Matthew in Haifa, on pilgrimage, in 2011

Matthew in Haifa, on pilgrimage, in 2011

My parents met in London in their twenties shortly before the beginning of WW2. They were colleagues working for A. Boake, Roberts and Company in the Lee Valley, a site transformed into the Olympic Park for the 2012 Olympics. He was a research chemist and she was a secretary. My father wooed my mother like a true romantic. His proposal to her took place on a London bus. My mother recalled this, saying he reassured her he had reflected on the financial commitments he was taking on. They came from very different backgrounds. Her family, from Leeds, were Catholics; his upbringing was Church of England. Such is the magic of love that it can bind together two hearts nurtured in such different circles. Also, he was six years younger than my mother. They were married during the war. Their first child, my eldest brother, was born during the blitz and for his safety was sent away to the countryside for some months. This separation did not happen to my eldest sister as she was born towards the end of the war so was too young. In the four years after the war another girl was born, then another boy. I did not turn up until their eldest was a teenager. For me this fleeting life began in the later fifties; I was born on the 9th January, 1956. My arrival was an unexpected addition to my four siblings.  I first went to a Catholic school in Raynes Park, near Wimbledon, and later attended secondary school at St George’s College in Addlestone, Surrey. So far, I am the only one who has become a Bahá’í, which was a decision I took when I was twenty-two.

I think as I moved from my boyhood years to those of independence as a university student, I was particularly conscious of managing my finances frugally and somewhat dismayed with the selfish attitude among those students with whom I shared a kitchen when on campus. Fortunately it was this that made the two students that I was later to learn were Bahá’ís stand out as very different. I had found it difficult to find common interests with my contemporaries, so chose, rather than be a victim of loneliness, to take the path of a loner which meant I tended to see myself as shy.

In the summer of 1977 I had discovered through my industrial placement in Gronau, West Germany, the woman I took to my heart. Yet to her it seemed light was so much more meaningful than love, for hers was a light to give, and mine in that place in the sun was to receive her light. My life it seemed became pregnant with inner meaning from her light. I did not know then that her name Ulla, sounded so similar to the Arabic for “of Allah”. Faith for a Bahá’í makes religion a sanctuary for all that is sacred regardless of the name you give the faith that defines what is sacred. If it didn’t I would be unable to record such thoughts here.

The feeling now of distance her memory invokes is so great that like a star in the heavens she fills my thoughts with awe for my heart that it should cling so tenaciously to her memory; for to me, thought shines through the ether of memory like light, and each year in memory’s time feels like a light year in space. Her name is a reminder of the innocence of that young and tender youth who took her to his heart, and prayer for her is therefore my heart’s physician. Perhaps it was my inconsolable grief over so much incommunicable inner turmoil at that time in my life that made my heart particularly receptive to the Faith.

It was while on my placement in Germany that the social environment I found there brought me out of my shell. When I returned to England I retreated from life again but realised there was much more to my inner self than I had previously imagined possible.

In the winter of 1977 I chanced upon The University of Light where the magical mystery of real Light demonstrates its spiritual powers in the human realm. The light we see through science in the material realm mirrors these powers. In The University of Light I learnt how Celtic sacred art translated the meaning of religio in religion to the phrase “I tie together again”. This had a profound impact on how I perceived the sacred in all things sacred.

My first hearing of the Bahá’í Faith that I remember was when John Dunthorne spoke of it to me around about August 1978. Although I had known John and Glynis, and Tim and Becky Maude, in 1975/6 when John, Tim and I shared the same kitchen on the Bath University Campus, I was not aware then about the faith of which Tim was a follower. Unfortunately I must have been at the wrong stage in my spiritual journey to learn of the Faith through him.

In the summer of 1978 I was living with my parents in Rustington on the south coast, near Worthing. Suddenly out of the blue, I had a phone call from John. We chatted but I was completely unaware that through Tim, John and Glynis had discovered the Bahá’í Faith. Anyway I took the train to where they lived and on the final leg of the journey by bus they were talking with great enthusiasm about a pilgrimage they were due to undertake. Even then I was not aware it was a pilgrimage to the Holy places of a newly emerged world religion. It was only while I was staying overnight at their home that I was blessed with my first formal introduction to the Faith through a slide show presented by John.

For the first time I was seeing pictures of buildings for worship built by the followers of this religion I had never encountered before. Truly these buildings that the Bahá’ís knew as silent teachers made a connection with my soul that required me to take the faith to my heart. These were those days when post-sixties movements seemed to be throwing up all sorts of weird and wonderful ways to find inner peace. Despite the scepticism those times engendered I was particularly taken by the serene authority expressed by the architecture of the Bahá’í House of Worship in America. It connected with me and told me I would be well rewarded for any time I took to look into this new Faith. Before I left, John gave me a copy of John Huddleston’s book The Earth is But One Country which I read with great interest. It was to play an important part in the journey that made me a Bahá’í. The Seven Valleys was also one of the first books given to me to investigate the Faith. The passage “There was once a lover…” from the “Valley of Knowledge” was like a key to my heart, opening it to Bahá’u’lláh’s healing words.

In September 1978 the Bahá’ís of Worthing achieved their goal of opening Arun to the Bahá’í Faith as a result of my declaration at the home of Shahine and Ata Louie where they regularly held ‘firesides’.  I lived with my parents at the time as I had not settled down to regular employment and I found it quite awkward at meal times, where the family was accustomed to drinking wine, to decline. I think my father, who took his wine cellar very seriously, felt I was being somewhat fanatical. The only member of my family open enough to look into those ideas that breached the family’s conservative perceptions of religion was my eldest sister. She ventured to come with me to one of the firesides at the Louie’s home in Worthing. This sister’s home in Rye was twenty years later to be the venue for the Bahá’í part of my marriage to Jade.

My mother passed away on the 9th of September 1982. On the same evening I wrote to my parents, aware only that she was in hospital. The letter related the following events regarding a travel-teaching trip from which I had just returned. When it arrived at our home my brothers and sisters were with my father and enjoyed reading it; as my last letter, intended for my mother to read in hospital, it holds special significance.

On Sunday August 22nd I arrived by boat at Esbjerg, Denmark, on a Bahá’í travel-teaching trip. I then had a two-hour cycle ride to a camp site near Tobøl, twenty miles to the south east. On Monday I left there early and finally found my destination, a camp site in Kolding, close to where my Bahá’í contact Bente lived. At 5pm I surprised her by knocking on her door, as she had only expected a phone call. She devised plans for what I should do while in Denmark, then walked me to the Bahá’í Centre in Kolding and left the key with me. From there back to the camp site was about a ten-minute walk.

The next day, Tuesday, I went to Odense to listen to a talk at the Bahá’í Centre, and on the Wednesday I returned there to meet up again with Bente. As it was her day off we did a bit of sightseeing and eating before opening the Centre at 7 pm for anyone who might drop in.

On Thursday I left Kolding and took my bike on the train to Sønderborg, literally ‘southern town’. There I was met by Poul Thomsen, a 65 year old Bahá’í who looked after me for the rest of my stay in Denmark. I helped Poul correct the English in a chart he had made of Bahá’í administrative history. The lounge sofa was turned into my bed so I had a comparatively warm and comfortable sleep that night, for a change.

On the Friday we had a rather wet two-hour bike ride to Flensburg, over the border in Germany, where the Bëhr family warmed us up with hot stew. In the evening I discovered I was holding a talk for a gathering of seventeen Bahá’ís and their friends at the Bëhr’s home. Fortunately I had made some notes and a translator put what I said into German, so the evening went very well. I managed enough German to introduce myself and say how I had come to be in Flensburg that evening; I even felt that by my talk I had earned all the hospitality I had received. The next day the Behrs took us to Føhr, a Friesian island on the west coast of Northern Germany, to attend a Bahá’í wedding. I was given a part in the readings from a piece I had memorised. That night I was put up at the home of a Bahá’í family in Wyk, on Føhr. My Danish trip ended with my boat journey back to Harwich. I arrived in England on the Tuesday and was home by about 3 pm. I found I had spent £50 while I had been in Denmark, about half of what I had expected, thanks to all the Danish hospitality.

During an inspiring unit convention I attended in February 1982 at Rutland Gate, when I lived in the Westminster community, I decided to move to help form the Spiritual Assembly of Hackney, which incidentally has a strong Jewish community. I was a contemporary with Liz Coleman who writes in her Bahá’í history about Hackney at that time. A year later I think the Assembly wrote to the newspaper about two local Bahá’ís, myself and Peyman Deravi, going on pilgrimage to Haifa, Israel, which is twinned with Hackney. At Tel Aviv airport I met up with Arthur Kendall, who had been on the same plane and was of course also bound for pilgrimage.

On my first nine day pilgrimage in 1983 I met up with some Israeli friends, Koby and his girlfriend Vered. Koby’s father worked on the cranes involved with building the seat of the Universal House of Justice. The timing of my pilgrimage was blessed with the occasion when the members of the House of Justice formally moved into the Seat, which was Wednesday, 2nd February 1983. The House of Justice then cabled the following message to the followers of Bahá’u’lláh in every land:

“THIS AUSPICIOUS EVENT SIGNALIZES ANOTHER PHASE IN PROCESS FULFILMENT SAILING GOD’S ARK ON MOUNTAIN OF THE LORD AS ANTICIPATED IN TABLET CARMEL, WONDROUS CHARTER WORLD SPIRITUAL AND ADMINISTRATIVE CENTRES FAITH BAHÁ’U’LLÁH.”           The Bahá’í World, (Haifa: World Centre Publications, 1994), vol. XIX, p. 23

Matthew (right) on Pilgrimage (1983) with Arthur Kendall, fellow pilgrim (left of photo) and Israeli friends Vered and Koby from Haifa

Matthew (right) on Pilgrimage (1983) with Arthur Kendall, fellow pilgrim (left of photo)
and Israeli friends Vered and Koby from Haifa

June of 1983 was a particularly moving time, when sixteen Bahá’í women were martyred in Shiraz, Iran. In October of that year I visited the Bahá’í House of Worship in Chicago, and travelled from coast to coast by train, visiting Baha’is and my brother’s family.

In February 1984 another unit convention inspired me to move to Southend. In the September I attended the North Sea Border Conference in Norwich where I met Knights of Baha’u’llah Shamsi Navidi and Hugh McKinley. In July 1986 I went to the Baha’iland Gathering in Aberdeen and was inspired by the Baha’is I met there to move to Shetland, arriving there in October of that year. During my nearly eight years there I attended two of the summer schools held in the Faroe Islands.

In 1991, while in Shetland, I visited the Bahá’í House of Worship in Germany. In the Holy Year, 1992, I attended the Bahá’í World Congress in New York, and in January 1993 the Bahá’í House of Worship in India, taking as a gift from the Bahá’ís of Shetland a tapestry of the Lotus Temple made by a Shetland artist.

In October 1993 my father sent the following cutting:

The Times wanted to do an article for their Saturday religious page. Ruth Gledhill (Times religious affairs correspondent) and her mother attended a unity feast in Chelmsford. In the photo are (left) Anna Ellard, Ruhi Roohizadegan, his son Payan Roohizadegan. Between them in the background are Sharla Harrison (Billericay) and Fariba Berhouz

The Times wanted to do an article for their Saturday religious page. Ruth Gledhill (Times religious affairs correspondent) and her mother attended a unity feast in Chelmsford. In the photo are (left) Anna Ellard, Ruhi Roohizadegan, his son Payan Roohizadegan. Between them in the background are Sharla Harrison (Billericay) and Fariba Berhouz

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It reminded me of my days in Westcliff-on-Sea before I moved to Shetland. In those days many of our firesides were held at Angela and Robert Tidswell’s home. One of our regular attendees was an Esperantist.

My mother died when I was 26 and my father when I was 43. I am now 58 and recalling when I became a Bahá’í and first read the Seven Valleys. How different the feelings evoked by its pages now from those days! Then it was just a few passages that told me how much Bahá’u’lláh holds my heart in His gentle hands. Yet much of it I would struggle to identify with on an intellectual level. Now when I turn its pages I feel it has already done the job of writing my life’s spiritual journey, one scarcely begun, but the landscape looks much more real now. Such is the evidence for me of the power of the divine light that radiates from this new Revelation to evolve one’s inner sight.

Those memories that animate my soul never perish. The noble virtues of my educators especially my mother who was my first educator, are the hidden memories found in the deepest recesses of my heart. It is to give those memories meaning that I instinctively strive, each day of my life, to fulfil my longing to be a true Bahá’í, that my actions may be beautiful prayers for my parents’ souls in that world of God beyond the veil of mortality to which they have taken their flight.

The inner ear of my past and the inner ear of my future hear the heart beat of now by which my time hangs between each note of His Divine symphony. Each note on that ladder between Heaven and Earth is signified by the symbol of the Greatest Name and carries the light of Revelation from the Sun of Reality to the mirror of each heart. To teach my ear to recognise the accents of God, I have taken as my faithful companions on my learning journey the steeds of patience and pain.

On setting out on that journey I needed to meet the Bahá’ís, but meeting them was not just about finding the right time and place to get together; it was about training the heart to meet their needs. I feel that prayer exercises the heart towards this end and the Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh is a rich ocean of such gems; the needs one addresses are not only the immediate needs of the friends but of the befriended strangers that the Bahá’í life helps us encounter; in the same way our institutions also address the needs of the community of interest.

When the day comes for the nations to make their choice over which language and script is to be taught in all the schools of the nations as the help language that assists humanity to recognize the oneness of the human race, then I imagine the first institutional organs for shaping a supranational curriculum for study of the earth’s social history will be taking shape. There is no doubt in my mind as a Bahá’í that foremost on the reading list of that curriculum will be the book God Passes By. However if there should be as it were a reading list of the top 100 books to read on this subject I hope in there somewhere will be the autobiographical books of Han Suyin. The first of those books I discovered quite by accident on a visit to London I made on my own during my student days while browsing the bookshelves of Foyles in Charing Cross Road.

This book was called The Crippled Tree and although it is not a history book with the vast sweep in time and place of Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man, nevertheless it had a dramatic impact on my perception of the historical processes that shape human progress. Her vivid use of language to paint her story is poetic, and she conveys the history of events unfolding around her and her family not as a catalogue of treaties, or battlefields that are the setting for heroic courage for this or that nation, rather one feels in her books that the flow of history is a confluence of diverse cultures melding to give rise to newly shaped societies that have a raised awareness of the oneness of humanity and its common destiny.

Bookshops have often been treasure troves of discovery for me. In the student bookshop at Bath University I came across a book that had the most amazing photography of the buildings built by the Mogul Empire. It captured the beauty of their architecture and the use of Islamic patterns for decoration with an impact that has stunning clarity in my mind even though this was before I had heard there was something out there called the Bahá’í Faith. At about the same time I bought a book by Keith Critchlow on Islamic Patterns, which now belongs to my sister Celia. It was later when I had become a Bahá’í that I took particular interest in the one pattern in that book that uses 9-point stars. It happens also to have 5-point stars around 12-point stars.

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In 1998 I married Jade, who is Cantonese. We named our daughter Lydia, born the following year, after Lydia Zamenhof, daughter of Dr. Ludwik Zamenhof, creator of the Esperanto language, because of the significant role that both Esperanto and the Bahá’í Faith had in bringing Jade’s path together with mine. Lydia now attends St. George’s College and presently is studying for her GCSEs.

In 2006 I happened to return to my old school, St George’s College, to work as a chemistry technician. At the time of writing, I am still there.

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Matthew Edwards

Surrey, 2015

Matthew presenting the Peace Message to the Mayor in Southend (1986)

Matthew presenting the Peace Message to the Mayor in Southend (1986)

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