When I went to Edinburgh University in 1960, fresh from hitch-hiking to the Olympics in Rome and being thrilled by the Oberammergau Passion play in Austria, I was ready for new ideas, new friends and new experiences. I was 19 and full of the idealism of youth, and ready to fall in love. I quickly became editor of the University Christian weekly newspaper, produced in inky all night sessions in the basement of the Anglican Chaplaincy; I also became the secretary of CND, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and was organising sit-in demonstrations at Embassies – and I was rather saddened that I never managed to get my Christian friends to get involved in our anti-bomb protests, and certainly never persuaded my CND activists to come anywhere near a religious debate – to them religion was either an enemy or a joke.
Brought up by my father, an inspiring, untidy, Anglican priest, to search for truth everywhere (and to become a pacifist and an activist), I used to go each week to a different Church. They all welcomed me enthusiastically (for new faces were rare) and with real love, until I mentioned another Church I had visited the week before and the atmosphere became bitter and childishly antagonistic. Then I saw this poster with a picture of the Shrine proclaiming peace that took me to the unfamiliar luxury of the George Hotel in the New Town. No other student came with me, for the title- ‘The Bahá’í Faith and World Peace’ did not attract either of my adopted groups. Among a sedate group of much older folk, all dressed soberly and with neat hair, I sank into the softness of plush chairs. Having been up half the night before playing poker on the hill overlooking the city with some most attractive girls, I promptly fell asleep. I woke to hear the speaker talking about ‘some prisoner’ who had written to the rulers of the world to proclaim the urgent need for them to establish world peace. I liked it. I sat up and listened. This ‘prisoner’ had warned that there was a power hidden within the earth that could flatten cities and contaminate the atmosphere. (‘When had he said that? In 1868? Impossible!’ I thought.) He then prayed that men would be spiritual enough by the time they discovered this power to use it for peace rather than war. All sleepiness left me – this was the most exciting thing I had heard since coming to Edinburgh.
The rest of the talk made no impact. I waited impatiently for the end and then approached the speaker, a Mr Ian Semple who later became a great friend, and said: “I’m sorry I fell asleep but the chairs were too soft. However I am fascinated to learn more about this prisoner and all he said about war and peace.” Patiently he gave me an outline of Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings on world peace, and led me to a book stall. Others around looked at me askance; no doubt my mouldy jumper and long hair did not belong in the George Hotel, but I found some money for a book, gave them my address and hurried off to devour my new discovery.
I now bless the sleep that had tided me over the religious introduction and even more the moment of waking that introduced me to Bahá’u’lláh, the prisoner I had heard about. In exile and from a prison cell in Acre, Palestine, had come words which thrilled me. Of course the kings and rulers, the religious leaders and political leaders had dismissed his message as irrelevant – I expected as much. ‘Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?’ had been one answer to Jesus’ transforming message of love – the grandest leaders of mankind, ruling the world despotically from their European capitals were hardly likely to listen to a prisoner from the Ottoman Empire with a very foreign name.
I wasn’t interested in the religion, just its teachings about peace. Unlike Christianity and Islam, which contained so many fine quotations about peace but had a history of war and conquest, this recent religion was very specific about the purpose of a religion – to bring about peace or fail. Its founder, I was told, said that if religion did not bring about peace and unity, it was a righteous act to leave the Faith. Buddhism and the Quakers were the only religions I knew that might survive such a stern test. But it was its mixture of private pacifism and an international police force that was original. While the followers were forbidden to defend themselves either by lies or by force, they supported a system of international restraint that would have worked well against Hitler and other military despots.
Sipping my whisky, I sat for long hours in bed, drinking in these words. I tried them on my room-mate who stared at me as if I were some anachronistic dinosaur from pre-scientific times, and smiled politely. We were friends but our closest hours were in the local pub where everyone was an alcohol-inspired buddy. I spoke of them to a few Quakers, who cared but disliked anything with a name attached. I asked my peacenik friends about the ideas and they were pleased I was becoming more practical, but wary of the religious overtones. I retreated into my own reading, wandering through the Meadows in freezing cold but warmed by the words (and the gin in my duffle-coat pocket, as my wife reminds me).
Gradually I became aware that Bahá’í was more than a source from which I could steal good ideas. I attended weekly meetings in various homes round the city (taking me outside the rather academic world of the University) where we discussed everything from prayer to world politics. The Bahá’ís were a lovely group, about a dozen of them, who were very tolerant of this noisy English student who thought he knew everything. Most exciting, there was no lecturer, no priest, no guru. Everyone was equal! Three of us were seekers, a mystic (Angela Anderson) who had tried so many spiritual paths; a very honest, quiet girl (Rita) who wanted to find comfort that was not fanatical and myself, a wild young man (they called me a hippie just because of my long hair) who knew an awful lot about the contortions of theology (I even attended an extra Theology Course to try and sort out the doctrines of original sin and so forth) and published Christian magazines. All three of us declared our Faith about seven months later, within three days.
Meanwhile, back in my ivory tower I was busy absorbing the wonders of both philosophy and psychology. I had very good lecturers and tutors, ready to answer my rather unconventional questions. I found that Bahá’í ideas fitted well in both studies. Philosophy made me search for fundamental concepts with which I could test Bahá’í. Psychology made me search for understanding of guilt and inspiration, kindness and cooperation, competition and love that ran through all life. Moreover I wanted faith and life to be one, not separate worlds, each with their own logic. They all seemed to fit together very well indeed. My poor friends had a hard time. Every coffee break would become a discussion of the latest idea I had discovered, every CND meeting ended up with hours of debate about the practicality of protest and the alternatives. Every Chaplain in the university and priest I knew in the town was asked to explain why Bahá’í ideas did not fit into their Church’s dogma. Some were brilliant and helped a lot, admitting all sorts of doubts within the doctrine they espoused; some were dogmatic and angry, two qualities that made me more suspicious of their tenets.
The University Chaplain was a woman of stature, the Rev Mary Lusk, and when I asked her about Bahá’í, she stunned me by telling me that her father had actually met ’Abdu’l-Bahá in Edinburgh in 1913 and had been greatly impressed. It was on my doorstep – not only in the University library but even known to living people. This made me study more about the man many had seen as the return of Christ (though he denied it!) – he was so loving and wise that I could find nothing to disagree with. He very gently dismissed original sin, – people did follow the mistakes of their ancestors, but they were not blamed by God for that. (Without the doctrine of original sin, all Christian theology about salvation through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross collapsed: this was one point on which all the theologians agreed. I hunted in the Bible for evidence of this and found none that satisfied me.)
I read a book called Portals to Freedom and fell in love with ’Abdu’l-Bahá, the son of Bahá’u’lláh. I read God Passes By and became an enthusiastic follower of the Báb (the Gate).
Then I found one of the smallest books that Bahá’u’lláh wrote – a collection of sayings more than a book. They were written as Bahá’u’lláh walked beside the river Tigris in Baghdad – which then was just a mystery city of ancient beauty, it had none of the associations that we have today after its recent brutal history. These verses, half in poetic Persian, half in more definitive Arabic, were collected together into a book called The Hidden Words. I found it on a table and bought it, read it straight through – it is only 153 verses. I was stunned, for here I heard the voice of Christ, speaking the same loving, impossibly beautiful, unique words. I still don’t understand half of them, but some are as clear as the Beatitudes of Jesus. ‘Why didn’t you give me this book before?’ I demanded of the Bahá’ís. ‘These are just the continuation of the words of Jesus Christ!’ They smiled kindly and agreed they were beautiful but quite hard to understand. Foolishly I said they were ‘simple’ and should be given to any Christian who was asking about Bahá’u’lláh! How arrogant I was, and how gentle they were!
But to accept the claims of Bahá’u’lláh meant denying the unique divinity of Jesus, and that seemed impossible. I needed help. I got it from Margaret. For at the same time as I was falling in love with Bahá’í (even if I didn’t see it, many others did) I was falling in love with Margaret, a Scottish girl who was great fun, with a brilliant love of life and a deep religious background. She was the only person who belonged to both the rival Christian university groups (the evangelical and the academic) – a fact she attributed to the fact that she had briefly gone out with the vice-president of both groups. She listened to everything I told her but said little. She had actually heard of Bahá’í before she met me, reading Christ and Bahá’u’lláh. She, and her very intellectual brother (now a minister and a lecturer) had decided that it might be true but it was difficult to investigate every new claim, so they would stick to what they were sure of.
But I still fought against Bahá’u’lláh’s claims. I would leave Margaret in my flat (in the attic of the Anglican Chaplaincy) while I went to meetings she refused to attend. Later I found she was reading all my Bahá’í books while I was absent, putting them back neatly before I returned. She always understood the Writings better than I did because she listened to them rather than talked about them. The power of the Word convinced her – she wasn’t looking for anything new, but the Writings were just too convincing to be denied. However she never let on until after the time I had declared.
I prayed very hard that Christ would show me if Bahá’u’lláh was not what He claimed. I read the Gospels, I read the Gleanings. I found much that was beyond me in both, but one night I realised, even as I disagreed strongly with some sentence of Bahá’u’lláh’s, in my heart I knew it was true. That moment, the pillow behind me, the picture on the wall, is all still vivid in my mind.
In June 1961, in the midst of my exams, I met a visitor, Meherangiz Munsiff, an Indian lady who believed almost fanatically in prayer. I listened to an inspiring talk and then asked my questions. She refused to answer them, saying only God could. She then asked me to open a prayer book and read a prayer aloud. ‘Which prayer?’ ‘Any prayer. Open the book at random.’ I did so and started to read. The prayer was over five pages long. During that prayer the months of my search, in feelings but not in logic, cascaded through the words. I cried quite a lot (me, an English man!). I ploughed on and by the end it was easier. The words carried me. I rode the torrent rather than fought it. Meherangiz said nothing except, ‘Have you had your answer?’
I replied that I had and left the meeting. Four or five times during my walk home through the streets of that sleeping city of history I stopped and resolved to go back and declare my faith. Each time I told myself to stop being emotional and go home and sleep. I must have walked past the house where ’Abdu’l-Bahá had stayed in Charlotte Square without knowing it. I slept a bit, tried to study without much success (all Psychology seemed so easy compared with this question!) and went back to another public meeting the next night. At the end of the meeting I stood and made rather a dramatic statement that I had no questions but I wanted to become a Bahá’í. They made me ring up Ann Johnson, a Bahá’í who had taught me so much but who was now in hospital, near death – I told her, and felt her happiness flowing over me. I never saw her again. It was good.
But the news shattered my family, and most of all my father. There were bitter tears and long arguments. For a while Margaret and I broke up, mainly because of our different beliefs, but we soon found that love was impossible to smother and we actually had a very similar belief in God. A year or two later Margaret and I wanted to get married and we asked for my parents’ consent. My dad refused. I think he wanted to force me to abandon Bahá’í because he knew Margaret, admired her and knew how much I loved her. Amazingly Margaret took the news without a flicker of anger or resentment. If that was what my faith said, of course it had to be accepted. Nearly a year passed before my father changed his mind and we had two wonderful weddings in Edinburgh. The first was in the Scottish Church to which Margaret belonged, with priests from many Churches attending. Then the Bahá’í ceremony in the University Chaplaincy Centre where I had first seen that Bahá’í poster. It was brilliant! My father said it was more impressive than the Christian ceremony. I was in heaven!
Margaret became a Bahá’í in her own time, after reading so many books, and now meeting many Bahá’ís. She declared at the Dalston Hall Summer School, but told me not to tell anyone except Joe Jameson (the man who conducted our wedding and a very great friend.) Margaret doesn’t really like to talk about her own experiences and just smiles and says ‘I’ve forgotten.’ But she gave me the strength to accept the Faith despite my background, to leave CND and the Church, to let the love for Bahá’u’lláh rule in my heart. Later it was she who pioneered with me to Durham and then to Cyprus, where we have now been for over forty years. She gave me a magnificent family of six children (and eight grandchildren to date) but she also gave me the courage to accept what I knew must be true.
Pioneering to Durham was only a step to Cyprus, for when our first son was born there was a lump in his neck and the doctors advised we wait for two years before having it removed. So, while we waited, we went to Durham, beautiful city of such a magnificent Cathedral and castle perched above its fabled river – an easy place to love, especially once our second son and first daughter were born there. What an added blessing when the first people became Bahá’ís there! Karianna opened our eyes to spiritual vision, for she is blind and yet saw the truth so clearly, and opened her heart so warmly. Oliver, her husband, approaching blindness but still able to read, with one of the clearest minds we had met. Dot and Dave, two angels, followed; then Margaret Rattenbury (now Margaret Gosden) – a friend from university days and who had been en route to a Christian college in Nigeria when she became a Bahá’í – pioneered there too and a community was born. But the call was there for overseas pioneers, and when I was elected to the National Assembly (while still in Edinburgh) I found five fellow members preparing to take the same step – it was a healthy NSA! Betty Reed was secretary and when she went to South America on an extended teaching trip, I was thrust into being acting secretary and living in the National Centre for a while – that taught us quite a lot about the world-wide faith, a very useful education. Then, when Betty returned and was ill, the National Office moved to our tiny spare room in the condemned flat in Edinburgh (provided by the University Settlement I worked for then) and we had the blessing of Robin living with us as an assistant. She taught us so much about encouragement, filling the cramped quarters with her enthusiasm, and a lesson or two about how little space one needs to be of service to a national community.
Mark was born in Edinburgh, Martin and Sarah in Durham and then we went to Cyprus, on December 18th 1969, with Sarah just 3 months old. Why Cyprus? Because it was a country under the British NSA, from where the pioneers had been forced to leave in the late 1950s as the people fought against their colonial (British) occupiers – how strange that these people were then asked to take the Faith of Bahá’u’lláh back there. The first four Bahá’ís had been sent there as prisoners in 1868, cruelly separated from Bahá’u’lláh when He and His family and close supporters had been sent to the prison city of Acre. Also sent to Cyprus was Mirza Yahya, His half-brother who had tried to divide the Faith and be its head. He failed, but did so in Famagusta, and to many Bahá’ís this was a key reason why Cyprus suffered from such brutal disunity in the following years. Two of the four had died, the others left soon after the British took over the island in 1878 (‘rented it from Turkey’ like some overseas home or base!). 77 years later in 1956, four Knights of Bahá’u’lláh arrived to start a new community. For years it had seemed a country with no Bahá’ís, but we were to find that was not true. After we had made our plans to move there, there came a letter from two Turkish Cypriots – from that same city of Famagusta – with their declarations of faith in Bahá’u’lláh! They had studied for nine years on their own and finally accepted that His teachings were God’s message for this age! You can imagine our joy when we met with Erol and Mustapha, still such dear friends, who taught us all about this lovable land and its heart-rending suffering.
And after settling in and finding a part time job, we met up with Hassan and Hermuz, who had become Bahá’ís in the 1950s. Tucked away in their neat home just inside the city walls of Nicosia (Lefkosia – how did the English so mangle its name?) we found a home filled with Bahá’í photos and love. Both died not so long ago, in Turkey, but they were our link with the earlier history of the community. Hassan had been the first Turkish Cypriot Bahá’í in that period (Na’im had been the first Cypriot, from the 1870s). Not long after we came, they managed to get back from the police all the Bahá’í books and records that they had taken at gun-point in 1960.
So our life here began in this war-torn island. Gradually other pioneers arrived and so did new Greek-Cypriot believers (Angeliki, the first, had left for the US but is now frequently back with us). Those were joy-filled days, especially blessed by many visits from Hand of the Cause Mr Faizi (his daughter May, and Peter, pioneered here, to Famagusta, in 1972) who guided us and taught a rather over-enthusiastic Englishman how to teach with more wisdom and patience! Then, as we progressed towards our goal of a National Assembly for the island, came the horror of 1974, a coup and an invasion which effectively divided the land into two and led to many Bahá’ís leaving in a third exodus. But the Assemblies that had been first formed in 1959 were rebuilt and in 1977 a National Assembly was elected. Sadly, however, the Bahá’ís in the north and south were not able to meet together for that event – with John Long, then chairman of the British ‘mother’ assembly, acting as carrier for the votes. But the Faith knows no barriers and it continued to function as one body for the whole island, at times perhaps the only organisation that met in the rooms of the Ledra Palace Hotel (a base for UN soldiers on the ‘green line’ that separates the areas) to keep that spiritual unity alive.
The story of how that community grew is thrilling, with many victories and calamities, but now there are thriving, if still little-known, groups of believers who have kept the Faith through thick and thin. Our own family doubled in size, as Takis, Susannah and Samantha were born and I found a better paid job – at the island’s ‘top’ English School, for 26 years – and then came the grandchildren, eight of them as of now – five of whom live with us in our 200-year old traditional Cypriot home in the village of Pera, one more in Lefkosia and two in Germany. Our children all grew up as Cypriots, attending local primary schools, where they began to think in Greek. Our parents had mixed feelings when witnessing this, but they all went on to University in the UK and all now have jobs of service, even in the present ‘crisis’. It’s amazing how pioneering brings so many changes; one new path was becoming a teacher and finding a profession which gave me so much joy for forty years. Suddenly my love for literature and drama became my work, with Margaret and I both becoming ‘head of English’ in our schools; but very few people who speak of my ‘success’ in teaching know that my highest qualification was GCE O level English! You have to adapt and learn – and this island was a beautiful place to do this.
Soon we will die here and become part of the same Cypriot earth that contains St Barnabas, but we will hardly be missed, for the community is now vigorous. I hope soon my years of service on the National Assembly will end and younger Bahá’ís will take over (there are some very powerful Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot members, with a few older pioneers). But now the energy of the Bahá’ís is more concentrated in the Intensive Programmes of Growth and the Institute than the Assembly. Working for over 30 years as either secretary or chairman has been quite tiring, with many obstacles and difficulties of temporary disunity (though never, interestingly, between Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot) but it has also been a privilege for which my two years on the British Assembly was useful preparation. The greatest joy, apart from family of course, has been watching new Bahá’ís discover the truth of the unity of mankind and religion. My first dream became true when one of my pupils became a Bahá’í. Then my next personal ‘goal’ was achieved when, in 1983, I stood beside two Turkish Cypriots (Mustapha and Mehmet) and two Greek-Cypriots (Antonia and Maria) in the Shrines, during the International Convention.
In fact it was in the gardens of the Shrine of the Báb that the first meeting of the National Assembly of Cyprus attended by members from both communities took place. The second was in the home of Mr Ali Nahkjavani (his daughter Bahiyyih was also a member of the Assembly.)
The blessings surrounding such experiences are far too vibrant for analysis but they are all landmarks on the career of a pioneer. Members of early National Assemblies include many well-known, and quite a few unknown, heroes of the Faith. Of course I remember our first consultation with Rúhíyyih Khánum as outstanding. She listened to the opening prayer and then told us that she believed the prayer, said in Greek by Maria, a Greek Cypriot daughter of an orthodox priest, was the most important part of that meeting. But however wise, or otherwise, the members were, they all pale before the stumbling growth of that body, a very thin pillar of the Universal House of Justice, which, from just across the Mediterranean waters, was guiding mankind towards the new age of peace and unity.
Among the pioneers there were brilliant writers and actors, fearless teachers and wise friends – it amazes me how many of the well over 50 who have pioneered here found it hard to stay and had to leave all too soon. They came from UK, Ireland, Canada, USA, Lebanon, Nigeria and India; – they all contributed with their own gifts. I well remember one, while in prison (though innocent) introducing me to another inmate, a lost Bahá’í from Iran whom none of us knew about. Hearing all about that in the middle of a lesson while I was teaching a class about poetry or world religions is an example of how unpredictable pioneering is!
Well over 200 Cypriots have become Bahá’ís since 1969, of great variety and including some truly great heroes – for them to accept the vision of the oneness of religion is so much harder than it was for us. In this island where there have been so many conflicts there is a strong belief that clinging to the faith of your family is also part of your national identity. We have been blessed in so many ways, and the gratitude of the local believers towards all the pioneers has been wonderfully sustaining. Our task is now the same here as all over the world, learning new ways of teaching and working with others, and in retirement there is still the joy of helping with Study Circles, holding Children’s Classes and devotionals, running Spiritual Parenting Courses, and being part of Cypriot life. We have just welcomed some new friends (Greek Cypriots) into our Study Circles and it is a very exciting new development as they are people who have been walking in spiritual valleys for some time, and this is not so common here.
But thinking back to how it all began now seems like watching a very old film in which we hardly recognise ourselves. From the theme music we recognise some of the patterns of history, for mankind’s muddled struggle towards unity and the Bahá’í history are all one. Here were we, a third invasion of British people – the first was when the British arrived in 1878 to add another colony and they found four Bahá’í prisoners, as well as others who were actually the greatest enemies of the embryonic Faith. They laid the foundation, mainly through making English such an important language, for the second invasion: those pioneers in 1956 who taught the Faith in that language. Those friends and most of the Bahá’ís disappeared as the Cypriots fought the ‘British Empire’ for their independence, paving the way for its own National Bahá’í community. And when we arrived at the beginning of the third invasion, in 1969, we were happy pawns in the process of history that is now turning this island from the Island of Satan (as the Turks once called it) into an Island of Mercy, (the Guardian’s phrase) in which these wonderful Cypriots will play their own role in the history of the unification and peace of humankind! To have been a drop in that ocean of history is such a privilege! Little could I have guessed any of it when, back in 1960, in the George Hotel in Edinburgh I slept through Ian Semple’s talk on ‘The Bahá’í Faith and World Peace’!
Cyprus, November 2012