I had been raised in Middlesex and Sussex, in what was probably a typical 1950’s lower-middle class family, with a brother a year older and a Mum and Dad who took it for granted that religion could be equated only with the Church of England, or, in more radical moments, the Baptists. I remember my frustration at never getting satisfactory answers from them, or from the churches we occasionally attended, or from my junior and senior schools, when I asked what seemed to me reasonable questions about why God did this or how he dealt with all those millions who aren’t Christians. No – you put ‘C of E’ on admin forms, asked no searching questions, and accepted the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Queen (but not the Pope!) as the ones who were in the know.
I guess that from the age of about four, my approach to God came from a feeling that there was some Greater Truth Out There, and from a sense of wonder at the natural world: not big events like earthquakes and thunderstorms, but small ones like the shimmer of morning dew, the growth of a plant from a seed, the glow of a backlit leaf, evening light striking the side of a building, shadows, birdsong. (Much of my life as a photographer has been spent trying to convey this sense of wonder.) I couldn’t – and indeed still can’t – work out why God invented diseases or mosquitoes (!) but accept Abdul-Baha’s explanation that they help prevent an over-attachment to the material world. Anyway, I always felt much closer to God, or some supreme force, when standing in a wood rather than in a cathedral. I could be awestruck by the splendour and skill of such buildings (although I always felt more at home in a small country church), and could be moved by the dedication of some of their worshippers, but spiritually I found I was left wanting something more.
My teenage years were as riddled with uncertainty and frustration and wonder and discovery as are most people’s (in fact, that probably describes me today, too, in my 60’s!) – but what little photography I could afford from my newspaper round kept me in touch with my attempts to capture, on film, that elusive something, paralleled by my rejection of a blind acceptance of unthinking faith. Another reason to think about the meaning of life came when Mum gave birth (after a 16 year gap) to my twin sisters!
As a student, as well as pursuing my regular studies, I began searching more earnestly for ‘an answer’. I read up on many of the world’s religions and philosophies, still keeping what I hope was open mind and free spirit. I met and subsequently married Wendy, who was generally more relaxed about the C of E upbringing she had enjoyed, and who saw little need to ‘rock the religious boat’. In one book, I came across mention of the Baha’i Faith, so I tracked down the address of the London National Office (how immediate all this would be now, courtesy of the internet!) and wrote, asking for information. It was when I received some leaflets that Wendy said that she’d been taken to the Wilmette House of Worship. She had been impressed by the building and the Faith’s principles, but had not given the Faith much further thought.
The National Office, meanwhile, had informed the local LSA, at Winchester, of my enquiry, and David and Barbara Lewis contacted me, inviting me / us to a ‘fireside’. We went, and they and others – the three Newman sisters, Wyn Pratley, Peter and Sandy Jenkins – were warmly welcoming, and lent me some books. Pressures at work prevented my getting straight into those books, but when a few weeks later, we were invited back, I began reading John Ferraby’s All things made new. Wow! Here, packaged in a single volume, were many of the answers I’d been seeking all my life. It all made sense! I quickly moved on to Gleanings and felt that this was the pure source of spirituality, untainted by man’s interception or misinterpretation – the clearest essence of religion. Then it was The Book of Certitude, and this blew me away with its direct and uncluttered way of putting the world’s religions, and our lives, into context – including the encompassing nature of the Baha’i Faith without the slightest belittling of other faiths.
My main question to David Lewis at this point was, “How good a person do you have to be, before you can become a Baha’i?” Typically, he laughed, and said no-one would ever become a Baha’i if they waited until they were good enough! The purity of the spiritual teachings and the comprehensiveness and logic of the social principles completely satisfied my heart and my head – so I soon declared (in 1971). Wendy’s approach, meanwhile, was mainly through the social principles, and she declared several months later.
I was due, by this time, to take up a place at the College of Librarianship Wales, Aberystwyth, and after a first year in rented accommodation Bahais Derwent and Nora Maude ‘lent’ us their house (and dog and tortoises!) whilst they pioneered with son Tim to Africa. I became Local Spiritual Assembly Secretary there, and held various Local Spiritual Assembly and Bahai Journal and Reviewing Panel posts when we returned to Hampshire, and thence to Hertfordshire, before we settled in Norfolk in 1985. It was a joy when one of my sisters, living by then in the USA, became a Baha’i, and a sadness that neither my nor Wendy’s parents ever showed any real interest.
A career in library management (and major cancer surgery) later, I still wobble through my fog, hoping for a glimpse of that bright light, still toiling at the photography, and still jolly glad that David Lewis said not to wait until you’re a good person!
Dennis Reader – Norfolk, February 2012