I was born in 1953 in the North of England to Roman Catholic parents who were both post war immigrants to this country. My mother came from Southern Ireland and my father from Austria where his family had arrived as refugees from Eastern Europe.
Unfortunately my parents separated when I was 18 months old – they later divorced and I was sent to Austria where I was to live with my grandparents until I came back to England at the age of 7 to live with my father and his new English wife. My grandmother was a devout Catholic and during my years in Austria I was raised in her faith and it was her devoutness and love which were to influence my own spiritual journey in later years.
My stepmother, to whom I am still very close, came from a Protestant background and when I came to England she sent me, along with my half brothers, to the local Protestant church where we attended Sunday school until our teens. By then I had lost the simple faith of childhood and, along with many young people of my generation, embraced atheism and left wing politics. With my half baked understanding of the world, I rejected the values of the older generation, believing that the new ideas of my generation would build a better and peaceful world. I know now that I never truly stopped believing in God, but rather had rejected the religious institutes that had shaped the world I knew.
My interest in God and faith were reawakened when, in my early 20s, two of my closest friends became Jehovah’s Witnesses. We are still good friends and they and their children still belong to the Witnesses. I remember reading their literature and having long discussions with them. Their dedication and happiness impressed me deeply and although I was not convinced enough to join their Faith, I did feel a certain envy for what they had and a sense of loss over something too elusive for me to grasp.
In my late 20’s I began my spiritual quest in earnest. I began to attend a small Evangelical church near my home. The congregation was young and vibrant and the sermons touched my soul with their message of a loving God. I became a born again Christian on fire with the message of salvation through Jesus Christ alone. I think, looking back, that I was more caught up with the message of personal salvation and its implications for me, than with the beautiful teachings of Jesus about a life of faith and service and the implications of these teachings for the world.
The years passed. My husband and I had two beautiful daughters and moved down to Cornwall where our children could grow up near their grandparents who, like my husband, were Cornish folk.
My interpretations of Christianity became more moderate over the years and I took up a preaching role within my church, hoping eventually to become an ordained minister. And yet paradoxically I was also struggling with my faith. This was at the tail end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s and the Human Sexuality Report was causing a wave throughout my church. By many of the congregation, homosexuals were seen as abominations and fit only to be consigned to the flames of Hell. Very literalistic interpretations of Biblical writings were becoming more and more the norm preached from the pulpit and in this climate I felt increasingly uncertain and unhappy, particularly so when it was indicated that my misgivings and unhappiness were the works of the devil.
My thoughts were in turmoil and I felt uncomfortable with what was becoming increasingly a siege mentality atmosphere within my local church community. Catholics were regarded by some as not proper Christians, and other faiths were viewed as false religions, created by Satan to lead lost souls astray. It was The Saved versus the Unsaved – the former were assured of their place in Heaven, the latter were doomed to eternal punishment in Hell.
At the time of this turmoil I went on a family holiday to Canada to visit my parents and brothers who lived in Edmonton. I decided, out of curiosity, to visit a local synagogue and a local mosque and in both I was treated with friendliness and courtesy. I remember sitting in with a group of Muslim women who were studying passages from the Koran concerning ‘being a good neighbour’. It was a lovely experience and I returned to England in no doubt that within these houses of faith God was worshipped and adored. How to reconcile this with my own community’s teachings?
After much time talking with friends and a very supportive and understanding senior cleric of the church, I decided to spend six months away from my church and attend Quaker Meetings for Worship, with the hope that I could experience the peace and tranquillity I felt I needed, in order to pray and seek guidance about my situation. I was feeling very low and the stress of my experience was making me feel unwell. I thought that six months would be a sufficient break before I went back to my preaching duties.
I was with the Quakers for about fifteen years and loved their peaceful way of life and commitment to working with social issues. I was working as a counsellor with drug and alcohol misuse and had become a member of a Quaker committee known as Quaker Action on Alcohol and Drugs (QAAD). I was able to combine my spiritual life with my working life and this brought me great satisfaction and enabled me to meet some very wonderful people.
And then my bubble of happiness burst. It was a combination of family and work issues which, at the age of fifty-five, plunged me into a very dark and bleak depressive illness.
I couldn’t bring myself to attend Meetings for Worship and I couldn’t continue with my counselling work and so was retired on grounds of ill health from a job I had loved. I stopped seeing friends and felt that there was little to live for. Somehow in this darkness came the thought that in order to get better, I needed to involve myself with a spiritual community and yet I couldn’t bring myself to return to Quaker Meetings. I had been away too long and felt embarrassed about returning. Also I dreaded having to make conversation when the worship ended and so I stayed in my isolation. But my mind returned to the thought that I needed to be somewhere where God was worshipped.
Gradually I began to think about the Bahá’í Faith. I knew next to nothing about it, other than that I had, once a year, met Bahá’ís when they joined with Quakers on World Religion Day and that they seemed to be nice people. I began to read about the Bahá’í Faith on the Internet, both going to the official site and also reading what people outside of their faith thought of them. One day I plucked up the courage to email the UK Bahá’í site to enquire if there were any Bahá’í meetings in my locality. I received a most friendly and loving reply, by email, from Manijeh Smith who invited me to her home to join them in the weekly devotional which was held there. We exchanged one or two emails and, because I don’t drive, she offered to pick me up on her way home from work to join her family for supper before the devotional began. She then drove me home and attempted to answer the questions which seemed to pour out of me.
Bahá’u’lláh, ‘Abdul-Bahá, The Báb……these names were all new to me. I could barely pronounce them but they began to become real people to me; they had lives which spoke of devotion to God. They had teachings which sometimes puzzled me, even angered me, but they made me think and question some of the certainties which I had held as truths for many years. I struggled, but this was a struggle which was satisfying to my soul and which knocked some of my old assumptions aside with answers that in the end felt right.
I wish that I could say that I embraced this beautiful faith instantly. Sadly I didn’t. I was wary of committing myself to something that would prove to be a disappointment. I think, with hindsight, that I was a little afraid that I would appear foolish to friends if I embraced this new faith.
After about a year of attending devotionals, there was a crisis in my home life which resulted in my drifting away from the Bahá’í Faith for about eighteen months. Again I had to take stock and again I realised that I needed to be regularly attending devotional meetings.
I contacted Manijeh and asked if I could resume my attendance of the devotionals held at her home and I began quietly to recite the short obligatory prayer daily. My journey to God had begun in earnest. I still had questions and my lovely friend Manijeh patiently and lovingly, along with her husband, David, made it possible for me to grow in the knowledge that Bahá’u’lláh is God’s Manifestation for our world in this age.
I was particularly drawn to the teachings regarding the equality of men and women, the unity of mankind and, in particular, the unity of religion. It was balm to my troubled soul to read that all the world’s major religions had their origins in God The All Bountiful – to know that Zoroaster, Krishna, Buddha, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad and Bahá’u’lláh were all messengers of the One God sent to humanity at different times in its development. This made perfect sense to me. It was as if I was presented with truths that my soul had always known but now was able to see with clarity and know with certainty.
One evening, driving home after a devotional meeting, Manijeh and I were deep in conversation. A month previously I had stopped drinking alcohol, and though I was not yet a declared Bahá’í, Manijeh turned to me and said “But you know Olga joon, I think of you as a Bahá’í”. I was stunned into silence, not knowing really what to say as I was a little resistant to the idea that I was seen as a Bahá’í. The next day I was talking to a rather sceptical friend of mine on the phone about the devotional. She teased me about “you and your Bahá’í meetings” when I heard myself say “actually, I think I want to be a Bahá’í”. Again, stunned silence and then I said more assertively “I really want to be a Bahá’í”. Later I phoned Manijeh and told her I wanted to declare myself a Bahá’í. I remember her joy and I remember feeling at peace and a little dazed, but more than anything I remember feeling that I had come home.
That was two years and three months ago and of course the journey continues and my faith in the message of Bahá’u’lláh deepens with the beauty of the prayers and the readings which He left for our guidance. The example of ‘Abdul-Bahá continues to inspire and encourage me to try and live the Bahá’í life. I still attend the weekly devotionals held at Manijeh and David’s home and, with their encouragement, I now hold a weekly devotional at my home which, though very small, has the stalwart support of Paul and Di Profaska who bring their wisdom and experience when they attend. I also try, most weeks, to visit an elderly Bahá’í couple, Arthur and Dru Wetherelt in Redruth, for weekly devotionals, followed by a cup of tea, cake and lovely talks.
In Cornwall, although we don’t have any Local Spiritual Assemblies, we do try to meet as a community every Feast Day and it has been my privilege to host a couple of them in my home recently. My experiences of times spent with Bahá’í friends convince me of the possibility and reality of the Bahá’í life and I feel so grateful to be part of the Baha’i Community and to experience the love which radiates from The Blessed Beauty through to His people and through them to all the world.
Cornwall, May 2013