In late 2002, the Universal House of Justice, the international governing council of the Baha’is of the world, announced that the last of a series of continental Houses of Worship would be constructed in Santiago, Chile. Michelle Murphy, a Baha’i from Canada who attended the inauguration, shares her reflections on the significance of the House of Worship in her life - a sample of the experience of many Canadian Baha'is.
I recall that moment: the hairs stood up on my arms and I hoped that I would be fortunate enough to attend the dedication of this new House of Worship. Years passed as I expectantly waited.
Then, finally, the moment I had been waiting for: the announcement of the dates for the dedication of this luminous House of Worship. I applied the instant the application forms were released, and settled into an agonizing wait to hear whether I was selected to attend. Five thousand participants from around the world would be invited to witness this momentous occasion; 3000 from Spanish and Portuguese speaking countries and 2000 from everywhere else. I yearned and prayed and then, the email inviting me to attend arrived. I received the blessing of my family, accepted the invitation, and booked my flight within the hour.
The celebrations began on October 13. Delegates from 110 different countries, some in national dress, everyone wearing big smiles on their faces, greeted each other warmly as we settled into Santiago's Movistar arena with anticipation.
I had no idea what to expect. I looked around to see who was joining me on this historic occasion. I saw Indigenous peoples from both North and South America; people from Japan and South Africa; Brazilians and Germans; Canadians and Chileans. I met Anas from Jordan and Gloria from Wilmette, USA. I reconnected with Soley, my friend from the Faroe Islands, Alain from Holland, and Edelo from New Caledonia. We witnessed together the angelic voices of the choir, the moving piece of theatre about three heroines of the Baha’i Faith, the stirring talks by learned members of the Baha’i community, and displays of dance and art by talented local people. We leapt to our feet and danced when the singer from Colombia took the stage.
The highlight for me was hearing from Mr. Hariri, the Toronto-based architect, as he explained his inspiration. This structure, built to last for 400 years, could have come only from a balanced combination of art, science and faith. Finally, we were ready to see the House of Worship for ourselves.
We were arranged into 10 groups of 500. On the bus we were reminded that we were to be among the very first people to visit this House of Worship. What an honour! Then, our bus guide revealed that we would be viewing the portraits of Baha’u’llah and the Bab, a bounty normally reserved for those on pilgrimage to the Baha’i Shrines, in Haifa, Israel. We fell silent, awed.
As we climbed the stairs towards the ethereal structure nestled among reflecting pools and nascent gardens set against the Andes, my first thought was, it looks small. But soon the scale of the structure became apparent and when I entered the building, it seemed the perfect size. Accommodating approximately 600 people, the interior is a fine balance of simplicity and grace with complex form and movement. The spiraling marble and glass wings terminating in the oculus with the Baha’i calligraphy symbol of the Greatest Name causes your soul to lift while your body is comforted by walnut floors and Persian carpets. I sat next to my friend Edelo. We bowed our heads as prayers were read and sung in various languages and I tried to engrave the moment on my heart. Then, one by one, we filed past the portraits as we exited. Nothing prepared me for the waves of emotion. I was so overcome that I could hardly turn my tear-streaked face to look at the portraits as I walked past.
I returned the next day on my own, praying in the central edifice and wandering the gardens and grounds. As I left, I turned and gazed at the House of Worship gently glowing against the darkening sky, ready for a new dawn.