I have never tried to write this down before, the story of how I came across the Bahá’í Faith, and subsequently became a Bahá’í in 1976, already 35 years ago. – Sarah
In order for the story to make sense, I have to start with some idea of the family background I came from. I was born into a family which was best described as nominally Anglican, like so many in England at that time (the early 50s). My father was a pathologist, and my mother a professional violinist, and our home was filled with classical music and books. My mother provided the music, and we all learned various instruments, and my father had a library to which he was constantly adding. There were books all over the house, including in the toilets – everything from classic fiction to chess to poetry to architecture. I should add that the men in my family on both sides had been in the army and the navy in India – so Raj on both sides. My mother was born in Peshawar in what was then the North West Frontier Province of India – now Pakistan. Her parents had married in Bombay (Mumbai) during my grandfather’s posting to Peshawar with the Army Education Corps. My father was born in Rochester in Kent. However, his mother had been born in India and her parents had married there in Secunderabad. My grandmother was therefore probably Anglo-Indian. My father’s father was an naval engineer in the Royal Indian Navy who died in Aden (now Yemen) in 1921 when my father was seven.
My father was a spiritual seeker. He had a collection of books on the Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) in the days when very few people outside the Jewish community would have known what it was. He read deeply, and thought deeply. One path he followed was that of Freemasons. He rarely communicated with us, but lived in a world of his own inside his head, with his books. In another era, he would have been a scholar, or clergyman or if he had had a private income; he would have lived quietly with his books, astonishing his neighbours with his knowledge and learning. He was nominally Anglican, but did not seem to be particularly attached to the church, and walked a path of search throughout his life.
During my teens I had had a short time of quite intense religious belief, and was confirmed in the Church of England and attended communion for a couple of years. The questions that I started to ask I could not find answers to, and eventually I left the church and went through several years of atheism and slightly left wing politics although not in any active sense. As a child I had had a very strong sense that somewhere there must be an ideal way, a perfect way, of organizing human society. After leaving the church I made the classic mistake of throwing the baby out with the bathwater and assumed that religion could not provide an answer to the complex and vexed issues of, for example, social justice and gender equality. By my early 20s I had come to the conclusion that politics did not hold the answer either – as I looked at what seemed to be the equally problematic right and left wing political ideologies. As for the question of who are we and what are we supposed to be doing here on this earth, I had no answer at all. Being the early 70s, there was plenty of diversion on offer to distract me from the inner emptiness of my life.
After studying science at Manchester university and natural resource economics at Cambridge, I went to work at Shell in London, as an economist in the global long term planning division. I started there in October 1973 in the week the Arab-Israeli war broke out, and the oil price started its meteoric rise. It was all very exciting, and at that time there were very few professional women working in what was a heavily male-dominated industry. The few of us there were quickly got to know each other, and that was how I met my first Bahá’í, Jyoti Munsiff, one of Shell’s international legal team. Jyoti was a very vivid and memorable personality, and we became good friends.
INVESTIGATION OF THE FAITH
At some point Jyoti told me that she was a Bahá’í, and never having heard of it, I asked what it was. She gave me a brief explanation and I asked one or two questions. And that was that for the time being. That first taste of the Faith left me with the feeling that at least this religion was sensible. Occasionally the subject would come up again, but Jyoti understood the extreme reticence of the English when it comes to religion and spiritual subjects, and she never gave more than brief answers. At one point I asked for a book, but she kept ‘forgetting’ to give it to me, which was a very clever tactic. English people are terrified of being pressured, and she was doing exactly the opposite.
At this point, I return to my father. I was by this time sufficiently curious about the Faith to want to know if he had heard of it, and if so, what he thought. I had great faith in his judgement in spiritual matters. So in early 1976 I asked him, and he said that he had not heard of it, and that was that. What I did not know at the time was that he was already suffering from the brain tumour which would kill him a few months later. Because of his response, I did not then take my exploration of the Faith any further although I did find it strange that he did not ask me more about it.
However, after his passing at the end of July 1976, I had the overwhelming feeling that he was still around, that he still existed. This intense feeling lasted for several days, and did not make sense in my atheist belief system. So it was at that point that I started a serious spiritual search. And I decided to start with the Bahá’í Faith as it ‘at least sounded sensible’. I declared on November 1st 1976. The search was short and intense. What I then realized was that my father had searched all his life for the truth, but having failed to find it, he passed on to me after his death the priceless privilege of the discovery of the Manifestation of God for this Age.
During those three amazing months of intense searching, I did not talk to Jyoti, as I wanted to search by myself (although when I decided to sign a declaration card I went to her flat to sign it). I went to the wonderful firesides at Earl and Audrey Cameron’s house in London, and I went to the regular weekly meetings at Rutland Gate and heard the most inspiring speakers – Hands of the Cause, as well as Members of the Universal House of Justice and Counsellors who were passing through London. I was so lucky to be living in the city which was, and still is, the place which is one of the great crossing points and meeting places of the world.
So why did I declare my faith in Bahá’u’lláh?
I read three books – The Renewal of Civilization by David Hofman, The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh by Shoghi Effendi and the Hidden Words. But it did not take long before I realized in a very complete way, that my questions about the Faith would always be answered, and always in a way that was in accord with my understanding and my deepest need to find answers. There were 3 things which attracted me overwhelmingly to the Faith. The first was the teaching of progressive revelation – the recognition that all the major religions are from God. I had never been able to take seriously the claims to finality of Christianity, or any of the other major religions for that matter. How can anyone believe that someone will burn in hell for being a Hindu when many Hindus live exemplary lives showing kindness and courtesy and truthfulness, and in any case, may not have heard about the other religions.
Secondly, I was fascinated, and still am, with the Bahá’í Administration, which answered all the questions I had ever had about how human society should be governed and therefore answered my childhood quest for a perfect system. It was as if I could finally forget about different political systems, all of which seemed deeply flawed, and now I could see why they were so flawed. I read in Paris Talks that “Men should hold in their souls the vision of celestial perfection, and there prepare a dwelling-place for the inexhaustible bounty of the Divine Spirit.” Finally I had found the “vision of celestial perfection”.
Thirdly, the equality of men and women. Without that teaching I would never have become a Bahá’í, and the lack of gender equality in the Church was the major reason why I left the Church in my late teens. In particular I could not understand why women could not be priests. Of course, after discovering the Faith, I realized that I was asking completely the wrong question, and should have asked “Why priests at all?”
However, even with those three marvellous beliefs, the final hurdle was that although I could see how wonderful, how deeply satisfying, how marvellously internally consistent, how intellectually clear, how humane, the teachings are, I still did not believe in God. If God exists, why would He create us, and create us the way we are? Someone, I cannot remember whom, had recommended The Hidden Words to me, which I had not yet read. One day I sat down in my favourite coffee shop in Baker Street (at this time I was studying for an MBA at London Business School in Regents Park) and started reading The Hidden Words. I read the first one, and loved it. I read the second one about justice, and said YES!! to myself, and then I read the third one and believed. It was so simple.
O Son of Being
Veiled in My immemorial being and in the ancient eternity of my essence, I knew My love for thee, therefore I created thee, have graven on thee My image and revealed to thee My beauty.
And so I understood why God had created us – He had created us out of love, and that was the start of the spiritual journey of which I had just taken the first few steps. Rather than jumping up and down, I felt above all a marvellous sense of coming home to where I truly belonged. I have often described becoming a Bahá’í as like finding the right map. Working out how to correctly read the map and make the journey is a lifelong task, but at least I know where I am trying to get to and have complete faith in the map, even if I make some frustrating detours along the way. This attitude contrasts strongly with some evangelical churches, who teach that to say “I believe” is enough. It is not. It is through a lifelong effort of trying to acquire spiritual qualities as in the example of ‘Abdu’l Bahá, and of giving service to the human race.
Sarah Mar (née Vincent)
Cheltenham, November 2011
The story of Sarah’s subsequent life as a Bahá’í, pioneering activities and family life, will follow in a later instalment. – Ed