Becoming a Bahá’í
My story begins with my mother’s fiftieth birthday and ends now, twenty-five years later on my own fiftieth birthday. When my mother reached the age of fifty she decided that she was at an age when she really had to make up her mind about what she believed. Her search led her to get a book out of the library about all the major religions in Britain and the last chapter was on the Bahá’í Faith. As she read this chapter she thought “Yes I agree with that”, about everything she read, and so decided to ring a number out of the telephone directory and was invited to a fireside.
Simultaneously with this I was going through my own search for Faith. I had spent seven years within a difficult relationship which had gradually undermined much of my self-worth. I spent a lot of time trying to be what I thought someone else wanted me to be, rather than coming from a genuine place of strength, from within. I instinctively felt that, in order to free myself from this emotional attachment, I needed to draw upon a higher power to give me the love I lacked whenever I tried to break away. I remember going to church with my friends in the hope that this would bring me faith, but it did not ring true for me when the vicar preached about all the lost non-Christian souls. He used the metaphor of a sinking boat and the necessity to save as many as possible. On the way home in the car I decided to pray for guidance from God just in case I had got it wrong and he did exist after all.
A week later I was on holiday with my family when my mother, with some trepidation, started to tell us about a new religion she had been investigating. I listened with encouragement and interest as she told me about this universal faith and it seemed familiar to me, maybe because the teachings also resonated with everything I held to be true.
A while later, after my mother had declared her belief in Bahá’u’lláh, she invited me to a Bahá’í Women’s group meeting held in her home. A reporter had also been invited to this meeting because she wanted to write an article about the Bahá’í Faith. At this first Bahá’í meeting I ever attended I must have felt as though I was coming home spiritually, as well as physically, because I remember feeling safe to speak candidly about the violent relationship I felt trapped within. The Bahá’ís were very supportive and loving, but I know that my mother felt quite embarrassed that the reporter was taking notes whilst her daughter was spilling out all the emotional mess of her life. Around this time I also read Viv Bartlett’s book Finding the Real You and this started to direct me towards the tools within the Bahá’í teachings which would help me rebuild my life and rediscover the strength of my childhood years.
I was brought up within the most beautiful nurturing family anyone could ever ask for and was raised within the church and Sunday school. It is a recurring pattern of my life that romantic love often seems to open my heart up in order to allow a greater capacity for spiritual love. Faith first came truly alive for me when I was fifteen years old, just after my heart had been broken for the first time. I found solace by spending the school holidays reading the Bible. I remember the transcendental feeling of detachment it gave me – all the petty fears and concerns of an insecure sensitive fifteen year old schoolchild disappeared because I could imagine my soul floating up above my body with God, whilst I went through the daily routines of school without fear or anxiety. After a week or two the feeling of detachment faded. I dived into the excitement of exploring the boundaries of grown up life, and faith disappeared, to be seen through cynical eyes as a crutch for the weak.
Returning once again to my mid-twenties search for faith; I believed in Bahá’u’lláh and had signed the declaration card, but hid it away in my drawer because I was not ready to make the final step of joining an organised religion. This step came for me when I was able to link the intellectual concepts within the Bahá’í Faith, and the personal spiritual relationship with God it had given me, with my own path of service. This was when I was able to connect the Bahá’í Writings with my life’s greatest passion and source of self expression – visual art.
As a child I would spend hours creating intricate cards for my parents, expressing my love for them. This was preparation for adulthood when I would use my art to express my love for God. As a teenager I often felt too self-conscious to communicate through words but I could escape into my own world through art. One of my other earliest memories of a transcendental experience was during my degree in printed textiles, exploring colours and discovering hidden layers of meaning through aesthetic awareness. The sense of excitement free, spontaneous creativity inspired within me, as well as the tangible sense of presence I felt from artwork within galleries, was the closest I got to a direct spiritual experience at this stage of my life.
As I started to investigate the Bahá’í Writings I decided to illustrate the following quote by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá:
To consider that after the death of the body the spirit perishes is like imagining that a bird in a cage will be destroyed if the cage is broken… Our body is like the cage and the spirit is like the bird. We see that without the cage this bird flies in the world of sleep; therefore, if the cage becomes broken, the bird will continue to exist. Its feelings will be even more powerful, its perceptions greater, and its happiness increased.
I used my sleeping sister as a model for the figure asleep at the bottom of the picture, and drew a parrot flying out of a cage and through a window. I then started to colour in the pencil drawing, and as I did this three events of synchronicity occurred as confirmations that I had fallen in line with my destiny. As I painted the green and orange colour into the parrot I heard on the local radio news bulletin, in the background, that a green and orange parrot had escaped from its cage and the owners were requesting help to find it. The next day I painted in the sunset representing the freedom and later on when I looked at the evening sky it was exactly the same as in the painting. On the third day I painted in my sister dreaming and that was the day that she had an interview to get into University and from that pivotal moment in her life many of her dreams for her future fell into place. In this painting I also expressed my own soul’s freedom from the oppressive ties of a very limited life into the joy of a future where I could use my creativity to express my love for the beauty of the Word of God.
Dreams, creativity and pilgrimage
I had a dream about ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. We were at a big conference that covered an island, sitting in small groups at round tables. I was sitting at the edge of the conference and next to me was a card stand with my cards for sale. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá came up to my table and looked at the cards and said that they were good, but then he pointed at the table covered with tipped up tea cups and spilt tea and told me to tidy up the mess. In departing He said that he had to go to help people get across the water onto the island.
The card rack symbolises my creativity and the niche I have made for myself within the Bahá’í Faith, which lies at the edge of the core activities, but within which I am able to make my own unique contribution. I have been helped with this enormously by Masoud Yazdani who has published books of my artwork presented alongside the Bahá’í Writings. I found it difficult to consciously contrive to keep illustrating direct passages, but instead continued to follow my own aesthetic vision, and found that the spirit of faith had indirectly influenced my artwork. In making these books I was able to juxtapose the writings alongside images in such a way that there was just enough relationship to create meaning and just enough ambiguity to inspire the reader’s imagination.
The mess on the table related to life’s tests which often knocked me down. The difference now was that I had the tools I needed to brush myself off and keep trying again more quickly than before. The greatest test for me within the Bahá’í Faith itself has been my objections to what I see as outdated morality concerning homosexuality. This was made even more personal through my son’s sexuality and I wrote to the Universal House of Justice in an attempt to find some answers. I received a long response from the Universal House of Justice (22 April 2013), which helped if only by lifting me up to a higher place, where I could just about see over the test.
A year ago I went on pilgrimage for the first time (September 2013). Before I went I had another spiritual dream. I dreamt that after arriving at Tel Aviv airport I jumped into a taxi to take me to Haifa. As I got into the front seat of the taxi, next to the driver, I looked into the back seat and knew that Bahá’u’lláh was sitting there. I could not see Him because I had not seen a picture of Him but I knew He was there. As we drove along towards Haifa He kissed the back of my neck and I felt an indescribable divine energy flow into me and fill my soul with bliss. I then ascended out of the car seat into the sky above, and the people in the street exclaimed with wonder as they witnessed my flight.
I remembered this dream when, at the end of the nine day pilgrimage, I ventured off on my own to find the temple site. With some difficulty I managed to find it, but the time was running out as I was not allowed to be there after dusk. I sat on the hill high above the miniature streets of Haifa and quickly read the Tablet of Carmel which Bahá’u’lláh revealed on this spot. Just as I reached the end, a sudden gust of wind blew out of nowhere onto the back of my neck and I felt my spirit soaring above the streets of Haifa. Looking back, I realised that this moment would have been the beginning of the Holy Day of the birth of Bahá’u’lláh. I walked down into the Shrine of the Báb and after that last visit there, it felt as though something inside me had shifted. Earlier in my pilgrimage I had been busy striving for visual material, in the wonderful gardens surrounding the shrines, or consciously trying to visualise images linked to the spiritual themes I had been working on. Now I let go and abstract images were spontaneously revealed to my inner eye. I could see fields of pure colours which blended at their edges into intricate patterns, as if a minute speck of the unseen world was seeping through the veils. An experience akin to synesthesia allowed me to see colours and patterns that corresponded to the chanting during the Holy Day celebration and as a response to the shrines and spaces I explored throughout the remainder of my pilgrimage.
On coming home my prayer was that I could somehow express a flavour of this experience through my artwork. In the Valley of Search Bahá’u’lláh says, “At every step light from the eternal realm will attend him and the heat of his search will grow”. Although these dreams and synchronicities have limited meaning for others, I am very happy that I have been given the chance to write this story so that I can reflect more deeply on the patterns of confirmation which have guided my journey. I feel more reassured now to trust and let go, so that the experience of each moment can unfold from within. Relating my artwork to the Bahá’í writings in the books I have made over the past ten years has given me a strong grounding from which I can launch myself again into a purely visual language. I thank God that he has guided me to the Bahá’í Faith so that I have something beautiful and meaningful to communicate. I hope that eventually the time will come when I will have a chance to have an exhibition within a proper gallery space where I can convey heart to heart the fragrance of this Faith which has inspired me so greatly. Each painting never quite manages to express enough and maybe it is an impossible task, but the desire to keep trying sustains my soul.
Bristol, September 2014