Setting the Example as a Bahá’í Storyteller
‘Abdu’l-Bahá as a Model of a Bahá'í Storyteller
While there are many clear examples of storytelling within the Bahá'í community, the most powerful is the model provided by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the Bahá'í Exemplar. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was the son of Bahá'u'lláh, the Prophet-Founder of the Bahá'í Faith, and was himself the spiritual leader of the Bahá'í Faith from 1892 -1921. Bahá'í's look to every action taken by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá' to provide direction - an example - as to how best to live one's own life, and so it follows that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá's actions in using storytelling in his public and private talks set a marvellous precedent for future Bahá'í storytellers to emulate. One need only look to the example of Abdu’l-Bahá to find a model how to live life as a Bahá'í, as well as a model for why, where, and how to tell Bahá'í stories.
By examining ‘Abdu’l-Bahá's transcribed, published public talks - and also the biographical histories is written about him - it's possible to find many examples that demonstrate ‘Abdu’l-Bahá's abilities as an accomplished storyteller. Sometimes ‘Abdu’l-Bahá told stories to children, but most often he used stories to illustrate points he was making when giving public talks about the Bahá'í Faith to gatherings of adults. According to firsthand witnesses, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was an experienced and entertaining storyteller. For example, Agnes Parsons - an early American Bahá'í - wrote in her 1912 diary about an evening gathering at the home of some her friends is during which ‘Abdu’l-Bahá told stories. In her words,
I begged for the 'Story of Ios', which is the only story I ever heard of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá telling. It’s a pretty story with a moral. After He told that story, He said, “Now let me tell you an Arabian story - and it isn’t going to be a sermon!” This he did, to the accompaniment of peals of laughter, repeated again and again as climax after climax was reached. Needless to say, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá brought out every subtle point in the brilliant story. And the mental picture of this beautiful Oriental telling the story with all the enthusiasm of the story tellers of old is one never to be forgotten (Parsons).
Howard Colby Ives - another early American Bahá'í - shared another vignette of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá as a storyteller. This story is well-known and well-loved among the Bahá'í's. I found it referred to by at least four other Bahá'í authors, but give the story here as Mr. Ives recalled it in his memoirs, written some 25 years after the date of this event. There is some evidence that Mr. Ives may have inadvertently combined memories of more than one storytelling event, as he was often in ‘Abdu’l-Bahá's company during the nine months of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá's 1912 sojourn in America. Nevertheless, Mr. Ives clearly heard, enjoyed, and remembered these story-sharing events that made such a lasting impression, and his telling of them reveals an intriguing picture of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá as a storyteller. He shared his recollection of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá' and a luncheon in Dublin, NH that turned into quite a delightful, impromptu storytelling event. In his words,
There was a luncheon held in His honor, at which were gathered a group of society's intelligentsia to meet a noteworthy personality. Most of those present at this luncheon party knew a little of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá's life history, and, presumably, were expecting a dissertation from Him on the Bahá'í Cause. The hostess had suggested to the Master that He speak on the subject of Immortality. However as the meal progressed, and no more than the usual commonplaces of polite society were mentioned, the hostess made an opening, as she thought, for ‘Abdu’l-Bahá' to speak on spiritual things. His response to this was to ask if He might tell them a story, and He related one of the Oriental tales, of which He had a great store and at its conclusion all laughed heartily.
The ice was broken. Others added stories of which the Master's anecdote had reminded them. Then ‘Abdu’l-Bahá', His face beaming with happiness, told another story, and another. His laughter rang throughout the room. He said that the Orientals had many such stories illustrating different phases of life. Many of them are extremely humorous. It is good to laugh. Laughter is a spiritual relaxation. When they were in prison, He said, and under the utmost deprivation and difficulties, each of them at the close of the day would relate the most ludicrous event which had happened. Sometimes it was a little difficult to find one but always they would laugh until the tears rolled down their cheeks. Happiness, He said, is never dependent upon material surroundings, otherwise how sad those years would have been. As it was they were always in the utmost state of joy and happiness (Ives).
Through the medium of storytelling, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá' spoke to all kinds of people to introduce them to the Bahá'í Faith. He used stories to reach past his listeners' adult biases and into their hearts of childlike purity. He used stories to find - and share with his listeners - a common ground of beliefs.