I was brought up in a Christian home in Worcester where going to church each Sunday was just something that one did and led me to being confirmed into the Anglican Church. It was whilst I was taking my confirmation classes in 1966 that something was said that made me think and stayed with me. It was during a discussion with our vicar, the Rev Illiffe, about the return of Jesus. He was most insistent that God did not fail in his promises and perhaps it had already happened. Perhaps humanity was ‘asleep’ to this great event and alluded to the anticipation by a great number of Christians in the 19th Century of it happening then. He then went on to say that if we were convinced by his arguments then perhaps we should start looking for the returned Messiah.
This being the sixties, with the Beatles going to India and getting involved with Hinduism, it started to make me wonder about other religions. My mother encouraged me to investigate other religious beliefs, as she felt that due to the easing of travel in a shrinking world, it would become necessary to understand what other people believed. So under my mother’s guidance, at home I began to study Buddhism, Hinduism and the Jewish faith, as Judaism was at the root of Christianity. This had only become possible in the late sixties when bookshops had begun to stock books describing other religions, as well as good translations of their sacred texts.
When my father died in 1968, my mother decided that the family would return to our ‘homeland’ of Cornwall which is where I would eventually find the Bahá’í faith. Through my reading of religious texts I felt that there were common themes running through them all and would say so to anyone willing to listen. It was then in early 1970 that I met someone in the village of St Agnes, who was a retired city lawyer and was considered by the villagers an eccentric. He shared my views and said he too was looking for the Messiah, the Second Coming of Jesus the Christ. He did mention in passing a small group in Cornwall called the Bahá’ís, whom he didn’t think had the answer to our quest. He also mentioned that the world-famous potter Bernard Leach was a Bahá’í and wondered how such a great man could follow such a belief.
Then ‘Fate’ intervened one day in the autumn of 1970, as I was looking for a friend with whom I was studying ‘A’ level sociology. I didn’t have the latest topic for an essay which we needed to submit very soon. I eventually found him doing some odd jobs for a lady in St Agnes village whom he called ‘Babs’. As it was a rather warm day she invited us both in for some refreshing tea and biscuits and then left us to discuss our assignment. This was my first encounter with Barbara Anderson and after that whenever I wanted to find my friend he would always be at Babs’ house doing some odd job. One thing I noticed whenever I visited was her consistently generous and hospitable nature. Another thing was a Persian carpet on the wall above the fireplace which had Arabic script on it and next to it several pictures of an elderly Middle Eastern gentleman wearing a turban. Based on the carpet and pictures, I wrongly assumed that she was a Sufi as there was an active Sufi community in the village.
It was not until the spring of 1972 that I learned the carpet depicted the Greatest Name; the picture was of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and “Babs” was in fact a Bahá’í. All that came out when two Bahá’í visitors (Brian Corvin and Melfyn Dean) dropped by to see Barbara. After she had said I was interested, both invited me to a public meeting being held in Truro that Friday.
It was there that I picked up a leaflet describing the Bahá’í principles and belief that really started things for me. I went through the leaflet only to find that I agreed with everything written in it. During the meeting a Christian minister started to criticise what was being said, to which I took exception and told him that he should have an ‘open’ courteous mind when listening to other faiths, quoting what the Rev Illiffe had said during my confirmation classes. What he said to me after the meeting during tea and biscuits made me even more determined to find out about the Bahá’í faith. He thought I was a Bahá’í until I corrected him by informing him that I was indeed a confirmed Christian and had only been attending the meeting to find out more about the Bahá’ís and their beliefs.
I became more and more frustrated by all the Bahá’ís I met; only because none of them had tried to ‘recruit’ me into their ranks, something that I had encountered with other religious groups and sects. Then on 20th October 1972 I was giving Melfyn a lift to see some of his friends in North Cornwall when we missed the correct turn and we found ourselves just outside of Launceston, also known as the “Gate of Cornwall”. It was then I asked Melfyn “How do you join you lot? Why has no one asked me to join you? Is it not obvious I want to join you Bahá’ís as I agree with everything you all say? I want to be a member of your faith.”
When we arrived at Chantell and Julian Philippe’s home in Delabole, Julian greeted us at the door telling Melfyn that Chantell wanted to declare, Melfyn in turn said the same of me. So Chantell and I completed our declaration forms together on what Melfyn explained was a Bahá’í Holy Day, the Birth of the Báb (‘bab’ meaning ‘gate’) and that is why he had been chuckling all the way from Launceston. I had symbolically gone through the ‘Gate’ of Cornwall when making my verbal declaration to him. I felt that I had at last arrived home, as I felt that I had been a Bahá’í all my life and had only just confirmed it. On reflection I also felt that the Spirit of God had been guiding and directing me towards this new faith and I was only fulfilling what the Rev Illiffe had suggested many years previously.
It was not long before I attended my first 19 Day Feast in St Austell, with Melfyn going in ahead of me to present to the St Austell Spiritual Assembly my declaration, so that I would be admitted as a Bahá’í. It was at the feast of Qudrat 129 BE that I was first asked to read a prayer publicly, which I did with some nervousness. It was the prayer revealed by Bahá’u’lláh that begins “I know not, O my God, what the Fire is which Thou didst kindle in Thy land …” which to me seemed very appropriate. Afterwards the friends complimented me on my reading of the prayer and I was given a prayer book by the Assembly as a welcome gift on joining the faith.
The first book I was loaned to start my ‘deepening’ was Thief in the Night which explained prophecies that I knew from my studies as a Christian. To me it only confirmed what I knew was right, but my grandfather was so concerned that he wrote to his son who had been out in Palestine and India during World War II. My uncle replied in a similar vein to how Queen Victoria is reported to have received Bahá’u’lláh’s letter. He wrote to my grandfather “In all my travels I have not heard of the Bahá’í faith, however if this thing is of God then do not despair as it will be good for him. If it’s just a cult and a whim then he will soon get bored with it and will leave it.”
At a public meeting being held again in Truro, as it was a ‘goal’ town, I was introduced to Naomi Long whom all the friends knew and who had ‘pioneered’ to Cornwall at the start of the nine year plan from Torquay . When discussing with Naomi what I had read to date, she was not impressed at all and said that I needed “something with more spiritual meat in it” and pulled out a battered and well thumbed copy of the Kitáb-I-Iqán. It was loaned to me until I wished to return it to her. That was the start of the influence Naomi was to have on my Bahá’í spiritual life.
When I returned the book to Naomi at her home in Kelynack, she invited me to supper when we discussed my understanding of my reading of the Kitáb-I-Iqán. After our meal Naomi suggested that we withdraw to her ‘quiet room’ where we could say prayers and I could meditate on the prayers recited and the Kitáb-I-Iqán. This became common practice whenever I visited Naomi alone or with friends like Melfyn. Naomi explained to me that it was through the faculty of meditation that the true spiritual meaning of the Writings could be discovered.
Later Naomi said that she was going to hold what she termed as being meditational evenings, as the local yoga class had to close and the local people who attended it missed the quiet Buddhist style meditations that were employed at their close. She stressed that this was not a “Bahá’í meditation” as that didn’t exist, but it was her way of providing a spiritual service to the local people who wanted it. These devotional meetings grew in popularity and everyone, no matter what their belief, was made to feel welcome. I can remember on one occasion we had a Rabbi come and join us. Afterwards we always gathered in the kitchen for a lively discussion and something to eat and drink. On this occasion the Rabbi asked if he could recite a blessing in Hebrew over the bread before it was broken and eaten by the guests. Later I was informed by a Jewish friend that this was a great honour that had been given, as it wasn’t something a Rabbi would normally do in totally ‘non-Jewish’ company!
The devotionals grew to such a size that towards the end of Naomi’s stay in Cornwall, her cottage was not big enough to accommodate all who wanted to attend them. The very last one was hosted by Naomi’s landlord in his farmhouse where over 150 people attended, including three members of the National Spiritual Assembly. These devotional meetings eventually led to two souls from St Just declaring their belief in Bahá’u’lláh as the Messenger of God for this age and that helped in the formation of the first Spiritual Assembly of Penwith.
The largest number of people I ever informed of the Bahá’í faith at one time was when I was at Rolle College studying to be a Religious Education teacher. It was by ‘accident’ rather than by design that the whole college became aware of the existence of the Bahá’í faith. I was going to write my final dissertation on the teaching of Hinduism in a Church of England primary school. However two friends in my RE class who were members of the Christian Union had found out that I was a Bahá’í and that I maintained that Bahá’u’lláh was the ‘Promised One’ of Christianity. As one of them put it, “if you are saying that Jesus has returned, why aren’t you shouting it from the roof-tops? All we Christians who are looking for the Messiah want to know”. With that, he and his friend took me up to the Head of Department, opened the door and announced that I was changing my dissertation to one describing the Bahá’í Faith. Afterwards I was asked by the Head if I had enough information on which to base the required essay, to which I replied that there were Bahá’ís in nearby Exeter from whom I could get any material I needed. This was accepted and I was set to work.
The ensuing dissertation was handed in on time and was 20% longer than the minimum required. When we got our marked work back, I was concerned when I noticed there weren’t any of the usual red pen markings throughout the whole essay. It was only on the last page that my grade slip was attached with a note that said “This is the most perfect description I have ever read describing a religion and as such no marks have been made on this ‘perfect’ work. You are awarded A+ distinction.” An unheard-of grade at Rolle, this was compounded when I was awarded A+ for Education and a straight ‘A’ for professional subjects, the first time ever in the entire history of the college that anyone had been awarded ‘A’s in all study areas. Students being students, all wanted to know what the subject of the dissertation was, so the name of the Bahá’í Faith reached everyone in the college. A couple of years later I learnt that the Bahá’í faith had been included in Rolle College’s RE curriculum as an optional study area.
In the seventies I felt I should visit the Guardian’s resting place and so went to 27 Rutland Gate in order to get directions to it. There I met Philip Hainsworth and his eldest son Richard, who offered to accompany me to Arnos Grove, as he wanted to say prayers there as well. During my week’s stay in London, we went together on almost a daily basis to support firesides somewhere in the capital and this also helped me in my Bahá’í ‘education’. At a meeting with Adib Taherzadeh, I met a London-based teacher who was a relatively new Bahá’í, so I asked how she had come across the Faith. She explained that she had first heard of it whilst training at Rolle College when a student got an ‘A+’ for writing an essay on the Faith. She had been feeling down when she had next come across the word Bahá’í on a poster advertising a meeting. The name rang a bell and so she attended her first of many firesides before declaring. She said that her first fireside with prayers had restored her feelings of well-being, so much so that she found she couldn’t do without the prayers and reading the writings of the faith.
On another visit to London, I had arranged to meet Philip at Rutland Gate to discuss the progress of the teaching work in Carrick, Cornwall. I found that I was going to be late for my appointment because of a mistake I had made with the tube trains. As I raced to my meeting I almost collided with an elderly Persian gentleman on the steps of Rutland Gate, as he was leaving with some companions. He politely asked me if we had we met before and should he know me? Apologising for my haste I said ‘no’ we had not met before to which he replied “Ah, you have an international face that’s why I thought I recognised you.” I was to learn from Philip when inside that he was in fact Hand of the Cause of God Abu’l-Qasim Faizi who was returning to Israel that day.
Years later when I was on Pilgrimage in Haifa, we were all introduced to the four Hands living in Israel. When Mr Faizi saw me, he remembered our brief encounter on the steps of Rutland Gate and asked if I was still being ‘late’ and rushing about to meet deadlines! When Amatu’l-Bahá Rúhíyyih Khánum asked from where we had come, after I had given my name she asked if I was from England, judging from my accent. I replied I was from Britain and stated that I was a ‘Cornishman’ from Cornwall, which she accepted. Later on when the pilgrims met with the members of the Universal House of Justice, on hearing me speak Dr David Ruhe said, “Ah! … So you must be the Cornishman, it’s good to meet with a representative of a minority!”
It was during one evening session held with Ali-Akbar Furútan when he asked the open question “why had we all come on Pilgrimage?” An American believer answered with “to meet with all you remaining Hands as there will not be any more created after you.” Mr Furútan replied in the same manner that Shoghi Effendi had replied to a believer in his day. “No you have not, yes it’s good to meet with the Hands, but you are here to enjoy the blessing of being able to pray in all of the Shrines. Something generations in the future may not be able to do, as they will only be permitted circumambulation of the Shrines.”
We (the pilgrims) all called it the “Orange Pilgrimage” as an awful lot of things occurred that involved oranges. The pilgrimage was at that time of year when Israel harvests its Jaffa orange crop and exports them to earn valuable foreign currency. There were amongst us the first pilgrims from India who all said it was like being in paradise with the abundance of oranges.
My first tale concerns what happened when we were visiting Mazra’ih mansion. The majority of us were on a balcony overlooking the orange orchard below, enjoying some refreshing tea on what was a warm calm day. We noticed that one of us was below walking alone amongst the orange trees and then suddenly held out one hand, followed by the other. After which he came rushing back to the mansion with an orange in each hand. He explained that he was mentally questioning his faith and belief in God, when he first stretched out his left hand as in a gesture. Into it an orange dropped from a tree which felt like it had been placed there. He then thought “That’s just coincidence, if there is a God then place an orange in my right hand!” That duly happened with no other fruits coming off any of the trees. He then duly rushed back to see us all with his prized oranges and to tell us of his experience. He told us that he was now certain that there was a God of mercy and Bahá’u’lláh was His Messenger. He went on to say that his days as a ‘doubting Thomas’ were now over.
Another believer who was an agriculturist found it a bit strange, so decided to investigate further on his own and went down into the orchard. We saw him walk into the centre of the orchard and stop, when suddenly all the oranges from just the four trees around him fell on him. There wasn’t a single breath of wind, yet just the four trees around him lost all of their fruit and he was bombarded with them. He came back to say “one should not doubt God’s wisdom and I know what happened to our friend was a proof that he needed and we should accept what we witnessed!”
Most of the pilgrims were planning to take back to their home countries some of the oranges we were given as part of our refreshments at Bahjí, Mazra’ih and the Ridván Gardens. However, one American lady, Kathy Krug, had eaten all of her oranges and wanted ‘something a bit more special’ to take back to Japan where she had pioneered earlier that year. She and I were discussing the matter in front of the Shrine of the Báb, when one of the gardeners who had overheard our conversation took us to the only orange tree next to the Shrine. From the three oranges we knew were on the tree, we now saw that one was in-between two branches as if placed there. The gardener reached up and got it saying “I think this is for you and Japan”. He went on to explain that it was a tree that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had personally planted and that the fruits were so bitter you couldn’t eat them. He also said that perhaps it was symbolic of the bitter trials and tribulations that had befallen the Báb.
Kathy informed me later when she got back to Japan that she had carefully extracted the pips, and found exactly nine of them which she had planted in pots hoping they would germinate. All nine did and so she then arranged for each of the small trees to be sent to nine special goal areas around Japan where they were to be planted. I understand that they are still growing in their chosen respective places around Japan and cared for by the friends and the LSAs that were formed in those goal areas.
I have had the privilege of serving on the first Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’is of Carrick which was formed in November 1977 and all of its succeeding ones up to its dissolution at Ridvan 2000. The first assembly was formed in the November of 1977 and not the following Ridván, as was permitted under terms of the Five Year Plan. Philip Hainsworth attended for the formation meeting representing the National Spiritual Assembly; apart from me, the members of that first Spiritual Assembly of Carrick (Cornwall) were: Paul Profaska, Mrs Barbara Anderson, Mrs Jeanne Mazandarani, Farah Mazandarani, Mrs Alice Hurst, Gerry Brereton, Mrs Catherine Brereton and Mrs Winifred Harris.
As with all institutions of the Faith, the Assembly had its moments of trials and tribulations; such as when Paul Profaska, who had been in the Group before the Assembly was formed, decided to work and live in the Penwith District in 1978 so as to aid the formation of its first Assembly; something that Bernard Leach had hoped and prayed for over many years. Another event that put pressure on the Assembly was when Arthur Hurst with his wife Alice agreed to go with their daughter Jeanne Mazandarani and son-in-law Farah to Australia, as Farah couldn’t get work in Cornwall. The Assembly was rescued by Betty and Ken Goode moving to Cornwall, a place they liked and wanted to be in for their retirement. After this, the Assembly remained stable until its dissolution as a result of the Universal House of Justice deciding that Spiritual Assemblies throughout the world would only be in towns and villages, as described in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas.
Whilst I was on pilgrimage in 1979, I had prayed that due to my health I would only go to where my work took me. It had taken me all over the West Country in the intervening years, but never very far from my home in Cornwall. I only moved to Suffolk during the end of 1999, when I got promoted to being a software test manager in British Telecom’s R&D labs at Martlesham Heath, near Ipswich. During my time there, up to my retirement in 2010, I met a very diverse set of people from all over the world. Many were from India and after finding out I was a Bahá’í, they would love to have discussions about their home communities in India (where there were Bahá’ís) and how they had seen the Lotus temple in New Delhi.
It is said that every Pilgrimage is different for every individual going on one and it is even different for those who have made one before. It is a dynamic spiritual experience that is difficult to express in words and all one can ever say is that it is something every Bahá’í should try to experience. I found these assertions to be true when I made only my second Pilgrimage in November 2013 which was so very different to the one I previously experienced in November 1979.
After registering, we all gathered in the afternoon outside the (Eastern) Pilgrim House where the ‘Tablet of Visitation’ was recited, after which we went to the Shrine of the Báb, which we circumambulated before we were allowed to enter the Shrine itself. I found this unusual as I had expected that the ‘Tablet of Visitation’ would have been recited inside, like it was in 1979. This was not to be as there were now over 200 pilgrims. Whilst in the Shrine of the Báb, many pilgrims including myself offered up prayers for people they knew, their communities and assistance with teaching the Cause. I noticed that of the five chambers surrounding the resting place of the Báb, all were quite full with my fellow pilgrims.
In my group of pilgrims we all looked forward to November 12th, the birthday of Bahá’u’lláh, as we would be making our first scheduled visit to Bahjí and the resting place of the most Blessed Beauty. Here, because we were a smallish group, the ‘Tablet of Visitation’ was recited inside the Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh. Everyone was then left to offer up their own prayers and to meditate on what they wished. A Canadian, John, borrowed my copy of the Hidden Words so he could meditate upon some of the verses in “the Sacred Snow White Spot” of Bahjí. He did not reveal which ones they were, but said afterwards that he thought that he now had a greater understanding of those he chose to meditate upon.
As I knew the Holy Places from my previous Pilgrimage, at times I did feel a little like a “Spiritual Tourist”, rather than a true pilgrim. I expressed that thought with our guide Sandy, who after that asked me on more than one occasion to recollect my visit in 1979 as well as what it was like meeting the four remaining Hands of the Cause based in Haifa. This I gladly did, but wondered how ‘bored’ my fellow pilgrims would be with my tales. They were not, with many saying to me that my recollections had enhanced their pilgrimage experience.
Every evening there was a session in the International Teaching Centre building, where either a member of the Universal House of Justice or a member of the ITC would give a talk. These were based on subjects surrounding the implementation of the current five year plan and the part we as individuals could play in them. One striking comment that was made struck a chord with me: it was the importance of travelling and meeting with the friends, something the Guardian had previously extolled. Examples were given of Africa and Colombia where individuals had travelled great distances to assist in the deepening of the community. It was suggested that for those of us in the West, if we were to see isolated believers, it would help to strengthen them and the cluster communities we are all trying to build.
In conclusion, I would urge anyone who can go on Pilgrimage, then do so now as the day will surely come when access to the Shrines will be closed due to the sheer number of pilgrims, with circumambulation of the Shrines becoming the norm. We may currently see little growth in the West, but elsewhere in the World it is a different story as many of my fellow pilgrims expressed in their personal stories.
Presently I am an ‘isolated’ believer living in a Suffolk village and I live in the hope that one day our numbers will grow, thus enabling the formation of a Spiritual Assembly in my village.
Suffolk, December 2013