December 13, 2009

Howard Colby Ives – The Outstanding Promoter of the Faith

The life of Howard Colby Ives is a saga of the spirit. It was not its events but his interpretation of them that portrayed his genius. He had, it would seem, been born with a degree of awareness that made, even of ordinary existence, a swing between ecstasy and torture. God favored him in that He had bestowed upon him the grace of a martyr's heart: a head willing to bow, a spirit straining to soar.

Howard Ives in his spiritual autobiography "Portals to Freedom" divided his life sharply in two. The forty-six years before he met ‘Abdu'l-Baha he compares to the experience of a child of ten! He was horn in Brooklyn in 1867 and after the death of his father his family lived in Niagara Falls, N. Y., until Howard was seventeen and then returned again to Brooklyn. We hear of his spending many months on a ranch in Wyoming while overcoming a lung difficulty and are given a picture of a nineteen year old youth tending sheep on the mountain sides alone sometimes for weeks and writing poetry by the light of the moon. In 1902 he entered a Unitarian theological school at Meadville, Pennsylvania, and was graduated in 1905, 38 years of age. Of this period in his life his daughter Muriel Ives Barrow writes:

“His first parish was a small one with a beautiful New England church. Brewster, Mass., on Cape Cod. He was there only a year when he was called to New London, Connecticut. We lived in New London for five years, during which time father built a very nice, though modest, brick church for the people; then he was called to Summit, New Jersey.. . . In Summit, as he had in New London, he built a church . . . modelled after one of the early Christopher Wren's. . . . It was from Summit that he started additional work with his Brotherhood Church in Jersey City and also organized his Golden Rule Fraternity-a cooperative idea, as I remember . . . one of his many attempts to help humanity in some organized way. The fact that he made it while he was so active building the Summit Church besides starting the Brotherhood is characteristic of the restlessness that always drove him. One job was never enough. Two might do. Three was better. And four was what he'd like."

The Brotherhood Church had no affiliation with his regular denominational work and no salary. A group of "brothers of the spirit" among whom he was a prime mover made a gesture through these Sunday night meetings to include more of humanity in the scope of spiritual endeavor. Through one of his associates there he attended his first Baha’i meeting. It was in April 1912 that ‘Abdu'l-Baha came to New York and the second phase of life began for Howard Ives, another Birth.

‘Abdu'l-Baha found, then, among the crowds of thrilled and excited people who surrounded Him on His arrival, a Unitarian minister from New Jersey. He was on the outer fringe of the sea of faces, looking and feeling out of place. ‘Abdu'l-Baha saw Howard Ives, singled him out of all the throng, beckoned to him, and as Howard later said in "Portals to Freedom": "such an understanding love enveloped me that even at that distance and with a heart still cold a thrill ran through me as if a breeze from a divine morning had touched my brow." Of the interview that followed Howard could but say "He looked at me! It seemed as though never before had anyone seen me."

We now leave the outer man behind. It is as if a musical score had been written for an instrument which was as yet but a concept in the mind of the Musician. Howard Ives had to die to truly live -- by the Mercy of God, at last he has done so: When 'Abdu'l-Baha "saw" him He saw the tumult and splendor of one of His own chosen ones – in chains still, it is true, forever to be in chains as long as the pathetic inadequacy of the body should limit the interpretation of the Score itself.

The people about the Master were all enraptured by His heavenly aspect, which made Him the epitome of every adorable quality -- there were a few, and greatly gifted among them, Howard Ives, who had the capacity to truly love celestial Beauty for Itself. Years later he wrote me in answer to a childish question concerning the love of God:

"The passionate love for the Beloved of the worlds has no relation to any bodily form or any physical expression . . . This sense imagination has been in the past the great barrier to that 'Nearness which is likeness.' Do not try to build a bridge. Every such effort is our own imaginations seeking vent. Throw open wide the doors of the soul and He will surely enter. But it will be in His way, not ours. The doors of the Placeless are surely wide open but it needs the blood of the lovers to adorn its lintel."

There passed from ‘Abdu'l-Baha to Howard Ives a transfusion of spirit. A Father claimed His son, and never were time, absence, vicissitude in any way to weaken for a moment the link between them. All of the first aspect of his life Howard had been searching the Beloved, until, as he admitted, his spirit fainted. When he found ‘Abdu'l-Baha he found not only the Man but a trace of the Beloved. He knew where to seek and find. He was indeed born into a new world. In a letter to me, he wrote in 1935:

"The universe of Baha’u’llah is so beautiful, so filled with wonder and with Light supreme that when one really begins to gaze on it the eye of the spirit is blinded. But how much better it is to have one's open eyes blinded than to keep them eternally shut! It is like the brilliance of the noonday sun after being shut in a dark room. The blinding is most confusing -- perhaps painful -- but Praise to be God, after a while the eyes become accustomed to the light and we see our way about. Just so it is with this Celestial Light. Some great day we shall become so used to it that we shall be able to see our way about the World of Reality and all our terrors, creatures of the 'night of self' shall vanish as if they had never been."

‘Abdu'l-Baha paused at the flight of steps toward which He and Howard had been walking. The experience, which he has described in "Portals," was as follows:

"Again ‘Abdu'l-Baha turned to ascend and I made to follow, but for the third time He paused and turning, as it seemed, the full light of His spirit upon me, He said again, but this time in what seemed like a voice of thunder, with literally flashing eyes and emphatically raised hand: that I should remember that This is a Day for very great things VERY GREAT THINGS. These last three words rang out like a trumpet call. The long deserted city block seemed to echo them . . . I seemed to dwindle, almost to shrivel, where I stood as that beautifully dominant figure, that commanding and appealing voice surrounded me like a sea . . . Who and what was I to be summoned to accomplish great things, very great things? . . . "

Howard Ives was soon to give up all denominational work and to become a "minister of the Temple of the Kingdom." This term, which ‘Abdu'l-Baha had applied to him, Howard Ives defined "to be an adherent and promulgator of the Law of Unity and Love laid down as compulsory upon all sincere believers in one God. To be a minister," he added "is the prerogative of every believer in the Words of God and sincere follower of His Light." He returned to the arena -- for him a literal "arena" -- of the business world, chose occupations that would involve both traveling and the meeting of numbers of people. During his long train journeys he mastered the writings of Baha’u’llah and so became by degrees one of the great authorities on the Baha’i Faith. In 1919 he met Mabel Rice-Wray, aflame with the same spirit of renunciation and service and the following year, November, 1920, they were married. It was like the juncture of two swift running streams: from the moment of that union the streams became a river.

The plan from the beginning was to build their lives around the propagation of the Cause of God. They settled in New York City and tried first to earn as quickly as possible enough to free their activities completely for the life of teaching, which they felt must somehow be theirs. The fate of all of us spiritual children of theirs hung in the balance on the day that these two had a certain talk in which they faced the facts: they might go on all the rest of their lives working as others did and dreaming of the future -- or they could take hold of the apparently impossible by both horns and go then. In 1921 they sold or gave away all their immediate possessions, answered an advertisement for two salesmen and started on their long Odyssey.

As the years passed no one seemed to expect the Ives to have a home. We took it for granted that they should have become wanderers upon the face of the earth and that they should forever be first packing and then unpacking boxes and trunks. In 1934 Howard -- temporarily in Chicago wrote me as follows:

"You ask me how we can accustom ourselves to homelessness. Our own vine and fig tree is a natural desire to the children of men; there is nothing reprehensible in this desire. Baha’u’llah has provided for this in His Law, dignifying the home and hospitality as a means of serving God. Nevertheless there are a few of us to whom He whispers in the ear 'Make My Home thy Mansion, boundless and holy.' 'Riswanea' and I often have a yearning for a permanent place to bestow ourselves and our few goods. Just as sure as this longing finds a place in our hearts we are moved again . . . 'Abdu'l-Baha's words 'Homeless and without rest' ring in my ears, when He is describing the attributes of the Apostles of Baha'u'llah. Rest assured that God does not take away an earthly home without providing a heavenly one right here on earth if we accept His Will with radiant acquiescence. . . . Rejoice, my beloved daughter, in the little home which Baha’u’llah has provided for you. If you are worthy He will move you into other homes and other hearts, and you will then rejoice again; for the bounty of a wider horizon of service has been given you; a greater freedom of spirit has been vouchsafed you and a few more chains of this world have been knocked from your limbs."

Their first stop was Pittsburgh, where besides working during the day they held thirty-six meetings in six weeks. From there they moved continually from one city to another. In most of these favored spots the Divine Standard was not only raised but firmly planted. The spiritual children and grandchildren of these teachers are among the pioneers, administrators, writers, of the present generation of Baha’is in the eastern, central and southern parts of the country. Literally they are numbered by the scores – and the race increases! It was indeed the "day for very great things!" How gloriously had those souls arisen to the challenge!

To account for a lion-like courage and often superhuman accomplishment we have Howard Ives' explanation of the secret of power -- so diametrically opposed to most modern philosophies on that topic.

"I think it is something like this," he once wrote. "The Will of God and the will of individual man . . . may, nay must, become identified, become identical. . . . ‘Abdu'l-Baha speaks of losing the self in the Self of God. We must accustom ourselves to the actual doing of this. . . . We cannot think of God's Will as a passive thing any more than we can think of our own will as passive, inert. God's Will is evidenced in nature, in power, in action. To identify our will with His Will is partake of His activity, His Power, His effectiveness. To submit my will to His Will then, carries an implication of marching – wearing -- overcoming. But not marching alone; we march in step with Him. We throw our feeble wills in with His and so become all-conquering as He says we shall. How can the result be other than victory?"

Reiterating again this central theme originating in the Master's words in 1912, Howard, burned out with the strenuous and unstinted efforts of twenty years, in 1939, still gloriously invincible, wrote "Never be afraid of expecting too great things. Nothing is too great for this Day!"

It was in Knoxville, in 1934, that Howard began to write - at sixty-seven. He was employed to write articles about the great dam there, the T.V.A. Suddenly he found the knack of writing vivid prose. In the late spring and early summer he sat four hours each day at his typewriter in the unaccustomed heat of Tennessee. One morning he fell unconscious on the floor by his bed -- his first attack of angina. He had found a gift which might have resulted in a relief from economic stress only to lose the use of it almost at once. His health, always precarious, was now undeniably gone, also his eyesight and hearing began rapidly to go, and he now, already facing an end that might come at any moment, began to struggle for time. Time to put down in his new found style the memoirs we have referred to as "Portals to Freedom." Forbidden to use his eyes, he learned the touch system on the typewriter and completed the book, which was published by Dutton and Co. in 1937. Then followed his book-length poem, the "Song Celestial." He wrote two later works which not as yet been published. From Winnetka he wrote: "I am content to wait. It may be that Baha’u’llah has still some work for me to do. As you say, the doctors are often mistaken. I remember an old doctor friend of my mother's, who, when I was eighteen years old, said I would not live beyond twenty-five. Yet here I still am."

I have said that the All-Bountiful One had bestowed upon Howard Ives a martyr's heart. After five long years of debility and actual suffering through which he wrote steadily he was told by a Memphis oculist that the persistent and increasing dimness of vision that had halted the use of his eyes so alarmingly was cataracts! Already cut off from normal association by his deafness, the closing of another channel of perception-might well have reminded him of a parallel in the story of Job. He did not live to lose his sight, which seemed miraculously extended to fill the needs of his remaining year and a half of life, but he had abruptly to face the ever present imminence of still another blow. How did he feel about it? From some notes that he wrote, April, 1940 we are permitted to know that too. He begins:

"Yesterday was a marvelous day of spiritual realization, and, God willing, shall mark a new and great step on the path of Reality." He said that his reaction to the doctor's statement was a triumphant inner shout and that it was then as if a voice spoke through the doctor's words saying, "See how I am trusting you! . . . You have offered your life as a sacrifice in My Path. . . . I have taken you at your word. . . ." Then comes the self-revelation of a noble spirit "at the culmination of calamity," following several pages of honest self-analysis:

"If, as I can sincerely say is true, ever since I have been intellectually and spiritually conscious, approximately from my 15th -17th years, my passionate longing has been for spiritual attainment; and if, ever since I met ‘Abdu’l-Baha the path of attainment has been sincerely shown to me to be the path of self-renunciation, self-sacrifice, detachment from all save God; if it has been my sincere and earnest prayer: 'Shower Thy sorrows upon me that my soul may live' What, then, I ask, must be the instant reaction when that life-long yearing is even partially appeased? What the response of my soul when those very trials and sufferings and even the supreme tests descend from the heavens of His Mercy and Bounty? . . . Has He not in effect said to me: 'I have taken from you one by one the normal use of your organs. There is scarcely a part of your body unaffected by My Decree. Your nerves, your back, your feet, your heart . . . your hearing, and now your sight -- and you have not repined, you have not sought to evade nor have you turned away for a single moment from My Love. Nay, rather, have you accepted all this as the very evidences, signs, proofs of that Love.' I can almost hear Him saying with that divine smile 'Congratulations!' "

The concluding words of this fragment of Spiritual Diary might be the voice of his translated being speaking, not then to us but NOW, from the realm to which he has been gathered:

"When I recognize the undoubted fact that all this life has taught me, or could ever possibly teach me, is but a sign, a token, a symbol, of what the future worlds of God shall surely teach -- my whole being is lost in thanksgiving and praise of Him Who has bestowed on me -- this boundless Gift and this infinite Bounty."

On June 23rd, 1941, a group of about fifty friends, gathered in a chapel in Little Rock, Arkansas, to gaze for the last time upon the heroic outer shell of this great man. His beloved wife, teaching in a summer school of Vogel Park in Georgia, had reached his bedside in time. The pain in the last days was like the exquisite throbbing of violins, stabbing the heart with their terrible hut ecstatic beauty. Then his long patience was rewarded. With his sheaf of VERY GREAT THINGS in his hands he went forth to meet his Beloved. Crowning his life was the Guardian's cablegram:

"Profoundly deplore tremendous loss outstanding promoter Faith. Evidences his magnificent labors imperishable. Deepest sympathy. Ardent prayers. Shoghi Effendi."
(The Baha'i World 1940-1944)