Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Most Exalted Pen and its Meaning in the Tablet of Ridvan

Selection XIV in Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, from the Tablet of Ridvan, will suffice for the purposes of this inquiry. It's opening is as follows.
The Divine Springtime is come, O Most Exalted Pen, for the Festival of the All-Merciful is fast approaching. Bestir thyself, and magnify, before the entire creation, the name of God, and celebrate His praise, in such wise that all created things may be regenerated and made new. (GWB XIV)

Before going any further a few initial observations can be made. This is an announcement
of The Divine Springtime, a period generally accepted as the spiritual regeneration that follows the arrival of a new Manifestation of God. The passage is addressed to a pen, the Most Exalted Pen, Qalam Al-A'la, an expression which is also translated as the Pen of the Most Exalted. The pen is instructed to do three things: 1) to bestir itself, 2) magnify, before the entire creation, the name of God, and 3) celebrate His praise. The effect of these tasks is that all created things may be regenerated and made new. The passage ends at a similar place as it begins. Spring has arrived. In response the Most Exalted Pen is instructed to take action such that the revitalization proper to that season is realized. In the first instance, springtime is an external condition which arrives upon the Pen. But by the second instance it is an event the realization of which it assists. The first condition under which this is possible is that the Pen bestirs itself. The process does not advance automatically. The Pen must be urged on to make itself arise for the accomplishment of the tasks ahead.
Within the text, the addressee is clearly stated, the Most Exalted Pen. At the surface of the text, no reader, presumably, is ever addressed by this text. The only addressee, it seems, is the reed, the dead vegetable matter by which the original manuscript was produced by Baha'u'llah or His amanuensis. One might be led to read this is as a mere spectator, not immediately involved except as a detached observer. In that case it would be a statement of Baha'u'llah on the station of the Word of God. But there is more to the matter than that. The Pen has been commanded to bestir itself. Dead vegetable matter cannot bestir itself. This is a long established conclusion within biology. The only way that it can be moved is if someone or something moves it, a movement over which the Pen has no control. But in the passages that follow, the Pen and it's Lord discuss the reasons for the silence of the former. A few quotes will suffice.
Methinks that thou hast halted and movest not upon My Tablet...
Preferrest thou to tarry when the breeze announcing the Day of God hath already breathed over thee, or art thou of them that are shut out as by a veil from Him?..
No veil whatever have I allowed, O Lord of all names and Creator of the heavens, to shut me from the recognition of the glories of Thy Day—the Day which is the lamp of guidance unto the whole world, and the sign of the Ancient of Days unto all them that dwell therein. My silence is by reason of the veils that have blinded Thy creatures’ eyes to Thee, and my muteness is because of the impediments that have hindered Thy people from recognizing Thy truth...
Arise, and proclaim unto the entire creation the tidings that He Who is the All-Merciful hath directed His steps towards the Ridván and entered it. ...
In short, the Pen has received instructions to magnify the name of God, and celebrate His praise before all people but the desired result has not come about. The discussion is on whether this is due to the Pen's hesitation and unwillingness or purely to the spiritual blindness of the people. It goes without saying that more is at stake in the full selection than the production of manuscripts, and that one of its primary aims is the instruction of the Baha'is in teaching the faith. This is evident to any of its readers who has ever confronted the practical and spiritual issues that arise when the community sets out to bring the faith to the world. So in some way, it is any rank-and-file Baha'i who is addressed as the Most Exalted Pen.
One consequence that immediately follows is that such a person is conceived as an instrument of God, a lesser being by which God commences a different sort of writing, the form one hears in the words: Write down, then, for me the good of this world and of the world to come (PMB CXXVIII) This is the writing associated with a royal edict. It is an indication of power and authority, in this case over the tablet of the world. Say: O people! How can a fleeting fancy compare with the Self-Subsisting, and how can the Creator be likened unto His creatures, who are but as the script of His Pen? (GWB XCIII) The action of such a person is brought under the command of God; He or she becomes the means by which God writes out the Divine Springtime. But one's freedom remains intact. The dialogue, one might even call it a consultation, between the Pen and its Lord presupposes a freedom of decision in the former on how to advance a chosen course of action.
There are two conflicting directions in which this selection leads the reader. One is in the decisive unequal relation of an instrument and its user. In this case the will and thought of one is all that makes a difference. The other is a more equal relation, in which the Lord urges the pen on in a course of action. Execution of the task at hand is not automatic, as in the use of an inanimate pen. Faithfulness to the text requires that the reader not reduce one direction into the other, erasing either the instrumentality of the pen or its freedom. Baha'u'llah presents both to the reader. The truth is in the tension of these two moments, not their resolution.
The matter is not explored theoretically in the algebra of theological discourse but is dramatized in the enactment of its reality, the struggle of the act of teaching. That the pen, in all its absurdity, is the image Baha'u'llah chooses suggests that there are very few images, perhaps none, that can even adequately convey the spiritual event in question. That the freely willed action of one can be the commanding action of another is exceedingly difficult to describe and advance within any metaphor. This is by no means an indication of its error. The mere proposal of a metaphor, however coherent, is no indication of an argument's rigor; So neither is an incapacity to propose an adequate metaphor any indication of error. What is depicted in this selection makes no sense. But this is an instance in which truth breaks away from the shadows of mere sense and its articulation in a body of acquired knowledge. The act of teaching is the enactment of this truth.

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