Portals to Freedom, by Howard Colby Ives
July 22, 2012
More than merely a memoir, Portals to Freedom by Howard Colby Ives is both a loving portrait of a "holy man" and a deeply personal exploration of the slow convergence between intellectualism and spirituality. Ives, a former Unitarian minister, wrote Portals to Freedom nearly eighty years ago. His aim was to recount his experiences, still vivid 25 years after the fact, of sitting "at the feet of the master" in a nearly literal sense – that is, of spending time in the company of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, head of the Bahá’í Faith from his father’s death in 1892 until his own in 1921. In various cultural terms, you might call him a holy man, a guru, a saint; Bahá’is simply call him "the Master."
‘Abdu’l-Bahá, then approaching 70 years old, journeyed to North America in 1912 to strengthen the faith of those who already embraced his father’s religion, and to acquaint new audiences with its teachings. Ives had been introduced to the religion by friends shortly before ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s arrival in New York City. He makes plain that he had a sort of intellectual attraction to the Bahá’i teachings, as a liberal theologian, but it did not initially extend to consideration of the personal implications. The question of personal faith slowly dawned on him, as he recounts in a number of poignantly narrated encounters with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in parlors and audience-halls.
Ives is an excellent writer. Of course some of his phraseology does not quite fit the modern language, but he is never difficult to read. He has an orrator‘s flair that keeps the work from becoming too dry – as does ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s humor, displayed in several of the stories of him. That Ives is well-trained in matters of religion, philosophy, and the scientific currents of the day is abundantly clear.
It is also clear that this training becomes a source of confusion and disharmony in his life, once he has encountered ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. For instance, one of his stories speaks of his deep need to understand the word "renunciation" in the phrase "horizon of renunciation." When asked, the Master provides a commentary on "horizon" instead, thus leading to an initial sense of disappointment. Knowing somewhat of the spiritual significance of renunciation/detachment, the reader (and eventually the author) can plainly see how ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was teaching by example and implication. The full story of that encounter naturally reveals far more than this soundbite, and it is but one of many that beautifully illustrate ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s mode of being.
The author’s spiritual journey is presented as a lesson to share with others, but there remains an appropriate humility about it: for the most part, the book is autobiographical just to the extent that it explains Ives’ motivation and frame of mind throughout his experience, which necessarily shaped the questions he asked and the stories to took note of. By the time of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s return to Palestine, Ives has managed a rapprochement between his intellectual and spiritual natures, in a manner reminiscent of the struggles Tolstoy documents in his Confessions. He expresses the conflict in these terms in the book’s conclusion:
"Scholasticism provides no answer to the demands of men for a satisfaction of those primal needs of the spirit. Religion, as generally understood – being, as it is, a mixture of tradition, social convention, and more or less correct estimates of the immediate problems confronting people, and all savored with a salt that has lost its savor – provides no satisfaction to the hungry souls of men. In all this confusion of thought and action, no rock is found upon which many may plant his spiritual feet and be confident in his treading."
Religion, in the form of the Bahá’í Faith as opposed to "generally understood," still has the power to recharge – to "salt" the "salt of the earth," he discovered.
Those seeking to know ‘Abdu’l-Bahá better, to emulate his ways and appreciate the beauty and truth of the teachings he explicated, will be referring back to this work for centuries to come. All who seek to escape cynicism, or to reconcile the western intellectual tradition with a religious worldview, would do well to follow Ives’ transformation, and to ponder and then put into action the meaning of the stories he relates.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the Bahá’í Publishing Trust through its Bloggers Network book review program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising." (http://ftc.gov/os/2009/10/091005revisedendorsementguides.pdf)