I had a happy childhood in Reading, where my main memory is of our huge wonderful garden. I was brought up as a member of the Church of England and attended weekly Sunday School and church services; I always preferred singing hymns to the sermons though! At my confirmation service at the age of fourteen I remember reading out the passage from Isaiah, chapter 9, set to music by Handel in his oratorio The Messiah, “His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace”, not realising at the time the reference to Bahá’u’lláh. I was educated at a Roman Catholic convent where one nun in particular used to dwell on the hellfire awaiting those of us who were not Roman Catholics. I did not particularly enjoy my time at the convent and knew that she was wrong!
From an early age I questioned the accident of birthplace, e.g. if I had been born in India I probably would have been a Hindu, so how could anyone say that only Christianity, let alone Roman Catholicism, was the only true religion?
However, I always had a strong belief in God as the Creator, and while I did not discover the Bahá’í Faith until I was aged twenty, I think I would have recognised it from perhaps the age of thirteen onwards. The fact that I had no ‘veils’ to overcome I put down to the genes handed down to me from my German grandparents. I only met my grandmother once as a small child, and my grandfather not at all as he was killed in a concentration camp in 1944 and she, my grandmother, died of a broken heart ten years later. Apparently, after running away to Gretna Green in Scotland to get married, they had had a wonderful marriage with four daughters, the youngest being my mother, living in Cologne in Germany. My grandfather was a practising Jew and my grandmother was a Roman Catholic and both religions were celebrated in the home. My mother came over to England in 1936, aged fourteen, as a Jewish refugee child, and was looked after in the boarding school holidays by a Quaker lady, my great-aunt and aunt to my father. My parents got married in 1945 and had three children – my brothers Nicholas (born in 1947) and Christopher (born in 1949) and myself (born in 1951).
In 1972 I went skiing with Christopher and his fiancée. This was to cheer me up after the unwanted break-up with my boyfriend at the time. In the aeroplane I sat next to a young man, Philip Croft from Sheffield, who immediately teased me about the gold cross I was wearing round my neck. During the week he told me quite a bit about the Bahá’í Faith, and I remember him singing the Bahá’í song “The wind is singing in the mountains” when we were stationary in a chairlift, high up, for a while. I was impressed that he favoured hot chocolate rather than beer, as I had never liked being with tipsy friends. At the time I was living in my family home in Reading. After the holiday I visited Philip in Sheffield for a weekend to find out more about the Bahá’í Faith. I wanted to go to the Nineteen Day Feast which was being held, but in those days non-Bahá’ís could not attend any part of the Feast, so I was instructed to “stop knitting, and read Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era by John Esslemont while Philip attended the Feast. By now I wanted to know more without having to travel so far to find out. So I looked up Bahá’í in the Reading telephone directory, and was disappointed that the phone was never answered. Later I learnt that it was the phone number of Owen and Jeannette Battrick who were pioneering abroad. Through phoning Directory of Enquiries I was able to locate the Bahá’í Centre in London and so asked for some more Bahá’í literature.
It was suggested to me that instead I should contact local Bahá’ís in Reading, who turned out to be Bob and Margaret Watkins, who were living about half a mile down my road. Obviously the “scattering angels of the Almighty” had “scattered the fragrance of the words uttered” by them, in my direction! I phoned them at about 9.30pm and was invited to meet them immediately that same evening whereby I was presented with a Bahá’í book and an invitation to their Monday night firesides. I attended these firesides and also holy days and avidly read all the Bahá’í literature available, while commuting to my book publishing job in London. Despite some other very ‘weird’ seekers, within a few months I was completely convinced of the truth of the Bahá’í Faith. Everything in the Faith attracted me – the beautiful Writings, the lives of the Báb, Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu-Bahá – the main principles, the sheer logic of it (no blind faith required) but, above all perhaps, was the realisation and joy that Jesus Christ had returned in the person of Bahá’u’lláh, and almost in my lifetime.
My mother wanted me to wait six months before committing myself but I was unable to wait that long, and declared my faith in Bahá’u’lláh at the Watkins’ house at the holy day celebration of the Declaration of the Báb on May 23d, 1972. I was desperate to share the Bahá’í Faith with family and friends and was very surprised and disappointed that nobody seemed interested although my mother, then aged fifty two, said that if she had been younger she might have become a Bahá’í. She said that she preferred to find God in her beloved garden rather than through an organised religion, but she was always a good listener when I talked about Bahá’í activities. Eventually, in his old age my father read the short healing prayer and short prayer for the dead, nightly.
My twenty first birthday present money from my parents on 5th June, 1972 was all spent on Bahá’í books. The Watkins very kindly hosted a surprise party for me after my first Nineteen day Feast – the Feast of Nur (Light), also on 5th June. I adore sunlight so I am glad I was born on the Feast of Nur. The party cheered me up as also on this particular day my ex-boyfriend, whom I still loved, got married (by chance to a lapsed Bahá’í!).
Within a week or two I was also elected to the Reading Local Spiritual Assembly when a vacancy occurred. Soon after I moved to London, and was very fortunate to be able to go to several firesides at which Hand of the Cause Mr Faizi had been invited to speak. As a young, new Bahá’í I was entranced by his words and explanations and felt wrapped in his love. In the 1970’s I also had the privilege of hearing Hand of the Cause Rúhíyyih Khánum speak to several hundred Bahai’s in London. She spoke directly, to the point, and one felt she would brook no nonsense. I had previously seen a film of “The Green Light Expedition” which documented her epic journey to visit the Bahá’ís in the towns and villages of the Amazon basin and the Andean highlands in South America, and I had a great respect for her. One Feast held in London I will always remember because of the wonderful simplicity of the refreshments – about twenty of us were all given an orange and a glass of water. I attempted to learn Persian at an evening class at a polytechnic in London and this is where I first met Wendi Momen who was doing the same thing.
After London I lived in Oxford for a while; I think it was at this time that I met Universal House of Justice member David Hofman and went to Marion Hofman’s deepenings, which were usually on the Guardian. I lived on the Isle of Wight for six months in 1975 where the members of the Local Spiritual Assembly were all women!
In August 1975 I was fortunate enough to be able to have a three week holiday in Iran, during which I visited Teheran, Shiraz, Isfahan and the Caspian coast, all by local bus. This was in the time of the Shah, so there was no need to wear a chador. However, one day when walking down a street, I happened to notice that a young man was wearing a Bahá’í ring. I said “Allah’u’Abha” which appeared to alarm him, so I showed him my Bahá’í ring and nine pointed star which I always wear on a chain round my neck. He seemed very suspicious of my Bahá’í identity and quickly moved away!
While in Teheran I visited the family home of Bahá’u’lláh and also attended a very large 19 Day Feast. However, perhaps the most wonderful day of my life was the one when I visited the House of the Bab in Shiraz. A few of us got up at dawn and walked quietly along deserted narrow streets until we reached this sacred House. We saw the famous orange tree in the courtyard, and then went up the steps into the chamber where the Báb had announced His station to Mulla Husayn. I remember a small room, carpeted, with a large vase marking the holy spot where the Báb made His Declaration. As I entered, I experienced feelings of intense spirituality and joy, actually more than I felt on three subsequent pilgrimages to Haifa. What a bounty I had and one which, despite my poor memory, I will never forget.
After this holiday I moved to Remenham, just outside Henley-on-Thames, where I was very happy to be in the Bahá’í community of Wokingham Rural District. As well as partaking in the Bahá’í activities there with the Humphrey, Cortazzi and MacKenzie families, I also went to some of the well known firesides hosted by Mary Hardy and family in Henley. In the 1970’s and 1980’s I took part in many proclamation activities in various towns in the south of England, which usually took the form of first saying 500 ‘Remover of Difficulties’ or saying the ‘Tablet of Ahmad’ several times, followed by posting and giving out leaflets inviting people to public talks. In those days these activities did result in enquirers and some declarations. The Bahá’ís in Henley were all a few years younger than me, but I became friendly with Brian Stone (eight years older than me) who was living in Wargrave in Wokingham community. We came from very different backgrounds so we would not ordinarily have met.
In 1978 we decided to get married. Unfortunately our family circumstances were not conducive to a conventional wedding; my parents being recently divorced, Brian’s mother recently widowed, one brother having emigrated to Australia, and Brian himself had just started a three year course in Violin Making in Newark, without a grant. So we decided to do the equivalent of a Gretna Green marriage, i.e. go to somewhere in Scotland and have the very first Bahá’í marriage in Britain recognised by the Scottish Government, and incurring practically no expense. We went to Inverness and had a simple Bahá’í ceremony on the banks of Loch Ness – although no monster was seen – where the Bahá’í registrar Brian Shepherd married Brian Stone to Catherine Sheppard! There were a few other Bahá’ís present, including unexpectedly, Counsellor Betty Reed. We felt very honoured that she was there.
We lived for a year in Bottesford, Leicestershire and then intentionally moved to North Hykeham as isolated believers to open up that area, just outside Lincoln. We tried to organise Bahá’í events there, which sometimes proved difficult as none of the Lincoln Bahá’ís had a telephone. Several were also quite eccentric; for example, one kept a horse in her minute front garden, another elderly lady travelled around on a huge motorbike, one poor soul lived in a basement room and lived on bread and tea, and someone else used to turn up suddenly and at all hours at our house (which was sometimes quite embarrassing)! We also made friends with the Nottingham Bahá’ís. In 1980 we moved down to Purley on Thames, which was part of Newbury Rural District, and soon were fortunate to form, in our house, the first Local Spiritual Assembly of Newbury and District. We also enjoyed being with the Reading Bahá’ís again, in particular Jim and Irandokht Talbot. We took part in the Peace Message campaign, approaching MPs and Christian ministers, and contacting many schools.
We had three children. They were brought up as Bahá’ís, and they attended the Thomas Breakwell Sunday School regularly, and we also attended summer schools in Warminster and Sidcot, always camping. We never missed a holy day or a feast, even if it was just the five of us holding a feast on holiday. In 1988 we moved to Henley-on-Thames where my mother was living, partly to be nearer Brian’s job in High Wycombe but mainly because we wished our children to grow up in the rural Bahá’í community of South Oxfordshire and because we knew the other Bahá’í families there – the Koomens, Pepins, Fixsens, Poostchis and Donovans. Although we did not find Henley people to be very friendly, it was great to be part of a very united South Oxfordshire Bahá’í community. We always had lovely feasts which the children seemed to enjoy as much as the adults and we were sad when the families grew up and left, and also when the community was divided up into many small areas. When the Ruhi books project started up I went through all eight books quite quickly, apart from Book 5, and have since tutored Book 1 a few times and currently Books 4 and 6. I also trained to be a Bahá’í Meditation facilitator with Paul Profaska, whom we first met on pilgrimage in 1998, and subsequently ran Meditation courses, some with Bahá’í participants in our home, and some with non-Bahá’ís in Wallingford Quaker Meeting House. The first course, which was run weekly for Bahá’ís, ran for several months because everyone enjoyed it so much.
We have now lived in Wallingford for ten years. It is a very friendly town, and we are in a lovely Bahá’í group of four, the other two being Ann Dymond and Tony Fletcher. Most of my teaching activities have been one to one, taking the opportunity whenever possible to tell people about our beloved Faith. We hold unity feasts and devotionals, and Ann and I tutor study circles for Brian and Tony, and Ann has hosted firesides too.
In recent years we have attended summer schools at Ampleforth where we had the bounty of getting to know Ian Semple, retired member of the Universal House of Justice (such a gentle, courteous soul), and camping at Wellington College, Berkshire for summer schools and Bahá’í Arts Academies. We miss the Arts Academy.
Brian and I have been very happy to have gone on pilgrimage three times. The first time I went was on my own in 1975 (having been inspired to go by Brian who went in 1976). In those days one could get a pilgrimage date within months of applying. This pilgrimage was small and intimate, there being only about thirty non-Persians in our group, as well as the Persians of course, so we got to know each other quite well. At that time there was no Arc and only limited gardens around the Shrines of the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh. One memory I have is of running and jumping down the steps all the way from my hotel at the top of the mountain down to the Pilgrim house early every morning, full of youthful energy and joy. On one occasion I found myself sitting next to Hand of the Cause Paul Haney at a Holy day celebration, and feeling rather unworthy to be seated next to him. When I first met Hand of the Cause Mr Furutan I thought he was a gardener – he was so friendly, humble and modest when talking to me – until someone told me who he was, and I felt rather embarrassed that perhaps I had been too familiar when chatting to him! Of course my first visit to the Shrine of the Báb was extremely moving, and many of us were tearful, as we were again when approaching and praying in the Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh. But the place I loved the most was the House of Mazraih where Bahá’u’lláh first lived after He left the prison city of Akka. I could just imagine His happiness to be at last in such a peaceful spot in the countryside. We were all given oranges to take away, and I returned there on the free day. Another memory is of marvelling in wonder when in the Archives building to see all the precious relics and clothes of the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh.
My second pilgrimage was a family one in 1998, timed so that our youngest child would be eleven years old and thus be able to participate fully in the pilgrimage. Unfortunately I had just broken my knee badly, and so was unable to move about without a lot of pain, which was rather limiting. It was very interesting to see the completion of the Seat of the Universal House of Justice, and the start of other buildings on the Arc, to see the beautiful gardens around the Shrines and the beginnings of the Terraces. This time we saw Rúhíyyih Khánum only briefly as she was unwell, but Nicholas was fortunate enough to have a conversation with her when he visited the House of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá by himself (as he had to go back to England early to take an A level exam). Later that year he spent a year of service in India, and after his degree he went to live in China for four years. We enjoyed greatly the talks given every evening by Mr Furutan in the Pilgrim House. During this pilgrimage we were so fortunate to celebrate the Ascension of Bahá’u’lláh in the night, and I shall never forget the intense feelings of happiness as we circumambulated the Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh, the dark night illuminated by many lamps.
We went on a third pilgrimage in June 2010 when Nicholas and family came over from Singapore (where he teaches and lives with his Filipino wife Gigi and their baby boy Sasha). It was wonderful to see the completion of the Arc, to walk up and down the nineteen Terraces above and below the Shrine of the Báb, to admire the beautiful gardens at Bahji, and very moving to visit the prison cell of Bahá’u’lláh in Akka. Being June it was very hot! As on both previous pilgrimages, one of the most impressive moments for me was watching the nine members of the Universal House of Justice processing into the Seat of the Universal House of Justice – such power and authority. Then later, as individuals, they were so friendly and interested in talking to us all.
I have had various jobs during my life, ending up as a private dyslexia tutor for the last twelve years.
Katya (Catherine) Stone
26 January 2013