My Bahá’í History – for Ben Lockwood, who never had the chance to write his
The first time I encountered the word ‘Bahá’í’ would be in about 1970. I was at school, and it was a house assembly, just for once given by one of my fellow pupils. To be honest, my thoughts were more on what kind of retribution lay in store for me and my incomplete maths homework than on the foreign-sounding names that Sam Hardy scratched onto the old-style blackboard. They all seemed to begin with ‘B’. “It’s too foreign”, I thought, “it’ll never catch on”. But Sam seemed so normal, so well-balanced. She didn’t fit into my teenage picture of what a religious person should be like – unworldly, completely wet and not interested in the opposite sex.
And so the months passed. I was too pre-occupied worrying about failing to do any proper schoolwork. Religion and faith barely featured in my life.
My next encounter with the Faith was once again at school. This time we were making our Christmas cakes, and I had smuggled in a miniature of brandy to put into the cake mix – how typical, bending the rules but not breaking them. And naturally I couldn’t just keep this to myself, but had to brag about it, and I offered some to Terry Mawby, stirring his mix next to me – partners in crime! He declined, and I was surprised, especially as he had a reputation. “Why not?” – I was always a bit nosy. “I’m a Bahá’í now, and Bahá’ís don’t drink”. I remembered Sam’s assembly, and wondered if I had missed something.
My next encounter with the Faith came as the summer holidays were drawing to a close, for there was a biology project that I needed to complete, and one of the reference books I needed to track down turned out to be lodged at 69 St Marks Road, Henley-on-Thames. As the door opened I was welcomed as an honoured guest rather than a nuisance. It seemed that some kind of meeting was in progress, and I recognised quite a few folks from school. A group of people had been to a summer school, and they were reporting back and showing photos. I couldn’t stay long, as I was once again behind with my school work, but I was told that every Friday night there was a fireside, and that I would always be welcome.
Once again time passed, and I thought more about philosophy and religion, and the contribution the great thinkers (religious and secular) had made towards the progress of humanity. I started attending the firesides, where there was almost always a speaker of some reputation, and I especially relished the discussion afterwards. So much deeper and more satisfying than the superficiality of the pub or the noise of the disco.
As the winter of 1972-73 rolled on, I started to understand a little of the Bahá’í Faith, and slowly began to identify with it. But that didn’t seem enough for me. I perceived the Faith to be a teaching religion, and that teaching the Faith was an integral part of being a Bahá’í. Until I could actively teach the Faith I felt I could not become a Bahá’í. To me that meant street teaching – something that even today I find very difficult.
It turned out that a teaching trip was being planned from Henley to Bangor in North Wales. Mary Hardy had acquired an old beat-up London ambulance with an exotic pedigree. On the front was written ‘Matilda – Pat – Australia’, and I was one of the few who could drive it confidently. So, late on a Friday evening in February 1973, the back was filled with Bahá’ís and friends and the long, slow journey started. The van was seriously overloaded and the heating was virtually non-existent. The friends in the back sat facing each other on two crew benches. As we drove up into the snow-covered mountains beyond Llangollen it became intensely cold, and I could see the mountains of Snowdonia shining brightly in the snow and moonlight – I even turned off the headlights briefly to take in the scene – and occasionally I would take a peep through the tiny cab window into the back to see if all was well. After all, their destiny was in my hands.
I did my bit of street teaching, and I drove the friends back safely. A week later I declared. This was to be my last act as a teenager – it was my 20th birthday.
And there the story might end, but there is more to being a Bahá’í than just declaring; how does one sustain oneself as a Bahá’í through adulthood? Here fortune smiled on me once more: at a fireside in January 1974, Mary Hardy introduced me to a sixth-former called Jenny, who was investigating the Faith and was applying to the same university where I was then studying. I have to confess I had let my faith slip a bit – but she soon pulled me up: “You are a Bahá’í – aren’t you? – so how does your faith affect your life?” I can’t remember if I gave a satisfactory answer, but Jenny became a Bahá’í, we were married – and I am writing this on our 34th wedding anniversary. Being married to a Bahá’í is one way of keeping one’s faith.
But there is still more: A few years ago I was looking through some old Ladybird books that I used to read voraciously as a child. I picked up one, Flight Six – The Holy Land. I must have been given it in 1966 when I was 12, and opposite page 10, where the travellers have a picnic on the slopes of Mt Carmel, there is a painting of the City of Haifa with the Shrine of the Báb having pride of place in the foreground. The book does not mention what the building is, but I must have looked at that picture many times as a child, as I read and re-read the book.
At that time I was attending a very devoutly religious school in Dublin, and having previously been to an overtly secular school in East Germany, the importance of faith to my teachers and fellow pupils made a deep and lasting impression on me.
Although I was completely unaware of it at the time, this must have been my very first encounter with the Bahá’í Faith. How often must we tread on gemstones on our path through life, unaware of their significance?
Gloucestershire, 31 July 2010