My spiritual awakening came when, at the age of eight, I was taken to see The Sound of Music at a local cinema. I decided to become a nun when I grew up. I also started to pray daily.
But “let’s start at the very beginning”. I am the eldest of three children of a doctor and a civil engineer. My brothers and I grew up in an environment where aspiration and achievement were valued. I believed that I could do anything if I was determined enough, and this belief sustained me right through my education and into adulthood. I was fortunate enough to receive a very good state education; and humble enough to recognise, even at the time, that it was a privilege and not a right, and that it was up to me to make the most of the opportunities available to me.
My father’s job meant that we moved to a different part of the country every few years. While we were living in Thornbury, near Bristol, I attended Sunday School at our Anglican church, but when our Baptist neighbours offered to take me to Sunday School with their two daughters, who were about my age, I was happy to go there instead, and my parents didn’t object. I still remember the songs or “choruses” that I learned there, and this is one of the things that has made me recognise, as an adult, the importance of teaching songs and prayers to children.
Our next move, when I was nearly 11, was to Yorkshire, where I was invited to join the church choir. We sang every week for the Communion service, and I learned the liturgy through frequent repetition. This was the first time I had come across the Creed. I thought deeply about the words I was reciting: “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth…”
After less than two years in Yorkshire, we moved to Kent, and here I attended confirmation classes and was confirmed in the Church of England. A couple of years later I once again found myself attending church regularly. My parents had moved again and, not wishing to disrupt my education two years before ’O’ levels, they arranged for me to board at the grammar school I was attending. We boarders had to go to church each Sunday. This was, on the one hand, a welcome opportunity to get out of the boarding house and walk through town, chatting with the other girls on the way. But we also considered it a humiliation, as we were obliged to wear the much-reviled grey felt hats that had already been discarded from the uniform for day girls. This church had a youth group, and it was the one evening activity that our housemistress allowed us to participate in. So I joined Cleopas, as the group was called. I don’t recall us ever talking about our faith, but we would sometimes go out around town on weekends, and sing rousing songs such as Down by the Riverside, accompanied by guitars, to the long-suffering citizens of Tonbridge.
For my final two years of schooling I attended day school in Reading, where many of my friends were committed Christians. I still believed, but I was not sure enough about what I believed to have the confidence to teach others. I was questioning many of the things I had accepted since childhood. One issue that troubled me was the existence of millions of people in the world following other religions. I had not been able find a satisfactory explanation to the proliferation of religions, all claiming to be from God, in my limited investigation of religion so far.
It was shortly before my seventeenth birthday that I came across the Bahá’í Faith for the first time.
How I became a Bahá’í
[The following narrative was first developed at the Bahá’í Arts Academy 2009, as an exercise in the course ‘Writing to change the world’ facilitated by Barney Leith]
My first fireside
Alison has thick, straw-blonde hair and a fresh, pink complexion. She lives quite a long way from school, and I have never been to her house. In fact, I don’t really know her all that well, although we get on OK and we’re both doing French A-level. Her closest friend, Jane, lives nearer to me. Jane’s father runs a stationery store in Henley, and we occasionally see each other on the train to and from school. We are in the same A-level English and German classes. Jane strikes me as rather serious, and quite mature. Alison is bubbly and outgoing.
We sit in the sixth-form common room in morning break. Alison is excited and speaking loudly about something she did over the weekend. A rock concert, perhaps, or a play she went to see? She has attracted the attention of a few other girls.
“I just suddenly knew that this was it,” she says. “It was as if Bahá’u’lláh was speaking to me, telling me that his teachings were the truth. I’d never thought about religion in that way before.”
I edge towards the group. Alison has never struck me as a particularly religious person. And who on earth is this Bahá’ulláh whom she seems to have met at this gig? Sounds a bit like one of these sects, and I am a little suspicious, but can’t help wanting to hear more. The bell goes and we return to our classes, but later I see Alison and Jane together in the lunch queue and go up to join them. They are both talking animatedly about the talk they went to last night. There was a famous actor there, apparently – someone named Philip Hinton – and his talk about the Bahá’í Faith seems to have bowled them over. Alison has become a Bahá’í, and Jane is thinking about joining too.
“It’s like a house with lots of rooms in it,” explains Alison. “You spend all your time in one room, thinking it’s wonderful, without even realising that the other rooms are even more magnificent. The religions of the world are like that – each one better than the one before.” I am not convinced. “Well, think of when you start school. You learn to read and count, and then when you’re a bit older you learn how to do sums and write little stories, and when you’re ready you learn geometry and eventually you learn quite complicated algebra and start to read Shakespeare. The teacher who taught you to read and write probably knows a lot about Shakespeare too, but you’re not ready to learn that at the age of six. So they teach you what you are ready to grasp. It’s like that with the Manifestations of God. They bring mankind up to the next stage of development. It’s called progressive revelation.”
This makes a bit more sense. In fact, it’s the first time I’ve heard anyone try to put the religions of the world into context in any way. As a Christian, I have begun to struggle with the teaching that only those who have accepted Jesus can have everlasting life. What does the future hold for the devout followers of other religions?
Jane and Alison have excited my interest, but also confused me with these analogies. The radiance of the two girls as they share what they have learned is what really attracts me. I feel the need to find out more, to try to make sense of what I’ve heard, and to meet more of the Bahá’ís who have had such an effect on my fellow-students.
“Where do these Bahá’ís hang out?” I ask.
“There are meetings every Friday night in Henley”, says Jane. “Why don’t you come along? Lots of people go.”
The following Friday, I attend my first fireside at 69 St Marks Road, Henley-on-Thames – the home of Mary Hardy and her family.
I attended firesides and other Bahá’í meetings for the next few months, and quietly got hold of books from the public library, which I read avidly. While I was reading Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era by John Esslemont, it seemed that each new section I read contained the answer to whatever question I had just been asking. I didn’t want to attract attention to myself by asking the Bahá’ís themselves! I was convinced that, sooner or later, I would encounter something that I wasn’t prepared to accept, and would have to put the Bahá’í Faith aside. But I never did, and I never have.
As I learned about the laws of Bahá’u’lláh, I tried to follow them in my own life. Shortly before Christmas, when I had been investigating the Faith for about two months, some of my school friends organised a trip to see the musical Godspell in London. During the interval, wine was served and I found myself refusing to take any. It was my first public commitment to my new-found faith – but it would be another three months before I openly declared my faith. This was in March 1974.
[The following narrative was first developed at the Bahá’í Arts Academy 2009, as an exercise in the course ‘Writing to change the world’ facilitated by Barney Leith]
My first Fast
2 March 1974
I set my alarm for six-thirty and say some prayers. I notice that the prayer book has a special section of prayers for the Fast. One of them is extremely long, and I don’t feel very awake, so I choose the shorter one. I’m still quite sleepy and crawl back into bed, where I am still lying, half-awake, when my father brings me the usual cup of tea at seven.
“No tea for me this morning,” I remind him. “Hmm” is all he has to say in reply, but he doesn’t force the issue. Mum is more forthright when I go downstairs half an hour later. “I’m not happy about you fasting. It will interfere with your schoolwork. When we lived in Nigeria, most of the workers fasted during Ramadan and they were good for nothing by the middle of the day. And you’re not even a Bahá’í!” I tell her I’m determined to give it a try. “Well, at least have water – you shouldn’t go all day without drinking.” I tell her I’ll think about it, and set off for school.
On my way, I start thinking about what Mum said. She’s right – I’m not a Bahá’í, even though I feel sure that Bahá’u’lláh is the Messenger of God for today, and want very much to try to follow his teachings. They seem to answer all my questions about the meaning of life and the future of mankind. But I have not yet taken the plunge and committed myself to this exciting new religion. Perhaps I should take my mother’s advice and not try to fast… I hold out till lunchtime, and then, hungry and somewhat uncertain of my ground, I find myself going into the school dining hall and quietly breaking my fast.
13 March 1974
I go to the weekly fireside at the Hardys’ home this evening, though tonight everyone leaves by half past ten and goes straight home. Not for us the late-night horror film that we usually watch every Friday evening in the living-room of one of the young Bahá’ís nearby. The atmosphere at the fireside is intensely spiritual this week. It’s as if the dawn prayers that are being said during this Fast are having an effect on everyone, even those of us who are not Bahá’ís.
18 March 1974
I’ve found myself thinking a lot about my beliefs during these past weeks. This morning I’m going to try fasting again. After all, I have been making a big effort to live by each of Bahá’u’lláh’s laws that I’ve heard about so far: not drinking, not backbiting or gossiping (or rather, trying not to – this one’s really hard), praying daily, reading the Writings. I even gave up smoking, believing that this was in the spirit of the law about drinking and drug abuse. So why would I draw the line at fasting?
This time it’s easier. I am determined and although I’m hungry, I don’t feel the least bit tempted to go in to lunch. Instead I find a quiet place to sit and read, away from the bustle of the school dining hall. I arrive home from school soon after six in the evening and go to my room to start on my homework. Dinner won’t be ready until seven-thirty, but there is a knock on my door at six-fifteen. Mum has brought me a cup of tea, which I gratefully accept. The best cup of tea I’ve ever had!
20 March 1974
I arrive for my oboe lesson in the early afternoon. My teacher, Miss Samuels, is young and delicate-looking, but manages to achieve a beautiful tone with her instrument. I unpack my oboe and begin to warm up. Miss Samuels instructs me to play a couple of long notes. I play a D, and immediately start to feel dizzy. I have another go, and play a G. It’s no use – I’m not going to be able to play when I am so light-headed.
“You look a bit white” says my teacher. “Yes, I’m afraid I do feel rather faint. It’s because I’m fasting. I don’t think I’m going to be able to play today. I’m sorry.” We can’t really abandon the lesson, and so Miss Samuels suggests that she’ll teach me reed-making instead. I welcome the idea, and she gets out her tools: a knife with a rectangular bevelled blade, some goldbeaters’ skin, thin cord, cork-wrapped ‘staples’ which will be inserted into the instrument when the reeds are ready to play, and the all-important cane, already cut into two-inch lengths.
“So, tell me why you are fasting. Is it some kind of diet? You don’t look to me as if you need to lose weight,” says the slender Miss Samuels, kindly. “No, it’s because of the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh” and I tell her all about the station of the prophet-founder of the Bahá’í Faith, and as much as I know of his teachings. “That’s fascinating. How long have you been a Bahá’í?” I feel a sense of shame, as I am bound to acknowledge that I have not yet publicly declared myself to be a Bahá’í. And it is at this point that I have to admit, as much to myself as to Miss Samuels, the astonishing truth: I am a Bahá’í.
Henley Bahá’í community
Henley-on-Thames, in the early 1970s, was the centre of a dramatic expansion in the Bahá’í community, rarely if ever equalled in the UK. Most of us weren’t aware of this at the time. We thought this was how Bahá’í communities everywhere worked. We were mostly young (under 21), middle-class, white, British kids, who thronged the home of Mary Hardy and her family on Friday evenings and, indeed, whenever we felt like dropping by. There was something going on almost every day – a deepening, a fireside, a teaching team meeting… And when there were no formal meetings, we just ’hung out’ together. You didn’t generally know who was a Bahá’í and who wasn’t, and it didn’t seem to matter at all. On Fridays at the Hardys’ there was usually a speaker, and we would listen respectfully to the talk, ask questions and then have some general discussion. At around ten o’clock, the fireside came to an end and we were all expected to leave. We did so, and many of us would migrate to another venue, often the home of Hugh Fixsen, who lived with his two siblings not far away. We would cram into Hugh’s living room and watch the late-night horror film on TV.
The appeal of the Faith for me in those early days was the Teachings and the Bahá’ís themselves, in equal measure. I soaked up and wholeheartedly believed everything I read or heard about the station and teachings of Bahá’u’lláh. And I loved to be in the company of this group of young people who were loving, friendly, accepting and had a real desire to live their lives according to those teachings.
Mary and her family, as well as those young people who had been Bahá’ís a few months longer than the rest of us, nurtured and trained the new believers as best they could. When I went to my first 19 Day Feast, I didn’t enjoy it as much as the Friday firesides. My mother had urged me to only go to one Bahá’í event a week, as she was anxious lest my school work should suffer. I decided that the firesides were more fun so I stopped going to Feasts – until one day another Bahá’í told me that it is your sacred duty to attend Feast. So then I changed my priorities.
The usual mode of transport to other communities’ events, travel-teaching trips and around Henley and its environs was an ex-London ambulance, lovingly known as Matilda. Anyone with a clean licence was allowed to drive it, and many would-be mechanics tinkered with it from time to time. A month or so after I declared, a weekend trip was being organised to take a group of us to Bangor, to help with teaching activities there. I signed up for the trip, but several others dropped out so that, in the end, there were only myself, Hugh Fixsen and Hugh Blyth in the party. My parents drew the line at sending me off for the weekend in a beat-up old bus with two (to them) unknown young men. Reluctantly, I stayed at home.
Mary would hold a big party for the Birth of Bahá’u’lláh in November. The youth gathered in the main room and helped themselves to a delicious buffet. Some older Bahá’ís from neighbouring communities sat down to a formal meal, Thanksgiving-style, in Mary’s dining room, joined by the parents of the new young members, whom Mary had invited. My parents went along, and I think this experience helped to reassure them that Bahá’ís were normal, decent people.
I have been extremely fortunate to have found in Martin a partner who is a Bahá’í. Our shared faith has been a central element in our lives together through the years. It has enabled us not only to weather the storms of family life, but also to share the highs and lows of Bahá’í community life and our service to the Cause of God.
We married near Henley in 1976, and Mary Hardy officiated at the wedding. At that time we were both students in Birmingham. Towards the end of 1980 we moved to Cheltenham, and have lived in or near Cheltenham ever since.
When our four children were young we did our best to give them a moral and spiritual education. There being no organised Bahá’í class or Thomas Breakwell School nearby, we started a community class, and at one time there were a number of non-Bahá’í children attending this. However, we found it difficult to sustain the class over the years. We encouraged our boys to go to junior youth weekend camps, though we rarely attended summer school as a family. The boys did not acquire a strong Bahá’í identity in childhood, and I believe this has made it harder for them to become active Bahá’ís in adult life. However, they share our values and I trust and believe that they have never really lost their love for Bahá’u’lláh.
Ben was our second-born son who – as he always maintained – found the Faith for himself during his teenage years. One weekend in June 1997, Ben was invited by Darren Howell to attend a weekend youth camp in Wales. I vividly recall Darren arriving at our house, having driven Ben home on the Sunday evening. It had been a very warm, sunny weekend, and both boys had caught the sun on their skin. As much as their bodies were aglow with the effects of the sun, their spirits were glowing with the fire of faith. From this point on, Ben did not cease to teach the faith to anyone and everyone, up to the day he died, on 24 December 2005.
Several years later, we still regularly hear stories of Ben’s teaching and other service, and it is a great joy to meet people who knew him, some of whom first learned of the Faith from Ben.
I first visited the Holy Land in April 2001, just weeks before the opening of the Terraces. This three-day visit was significant in many different ways. It was one of the first trips that Martin and I took without the children. We were able to fully participate in all the experiences that were on offer to visitors. There are two things that made a great impression on me. The first was the occasion when we visited the Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh. We entered together with some other Baha’i visitors, and then went to sit in the neighbouring room where we were offered a cup of tea. I felt an urge to go into the Shrine again. When I did so, I realised that there was no one else there. I had the great bounty of praying all alone in the Shrine.
The other significant thing that happened on this first visit was that I had a sudden and very strong sense of the power of the Covenant. At the start of 2001, the Universal House of Justice had sent a message to the Bahá’ís of the world which I, as assistant to an ABm at that time, had been fortunate to have studied in depth. I was overwhelmed by the way in which the Bahá’í community in the UK had arisen to fulfil the UHJ’s goals, and while I was in the Holy Land I realised that this unity of purpose was worldwide. Looking around me, at the seat of the Universal House of Justice and the International Teaching Centre, I recognised the great power that these institutions draw from the immediate presence of the holiest Shrines, and from being at the spiritual centre of the world. The connection between the unseen spiritual forces and the tremendous practical challenge of governing the worldwide Bahá’í community and fostering the growth of the Faith in every land was suddenly clear to me. I returned home from this visit with a renewed vigour and vision, and we immediately booked to go on a full pilgrimage.
Martin and I made our pilgrimage in October 2007. We regarded it as a once in a lifetime experience, and did not (and do not) expect to go again. We dedicated our pilgrimage to Ben, who had been booked to make his pilgrimage in May 2006, but died before he could do so. On our second day, our group was taken to the places associated with the Holy Family in Akká. At each stop, our guide, Marsha, told us something about the history of the place, and there was usually a reading that related to the particular place we were visiting, which she would ask one of the pilgrims to read. When we were standing in the prison of the citadel, at the spot where the young Mirza Mihdi fell from the roof and was fatally injured, Martin was asked to read the prayer composed by Bahá’u’lláh as He watched His young son dying. It was only after we left this spot that Martin confided to Marsha that we had recently lost a son of our own.
When I first met Martin, at a Henley fireside in January 1974, I was still investigating the Bahá’í Faith. I asked him the question “What does being a Bahá’í mean in your life?” So now I ask of myself: “What does being a Bahá’í mean in my life?”
Daily prayer, reading the Writings and fasting help me to feel grounded, and connected to God and the universe even at the lowest points in my life. Spending time in the company of Bahá’ís helps me to feel that I am part of a community that is greater than the sum of its parts, and that really can change the world. Following the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh (or trying to) helps me to steer a course through the challenges of daily living, in the hope of making a positive difference, however small, to the lives of others.
Gloucestershire, September 2012