Disillusionment to Illumination
I need a title to write to hence the above which may become apparent later on in this story…
I was born in Govan, Glasgow on 4th May 1945, just as the Second World War was ending. We grew up in an old tenement in Glasgow known as a ‘room and kitchen’. This meant that one room was the kitchen with a sleeping space for my parents, and myself and my brother slept in the ‘good room’ usually kept for entertaining guests and the usual Glasgow parties and family get-togethers. We were pretty lucky as we had an inside toilet, which was pretty posh in those days. I suppose we were ‘poor’ but then that was normal. My mother, who had done so much to shape my life, worked as a ‘cleaner’ in other peoples’ houses. This was a lady who had won a bursary to attend Glasgow Art School during the 1930’s but as she was the eldest in the family she had to go and work instead in the local biscuit factory. The family needed the money because her father was ‘blacked’ from work for union activities on the Clydeside, where they lived.
I never really thought of our family as religious. We came from a Protestant background but church going was not a regular event. I was about six years of age when I went to local Sunday school and where I got into an argument with one of the men who ran the school. When my grandfather heard about this, he took me along to the Socialist Sunday school where I remember learning about strength and unity and that all people all over the world were equal. My grandfather was one of those many workers who made up the ‘Red Clydesiders’.
There was a day that sticks in my mind … I was coming home from school and saw oranges in the shop; not like today when you can get them any time. So I rushed home, told my mother, and she gave me money to buy four. When I returned home with them she told me to take them back. I asked why and she explained that they were from South Africa. She then proceeded to tell me about how the Government out there treated the majority of the people. (This was probably around 1952). She told me that it did not matter how poor you are as there is always somebody worse off than you and it is your responsibility to look after them. She stuck to her socialist principles even in death when she left her body to science so that somebody else could benefit from it and as she said “I’m finished with it anyway and won’t need it” and added “I don’t want anybody making a profit out of me when I’m dead”, meaning the undertakers. This woman, my mother, always did so much to shape my life and views, leading me to being disillusioned with our material world and its inequalities, and looking for answers.
In 1973 I moved to the island of Lewis to work. There I met a wonderful woman on the Island, Alma Gregory. She was a pioneer to these scattered pearls of the Atlantic Ocean. One day Alma said to me, “None of us are Bahá’ís, only Abdu’l-Bahá achieved that station, we are all simply followers of Bahá’u’lláh”. This insightful piece of wisdom has stayed with me for some 40 years.
For over forty years I have been attempting to ‘follow Bahá’u’lláh’. I first met the Bahá’í Faith in Hamilton during 1972 and quickly dismissed it. I came out of a nominally Christian background with some very strong socialist leanings. At the age of fourteen I was a ‘card carrying member of the Communist party’ and expelled about a year later for not ‘following the party line’. I then joined the ‘Young Socialists’, the youth wing of the Labour party. Later I was expelled for being a ‘Trotskyte’. I didn’t know what that meant but I did investigate and later came to admire Leon Trotsky.
This, probably along with my atheist leanings, led to my early dismissal of the Bahá’í Faith. Later around the early 70’s I leaned towards the ‘alternative society’, hippiedom, very radical left wing politics and to me strangely enough a bit of mysticism. This was as a result of my lifelong interest and admiration of the indigenous peoples of North America. I was married with two young children and utterly disillusioned with western materialism and we thought that we should ‘drop out and get away from it all’ and head somewhere remote.
From Glasgow we ended up on the Island of Lewis and thereby hangs a tale. I had to move there on my own and leave my young family behind in order to try and find a place to live. I had a job in a clothing factory, and in the factory I met Enayat Rawhani. Finding an Iranian in such a far flung place led to many questions, which in turn led to sitting and listening to ‘firesides’ at the Rawhani and Grant households (made up of Roddy and his parents Callum and Elaine, a lovely old couple who had pioneered to these Islands). There was not much else for me to do as my family were still in Glasgow. By now the Bahá’í Faith impressed me, except for the God bit, for to an almost lifelong socialist the ‘teachings’ made sense, many of which echoed what my mother had taught me as a child … but God?
Life on my own was hard and I decided one day to go and seek a ‘vision’ just like the Native Americans that I so much admired. I travelled over to the West coast of Lewis to Dalbeg Bay. This bay is a neat little horseshoe with high cliffs on either side. There was a gale blowing and the wind was lifting the sea onto the little strip of machar. It looked like a bad day to ‘seek a vision’ but I had travelled across Lewis and there was no going back. Sitting cross legged on the machar looking out into the Atlantic ocean I tried to concentrate. I could feel the rain running down inside my clothes and soaking my back as well as the rest of me. As I sat there it became strangely silent, although this was impossible with the wind howling in from the ocean. The whole place took on an aura of a silent movie; sound almost vanished though I could hear the sound of rocks being dragged up and down the beach, tumbling and rumbling….then silence, utter silence… I thought, this is it, I’m really meditating… two seagulls broke the silence as they screamed and screeched across the beach from right to left, which quickly annoyed me. However, I followed their flight path and at the left hand side of the beach I watched as a huge part of the cliff face, about the size of a double decker bus, came crashing into the sea. I thought …. this piece of cliff has been there for literary billions of years. Most of the Outer Hebrides of Scotland have a bedrock formed from Lewisian gneiss. These are amongst the oldest rocks in Europe and some of the oldest in the world, having been formed in the Precambrian Era up to 3 billion years ago, and I had seen it fall into the ocean. My thoughts started to race … some day far in the future it will be broken into rocks and over aeons ground up into grains of sand. At this point I acknowledged that there was something way beyond my knowledge that some call God.
About a month later (June 1973) I found a house in Stornoway and my family moved up from Glasgow. I took them along to meet the Rawhanis, and my wife Kathleen asked the question ‘do you have any books about the Bahá’í Faith?’ We were given a little blue book Introduction to the Bahá’í Faith by Gloria Faizi.
Less than half way through the book we both decided that this was for us. Instrumental in answering most of our more obscure questions at that point was Adrian Byron Burns who was ‘travel teaching’ on the island at the time, and to this day one of our valued friends. We used to sit around listening to music and to Adrian playing and singing. Our conversations lasted late into the night. There was another American travel teacher on the Island and when I had ‘declared’ my faith in Bahá’u’lláh he asked what had made up my mind? I told him that I had always been a revolutionary and I could not miss this as it was the biggest revolution ever. He said ‘no, no it’s a revelation’. I replied ‘revelation? revolution? You call it what you want and I’ll call it what I want’. This was our illumination.
Later I went on to serve on the Local Spiritual Assembly. Hand of the Cause of God Dr Muhajir visited the Island and came to our home. We asked what we could do for him and what could we do to help? He remarked that he was very tired and could he sleep in the chair for a little while? We said of course he could. When our son Kieran, who was only one year old at the time, came into the room and saw Dr Muhajir sleeping on the chair he climbed up on him and went to sleep as well.
Later we pioneered to help form the first Local Spiritual Assembly of the Island of Mull where I managed to find employment as a tractor driver and farm labourer on the Island estate of Ulva. Up until this point I had been a tailor. The Local Spiritual Assembly of Mull was formed in 1975 [see Bahá’í World 1973-1976, p.467].
Ulva was and is a very special place. Over the period of three years that we lived on this small island, there were five Bahais living and working on Ulva. This was within a population that fluctuated between 19 and 28 people. A whole book could be written about the times and events of that holy and mystical Island. Amongst these Bahá’ís was a great friend of mine Andy McCafferty. We travelled the island feeding cattle, two of us in the one tractor. Each journey was practical and spiritual, feeding the cattle and feeding both our souls as the intricacies of The Hidden Words were discussed and debated. Often we would stop in some hidden area to further examine and debate our shared faith. We often felt like the ‘early believers’ intoxicated with the vision of Bahá’u’lláh, which if you think about it in the ‘Scottish’ sense, indeed we were.
After some three years in 1978 we pioneered to the Falkland Islands as at the time they were asking for British pioneers. We as a family are still trying to figure out the wisdom of that move to the bottom of the world. The National Spiritual Assembly of the United States was responsible for those Islands and almost all the Bahá’ís there were American. After three months there a fire burned our house to the ground and we lost everything but what we stood up in. While on the Falkland Islands my mother died and to this day I regret that I was not with her at the end. We as a family then decided that the Falkland Islands were not for us and we returned to Scotland where I worked for a time on the mainland as a shepherd.
In 1980 we returned to the Island of Mull which our children considered to be their home. We spent some ten years on Mull during which time we served on the Local Spiritual Assembly. I also had the privilege of serving for a few years on the then Scottish Teaching Committee. During this time we went on our first pilgrimage, in 1983. Whilst on pilgrimage two members of the International Teaching Centre came to speak to me and asked what it was that we were doing in Scotland? I asked why and was told that Scotland had achieved something that was unique at that time in the Bahá’í world – we had opened every ‘district’ to the Cause of God. At this same point in time there were 21 Local Spiritual Assemblies in Scotland.
During our time on the island of Mull we helped to arrange for Hand of the Cause Amatu’l Bahá Rúhíyyih Khánum to visit the island. On two further occasions during her visits to Scotland I was asked to help with the ‘security’ … ‘bodyguard’? On the second visit she asked me ‘are you here to look after me again?’ I said that I had been requested to do so. She looked at me and smiled and said something to the effect, ‘stay close to me and I’ll look after you’!
When our children left the Island of Mull to go to Art school and Music college in the late 80’s – early 90’s, we decided it was time to move to the mainland to be nearer to them. I was 45 years of age and I applied and was accepted as a ‘mature student’ at Stirling University to study Film and Media, Religious Studies and Education. Once I had obtained my degree I started work as a teacher of Religious and Moral Education in a local secondary school. Later I would become Head of Department and was able to shape the curriculum to include all the ‘world religions’ and a study of Native American Indians’ belief and culture …. Later on I won the opportunity to develop at a College in Oxford a set of lessons for schools on the Bahá’í Faith. I was sponsored and supported by the Farmington Institute at Manchester College Oxford. When I gave my first presentation at the college I found myself in the same room in which ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had spoken when He visited Oxford in 1912.
Our family has been on pilgrimage twice; the first time was in 1983, as mentioned above, and the second time was in June 2011 with our son Kieran and daughter-in-law Subrina. Over the last few years we have visited Jamaica twice. Our son had been living and working in Jamaica and had met Subrina while he was there. The first time we visited was to meet Subrina’s family and our second visit there was for their wedding. The visits to Jamaica have enriched our lives, not only meeting with the Bahá’ís on the island but in opening up and extending our family to include Subrina’s parents and relatives who embraced us as their own
These days I am ‘retired’ and living out in the country at the southern end of Perthshire in Scotland, growing vegetables and working in my acre and a half of garden. I’m still living away from it all and somewhere remote … well, remote .. ish.
Perthshire, November 2012