Leaps of Faith
My Religious Roots
Religious conversion runs in my family and from childhood I was familiar with its potential consequences, all of which tended to inoculate me against religion rather than draw me towards it. This is one of many threads in my life linking to my decision to join the Bahá’í community. For anyone who gets lost as I unravel the tangled knot they create into a narrative of sorts, there is the diagram at the top of this account to convey some sense of where we’re up to!
My mother, who came from a family of Catholic converts, had married a man from a staunch low church Protestant family, most of whom promptly disowned him. I never met two of his sisters until they came to our house for the funeral after my father died. This contributed to my disillusioned view of religion, which had begun to develop at a very early age.
In the year prior to my declaration in 1982 my deceased mother’s last surviving sibling, my Aunt Anne, urged me to talk to a Roman Catholic priest. She hoped that I would at last return to the one true church as she saw it.
I told her, I hope gently, that I was not prepared to talk to a priest but that I would read about Catholicism again. My strongest association with the priesthood from my early years was, possibly unfairly, with the eschatological preachers I had heard, ranting after the manner of the hell-fire sermoniser in James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The one I remember best had been a boxer in his younger days and was reputed to visit the homes of his less enthusiastic parishioners and drag them out of bed to Mass. Both these details could well have been apocryphal but they influenced my attitude strongly at the time. Apart from such stereotypes I had not internalised a clear sense of what a priest might be as all that remained in memory of all the other priests I had come across was a blurred palimpsest of mildly authoritarian impressions. I’d certainly few if any positive experiences to draw on and none had stuck in my memory, not even from my confirmation classes.
What I had read later of the way the church treated its unorthodox members such as Gerard Manley Hopkins, Teilhard de Chardin and Hans Kung did not encourage me, a self-styled rebel at the time, to feel I would get much joy out of a conversation with someone from the Catholic mainstream.
My aunt was saddened with my answer. Their parents, hers and my mother’s, had converted to Catholicism in the Nineteenth Century as a result of what was called the Oxford Movement under Cardinal Newman’s influence. They had been quietly passionate about their faith, and my aunt was their eldest daughter and loyal to their memory to the last.
As I had promised, I read a book about the faith I had left behind at the age of sixteen and remained as unimpressed as ever. Even earlier than sixteen my doubts had been aroused about the reliability of the Church’s teachings. My first communion in my early teens, for example, was a great disappointment to the part of me that wanted to believe, and compelling reinforcement of the case being made by the sceptic within, who had been steadily gaining ground as adolescence progressed. It was a decisive experiment in a way: would the host taste of bread or flesh? It was definitely a raw dough flavour.
Another time, when I was much younger, possibly marks one of the earliest roots of my doubt. It was an experience in church when I was very young – maybe five years old or so. Everyone was bowing down at the same point in the Mass and I asked my mother in a whisper why they were doing this and she replied, in a way which she thought fitting for my age and degree of understanding, ‘Because it’s too beautiful to look at.’
This was a challenge too difficult to resist. Something that beautiful and I couldn’t look! This I must see.
And I looked up and I looked round everywhere. The only objects I could see were the same old altar, the same old pictures of the stations of the cross, the same old man in a funny dress standing in front of the altar.
The only difference was this big round golden thing he was holding above his head. This seemed to be the object everyone was bowing to, but I didn’t get it. It was quite pretty but definitely not too beautiful to look at.
In any event my faith was possibly not of the strongest, as I had not gone to a Catholic school, as was usually the case, perhaps because my parents were of different views about the wisdom of that, though I never really knew why my mother had departed from tradition in this way. So, it was not too difficult to undermine more or less permanently the ambivalent faith I had developed by this impressionable age.
By the time I was in the second term of my clinical psychology MSc in early 1981 at the age of 38, which was when my aunt had made her request, my sceptical antipathy to any kind of church had a long history and very deep roots.
Even so, I did take a further step that summer and read a book on the world’s religions by Trevor Ling, honouring the spirit of my aunt’s request if not the letter. I stopped when I had almost finished a Chapter on Islam in the modern era and before I had read the section on the Bahá’í Faith. I only read the book through to the end after I had declared my intention of trying to become a Bahá’í. This was fortunate in that, if I had read that version of the Bahá’í religion before I read the book that drew me to the Faith, I might never have bothered to investigate any further. It felt almost as though I had been steered away from what would put me off. I reverted to reading about Buddhist psychology and practising meditation, neither of which confronted me with the need to believe in a god – but more of my relationship with Buddhism later.
There are two other curious facts worth mentioning here before we reach the critical point.
First of all, there was another way in which I appear to have been steered away from a possibly off-putting encounter with the Bahá’í Faith. My clinical training was at Surrey University. One of the clinical tutors was a Bahá’í. However, my cohort of trainees was not impressed with some of the ways in which the course was being run and we were all rather disillusioned with the staff who were defending it, of whom this Bahá’í was one. I never discovered, in the whole two years I was there, that he was a Bahá’í. This only became apparent to me when I joined the Bahá’í community after I had qualified and left the course.
Secondly, much of my second year from late 1981 onwards was a very testing time. I was undergoing significant upheavals in my personal life and, perhaps as a result of the distress I was feeling, had also made at least one very poor decision, which impacted adversely on others as well as on myself. I was extremely distressed by all this, particularly because I had brought some of this on myself and could also see how others were suffering too. By Christmas, I knew I needed help to sort the situation out and rectify what I could in terms of damage done, but I couldn’t see where to turn.
To my astonishment, in early January 1982, I found myself alone in a snow-bound cottage in the middle of Sussex, a complete unbeliever as I thought, on my knees in tears saying, ‘God, if you exist, please help me now.’ It was a short prayer, if prayer it really was, but it was undoubtedly intensely felt. I was on my knees a lot longer than it took to say those improbable words.
I set about putting the situation right and found the means to do so, working at rectifying it over a period of many months. I qualified as a Clinical Psychologist that September. I started looking energetically for work. During this period of unemployment I read a lot and, as my interests were wide and I lived halfway between two massive libraries, one in Hendon and the other in Swiss Cottage, I was never short of reading matter.
Books had always been my most reliable and supportive companions in times of stress, illness, loneliness and boredom. This dated back to childhood when long absences from school were made bearable by Rider Haggard, G A Henty, Baroness Orczy, Conan Doyle, G K Chesterton and many others. Not surprisingly, books helped me through the frustrations of job-seeking.
I had no idea quite where this lifelong passion was about to lead me.
The Tide of Faith Goes Out
It took me a while to twig, after some good advice, that I was applying for jobs for which I was perceived as too experienced, having done five years of responsible mental health work pre-qualification. So, I did not finally land a job till the January after I had qualified the previous autumn. Even so, I never seriously doubted that I’d done the right thing by leaving teaching.
I had fled the teaching profession in 1975, after my dissatisfaction with the work led me to a weekend encounter group. In that group, I’d experienced a dramatic breakthrough into a previously unconscious well of pain whose exact causes and parameters are still unclear. As a result I had the first of my three most significant blindfold leaps of intuition to date: I had applied for something like 25 jobs in helping professions. I knew I wanted to make people the syllabus, not books as had been the case as a teacher, but wasn’t quite sure how to do so. I applied for jobs with the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants and in the probation service, voluntary organisations, and social services amongst others.
Then, one afternoon, I went for an informal visit to a day centre for what they termed ‘the mentally ill.’ I cannot fully explain what followed. After only two hours in the building talking to staff and clients I just knew this was the work that I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Very strange, especially as that feeling turned out to be completely right. It took another seven years before I finally qualified but neither then nor later did I ever doubt the correctness of my purely intuitive decision – that leap in the dark that seemed to defy reason completely. This was not to be my only such decision as time was to tell.
With hindsight this period of unemployment after I qualified was probably a Godsend.
By this stage memories of my snow-bound prayer had faded, the situation was sorted, and I was almost back to my normal state of complacent scepticism.
Consequently I was totally unprepared for my own imminent experience of conversion as I ambled towards the library in Hendon that triggered it one late November day in 1982. I had no sense that history was about to repeat itself, that my affinity with my maternal grandfather, whose life my mother had described in loving detail many times, was about to expand from a shared love of books to a life-changing encounter with a new religion.
It was my love of poetry that in fact paved the way to my encounter with the book that changed my world. As a result of my enforced idleness I had re-read T S Eliot’s The Wasteland whose footnotes somewhat misleadingly draw the reader’s attention to Frazer’s The Golden Bough. As I had long ago lost my copy of the Frazer book, which I had never got round to reading, I decided to go to the library and take out a copy just to see if it helped my understanding of Eliot’s poem.
Once in the library, I checked the catalogue and found the reference number for the book. I located the shelf. To my disappointment the book I wanted wasn’t there. In fact, there was, in this library containing thousands of books, only one book on the shelf with that category number: The Message of the Masters by Robert Scrutton. I took one look at it and immediately put it back on the shelf. Why would I want to read another book on religion? I’d just been through all that nonsense all too recently.
I stomped off round the library. Generally half an hour in this well-stocked bookaholic’s paradise used to provide me with my maximum entitlement of six books after several difficult decisions had been made to reject at least another three. For some reason, that day, the philosophy, psychology, sociology, fiction, poetry, drama and biography sections yielded absolutely nothing of interest. I went up the stairs to the record section, another usually reliable source of entertainment: not a single thing attracted me.
Having walked to the library on a cold day I was reluctant to feel it was a completely wasted visit, so I went back to the first shelf I had visited and picked up the book I had rejected. I grudgingly felt that I might as well borrow this one rather than leave the library empty handed.
When I got home I threw it dismissively onto the sofa, went off to make a cup of coffee, and turned on the radio. Nothing. The television: nothing. Flicked through my record collection: nothing seemed to fit my mood of the moment. The discarded book was lying next to me. I picked it up. I might as well read it, I thought, really disgruntled by this stage. What a pointless way to end the day!
Having picked it up I came very close to putting it right back down again. It clearly had quite a lot about spiritualism in it, something that my scepticism regarded as blind superstition.
What caused me to read on was that a religion I had never heard of, but which matched almost all my long-standing preoccupations, was described in compelling detail in its pages. There were many quotations from people with strange names I couldn’t pronounce, but I was drawn to the ideas and the evocative language in which these were expressed.
I skipped the stuff that would have put me off and homed in on the sections most concerned with Bahá’u’lláh.
It was impossible for me to believe that this could be real. It was claimed that an exile and a prisoner, enduring innumerable hardships over many decades and without the access to scholars and massive libraries Karl Marx had enjoyed, had unfolded to humanity’s gaze what seemed to perfectly combine compelling spiritual principles with credible social action. This activism was apparently rooted in a nonviolent honest process called consultation that underpinned what seemed to me would be a truly beautiful system of administration, if it existed. All this was presented in such a powerful way that I was sure, given my constant scanning of the landscape of ideas, that I would have met with it already if it were real. After all I had been actively searching for something like that for as long as I could remember, without knowing exactly what it was I was hoping to find. Even the God-problem was probably solved because followers of Bahá’u’lláh did not believe in the God I didn’t believe in, as far as I could tell.
When I look back at my whole life trajectory from the moment I shocked my mother by saying I was not a Catholic anymore to when I made the declaration of intent we shorthand as becoming a Bahá’í, I realize now I had always been on a quest. In fact in some ways of course I still am. I was unconsciously searching for something then with rather more desperation than I am searching now, when I feel I am at least pointing in the right direction or digging in the right place.
The quest had its roots partly in suffering. Two of the most important people in my childhood had been dead for several years.
One was my grandfather, the convert to Catholicism, whom I have already mentioned. His later life had been marred by an accident that caused him to lose his leg and become unable to work any longer as a railway signalman. The family had to regroup, with my Aunt Anne leaving school at 14 to get a job, as did my Uncle Harold, the eldest. My mother was the youngest sibling but had been deeply affected by this testing turn of events which left her with a constant state of anxiety about what drastic twists and turns of fate life might bring in its wake. It was therefore deeply saddening for both my parents, but perhaps especially for her, to lose my sister, Mary, in 1939 just before the start of the war.
My parents’ grief as a result of Mary’s early death at twelve years old, four years before I was born in 1943, and the pain of a world recently at war, overshadowed my childhood and seemed partly responsible for triggering this intense quest, both for understanding and some kind of resolution of my disquiet, that drove most of my waking hours and many of my dreams as well.
So, I was being driven, even at that early age, by an intense craving to understand, and to understand in ways that made real sense to me, not in the incredible doctrinal terms that people were trying to placate me with, and which contradicted my own experience in the ways I have touched on earlier. The credibility gap widened as puberty took hold and the sceptic came out victorious. My spiritual side, it would seem to me now, was quietly biding its time but was by no means defeated.
So, having shut the door of the Catholic Church behind me and stepped into the back lanes of agnosticism, it wasn’t long before I was on the beach of atheism watching the tide of faith go out beyond eye-shot.
It seems though that this was about to change.
The Prepared Mind
Not that being godless worried me consciously. I wanted to look the hard facts of the world full in the face, see reality for what it was without all that smoke-and mirrors stuff. I felt I had found the bed-rock of a firm and true understanding (except I was writing poems about search, for reasons I didn’t understand at all).
Still, I stuck with my supposedly godless views because I thought they made sense of everything. I didn’t see it as a faith, which it is – just as much a leap in the dark as any other faith might be and ultimately far more unsatisfactory than many others which accept that there is a God. I had simply made a god of nothing since to believe in Nothing is an act of faith.
I congratulated myself on the hard-headed no-nonsense courage I was displaying by seeing the world as meaningless. I chuckled appreciatively over Castaneda‘’s concept of ‘controlled folly’ in his books about the Yaqui Indian ‘way of the warrior:’ you know the world means nothing but you choose to give it a meaning none the less in a brave act of defiant self-assertion.
I plunged into left-wing politics and became ‘a fellow traveller’. I couldn’t quite make the leap into becoming a real socialist: something held me back. I clearly wanted to find something that would give my life meaning and map out a path of action in the world to change it for the better, but not enough to overcome some sort of reservation.
I felt at first the barrier was simply within me. When I began working in mental health and went to see a therapist, we decided that the epitaph engraved in big letters on my tombstone would be, ‘He died with his options open’. I was very reluctant to make any kind of commitment.
Yet at the same time there was this restless seeking after an indefinable something. Because I shared Chekhov’s revulsion from violence and lies I stepped away from the radical socialism I was toying with. Even milder versions that eschewed violence, in my eyes seemed, like everyone else seeking power, far too keen on lies. The ends always justified the meanest means. In some incoherent way I was expressing that I valued truth and compassion more than power, except I could never have put it like that at the time.
This drove me to psychology as a way of understanding human nature better and perhaps of being enabled to be of some help sometimes to some people. And that led onto Buddhism which seemed a conveniently atheistical religion with a sophisticated psychology. Choosing to investigate that at the same time as I studied psychology was a no-brainer for me. And the meditation I practised as a result was a useful stabilising influence.
In the end I had come to a point in my life where the ideals of communism – ’from each according to his ability, to each according to his need’ – seemed to me to have been betrayed by all of its followers that had actually got into power. For example, far from rescuing the bulk of Europe from tyranny, the war with Germany, with supreme irony, handed whole swathes of the continent over to a tyranny of an equally repellent kind.
On the other hand, Buddhism, which still seems to me a religion of great beauty, depth and power, though I never threw in my lot with it, disappointed for a different reason.
I was impressed painfully by its combination of deep spirituality and practical inefficacy in the modern world. I had been haunted since the end of the Vietnam War by a potent symbol of this: those images of Buddhist monks burning themselves to death in the streets. The most widespread effects of these supremely compassionate acts of courageous self-immolation seemed to be futile if passionate demonstrations by the well-meaning, and a series of tasteless jokes of the ‘What’s little and yellow and burns with a blue flame?’ variety, which combined racism and cruelty in about equal proportions.
Without knowing it at the time, I longed, from the deepest levels of my being, for a pattern of belief, a meaning system, that could combine effective social action with moral restraints strong enough to prevent that social action becoming a source of oppression.
In the summer of 1982, a few months before my encounter with Robert Scrutton’s book, came my last prolonged exploration of an alternative to religion and spirituality. I read a brilliant book on existentialism by Peter Koestenbaum: The New Image of the Person: The Theory and Practice of Clinical Philosophy. It had been published in 1978.
In this book he states that (page 69):
[a]nxiety and physical pain are often our experience of the resistances against the act of reflection.
By reflection, amongst other things, he means unhooking ourselves from our ideas.
An example he gives from the clinical context illustrates what he means:
. . . to resist in psychotherapy means to deny the possibility of dissociating consciousness from its object at one particular point . . . To overcome the resistance means success in expanding the field of consciousness and therewith to accrue increased flexibility . . .
But overcoming this resistance is difficult. It hurts and frightens us. How are we to do it? In therapy it is the feeling of trust and safety we develop towards the therapist that helps us begin to let go of maladaptive world views, self-concepts and opinions. With religion of course it is different. I did not realise I was moving towards a faith that does not rely upon a priest to provide the bridge between a believer and a higher power deserving of the trust that will make true reflection at the deepest level possible.
This process of reflection, and the detachment it creates and upon which the growth of a deeper capacity to reflect depends, are more a process than an end-state at least in this life. As a process within the individual, it is complemented by and interacts with the process of consultation, which takes place between people and amongst groups and which proved a point of attraction for me in terms of the Bahá’í model of administration right from the start.
Koestenbaum explains this (page 73):
The history of philosophy, religion and ethics appears to show that the process of reflection can continue indefinitely . . . . there is no attachment . . . which cannot be withdrawn, no identification which cannot be dislodged.’
By reflection he means something closely related to meditation. Reflection, he says (page 99):
. . . releases consciousness from its objects and gives us the opportunity to experience our conscious inwardness in all its purity.
What he says at another point is even more intriguing (page 49):
The name Western Civilisation has given to . . . the extreme inward region of consciousness is God.
At last, though I did not know it yet, I had a mind completely prepared for what I was about to find. My debt to Koestenbaum as a writer is very great indeed, overshadowed only by the debt I owe to the writer I was about to encounter within the next few months – in fact, Robert Scrutton whose book I have just described reading, and which was having such an overpowering effect.
And here I was, sitting on my sofa with the sky darkening outside, wondering whether this had all been made up rather in the way that Carlos Castaneda was thought to have invented his Yaqui Indian. It couldn’t possibly be true, could it? Of course I’d have heard of it already, wouldn’t I?
How could I find out? I decided to check the telephone directory. If this faith really existed it must have some contact address. I think part of me felt that I would find nothing, no address, no phone number, no proof of its objective existence. The shock I felt when I found the details for the Bahá’í Centre in Rutland Gate is hard to describe. It was real. It did exist. Now what was I going to do?
It was too late to phone that night. And phoning the following day didn’t seem all that sensible. What was I going to say? ‘I’ve just read this book. Can I come and talk to someone?’ That sounded crazy. My days for doing that kind of crackpot thing were long gone: I was a qualified mental health professional now.
Nonetheless the following day I made the call and went to the centre on their invitation. The Canadian lady, Bonnie, whom I had spoken to on the phone, greeted me cheerfully when I arrived and made me feel very welcome with a cup of tea and the run of the bookshop. I don’t remember whether I ended up sitting on the sofa next to Annamarie Honnold, whose recently published book Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá I read somewhat later, before or after I bought a carefully selected set of the original Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi. I know that I was determined to read only their own words at this point: I did not want to risk being falsely persuaded by someone else’s plausible take on what they had said. I had made up my mind on two things: to check out whether what Robert Scrutton had written about them was based in the reality of what they had written and said, or sprang only from his own vivid imagination, and to see if anything they had written or said contradicted any of my own most deeply held convictions.
If it is unclear in my mind now exactly when I sat beside Annamarie Honnold, I can remember that almost her first words to me were: ‘Possess a pure, kindly and radiant heart, that thine may be a sovereignty ancient, imperishable and everlasting,’ the first of the Arabic Hidden Words of Bahá’u’lláh.
I didn’t know at the time how deep an impression that must have made.
An Exile Returns
My first three-hour visit to the Bahá’í Centre in London induced a buzzing energetic state of mind which I became aware of only when I finally stepped into the street, which lasted for a fortnight, and which hours of meditation would have failed to achieve for me. In that time, I read my way through a bagful of books with only about four hours sleep a night – those close to me who know my aptitude for sleep will testify to how remarkable that was.
The next week was a whirlpool of activity. In addition to all the intense reading I was doing, I went to all the Bahá’í meetings that I could. I met the Gandhi family who welcomed me into their home with a warmth I will never forget, even though they were devoting much of their time to supporting Ramnik Shah, secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly of India, who was in London for urgent heart surgery. This was the first expression of a connection with India that continued with my subsequent marriage to someone from that country.
As I read book after book I could find nothing to disenchant me. Almost everything unequivocally confirmed my sense that this was right and true. There were, admittedly, some small points that troubled me such as there being only men on the Universal House of Justice, but when I placed these in the pan on the side of the balance which said this will not work and I placed everything else in the other pan that said this is truly the way forward for all humanity at this time, the result was never in doubt – the pan that held the evidence that seemed to show me that this was indeed the way far outweighed the other.
I remember feeling, though, that I was being carried away by the enthusiasm of the moment and I would do well to press the pause button and take my time getting to know more about this religion. At the same time I was also very conscious that, whatever step I took would involve determining the nature of my relationship with Bahá’u’lláh and that this was the key concern. If I did not join this community it had to be because I did not believe He was Who He said He was and not because I was upset with how some Bahá’í or other had behaved or because of some relatively small quibble with a point of doctrine. Also if I did decide to set out on the Bahá’í path, it had to be because I believed in what He said and Who He was, and that holding to the Covenant would be the key, not feeling what a nice bunch of people the Bahá’ís were. The clarity of this position turned out to be of critical importance in what happened next.
A key event took place at a youth meeting. Richard Boyle, who printed the Bahá’í Journal at the time, announced to the assembled believers and friends that he needed someone who could work an offset lithograph machine to help with the publishing of the next journal. As it happened, when I had been a teacher in Kilburn many years earlier, I had helped with the printing of a magazine on exactly that kind of machine. I put my hand up to offer to help and was mortified to hear that, according to the policy of that time because I was not a Bahá’í, I couldn’t do ‘work’ for the Faith anymore than I could contribute to the Bahá’í Fund. I was outraged.
I’m not sure now whether what happened next was at the end of the same meeting or at another meeting later in the week. At some point in a break in a meeting, I found myself sitting next to someone I hadn’t met before. He introduced himself as Simon Mortimore.
We talked at some length about how I felt about what I was learning about the Faith. When I explained how closely everything I so far had understood mapped onto what I already believed, he asked me what I was waiting for. I really had no answer. After all, unless all I had protested that I believed in was pure hypocrisy, I surely should put my money where my mouth had been all these years. He produced a declaration card and I immediately signed it. I had only known about the Faith for seven days.
So much for my decision to give it a lot more time. Yet again I had come to a virtually split second decision and made another ridiculous leap in the dark – the second of three major commitments in my life. (The third concerns my decision to marry the lady who is still my wife after nearly 30 years – but that is another story altogether. The other was the decision to work in mental health that I described earlier.)
Was this then perhaps the final answer to the prayer of 12 months earlier, I wondered? Again this apparently crazy decision also was to prove exactly the right thing, though apparently flying in the face of every dictate of commonsense. My friends at the time thought I was crazy and predicted that it was a fad that wouldn’t last six months. More than thirty years later they would seem to have been wrong.
It is perhaps worth mentioning that when I decided to follow the Bahá’í path I did not feel I was abandoning a previous belief system to adopt another quite different one – a process of conversion. Quite the opposite.
I felt I was finding a system of belief and practice that exactly corresponded to what I had always believed, could never have articulated so well and had always wanted to find in something else apart from somewhere behind a fog in my own mind.
So strong was the sense of home-coming that when I went on pilgrimage four years later, I ended up at the gates near the Shrine of the Báb, overcome by waves of relief and gratitude, such as a person who had been decades in exile might feel after a long and arduous journey as he looked down from a nearby hill top on the sunlit roofs of his birthplace.
It was almost two years after the signing of the declaration card that I married (as I indicated earlier, my last major leap in the dark – another decision that I had intended to defer for six months only to find myself in a situation that showed me the true nature of my feelings). We pioneered to Herefordshire in January 1985. A year after the birth of our son we all went as a family to Israel on pilgrimage in 1987.
I was unable to enter the Shrine of the Báb the first time I saw it. I had come there with Midge Ault, a friend also from Herefordshire. My wife had stayed with our son in our hotel room but I could not resist getting closer to the Shrine. It was evening and the Shrine was closed so I had to stand some distance away, as the sun was beginning to set, and lean against an iron gate. I found myself uncontrollably sobbing. This was not the pool of tears I was so used to from my encounter group experiences. These were tears of profound relief – a return from exile, as I said.
This was the beginning of a completely unexpected sequence of reactions to the whole experience of pilgrimage. I was completely unprepared for the power of this sense of return.
The following day I stood at the door of the Shrine of the Báb totally unable to cross that particular threshold. It was not until several others had entered before me, while I stood there dithering, that I could bring myself to go inside. Then, somehow, I managed to force myself to enter. Completely contrary to my expectation at the time, I felt waves of immense power pass over me and the whole air vibrate with an irresistible intensity.
I had expected a completely different experience altogether. I had expected something like a warm glow of love to envelope me. It would have fitted more with the sense I had of the Bab’s personality .
Each Shrine that I stepped into on that pilgrimage had its own particular impact. The Shrine of the Master glowed gently with a warm acceptance, much as I had thought it would. So expectations were not contradicted here. However, the Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh at Bahji, on the other hand, also totally defied my expectations. Here was where I had expected the raw power, but felt instead enveloped in a loving embrace of such unconditional completeness that I sobbed uncontrollably once more.
These were the closest I have ever got to what might be called mystical experiences. They set the seal on that moment at the Bahá’í Centre in London when I had set my foot upon this path. I don’t like such terms as ‘I became a Bahá’í.’ I’m still working on that project. I didn’t feel for the reasons I’ve explained earlier, that it was a conversion in the sense that I shifted from one definite view of the world and what it means to another very different one. It was more of a homecoming.
It made sense, for me, of the phrase used by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to describe faith: ‘conscious knowledge.’ Until I found the Bahá’í Faith, it seems to me, my faith was unconscious, blind, deaf, dumb and desperate.
Perhaps the most surprising thing of all, given how momentous a decision this was, there is only a short, two-paragraph entry in my journal of the time. It was made on 20 December 1982. It reads:
On 25 November 1982 I borrowed Scrutton’s book on the Bahá’í Faith from the library. On Friday 26 November I went down to the Bahá’í centre because, so closely did what was described correspond to my ideal, that I could not believe it. I bought half a dozen books, talked to several people, and soaked up an atmosphere of love more intoxicating than any wine I have ever tasted before.
On 2 December, I declared as a Bahá’í and I’m still utterly convinced I did the right thing. . . . . . [People] feel it could be another one of my transient and embarrassing enthusiasms and can’t understand my need for a religion in the first place. I feel that I will still be a Baha’i in 20 years time. Time will tell.
It looks as though I might have been right.
Of course, my journey of discovery is not over. It would be very boring if it were. Becoming a Baha’i, as I have said, is a declaration of intent. I am constantly working at improving my understanding of its teachings and striving to increase my love for God through interacting with the Words of Bahá’u’lláh and reflecting on His life.
But as I said, the search is now a lot less desperate. I’m not at sea now in a storm, at the mercy of the waves, nor even on that desolate beach. I’m on dry land under a bright sun and feel I am moving forwards in something far closer to the right direction.
I just need to remember to keep looking at the map, that’s all. Carrying it in my back pocket doesn’t work too well.
 By another strange quirk of fate, it was Simon I replaced when I was elected onto the National Spiritual Assembly almost six years later. My service on that institution has continued for the last 25 years and will, as has been announced, come to an end at Ridván 2014.