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Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era

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Religious Unity

O ye that dwell on earth! The distinguishing feature that marketh the preeminent character of this Supreme Revelation consisteth in that We have, on the one hand, blotted out from the pages of God’s book whatsoever hath been the cause of strife, of malice and mischief amongst the children of men, and have, on the other, laid down the essential prerequisites of concord, of understanding, of complete and enduring unity. Well is it with them that keep My statutes.

Bahá’u’lláh, Tablet of the World.

Sectarianism in the Nineteenth Century

Never, perhaps, did the world seem farther away from religious unity than in the nineteenth century. For many centuries had the great religious communities—the Zoroastrian, Mosaic, Buddhist, Christian, Muḥammadan and others—been existing side by side, but instead of blending together into a harmonious whole they had been at constant enmity and strife, each against the others. Not only so, but each had become split up, by division after division, into an increasing number of sects which were often bitterly opposed to each other. Yet Christ had said: “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another,” and Muḥammad had said: “This your religion is the one religion.… To you hath God prescribed the faith which He commanded unto Noah, and which We have revealed unto thee, and which We commanded unto Abraham and Moses and Jesus saying: ‘Observe this faith, and be not divided into sects therein!’” The Founder of every one of the great religions had called His followers to love and unity, but in every case the aim of the Founder was to a large extent lost sight of in a welter of intolerance and bigotry, formalism and hypocrisy, corruption and misrepresentation, schism and contention. The aggregate number of more or less hostile sects in the world was probably greater at the commencement of the Bahá’í era than at any previous period in human history. It seemed as if humanity at that time were experimenting with every possible kind of religious belief, with every possible sort of ritual and ceremonial observance, with every possible variety of moral code.

At the same time an increasing number of men were devoting their energies to fearless investigation and critical examination of the laws of nature and the foundations of belief. New scientific knowledge was being rapidly acquired and new solutions were being found for many of the problems of life. The development of inventions such as steamship and railway, postal system and press, greatly aided the diffusion of ideas and the fertilizing contact of widely different types of thought and life.

The so called “conflict between religion and science” became a fierce battle. In the Christian world Biblical criticism combined with physical science to dispute, and to some extent to refute, the authority of the Bible, an authority that for centuries had been the generally accepted basis of belief. A rapidly increasing proportion of the population became skeptical about the teachings of the churches. A large number even of religious priests secretly or openly entertained doubts or reservations regarding the creeds adhered to by their respective denominations.

This ferment and flux of opinion, with increasing recognition of the inadequacy of the old orthodoxies and dogmas, and groping and striving after fuller knowledge and understanding, were not confined to Christian countries, but were manifest, more or less, and in different forms, among the people of all countries and religions.

The Message of Bahá’u’lláh

It was when this state of conflict and confusion was at its height, that Bahá’u’lláh sounded His great trumpet call to humanity:—

That all nations should become one in faith and all men as brothers; that the bonds of affection and unity between the sons of men should be strengthened; that diversity of religion should cease, and differences of race be annulled.… These strifes and this bloodshed and discord must cease, and all men be as one kindred and one family.… (words spoken to Professor Browne).

It is a glorious message, but how are its proposals to be carried into effect? Prophets have preached, poets have sung and saints have prayed about these things for thousands of years, but diversities of religion have not ceased nor have strife and bloodshed and discord been annulled. What is there to show that now the miracle is to be accomplished? Are there any new factors in the situation? Is not human nature the same as it ever was, and will it not continue to be the same while the world lasts? If two people want the same thing, or two nations, will they not fight for it in the future as they have done in the past? If Moses, Buddha, Christ and Muḥammad failed to achieve world unity will Bahá’u’lláh succeed? If all previous faiths become corrupted and rent asunder into sects will not the Bahá’í Faith share the same fate? Let us see what answer the Bahá’í teachings give to these and similar questions.

Can Human Nature Change?

Education and religion are alike based on the assumption that it is possible to change human nature. In fact, it requires but little investigation to show that the one thing we can say with certainty about any living thing is that it cannot keep from changing. Without change there can be no life. Even the mineral cannot resist change, and the higher we go in the scale of being, the more varied, complex, and wonderful do the changes become. Moreover, in progress and development among creatures of all grades we find two kinds of change—one slow, gradual, often almost imperceptible; and the other rapid, sudden and dramatic. The latter occur at what are called “critical stages” of development. In the case of minerals we find such critical stages at the melting and boiling points, for example, when the solid suddenly becomes a liquid or the liquid becomes a gas. In the case of plants we see such critical stages when the seed begins to germinate, or the bud bursts into leaf. In the animal world we see the same on every hand, as when the grub suddenly changes into a butterfly, the chick emerges from its shell, or the babe is born from its mother’s womb. In the higher life of the soul we often see a similar transformation, when a man is “born again” and his whole being becomes radically changed in its aims, its character and activities. Such critical stages often affect a whole species or multitude of species simultaneously, as when vegetation of all kinds suddenly bursts into new life in springtime.

Bahá’u’lláh declares that just as lesser living things have times of sudden emergence into new and fuller life, so for mankind also a “critical stage,” a time of “rebirth,” is at hand. Then modes of life which have persisted from the dawn of history up till now will be quickly, irrevocably, altered, and humanity enter on a new phase of life as different from the old as the butterfly is different from the caterpillar, or the bird from the egg. Mankind as a whole, in the light of new Revelation, will attain to a new vision of truth; as a whole country is illumined when the sun rises, so that all men see clearly, where but an hour before everything was dark and dim. “This is a new cycle of human power,” says ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. “All the horizons of the world are luminous, and the world will become indeed as a rose garden and a paradise.” The analogies of nature are all in favor of such a view; the Prophets of old have with one accord foretold the advent of such a glorious day; the signs of the times show clearly that profound and revolutionary changes in human ideas and institutions are even now in progress. What could be more futile and baseless therefore, than the pessimistic argument that, although all things else change, human nature cannot change?

First Steps Toward Unity

As a means of promoting religious unity Bahá’u’lláh advocates the utmost charity and tolerance, and calls on His followers to “consort with the people of all religions with joy and gladness.” In His last Will and Testament He says:—

Conflict and contention are categorically forbidden in His Book. This is a decree of God in this Most Great Revelation. It is divinely preserved from annulment and is invested by Him with the splendor of His confirmation.

O ye that dwell on earth! The religion of God is for love and unity; make it not the cause of enmity or dissension.… We fain would hope that the people of Bahá may be guided by the blessed words: “Say: all things are of God.” This exalted utterance is like unto water for quenching the fire of hate and enmity which smoldereth within the hearts and breasts of men. By this single utterance contending peoples and kindreds will attain the light of true unity. Verily He speaketh the truth and leadeth the way. He is the All-Powerful, the Exalted, the Gracious.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá says:—

All must abandon prejudices and must even go to each other’s churches and mosques, for, in all of these worshipping places, the Name of God is mentioned. Since all gather to worship God, what difference is there? None of them worship Satan. The Muḥammadans must go to the churches of the Christians and the Synagogues of the Jews, and vice versa, the others must go to the Muḥammadan Mosques. They hold aloof from one another merely because of unfounded prejudices and dogmas. In America I went to the Jewish Synagogues, which are similar to the Christian Churches, and I saw them worshipping God everywhere.

In many of these places I spoke about the original foundations of the divine religions, and I explained to them the proofs of the validity of the divine prophets and of the Holy Manifestations. I encouraged them to do away with blind imitations. All of the leaders must, likewise, go to each other’s Churches and speak of the foundation and of the fundamental principles of the divine religions. In the utmost unity and harmony they must worship God, in the worshipping places of one another, and must abandon fanaticism.

Were even these first steps accomplished and a state of friendly mutual tolerance established between the various religious sects, what a wonderful change would be brought about in the world! In order that real unity may be achieved, however, something more than this is required. For the disease of sectarianism, tolerance is a valuable palliative, but it is not a radical cure. It does not remove the cause of the trouble.

The Problem of Authority

The different religious communities have failed to unite in the past, because the adherents of each have regarded the Founder of their own community as the one supreme authority, and His law as the divine law. Any Prophet Who proclaimed a different message was, therefore, regarded as an enemy of the truth. The different sects of each community have separated for similar reasons. The adherents of each have accepted some subordinate authority and regarded some particular version or interpretation of the Founder’s Message as the One True Faith, and all others as wrong. It is obvious that while this state of matters exists no true unity is possible. Bahá’u’lláh, on the other hand, teaches that all the Prophets were bearers of authentic messages from God; that each in His day gave the highest teachings that the people could then receive, and educated men so that they were able to receive further teachings from His successors. He calls on the adherents of each religion, not to deny the Divine Inspiration of their own Prophets, but to acknowledge the Divine Inspiration of all other Prophets, to see that the teachings of all are essentially in harmony, and are parts of a great plan for the education and the unification of humanity. He calls on the people of all denominations to show their reverence for their Prophets by devoting their lives to the accomplishment of that unity for which all the Prophets labored and suffered. In His letter to Queen Victoria He likens the world to a sick man whose malady is aggravated because he has fallen into the hands of unskilled physicians; and He tells how the remedy may be effected:—

That which the Lord hath ordained as the sovereign remedy and mightiest instrument for the healing of all the world is the union of all its peoples in one universal Cause, one common Faith. This can in no wise be achieved except through the power of a skilled, an all powerful and inspired Physician. This, verily, is the truth, and all else naught but error.—Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh.

Progressive Revelation

A great stumbling block to many, in the way of religious unity, is the difference between the Revelations given by the different Prophets. What is commanded by one is forbidden by another; how then can both be right, how can both be proclaiming the Will of God? Surely the truth is One, and cannot change. Yes, the Absolute Truth is One and cannot change, but the Absolute Truth is infinitely beyond the present range of human understanding, and our conceptions of it must constantly change. Our earlier, imperfect ideas will be by the Grace of God replaced, as time goes on, by more and more adequate conceptions. Bahá’u’lláh says, in a Tablet to some Bahá’ís of Persia:—

O people! Words are revealed according to capacity so that the beginners may make progress. The milk must be given according to measure so that the babe of the world may enter into the Realm of Grandeur and be established in the Court of Unity.

It is milk that strengthens the babe so that it can digest more solid food later on. To say that because one Prophet is right in giving a certain teaching at a certain time, therefore another Prophet must be wrong Who gives a different teaching at a different time, is like saying that because milk is the best food for the newborn babe, therefore, milk and nothing but milk should be the food of the grown man also, and to give any other diet would be wrong! ‘Abdu’l-Bahá says:—

Each divine revelation is divided into two parts. The first part is essential and belongs to the eternal world. It is the exposition of Divine truths and essential principles. It is the expression of the Love of God. This is one in all the religions, unchangeable and immutable. The second part is not eternal; it deals with practical life, transactions and business, and changes according to the evolution of man and the requirements of the time of each Prophet. For example.… During the Mosaic period the hand of a person was cut off in punishment of a small theft; there was a law of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but as these laws were not expedient in the time of Christ, they were abrogated. Likewise divorce had become so universal that there remained no fixed laws of marriage, therefore His Holiness Christ forbade divorce.

According to the exigencies of the time, His Holiness Moses revealed ten laws for capital punishment. It was impossible at that time to protect the community and to preserve social security without these severe measures, for the children of Israel lived in the wilderness of Tah, where there were no established courts of justice and no penitentiaries. But this code of conduct was not needed in the time of Christ. The history of the second part of religion is unimportant, because it relates to the customs of this life only; but the foundation of the religion of God is one, and His Holiness Bahá’u’lláh has renewed that foundation.

The religion of God is the One Religion, and all the Prophets have taught it, but it is a living and a growing thing, not lifeless and unchanging. In the teaching of Moses we see the Bud; in that of Christ the Flower; in that of Bahá’u’lláh the Fruit. The flower does not destroy the bud, nor does the fruit destroy the flower. It destroys not, but fulfills. The bud scales must fall in order that the flower may bloom, and the petals must fall that the fruit may grow and ripen. Were the bud scales and the petals wrong or useless, then, that they had to be discarded? Nay, both in their time were right and necessary; without them there could have been no fruit. So it is with the various prophetic teachings; their externals change from age to age, but each revelation is the fulfillment of its predecessors; they are not separate or incongruous, but different stages in the life history of the One Religion, which has in turn been revealed as seed, as bud and as flower, and now enters on the stage of fruition.

Infallibility of the Prophets

Bahá’u’lláh teaches that everyone endowed with the Station of Prophethood is given sufficient proofs of His Mission, is entitled to claim obedience from all men and has authority to abrogate, alter or add to the teachings of His predecessors. In the Book of Íqán we read:—

How far from the grace of the All Bountiful and from His loving providence and tender mercies it is to single out a soul from amongst all men for the guidance of His creatures, and, on one hand, to withhold from Him the full measure of His divine testimony, and, on the other, inflict severe retribution on His people for having turned away from His chosen One! Nay, the manifold bounties of the Lord of all beings have, at all times, through the Manifestations of His divine Essence, encompassed the earth and all that dwell therein.…

And yet, is not the object of every Revelation to effect a transformation in the whole character of mankind, a transformation that shall manifest itself both outwardly and inwardly, that shall affect both its inner life and external conditions? For if the character of mankind be not changed, the futility of God’s universal Manifestations would be apparent.—Kitáb-i-Íqán.

God is the One infallible Authority, and the Prophets are infallible because Their Message is the Message of God given to the world through Them. That Message remains valid until it is superseded by a later Message given by the same or another Prophet.

God is the great Physician Who alone can rightly diagnose the world’s sickness and prescribe the appropriate remedy. The remedy prescribed in one age is no longer suitable in a later age, when the condition of the patient is different. To cling to the old remedy when the physician has ordered new treatment is not to show faith in the physician, but infidelity. It may be a shock to the Jew to be told that some of the remedies for the world’s sickness which Moses ordered over three thousand years ago are now out of date and unsuitable; the Christian may be equally shocked when told that Muḥammad had anything necessary or valuable to add to what Jesus prescribed; and so also the Muslim, when asked to admit that the Báb or Bahá’u’lláh had authority to alter the commands of Muḥammad; but according to the Bahá’í view, true devotion to God implies reverence to all His Prophets, and implicit obedience to His latest Commands, as given by the Prophet for our own age. Only by such devotion can true Unity be attained.

The Supreme Manifestation

Like all the other Prophets, Bahá’u’lláh states His own Mission in the most unmistakable terms.

In the Lawḥ-i-Aqdas, a Tablet addressed especially to Christians, He says:—

… Lo! The Father is come, and that which ye were promised in the Kingdom is fulfilled! This is the Word which the Son concealed, when to those around Him He said: “Ye cannot bear it now.” And when the appointed time was fulfilled and the Hour had struck, the Word shone forth above the horizon of the Will of God. Beware, O followers of the Son, that ye cast it not behind your backs. Take ye fast hold of it. Better is this for you than all that ye possess.…

Verily, He Who is the Spirit of Truth is come to guide you unto all truth. He speaketh not as prompted by His own self, but as bidden by Him Who is the All-Knowing, the All-Wise.… Cast away, O peoples of the earth, that which ye have and take fast hold of that which ye are bidden by the All-Powerful, He Who is the Bearer of the Trust of God.

And in a letter to the Pope, written from Adrianople in 1867, He says:—

Beware lest celebration hinder you from the Celebrated and worship hinder you from the Worshipped One! Behold the Lord, the Mighty, the All-Knowing! He hath come to minister to the life of the world, and for the uniting of whatever dwelleth therein. Come, O ye people, to the Dawning-place of Revelation! Tarry not, even for an hour! Are ye learned of the Gospel, and yet are unable to see the Lord of Glory?

This beseemeth you not, O learned concourse! Say then, if ye deny this matter, by what proof do you believe in God? Produce your proof.…

Just as in these letters to Christians He announces the fulfillment of the Gospel promises, so He proclaims also to Muḥammadan, Jews, Zoroastrians and the people of other faiths the fulfillment of the promises of their Holy Books. He addresses all men as the sheep of God, who have hitherto been divided into different flocks and sheltered in different folds. His message, He says, is the Voice of God, the Good Shepherd, Who has come in the fullness of time to gather His scattered sheep into one flock, removing the barriers between them, that “there may be one fold and one shepherd.”

A New Situation

The position of Bahá’u’lláh among the Prophets is unprecedented and unique, because the condition of the world at the time of His advent was unprecedented and unique. By a long and checkered process of development in religion, science, art and civilization the world had become ripe for a teaching of Unity. The barriers which in previous centuries had made a world unity impossible were ready to crumble when Bahá’u’lláh appeared, and since His birth, in 1817, and more especially since the promulgation of His teachings began, these barriers have been breaking down in most astonishing fashion. Be the explanation what it may, about the fact there can be no doubt.

In the days of previous Prophets geographical barriers alone were amply sufficient to prevent world unity. Now that obstacle has been overcome. For the first time in human history men on opposite sides of the globe are able to communicate with each other quickly and easily. Things done in Europe yesterday are known in every continent of the world today, and a speech made in America today may be read in Europe, Asia and Africa tomorrow.

Another great obstacle was the language difficulty. Thanks to the study and teaching of foreign languages, that difficulty has already been to a large extent overcome; and there is every reason to suppose that ere many years an international auxiliary language will be adopted and taught in all the schools of the world. Then this difficulty also will be completely removed.

The third great obstacle was religious prejudice and intolerance. That, too, is disappearing. Men’s minds are becoming more open. The education of the people is passing more and more out of the hands of sectarian priests; and new and more liberal ideas can no longer be prevented from penetrating into even the most exclusive and conservative circles.

Bahá’u’lláh is thus the first of the great Prophets Whose message has become known within a period of comparatively few years in every quarter of the globe. Within a short time the essential teachings of Bahá’u’lláh, translated from His own authentic Writings, will be directly accessible to every man, woman and child in the world who is able to read.

Fullness of the Bahá’í Revelation

The Bahá’í Revelation is unprecedented and unique among the faiths of the world by reason of the fullness and completeness of its authentic records. The recorded words that can with certainty be attributed to Christ, to Moses, to Zoroaster, to Buddha, to Krishna, are very few, and leave many modern questions of great practical importance unanswered. Many of the teachings commonly attributed to these religious Founders are of doubtful authenticity, and some are evidently accretions of later date. The Muḥammadans possess in the Qur’án, and in a large store of traditions, a much fuller record of the life and teachings of their Prophet, but Muḥammad Himself, though inspired, was illiterate, as were most of His early followers. The methods employed for recording and spreading His teachings were in many respects unsatisfactory, and the authenticity of many of the traditions is very doubtful. As a result, differences of interpretation and conflicting opinions have caused divisions and dissensions in Islam, as in all previous religious communities.

On the other hand, both the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh wrote copiously and with great eloquence and power. As both were debarred from public speaking and spent most of Their lives (after the declaration of Their mission) in prison, They devoted a large proportion of Their time to writing, with the result that in richness of authentic scriptures the Bahá’í Revelation is unapproached by any of its predecessors. Clear and full expositions are given of many truths which were but dimly foreshadowed in previous revelations, and the eternal principles of truth, which all the Prophets have taught, have been applied to the problems which are facing the world today—problems of the utmost complexity and difficulty, many of which had not arisen in the days of former Prophets. It is evident that this full record of authentic revelation must have a powerful effect in preventing misunderstandings in the future and in clearing up those misunderstandings of the past which have kept the various sects asunder.

The Bahá’í Covenant

The Bahá’í Revelation is unprecedented and unique in still another way. Before the death of Bahá’u’lláh He repeatedly put in writing a Covenant appointing his eldest son ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Whom He often refers to as “The Branch,” or “The Most Great Branch,” as the authorized interpreter of the teachings, and declaring that any explanations or interpretations given by Him are to be accepted as of equal validity with the words of Bahá’u’lláh Himself. In His Will and Testament He says:—

Consider that which We revealed in Our Most Holy Book: “When the ocean of My presence hath ebbed and the Book of My Revelation is ended, turn your faces toward Him Whom God hath purposed, Who hath branched from this Ancient Root.” The object of this sacred verse is none other except the Most Mighty Branch (‘Abdu’l-Bahá).

And in the Tablet of the Branch, in which He explains the station of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, He says:—

Render thanks unto God, O people, for His appearance; for verily He is the most great Favor unto you, the most perfect bounty upon you; and through Him every moldering bone is quickened. Whoso turneth towards Him hath turned towards God, and whoso turneth away from Him hath turned away from My Beauty, hath repudiated My Proof, and transgressed against Me.

After the death of Bahá’u’lláh, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had abundant opportunities, both in His own home and on His extensive travels, of meeting people from all parts of the world and of all shades of opinion. He heard all their questions, their difficulties and objections, and gave full explanations which were carefully recorded in writing. During a long series of years ‘Abdu’l-Bahá continued this work of elucidating the teachings and showing their applications to the most varied problems of modern life. Differences of opinion which have arisen among believers have been referred to Him and authoritatively settled, and thus the risks of future misunderstandings have been further reduced.

Bahá’u’lláh further arranged that an International House of Justice, representative of all Bahá’ís throughout the world, should be elected to take charge of the affairs of the Cause, control and coordinate all its activities, prevent divisions and schisms, elucidate obscure matters, and preserve the teachings from corruption and misrepresentation. The fact that this supreme administrative body can not only initiate legislation on all matters not defined in the Teachings, but also annul its own enactments when new conditions require different measures, enables the Faith to expand and adapt itself, like a living organism, to the needs and requirements of a changing society.

Moreover, Bahá’u’lláh expressly forbade interpretation of the teachings by anyone but the authorized interpreter. In His Will and Testament ‘Abdu’l-Bahá appointed Shoghi Effendi to be the Guardian of the Faith after Him and to be empowered to interpret the Writings.

In a thousand or more years another Manifestation will appear, under the shadow of Bahá’u’lláh, with clear proofs of His mission, but until then the words of Bahá’u’lláh, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and the Guardian and the decisions of the International House of Justice constitute the authorities to which all believers must turn for guidance. No Bahá’í may found a school or sect based on any particular interpretation of the teachings or any supposed divine revelation. Anyone contravening these injunctions is considered a “Covenant-breaker.”1

‘Abdu’l-Bahá says:—

One of the enemies of the Cause is he who endeavors to interpret the words of Bahá’u’lláh and thereby colors the meaning according to his capacity, and collects around him a following, forming a different sect, promoting his own station, and making a division in the Cause.

In another Tablet He writes:—

These people (promoters of schism) are like the froth that gathers on the surface of the sea; a wave will surge from the ocean of the Covenant and through the power of the Abhá Kingdom will cast this foam ashore.… These corrupt thoughts that emanate from personal and evil intentions will all vanish, whereas the Covenant of God shall remain stable and secure.

There is nothing to keep men from forsaking religion if they wish to do so. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá says: “God Himself does not compel the soul to become spiritual. The exercise of the free human will is necessary.” The spiritual Covenant, however, clearly makes sectarianism within the Bahá’í community quite impossible.

No Professional Priesthood

One other feature of the Bahá’í organization must be specially mentioned, and that is the absence of a professional priesthood. Voluntary contributions toward the expenses of teachers are permitted and many devote their whole time to work for the Cause, but all Bahá’ís are expected to share in the work of teaching, et cetera, according to their opportunity and ability, and there is no special class distinguished from their fellow believers by the exclusive exercise of priestly functions and prerogatives.

In former ages priesthoods were necessary, because people were illiterate and uneducated and were dependent on priests for their religious instruction, for the conduct of religious rites and ceremonies, for the administration of justice, et cetera. Now, however, times have changed. Education is fast becoming universal, and if the commands of Bahá’u’lláh are carried out, every boy and girl in the world will receive a sound education. Each individual will then be able to study the Scriptures for himself, to draw the Water of Life for himself, direct from the Fountainhead. Elaborate rites and ceremonies, requiring the services of a special profession or caste, have no place in the Bahá’í system; and the administration of justice is entrusted to the authorities instituted for that purpose.

For a child a teacher is necessary, but the aim of the true teacher is to fit his pupil to do without a teacher; to see things with his own eyes, hear with his own ears, and understand with his own mind. Just so, in the childhood of the race, the priest is necessary, but his real work is to enable men to do without him: to see things divine with their own eyes, hear them with their own ears and understand them with their own minds. Now the priest’s work is all but accomplished, and the aim of the Bahá’í teaching is to complete that work, to make men independent of all save God, so that they can turn directly to Him, that is, to His Manifestation. When all turn to one Center, then there can be no cross-purposes or confusion and the nearer all draw to the Center, the nearer they will draw to each other.

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