons discussed in a post about the authority of the Universal House of Justice, Shoghi Effendi decided that it was premature to call for the election of the Universal House of Justice, and he functioned, throughout his 36-year ministry, alone as Head of the Faith; just as now, after Shoghi Effendi’s passing, the Universal House of Justice functions as Head of the Faith, without a living Guardian. Critics of the authority of the Universal House of Justice have been heard to say that if there were but a Guardian, he would exercise a “check and balance” on the Universal House of Justice. The same criticism was heard during Shoghi Effendi’s day. Mrs. Maxwell wrote (p. 121) to her daughter Mary in 1931, when Mary was 21, that one of the believers
“. . . made the statement that Shoghi Effendi’s power was limited and that the Hands of the Cause and the International House of Justice had some jurisdiction or restraining power over the Guardian’s actions and decisions . . . These influences are very insidious . . . As we pass deeper and deeper into the depths of human tragedy, we Baha’is inevitably turn more fully, more intelligently, more intensely to the Guardian – through which channel alone flows the mighty, all-protecting, all-sustaining power of Baha’u’llah.”
Ahmad Sohrab had duped a wealthy woman, Julie Stuyvestant Chanler, who supported him financially. Shoghi Effendi write to Mrs. Maxwell (page 123),
“Regarding Ahmad, I feel that if the friends individually & collectively are not watchful, a gradual departure from the spirit & form of the Faith on his part, aided by the resources placed at his disposal by Mrs. Chanler, may soon bring about a state of grave confusion among the believers, & create a split in their ranks. We should be both firm and conciliatory. I look to you as a powerful instrument for the preservation of the unity & of the integrity of our beloved Faith, & will continue to pray for your high endeavour from the depths of my heart.”
Shoghi Effendi sent Mrs. Maxwell to meet with Mrs. Chanler, to try to extricate her from Sohrab’s influence. However, when it came to dealing directly with Sohrab, Shoghi Effendi wrote to Mrs. Maxwell (page 126),
“I look to you as a shining light, a pillar of faith and a tower of strength overshadowing all who falter and feel disheartened. I strongly feel that the best way to meet the situation is to ignore Ahmad entirely, neither to openly denounce him nor to financially assist him. Try however to win unreservedly to our beloved Cause that pure and tender hearted Mrs. Chanler, for whom I feel a great love and sympathy. Much love to Mary and her father. Shoghi.”
Although Mrs. Maxwell played an important role in deepening and strengthening the believers in the Covenant, her efforts to rescue Mrs. Chanler from Sohrab’s influence were ultimately unsuccessful.
When May Maxwell went on her last travel teaching journey to Buenos Aires, it was really the ends of the earth. She was 70 years old and in terrible health, weakened by various maladies. After her passing from a heart attack in Buenos Aires, notes were found in her handwriting, notes to herself written days before her passing:
Remember at all times the Guardian's words to you. 'Mrs. Maxwell ... First, you are the "daughter of Abdu'l-Baha". He told you so. Second: The Guardian married your daughter -- You are his Mother-in-Law - you are now a member of the Holy Family -- the Family of God on earth. You must strive day and night to be of His Family in Heaven! By living that way now - there is very little time!'
During the last months of her life, May had longed to render some great and worthy service to the Faith. She wanted to show the depth of her appreciation to Shoghi Effendi for the honor he had bestowed on her. At this time the Guardian had given the American Baha'i community the goal of opening Latin America to the Faith, and May conceived the idea of teaching in Argentina. Shoghi Effendi approved, provided that both her doctor and her husband approved. When they did, she set off with her niece. Shoghi Effendi cabled:
PROUD NOBLE RESOLVE PRAYERS ACCOMPANY YOU BOTH SAFEGUARD HEALTH SHOGHI.
On the same day, Shoghi Effendi thoughtfully cabled Sutherland Maxwell, living alone at the family home in Montreal:
PROFOUNDLY APPRECIATE NOBLE SACRIFICE DEAREST LOVE SHOGHI
Shoghi Effendi's last letter to May arrived after her passing. In it he wrote:
"Dearest & precious co-worker:I feel truly & deeply that you are such a co-worker, now that you have so spontaneously arisen, despite the difficulties in your way, to promote the Cause & lend a fresh impetus to its progress in such a distant field. You are adding yet another laurel to the crown you have deservedly won in its service. Mary is overjoyed & proud of the decision you have taken & of the work you are accomplishing...."
May's journey was a great sacrifice both for May's husband and daughter. Ruhiyyih Khanum wrote to her father, when her mother was making preparations to leave:
"I cabled her the Guardian approves if you and the doctor consented. I know Daddy that this advice was very rough on you! . . . But this is the way I feel about it. There is no use our doing things half way. I know very well how much you suffer, in spite of the realization of how blessed beyond our least deserving we have been, but you do miss me awfully as I do you. On the other hand we all only live on this earth once and we might as well while we are about it do the very best job we can. I feel I never want to be selfish about you and Mother attaining to your own highest good and so I am willing to have Mother go so infernally far away from me because it would be such a good service for her to render the Cause. . . Now is the time for such things." (p. 356)
The relationship between Khanum and her mother was particularly close and spiritually intense. Some years before, while traveling in California, May wrote to Mary:
"Mary my own beloved -- I have just had the deepest most sacred and intimate prayer for you, who are a part of my being, who are the finer essence of me, yet my own little girl! ... You must know --you must feel, my precious, that this love of mine for you is His love, the mystery and fire of the Beloved shining thro the veil of your Mother! ... I have been with you day and night, my own. I have prayed your prayers with you, wept your tears! and I have felt and known much more than this which cannot be written or spoken but which you know --you, the mystery of whose life and destiny lies enshrined in your purest soul -- in that heart of fire and dew. I had to write this ... Let nothing weigh on your tender heart my darling --you are a pure channel for the living creative forces of Baha'u'llah -- so you must be very happy, even when you suffer! Mary -- I long with all my heart & soul to clasp you in my arms, to rest your dear lovely head on my heart & bring you the deep comfort & peace you have always brought me!"
Before she left the United States, May wrote to her daughter, in the tense days leading up to World War II:
"Oh! God -- how I long for a breath of news from you, my own dear Mary! Yet strangely I feel your beloved spirit & presence as never before -- by day & night you are unspeakably near - & Daddy feels it too - & you must find us in the same incomparable bond -- my darling -- because God is so Merciful! . . . In closing I hold you -- as I do every night & morning - close to my yearning heart. Give my adoring love to our beloved & my heart & soul & kisses to you my very own. Mother." (Maxwells, Vol. II, p. 350)
Then May wrote to Shoghi Effendi of her planned teaching trip to South America, and in the lofty spirit she expressed, we see how richly she deserved the crown of martyrdom:
"...You have brought a burning hope and reassurance of the possibility of ultimate attainment for which I can find no words of humble gratitude and thankfulness. I have pressed your sacred message to my lips and to my heart, fervently praying that you will burn away all impurity of self and make me clean and sanctified -- a white flame -- a bright light to guide the wayfarers, a deep spiritual leaven to the souls, to gather the jewels for which you are so patiently - so longingly - waiting! You have already endued me with a new potency and penetrative utterance through my divine relationship to you! And I yearn and pray for an ever-widening field of effort, service & sacrifice!..." (Maxwells, Vol. II, p. 343)
When May reached South America, she first spent a few days in Rio de Janeiro, where she gave the Baha’i message to some seekers brought to her hotel by the Mother Teacher of Latin America, Leonora Holsapple Armstrong.
May wrote to one of her friends, minimizing the troubles she was experiencing:
"If we have a few ohs! and ouches! what of it! Someday - perchance, all our (my) sins forgiven - we shall live in a climate as heavenly as this one - joyous and blest forever in the adored Presence."
May died of a heart attack in her hotel in Buenos Aires. A few days later, Ruhiyyih Khanum wrote to her dear father with remarkable spiritual acuity:
"My dearest Daddy: No words between us can ever convey either the sense of loss we feel or the sympathy we long to express each to the other. It is as if our very heart had been plucked from our breast-because in a way that one human being rarely is to another, Mother was our all-in-all. From your own sense of inconsolable loss you can fathom my feeling. To know I shall not hold her in my arms again, nor confide all I had of joy to tell her - not even ever receive another letter from her living hand is almost unbearable. But I have been in the Holy Shrine reciting those words of the prayer for the dead: We all verily render thanks unto God, we all verily are patient in God! and I did render thanks Daddy that the one we loved the most had attained to her own greatest desire - because I remember that at that very Threshold she had supplicated God for Martyrdom. I am patient in His decree, so sad for me, but so glorious for her. As Shoghi Effendi said she went like a meteor! She rose to the zenith and became extinguished at her highest point! Would we have chosen it otherwise for her? The essence of true love is sacrifice, and I know neither you nor I would have withheld from Mother such a happiness, such a luminous end, even if we had foreseen it!"
Shoghi Effendi wrote of May to the American Baha'i community:
"And now as this year, so memorable in the annals of the Faith, was drawing to a close, there befell the American Baha'i community, through the dramatic and sudden death of May Maxwell, yet another loss, which viewed in retrospect will come to be regarded as a potent blessing conferred upon the campaign now being so diligently conducted by its members. Laden with the fruits garnered through well-nigh half a century of toilsome service to the Cause she so greatly loved, heedless of the warnings of age and ill health, and afire with the longing to worthily demonstrate her gratitude in her overwhelming awareness of the bounties of her Lord and Master, she set her face towards the southern outpost of the Faith in the New World, and laid down her life in such a spirit of consecration and self-sacrifice as has truly merited the crown of martyrdom."("This Decisive Hour" Messages From Shoghi Effendi to America 1932-1946 pp. 53-54)