Lives Less Ordinary
It all began with my grandparents. I say ‘began’ because the impact of a visit some time early in 1956 was to revolutionise our relatively contained and cosy family life.
My maternal grandfather had been the headmaster of the Church of Ireland primary school in Hillsborough, Co. Down, where he and his wife Dora had raised three daughters: Yvonne, my mother, Sheila and Maeve. They lived in the School House and enjoyed distinct status if no real wealth. Hillsborough was the home of the Northern Ireland Governor and its suitably grand house was used by any visiting British monarch on their very occasional sorties into Ulster. Indeed on one occasion during the latter part of the Second World War, my father, an RAF bomber pilot, was flying a Liberator aircraft back from the United States where he had been trialling the same. Having taken off in Louisiana, then on to Newfoundland and across the Atlantic to an airbase in Scotland, he chose to pinpoint Hillsborough on his flight path over Ireland, and flying very low, presumably to attract my mother’s attention, dramatically shook Government House. Apparently George VI and Queen Elizabeth were staying there briefly at the time, and were unimpressed by the shaking. Orders went out for the responsible pilot to be reprimanded, and so it was my Dad’s commanding officer told him ‘to consider himself torn off a strip’! Such stories of my father’s less than conventional approach to things were legend, and were such an integral part of his independent and vital character, that he was never less than a true hero for me, and his choices and view of things undoubtedly affected and shaped my own life.
Hillsborough boasts a beautiful church, approached by a gentle tree-lined hill where in a family pew my mother’s initials are, shamelessly, still carved! Indeed my family were all Church of Ireland, the same Church that George Townshend belonged to, and whose high office he selflessly resigned in his recognition of Bahá’u’lláh.
In spite of their affiliation to the Church of Ireland, William and Dora, my grand-parents, were, in that sometimes misapplied tag, ‘seekers’. They regularly trawled a variety of public meetings and events in Belfast; a journey which encompassed everything from the Belfast Theosophical Society, through Christian Science and Mary Baker Eddy to spiritualism. Indeed my Mum remembers creeping down the stairs at the school house to listen to table thumpings and attempts to talk to those ‘who had passed over to the other side’! It was this investigative urge which drove them to take shelter one night from the rain-soaked streets in Belfast’s Grand Central Hotel. What caught their eye was a notice advertising a meeting about the Bahá’í Faith. The talk they were to hear was given by a Lady Kathleen Hornell.
Every Friday my grandparents, known to their grandchildren as Goggy (my cousin Tony had not been able to pronounce Granny as a small child ) and Grandaddy came to our house for ‘tea’ (the Northern Ireland equivalent of supper!). Grandaddy was the most kindly of men who suffered both deafness and a marked speech impediment brought on by a stroke. Every Saturday morning I would run down to our dining room where behind the mantelpiece clock were hidden a pile of sweets. This was a regular weekly ritual which neither of us ever spoke about.
Clearly impressed by their visit to the Bahá’í meeting, they told my parents about it. My father exclaimed “What on earth have you found now!” My Dad was certainly agnostic, verging to aetheism. His experience as a bomber pilot during the War left him seriously questioning the existence of a caring creator. As a child I definitely had some sense of a God, although not I think because of the occasional treks to Sunday School.
In spite of my father’s somewhat scathing reaction to news of the Bahá’í Faith, my grandparents managed to persuade my Mum and Dad to meet this Lady Hornell. ‘Lady’ indeed! That certainly aroused some curiosity, particularly as she ended up being invited for tea.
She turned out to be a small, bespectacled, very intelligent and kindly woman whose husband had been knighted for his services to British foreign diplomacy or some such. Lady Hornell had a rather frustrating habit of talking a great deal whilst eating, which dramatically delayed the next course for the rest of us. My child’s heart sank when I saw her once again put down her knife and fork to discourse further on some spiritual truth! My parents were clearly enthralled. I wanted to finish the meal. Lady Hornell’s favourite expression of endearment was “Bless your darling heart” and on my tenth birthday, a year or so later, she presented me with a copy of The Gleanings which might have seemed rather daunting at the time, but which has sustained me through my life until now. She, like so many of those early believers in the British Isles, was laying a sure spiritual foundation; making a long term spiritual investment! Inscribed in my copy of The Gleanings was the following:
“He hath indeed, partaken of this Highest Gift of God who hath recognised His Manifestation in this Day” Bahá’u’lláh
She went on to hope “May you be the cause of bringing many to this recognition.”
I have no doubt she more than fulfilled this herself – I am far less convinced by my own efforts!
The initial visit from Kathleen Hornell was early 1956, and there then followed visits from other Bahá’ís who were committed to strengthening the stability of the Belfast Local Spiritual Assembly and developing the small Bahá’í community in Northern Ireland.
Four people made a lasting impression on me as they came to talk with my parents, but also stayed at our house. Looking back it was a period of intense commitment on the part of some English Bahá’ís, that brought David and Marion Hofman, Ernest Gregory and a quite remarkable and vital young man called Daniel Jordan, who was actually an American Rhodes Scholar at Oxford.
At this point it is important to point out that I was an only child. Being an only child has some compensations and some real drawbacks, but whatever else prevails, as an only child you are a part of a very focussed and intense dynamic where you can observe your parents’ life with singular scrutiny, and where you are significantly privy to their conversations and musings without the distraction of other siblings! I was certainly aware that my parents were now engaged in some kind of ‘debate’, and the people who came to stay with us were clearly part of that debate. Marion Hofman seemed to positively glow, and fixed her eyes on you with a loving intensity and interest. She later gave me a copy of a book first published in 1956 called Magnified Be Thy Name. In it she inscribed the words:
“Make him a child of the Kingdom and lead him to the Divine world…”
In my childish hand the following comments were written in the back of the book over the following few years:
Dublin 1956 Met Mr Townshend, one of the Hands of the Cause
6.11.57 Heard about the death of the Gaurdian (sic). Everybody grieved
Summer 1958 Frankfurt Conference. Mummy, Daddy, Tony, Auntie Sheila were there
20th May 1959 Claire Copley pioneered to the Faroe Islands
In the back pinned by a rusting staple is a little cellophane bag of dried flowers. I assume they are from either the Shrine of the Báb or Bahá’u’lláh.
Bahá’í books specifically for children were very few and far between- indeed only two joined my bedroom books – Magnified Be Thy Name and a copy of God and His Messengers inscribed to me by its author, David Hofman, in April 1956. The book was dedicated to his own two children May and Mark, who were to become friends through forthcoming summer schools, which over my childhood and youthful years, cemented both conviction and understanding. For the first time in my life I became aware of the prophet Muhammad, the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh.
Magnified Be Thy Name included some of the most powerful and seminal of extracts under headings which embraced ‘Daily Life’, ‘Service to God’ ‘Justice’ and so on. Within its covers were the ‘Remover of Difficulties ’- ‘Be generous in prosperity and thankful in adversity’ … and that mantra of faith ’O God refresh and gladden my spirit..’ These prayers undoubtedly were to become woven into my life, and the last mentioned, read at my wedding some fifteen years later!
My parents were for six months or so engaged in this deep reflection and investigation of the Bahá’í Faith. I know that my Dad was no push over! Dan Jordan was an extraordinarily bright and gifted young man who made a great impact on my father, and whose insights and knowledge impressed him greatly, but my father challenged and interrogated both him and other Bahá’ís over several months.
Dan became engaged to a vibrant and lovely young Irish woman called Nancy Blair, and on the night of the engagement Dan turned cartwheels in our sitting room. He also introduced me to American popcorn which exploded in a saucepan on our kitchen stove. Dan was an exceptional pianist and managed to break one of our piano’s strings whilst passionately performing Chopin! He was a fascinating mix of academic and creative ability, later to become an education professor at the University of Massachusetts. His doctoral thesis ‘Metamorphosis of the Owls’ was presented as a ballet, designed as an instrument in the diagnosis of mental illness!
I have to say that Dan’s publication in 1968 of a long essay entitled ‘Becoming Your True Self’ remains one of the most compelling and incisive insights into human nature and its potential. He states that for a Bahá’í “becoming one’s true self means the development of one’s knowing and loving capacities in service to mankind.”
All our lives were about the change, maybe indeed moving each of us closer to becoming our true selves! The visits of the people described, coupled with the nurturing of Lady Hornell; the sustained answering of questions and challenges from my parents finally bore fruit. My Dad was in bed with flu, and I was downstairs in the hall, when I heard him literally cry out “This is it!” To this day I do not know exactly what he read or was reading, but I am pretty sure it was The Gleanings. What followed was the declaration of my mother, who had already recognised Bahá’u’lláh and told my father, but was waiting for him to decide, and not long after that, the declarations of my dear grandparents, my mother’s sister, Sheila, and her only son, Tony. Some years later another maternal cousin, Lois Chinn, became a Bahá’í. In those earlier days anyone declaring their faith in Bahá’u’lláh was expected to be talked through the Will and Testament of ‘Abdu’l- Bahá. Lady Hornell in her inimitably rigorous fashion, took my parents one evening through the Will and Testament. I discovered early next morning they had been up most of the night!
What followed on the heels of my parents becoming Bahá’ís was the dawning recognition that Belfast needed strengthening as an LSA. Indeed the existing LSA was held together with the presence of three temporary English pioneers! This was not an uncommon sacrifice in those days.
As it was we lived outside the city boundary.
Marion Hofman happened to be staying with us when my parents independently decided that we would ‘pioneer’ to Belfast. Marion had been upstairs, and on coming down to see my parents was told that they had decided to move. Her face lit up and she said “Do you know I have been upstairs praying for exactly that!”.
We know that with the appearance of the Manifestation in the world of being all things are made new. The whole universe is revolutionised. Well some part of a revolution came to our small family. The move into Belfast was speedy in that having sold our detached house with a large garden we found ourselves in a rented two floor maisonette straddling the corner of a city avenue and street, above a hairdressers’, whose ammonia smell penetrated the floorboards of our dining room. There was no garden, indeed our front door opened directly onto the street. The days of my father’s organic compost gardening were over, as was the subsequent run of fresh vegetables and flowers. I was plucked from the only school I had known, the rural Gilnahirk Primary, to face my 11 plus year in Belfast’s Botanic Primary. At least the school bordered a public park, hence its name.
Within the year my grandfather, only sixty-two, died of a massive heart attack,
and my Auntie Sheila (McCarthy), and cousin Tony(McCarthy) found themselves deserted by my uncle. My parents having not long moved into what was a two bedroom maisonette offered a home to my bereaved grandmother as well as to my aunt and cousin. A nine year old boy, used to the dynamic of a family trio, now shared a room with his cousin, and we were now a family of six! We were a Bahá’í family of six, because as I stated previously, my grandparents, aunt and cousin had all declared themselves Bahá’ís. Within the two year period we lived in this rented home, my father also suffered a terrible haemorrhage, and nearly died, and just a year after my parents’ declarations I returned from school to find the house full of anxious and shaken Bahá’ís. Shoghi Effendi had passed away in London, and I actually saw my father weep for a man I knew he had never met nor personally known, although I knew he treasured a short hand-written note from the Guardian, written to him as either chairman or secretary of the Northern Ireland Teaching Committee. The sheer import and impact of the Guardian’s death was made clear that November afternoon.
As children we are very resilient and caught up very much in the present.
Years later I look back at that time and see an intensity of change which brought sacrifice and some pain, but also an extraordinary dimension into our lives, partly exemplified by a big, world map pinned on our sitting room wall with starbursts of lines radiating across it. The Guardian’s Ten Year Crusade.
I had to share a room with Tony; my aunt shared a room with my grandmother, and my parents had to have divans in what was a quite large sitting room. It was in this sitting room that firesides were held, and I have memories of very large gatherings of Bahá’ís, as well as those investigating the Faith, sharing tea, buttered barn brack, sponge cake and chat. There was a regular ebb and flow of people to our home, and I have to confess seeking escape to my shared room with a copy of The Dandy or Beano. Having an ‘open-house’ could be stimulating; it could also be something from which I wanted to retreat,
but there was no doubt that many of those who came were touched by a real spiritual curiosity and I found myself, on occasion, listening to the ensuing conversations.
My parents were now teaching their new found Faith with fervour. Indeed there was an anecdote about my Dad which suggested that maybe he should be less immediate in asking people, whom he had only just met, had they ever heard of the Bahá’í Faith? He accepted this and from then on, with greater subtlety, said “Good morning/afternoon/evening. Have you ever heard of the Bahá’í Faith?”
I knew that many of his friends and colleagues thought he had lost his senses, and had ‘got religion’. Many imagined it was a phase which would pass, and close friends of both my parents would pour them drinks, in spite of their new refusal of alcohol, thinking they would get round to drinking them at some stage! As a child I recognised the sheer bemusement of my Dad’s family and close friends. I remember once feeling outraged by the rudeness of a vicar my father talked to about the Faith who, on leaving, waved at my father with his hand saying “Baha’i Baha’i”. My Dad was far more patient and controlled,
although this too was an education for me, because in the past I knew my father did not suffer fools gladly! In matters pertaining to the Faith, my father demonstrated remarkable self-control and kindliness.
As recorded in my copy of Magnified Be Thy Name I met George Townshend very soon after my parents’ declaration of faith. He was in a wheelchair I remember. Lady Hornell introduced me, and as I shook his frail, wiry hand, she said “This is Iain. He is a Bahá’í.” George Townshend smiled and chuckled, and it is only in the passing years that I recognise what an honour I had had.
Why did I believe, because believe I did? Was it the adoring trust of a nine year old boy in his parents, particularly in a father who was little short of a hero? Through my mother, not my father, I knew the amazing stories of his war exploits; his role as one of the ‘aces high’ flying heavy bombers on raids into Germany. On my bedroom wall I had hung the rather elegant citation signed by King George VI for the award to my Dad of the Distinguished Service Order and Distinguished Flying Cross. I wondered if George VI knew this was the pilot who had shaken his windows in Northern Ireland!
My Mum had kept a scrap book throughout the War, and in it there were pictures of my Dad’s aircraft – including The Flying Fortress and Lancaster Bombers – and his own air crews had voiced that they would “Follow Mac to hell and back!” I too, entirely trusted my Dad’s judgement, whether it was riding his bike down the hill from my school with me perched on the handlebars, or swimming through jellyfish at Ballyholme Bay with me astride his shoulders. He was clearly captivated by his new found Faith, and both my parents’ lives were now trenchantly committed to promoting and extolling this world embracing Cause.
A couple of years later my parents attended the International Bahá’í Conference in Frankfurt, Germany. My Dad now lived and celebrated the truth of the oneness of humanity, and world peace. When asked by a German Bahá’í if he had ever been to Germany before, he paused for a moment, and then said “Yes. But only at night!”
‘Abdu’l-Bahá describes three kinds of faith. The first is the faith of tradition and He dismisses that; the second is the faith that comes through knowledge and understanding which is fine and good, but what He calls ‘ real faith’ is the faith of practice. This for me as a child was the heart of it. The Bahá’ís I had already met were vibrant, compassionate and unpretentious people who neither patronised me nor excluded me. Indeed in those earlier days children simply pitched up at all the adult events, be they Feasts, Holy Days or firesides. Weekend schools and summer schools were characterised by a striking absence of children’s activities or classes (not always a good thing to have groups of kids roaming or rampaging around), but then you were free to attend memorable talks by the likes of Marion and David Hofman, Betty Reed, Adib Taherzadeh and John Ferraby.
I found as a child that the two singular elements which shaped my own faith were the quality of the lives of the Bahá’ís I knew, and the regular openness of oral question and debate. Maybe it is a more Irish tradition, but I have strong memories of extended meal times and my parents encouraging discussion on religion, moral and social issues. It was through listening to my Dad that I assimilated knowledge about the Faith, as well as honest and wise counsel on steering oneself through life’s challenges, rather like the jellyfish in the waters of Ballyholme Bay!
Jane Villiers-Stuart, an outstandingly dedicated believer, who had become a Bahá’í shortly before my parents, had been, apparently, significantly attracted to the Faith because of the wide social mix of its then Irish adherents. Jane was herself from a landed family, and another Bahá’í was the daughter of an Australian millionaire who had then married into one of Belfast’s prosperous ‘linen’ families – Lisbeth Greeves. I cannot but say what an extraordinary human being Lisbeth was. Her warmth and kindliness positively glowed, and as a child I adored her, but then there was the remarkable John McGinley.
I remember him as an ‘old man’ (probably in his sixties!) who essentially lived in,
what was then known as a doss house. My Dad took me to visit him in this Dickensian lodging with its communal bare wood tables and benches, and its cell-like rooms. John had been a world traveller in his youth, working once as a lumberjack in Canada. He had one particularly endearing habit when reading prayers aloud at the Feast. If he came up against a word he could not pronounce he would momentarily pause and say “Skip it!” As a child I had to suppress my giggles as John might read “All praise be to God! The Most Powerful, the Om..skip it, the Ever-Forgiving”. He also smoked a pipe which he would light up in the social part of the 19 Day Feast much to my grandmother’s disgust. I remember her hoping that John’s pipe would not be accompanying him to the Abha Kingdom!
I have memories of Lady Hornell’s very long devotionals, and for the few children there were in those days, we were not always enamoured of sitting through very substantial readings, and had to avoid catching each other’s eyes. However I remember being captivated by Persian chants, in spite of this being very far from anything I had ever encountered. The Faith, in the fifties, brought to a rather insular and bigoted culture, an almost exotic sense of a world and peoples beyond, and the presence of our Persian/Iranian friends was not only intriguing, but a direct link with the great Central Figures of the Faith, their lives, language and suffering.
Jane Villiers-Stuart’s van bounced us down the rocky road to Dublin to share weekend schools with the southern Irish Friends, taking us across what was then a still policed and armed border. The weekend schools were often held in rather cheap and cheerful hotels which ironically boasted a lively bar. The stale smell of beer would permeate the rooms above where the Bahá’ís were focussed on changing the world!
Adib Taherzadeh was of course our extraordinary eloquent link with the Faith’s history and past, and I can never forget Adib’s remarkably lucid and informed talks which employed memorable analogies and metaphors. There were so few Bahá’ís in those days, but they blazed such a trail for others to follow, and so many of them were characterised by a depth of faith and steadfastness I can never forget. Indeed such was the impact of the Bahá’ís in Belfast, that I once overheard someone say that there were hundreds of Bahai’s in the city!
What were my peers’ reactions? To be honest it was only an issue on a few occasions. I was a choirboy, not in a church choir as such, but in a distinguished, performing choir which occasionally sang in churches at weddings or Christmas carol services. I remember some grumblings in the choir stalls from some boys who thought I should not be in a church, but I was swiftly defended by an older boy whose aunt, ironically, was to investigate the Faith. In my teens, a close school friend became a Bahá’í. His name was Jim Boyles. We met through the school play – Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. I was Cassius to his Brutus. In Northern Ireland there was such a preoccupation of whether you were Catholic or Protestant, which ‘foot you kicked with’ that as a Bahá’í you slipped through the radar in one sense!
My dear cousin, Tony, achieving the highest mark in a Divinity exam (that was what RE was called then) was entitled to the school’s Divinity Prize. A new Head of Divinity had encouraged a little more reference to other faiths beside Christianity within the curriculum. Tony had felt stimulated by this so hence the good mark! Some masters within the school felt he should not get the prize as a non-Christian; however other masters defended him, notably a Quaker, and Tony received his prize, a copy of God Passes By duly stamped with the school’s gold crest on the front! As it was, our school’s maxim was the Latin ‘Quaerere Verum’ – ‘Seek the Truth’.
Joe Watson, Tony’s best friend at school, was to become a Bahá’í, and later the school’s Head Boy, and indeed much later, the Chairman of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Republic of Ireland!
I remember Joe, Tony and myself grinding out copies of an Irish Bahá’í youth magazine on a black-ink-sticky old Gestetner machine!
It is worth noting that at no time did my parents announce that I was not to attend school assemblies, always religious in content, nor did they withdraw me from Divinity lessons. I was undoubtedly struck by this because some other boys of other faiths or beliefs were on occasion pulled out. It was a living testimony to the Faith’s oneness and respect for all religions. This in itself mitigated against any sense of separateness.
When George Townshend published Christ and Bahá’u’lláh in 1957 there was a concerted campaign to both teach and raise the profile of the Faith, and amazingly enough, a prominent Belfast bookshop, Erskine Mayne’s, displayed George Townshend’s book in a specific window display! I remember letters going out to religious ministers of all sorts as well as leaflets being delivered, inviting people to a public meeting on ‘The Most Challenging and Controversial Book of the Century’. I helped deliver leaflets. As I was walking down a road I was pursued by a Catholic priest who brandished the leaflet in my face saying how dare I post this through his door! I was ten years old.
When my parents became Bahá’ís the Northern Ireland community were very much centred on Belfast, but as the years moved on other local Spiritual Assemblies were raised and my childhood was rooted in the process of ‘pioneering’ and establishing these divine institutions. It was a further dimension to my young life that I should know my parents harboured a desire for overseas pioneering. I remember feeling distinctly uncertain of this, but as it was, their move to India came after I had married.
The culmination of the Guardian’s Ten Year Crusade was eagerly and excitedly anticipated because two mighty events were to happen – the World Congress and the election of the first Universal House of Justice. As a ten year old I knew that I would be sixteen in 1963 – a quantum leap in age and maturity as far as I was concerned! Roll on I thought! We would all be going to Baghdad for the World Congress, so that was truly exotic! No one imagined that the Guardian would not be there to see this titanic fulfilment of Bahá’u’lláh’s vision. Of course two things radically shifted. The Guardian’s premature passing and the decision to hold the World Congress in London.
With the passing of the Guardian the Faith was literally protected and sustained by the Hands of the Cause. They only followed to the letter the Guardian’s guidance for the remaining part of the Ten Year Crusade, and several became the ‘Hands Residing in the Holy Land’ where later the first International Bahá’í Council was established. It was they with Ruhiyyih Khanum who so courageously and unwaveringly weathered the storm of Mason Remey breaking the Covenant. Indeed I remember my Dad receiving a letter from a Covenant Breaker arguing the case for Mason Remey as Guardian. The letter was swiftly destroyed.
My parents decided we should go on pilgrimage in March 1962.
I was excused school for a couple of weeks, because my father decided we would travel overland to Greece and then by boat to Haifa! We crossed the Irish sea by plane, then boat across the channel to Belgium, and then across Europe by train through Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia and into Greece. Three days in a train! It was March and in Yugoslavia we were without heat or water for a day, and the view from the train window revealed only acre upon acre of sodden mud! When we finally arrived in Athens we were exhausted and pretty dirty! We showered and changed in an Athens hotel, visited the Acropolis, and then transferred to the Italian ship taking us to Haifa. On climbing aboard, literally, we were warmly received with the words “You have had a long journey from Ireland. We would like to upgrade you to First Class”!
Arriving in Haifa by boat was an unique experience. It was morning, and as we glided into the harbour, the golden dome of the Shrine of the Báb gleamed against a cold blue sky. This was how so many of the early pilgrims arrived, but without the golden dome or Archives building until the early fifties, however it had a romance now denied pilgrims.
We were met at the quay by Jessie Revell, our pilgrim guide, and taken to the Western Pilgrim House opposite the House of ‘Abdul Bahá. There was a large hall from which our rooms branched off and at each end were the small apartment homes of Leroy and Sylvia Ioas and John and Dorothy Ferraby.
We ate downstairs in a basement dining room where, I think, in past years, the Guardian received and ate with the pilgrims.
I was pushing my suitcase under my bed which faced the open door of my room when I spied shoes standing the other side of the doorway. I popped my head up above the side of the bed and found myself looking at Rúhíyyih Khánum. She said “Hello. Do you know anything about bubbles in varnish? I have just varnished a table, and it has dried out with these little bubbles on the surface.” I hesitated for a split second, realising that if I did know about bubbles on varnished tables, Khánum was about to ask me to accompany her across the road to the House of ‘Abdu’l Bahá, her home. I brightly said “I’ll have a look for you,” with as much false expertise as I could muster.
There then followed for a fifteen year old boy a quite surreal experience as I trotted behind Rúhíyyih Khánum, and up the steps to the great hallway of ‘Abdu’l Baha’s house, to check out a table with bubbly varnish. My expert opinion was that she should re-sand it and start again.
She was truly wonderful. She was so elegant yet accessible, so dignified yet unpretentious, with a sharp sense of humour. A highly intelligent, engaging lady who later in the pilgrimage invited me and my parents for lunch with her. All these years later I am still in awe of what happened.
It was the closing days of the Bahá’í fast when we arrived, but as travellers we were not expected to fast. We were a very small band of Western pilgrims – my parents, Mr and Mrs Semple (Ian Semple’s parents) a Dr Edris Rice-Wray and me! Edris Rice-Wray was then a member of the National Spiritual Assembly of Mexico as well as being an eminent scientist who had worked for the World Health Authority, and whose significant contribution was in the field of family planning.
We had daily contact with the Hands of the Cause, in particular Leroy Ioas, Paul Haney, John Ferraby, Mr Faizi and Mr Furutan. I have an abiding memory of standing on the Mount Carmel temple site – still undeveloped – in a March dusk listening to the words of Leroy Ioas, a wonderfully warm-hearted and gracious man, outlining the future of the Faith, and ‘Abdul-Bahá’s vision of Haifa.
In those days, with so few pilgrims at any one time, we were allowed to stay in Bahji for two nights. I slept in what had been, the scholar, Abul Fazl’s room. The bed was bang in the middle of the room – rather strange and unsettling sleeping in a bed isolated in the middle of a room! Jessie Revell asked me the next day how I had slept. I told her badly! Indeed on waking in the middle of the night I felt impelled to leave the room, cross the great central hallway of the Mansion, and enter the far room where Bahá’u’lláh had received Edward Granville Browne. A light burned all night just above the door of Bahá’u’lláh’s room, and I remembered as Browne had entered it, he did not at first see Bahá’u’lláh, as he was seated to the side of a long divan. I froze at the doorway quite unable to move, as I sensed that Bahá’u’lláh might be sitting, hidden within! Quite unable to move forward or backward for some seconds, I eventually retreated very nervously back to Abul Fazl’s room and the rather spooky bed. The sight of Bahá’u’lláh’s fez and cloak in the room, earlier in the day, made for me that night, one of the most compelling and awesome experiences of that teenage pilgrimage. You can’t do that any more! Nor can you hold the sword of Mulla Husayn nor the original Bayan as I was able to do in the Archives Building. Those items were shortly to be sealed up for protection.
The impact of that pilgrimage on me was immense. I was not only walking through a history I had been told about through countless talks and conversations with Bahá’ís, but I was enamoured by the love, friendship, wisdom and humour of some extraordinary human beings , whose vision, selflessness, courage and dedication left a print on me for life. Real people who simply sacrificed their daily lives for this nascent Faith.
My parents’ total commitment to their Faith and that shaping force is interestingly captured in a very recent Message of the Universal House of Justice (December 28th 2010) when they wrote: “What needs to be appreciated… is the extent to which young minds are affected by the choices parents make for their own lives…”
Of course young people kick against the traces, and my own father once said to me that there might be something wrong with youth who did not rebel or challenge. It is the measure with which an older generation meets challenge and reasons with it, and equally avoids some underlying note of disapproval or disappointment, that determines the proper balance.
In my late teenage years, now a relatively independent student living alone in London, I earnestly shared my angst with my father about the struggles of being a Bahá’í, and my doubts at being able to sustain it. He paused, looked at me, and said, “Do you believe in Bahá’u’lláh?”
“Of course I do. Nothing could change that.”
“Then you are a Bahá’í.”
That ’expectation of sincere daily effort’ (UHJ – 2010) must ring succinctly true for most of us.
It is finally to the Universal House of Justice that I turn, and its first appearance at that epic Congress in 1963 at the Royal Albert Hall.
I was sixteen years old and had volunteered to help with book sales. My Dad had been elected to the British National Spiritual Assembly in 1962, and Betty Reed, its Secretary at that time, was someone I really warmed to. She allowed me to voluntarily work in the National Office over what was my Easter holiday, and share a very minor role in the preparations for the World Congress in London.
I remember the awe-struck moment of entering an empty Royal Albert Hall, and raising my gaze ever slowly upward, taking in tier upon tier of gilt and red velvet. I could not comprehend that this vast auditorium would be filled with Bahá’ís from all over the globe, but filled it was!
When the very newly elected, first Universal House of Justice stood before a packed Hall, I had deliberately taken myself up to the very highest gallery, so that I might look down on this staggering sight. Those distant nine figures, heads bowed, stock still, as thousands upon thousands of encircling world Bahá’ís stood and applauded them.
Later, and back at 27 Rutland Gate, the Universal House of Justice was going to meet in the National Assembly’s Meeting Room. Betty decided that her golden teapot and prize china were to grace their refreshment break. “And Iain you are going to carry it in”, she cheerfully instructed. I was part-excited and part-terrified. My great friend Marianne Mihaeloff, who was Betty’s secretary, assisted me with the tea preparations in the back kitchen of Rutland Gate. I set off up the stairs with a tray gripped in sweating palms, the golden teapot glowing amongst the china. As I neared the door something akin to my feelings outside the Bahji room of Bahá’u’lláh overwhelmed me. I froze and slowly retreated having to ask Marianne to do the honours rather than me. So a unique experience was lost, but I have never been so sure of the station of the Universal House of Justice, as at that moment!
Being the child of very committed and hard-working Bahá’í parents can create a duality of experience. There were times when I craved my parents more selfishly for myself; was disappointed when their Bahá’í commitments did not allow them to be with me for more personal events. From the first moment of their declaration our lives were to be aligned with the needs of the Faith, and for a child that involved some measure of sacrifice as well as for them, but, and it is an emphatic but, they opened for me a breadth of life and living like no other, a life that was touched by great, formative events, events which even within my short lifetime I can see as truly historic, and part of an ‘unfolding destiny’ for all humanity.
Lady Hornell’s inscribed words to me in The Gleanings in 1957 profoundly resonate:
“He hath indeed, partaken of this highest gift of God who hath recognised His manifestation in this Day”…. Bahá’u’lláh
Norfolk, May 2011