I declared my faith in Bahá’u’lláh on the first day of the month of Jamál, shortly before sunset on the 28th of April 1986, in the sitting room of my friend’s family home on the High Street in the Market town of Stalham in the district of North Norfolk. I wouldn’t be writing this now if it wasn’t for the genuine love and friendship of this family and in particular the wisdom and kindness of my Baha’i teacher Tom; therefore I would beg the reader’s indulgence if I briefly explain how they came to be there.
When I first met them, the large Georgian house (now number 92), almost opposite St. Mary’s Church, was not only Tom’s family home but also a craft shop, picture framers, and pottery. Tom had bought the derelict property in 1963 to set up home and establish a full-scale craft pottery. The sculptor Matthew Frere-Smith and his young family were already living in Stalham. He had already embraced the Faith mainly through the efforts of Bob Cheek, who would ride out from Norwich on his motorbike and side-car with Bahá’í books for him to study. When Matthew heard about Tom’s plans he wasted no time in visiting the new craftsman potter in town and was very impressed with how he was setting up his workshop. “This is serious!” he commented. Tom became friends with the Frere-Smith family and through Matthew, began to learn something of the Faith.
Tom, who grew up in Fulham, London, already knew of the Faith’s existence. He remembers seeing an advert for it in the carriage of an underground train in the early 1960s. In 1963, when he was living at Marchmont Street, near King’s Cross Station in London, he can remember bumping into crowds of people, on a few consecutive early mornings, who were wearing badges with ‘Bahá’í Word Congress’ printed on them. The area then was full of cheap hotels and guest houses. They seemed to be of almost every race and colour and very cheerful. In those days Tom was starting his career as a craftsman potter. In 1961 The Arts Council of Britain held a retrospective exhibition in London of the work of Bernard Leach called Fifty Years a Potter. Tom was so moved by the pots, his desire to touch them (which he couldn’t resist) so strong, and his general demeanour so enthusiastic that the person invigilating the exhibition thought it wise, for the safety of the exhibits, to ask him to leave! Also exhibited in one of the glass cases was a printed pamphlet about Bernard Leach’s religious beliefs – he was a Bahá’í.
However, these fragmented incidents didn’t persuade Tom to investigate the Faith. It was only years later when Matthew’s eldest son, Claude, who by then had also become a Bahá’í, came to study in his pottery as an apprentice that he became seriously interested. Teaching and working with this youth at close quarters over a long period of time, observing his character and spiritual qualities, Tom became convinced of the truth of the new Message and became a very active and enthusiastic member of the Bahá’í community.
When I first got to know the family, Tom would be taking care of the craft shop and, when it was empty of customers, would either be picture framing or working in the pottery. At Christmas time in 1984 I moved back home from London to help my mother nurse my terminally ill father. I joined the local cycling club, ‘Great Yarmouth and Gorleston Wheelers’ and most Sunday mornings would begin by cycling the 15 miles to the market place in Great Yarmouth to join the club’s regular cycle-ride. My father died on the 3rd of May 1985. The previous evening I had competed in my first bicycle race, the club’s ‘Evening Ten’, a time trial against the clock for ten miles. My ride of 26 and a half minutes was good enough to win. During the years following my father’s death, cycle racing became something of an obsession and a passion. Unbeknown to me Tom also, since his youth, shared a love of everything cycling.
My initial encounter with Tom took place when I entered his shop for the first time to ask if he would frame and try to sell some of my artwork. As I crossed the threshold a man sitting behind a small counter at the rear began reciting some verses or poetry to me. Except for Tom and myself the shop was empty. “What do you think of that?” he asked. “Very nice”, I replied, not having really caught the words echoing across the room. I was more aware of my first impressions of a man who I instantly categorized as, at best, rather odd, and at worst, a bit of a weirdo and best to be avoided. He looked at my pictures and promised to do what he could. As I left he walked out with me and invited me to come round for tea so he could explain more about the verses he had been reading to me. My imagination conjured up a vision of us both sitting cross-legged on a carpet, chanting, with a steaming concoction of herbs in a tea pot between us which bore little resemblance in colour or fragrance to PG Tips. “I don’t think so!” I thought to myself.
Months passed and although I wasn’t really looking forward to returning to the shop, eventually I did need to find out if he had sold any of my pictures; so I went back.
No luck with the artwork, and this time he didn’t mention any strange verses or invite me for tea, but I did see, hanging on the wall at the back of the shop, a very beautiful racing bike – an ‘Alan’ aluminium road racing bike, a real classic (and now a collector’s item). And so we discovered that we had a love of cycling and bicycles in common. Well, he can’t be all bad, I thought to myself.
My parents had moved to Norfolk in 1967 when my father, who worked for BP, was posted to Great Yarmouth where the company was launching its search for oil and gas in the North Sea. The village of Hickling, seventeen miles to the north, was chosen as an ideal place to set up home and raise the family. We lived close to Hickling Broad in the area known as Hickling Heath. I enjoyed a rather idyllic childhood, learning to sail, canoe, row and ice-skate (weather permitting) on the Broad.
The BP workshop where my father worked was right next to the sea, near the river mouth, and most lunch times he would go for a walk along the beach. He got into the habit of collecting little pieces of broken, coloured, glass which had been worn smooth by the action of the sand and sea. Over the years he managed to collect a small sack full. He was quite an artistic man at heart. Perhaps he planned to create something with the glass in the future. But at the time of his death he hadn’t ever made use of it. I hadn’t seen the sack of glass for years and didn’t have any idea where it was, but guessed it would be in one of our sheds or outbuildings.
After leaving Secondary School in 1977 I began five years of full time art education first at Great Yarmouth College of Art and Design followed by three years at Winchester School of Art where I gained an Honours Degree in Fine Art. At the time of my father’s death I was unemployed, living on the dole and drinking too much. My life was going nowhere; I had no plans, no beliefs, no moral fibre, no ambition and no sense of my place in the scheme of things. The death of my father helped to concentrate my mind on the hopelessness of my situation, which was compounded by my lack of will and vision to change it. My feeling of desperation came to a head in the winter of 1985.
As Christmas was approaching I had managed to sell some drawings to people in the village, but they needed framing. I phoned Tom and asked if he could do the framing before Christmas. He told me afterwards that a funny thing happened. He had already made the decision to stop taking in any more framing work to be completed before the Christmas holidays. But when I asked him if he could do the work for me, the word “Yes” came out of his mouth. After he put the phone down he realised he had meant to say no.
The idea came to me to create a piece of artwork using my father’s glass collection. It would be nice to make use of it after all this time, in his memory, as it were. But first I needed to find it. Our large back garden contained one very large building and two smaller sheds. (In one of these my old canoe, which I hadn’t used for several years, was in storage.) I had an idea that the sack was in the largest building, but it could have been anywhere, or even lost. So, with all the shed keys in my pocket, I went first to the large building. I had a good look around where I thought I might find it, but it wasn’t there. As I stood, thinking hard where to look next, I raised my hands in desperation and, in jest, asked my father, out loud, “Where’s the glass, Dad?”.
Of course nothing happened. But a few moments later something changed. I began to feel rather strange. What I experienced next probably all happened within the space of a couple of seconds. My consciousness seemed to expand. I became aware, firstly, of everything around me inside the whole building where I stood, following which I noticed the birds singing outside and all the landscape. Gradually it was as though I could perceive the whole world. Then everything seemed to turn on its head. This world seemed to be at the point of an upturned pyramid or cone, so infinitesimal that it didn’t really exist at all. Reality, on the other hand, was in the other direction, going upwards and outwards, infinite and golden. It just went on and on. The further you went it just got bigger and bigger, brighter and brighter.
Was I dying, where was I going? I felt overwhelmed, crushed and very scared. As I fought to gain some self control, and bring myself back down to earth again, a buzzing sensation filled my head. I was breathless, trembling and terrified. I had to get outside and breathe some fresh air, I thought to myself. I went out of the building, staggered up the back garden and found myself at the door of another shed. I unlocked the door and stepped in. Stored in the rafters I saw my old canoe and remembered that I had planned to do some canoeing in the near future. Ah! Perhaps unconsciously I was here to get the canoe out in preparation to clean it up and take it down to the Broad. But walking in, I ignored the canoe and passed it to the right. It was almost dark inside as I stumbled my way around to the farthest, darkest, corner where I stopped and stood motionless for a moment. I then leant forward and in one movement, bent down a bit, reached out with my hand and felt it touch something – a piece of plastic – which I pulled back to reveal a package inside, wrapped in clear plastic. I was just able to make out in the gloom that this parcel was full of little bits of glass – the glass I had been looking for! I had forgotten all about my search. Then I remembered what I had just asked my father minutes earlier. I went back outside and walked up and down the back garden for some time to get more fresh air and to try to gain some composure. Then I went indoors for several cups of sweet tea. I felt a little calmer but completely drained, exhausted and rather ill so I went to bed.
The next morning I didn’t feel too bad. It all seemed rather like a strange dream.
Had it really happened how I remembered? I went back out to the shed and, yes, there was the sack of glass exactly where I remembered finding it. Life seemed to go on as normal but I didn’t share my experience with anyone.
Shortly before Christmas Tom phoned up and asked if he could deliver the framed pictures. He arrived but instead of just dropping off the pictures he asked, in a very concerned and sympathetic tone, how I was feeling. A strange question from a man I didn’t really know. I invited him in. As we sat at the kitchen table I unburdened my soul and shared the story of my strange experience. Tom then proceeded to tell me a story in return. Many years earlier he had a paranormal experience in which he had felt similar emotions. The odd thing was that, as he was telling me his story, the same feelings began to well up again inside me a little bit. He left, but assured me that his door was always open if I felt he could be of any help. I began visiting Tom regularly for a chat. I would make the tea, watch him potting or picture framing, and make myself useful. We quickly became friends.
The weeks that followed became increasingly strange. It was as if some invisible hand was turning the volume control of my feelings – the same feelings I had experienced in the shed. It was like being inflated with every negative emotion you can think of – fear, panic, powerlessness, anxiety, etcetera etcetera. It might last for a minute or half an hour; happen once a day or several times a day. It could occur anywhere: sitting with friends enjoying a drink in the pub or when I was on my own. I must be losing my mind, going mad maybe, I thought. Tom didn’t seem overly concerned but would do his best to help me to see it as a spiritual journey that I had to go through. We began talking a little bit about his religion. As the days passed, the moments when I was feeling ‘ill’ seemed to increase in duration, frequency, and intensity until in the end I felt the feelings very intensely nearly all the time. I felt I was at breaking point and wasn’t sure how long I could go on like this.
One particular day, and evening, things seemed to reach a peak; or rather a pit would be a better description. After a very broken night’s sleep I awoke and, as was my usual habit, did a self-assessment of how I was feeling. Yes, it was still there. Very, very strong. But something was different. It slowly began to dawn on me that I felt rather good. No, I felt absolutely fantastic. The feeling was still there and very intense but replacing all the negative emotions were positive ones. I felt calm, happy, relaxed, empowered and most of all full of love. I got out of bed very carefully in case it went away, but it didn’t. As I went about my normal daily life everything took on a new significance because I seemed to be in love with everyone and everything. Nothing was too much trouble and every task was performed with joy and gladness. I couldn’t pass a person in the street without greeting them with a big smile and genuine affection. In fact it was an effort to wipe a smile off my face so as not to appear rather peculiar.
Later, the same day, I went round to see Tom to give him the good news that I was not only feeling better, but better than I had ever felt in my life. I stayed the whole evening and returned home quite late. Just before I left, he placed a small red book in my hand and suggested I might like to borrow it. I took it and cycled home through the night. Instead of going straight to bed I sat at the kitchen table and, just out of curiosity, opened the little red book and began to read a few lines. Then another strange thing happened. It was as though someone hit me gently, but firmly, on the top of the head with a huge rubber mallet. I had the feeling of waking up, as if all my previous life I had been asleep. The printed words on the page of the book seemed like the surface of a vast and fathomless ocean of truth and wisdom. Whatever it was, I knew that it was completely true and infallible. Therefore the author must also be true and infallible. The small red book, which I still have, was The Hidden Words.
It wasn’t long before I felt like a member of the family. Tom took a keen interest in my cycling career and would give advice on training methods. He would create goals, support me when he could at cycling events and even offer little incentives, just for a bit of fun, for a particularly good race result. I remember receiving a ‘Mafac’ tool kit (a miniature, portable, tool kit for cyclists made in France) as a prize for the first time I got under 23 minutes for a 10 mile time trial. Those days seemed full of happiness and fun – bicycle rides, outings, cafés, visiting friends, sharing meals, talking into the night. He also encouraged me to find some work. Through a friend, he managed to get me a job at a printing firm in Great Yarmouth. It was my first real, full-time job.
As I mentioned earlier, alcohol was, and had been, an important part of my life for a long time. Most evenings were passed in a pub drinking beer, but after my spiritual awakening, another strange thing happened. Although for a while I would have the odd pint with friends, to be sociable, eventually I developed an aversion to alcohol – long before I declared my Faith. At some point, when I was still having the odd pint now and then, I became aware that Bahá’ís didn’t drink. Tom’s advice was, “Don’t worry, enjoy it while you can”.
I began sharing my new Faith with friends. I remember on one occasion sitting in a café in Floral Street in Covent Garden with two old friends from my student days in Winchester. During the conversation one of my companions asked me what the name of the Founder of the Faith was. I told him, and as the word came out of my mouth I had the sensation of something descending and enveloping me. I felt like I was in a little spiritual bubble all of my own surrounded by joy and light. I was unaware in those days of the following quotation from the writings of Bahá’u’lláh:
“By the righteousness of God! Whoso openeth his lips in this Day and maketh mention of the name of his Lord, the hosts of Divine inspiration shall descend upon him from the heaven of My name, the All-Knowing, the All-Wise. On him shall also descend the Concourse on high, each bearing aloft a chalice of pure light. Thus hath it been foreordained in the realm of God’s Revelation, by the behest of Him Who is the All- Glorious, the Most Powerful.”
But of course these carefree days couldn’t last forever. I was gradually coming back down to earth again. My life was going to change, I would face opposition, prejudice, tests and challenges. I sensed it wasn’t going to be easy, but rather a life of uphill struggle.
Everything then seemed to be coloured by the recent experiences of the believers in Iran. Many had been killed or imprisoned since the 1979 revolution. On 18th June 1983, less than three years earlier, the ten female martyrs of Shiraz had been executed. This was a serious business.
A decision lay ahead of me that wasn’t going away – to formally accept the Bahá’í Teachings and officially join the community. On the one hand I wasn’t religious and I wasn’t the type of person who likes joining things, but on the other, I knew that the Faith was true. Referring to His own Book, the Bayán, the Báb has written the following:
“If thou art of them that truly believe, thou hast no other alternative than to bear allegiance unto it. This is the Way of God for all the inhabitants of earth and heaven and all that lieth betwixt them. No God is there but Me, the Almighty, the Inaccessible the Most Exalted.”
During many a mile cycling along the lanes of Norfolk, often on my own and sometimes with Tom, I pondered these questions and challenges. Several weeks followed during which I slowly discovered what it was I believed in, as I gradually learned the basics of the Faith. Tom gave me more books to read. I began praying and found the Tablet of Visitation of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá particularly moving and empowering. Tom put absolutely no pressure on me and told me to take all the time I needed and was full of assurance and encouragement. In the end it didn’t take too long, and in the late afternoon of that April day, when the whole family was gathered in the sitting room, I was invited to declare my Faith. I said yes!
Nigel Moody, Hickling, 2012