I was born in Dublin, Ireland, on Halloween 1937, where I was brought up with two younger brothers and a sister in a traditional Irish Catholic family. Looking back, I feel that the environment was conservative, puritanical and unquestioning, but at the time it seemed normal, acceptable and as natural as breathing.
I must admit I was a little perplexed and uncomfortable with some aspects of the Catholic environment in my youth. I could never understand why my teachers the Christian Brothers felt the need to use physical and emotional violence to control and teach us. I also found the triumphalist attitude which the Catholic Church adopted towards other faiths disquieting to say the least. According to the Catechism, we learnt that ‘The Catholic Church is the one true Church, and no one can be saved outside it’. Even reading English Sunday newspapers, especially the News of the World, was regarded as dreadfully sinful.
However I did not seriously question my religious identity until I left home and came to live in England, at the age of 22. Shortly after I arrived in the country and while lodging in the Church Army Hostel at Oxford, I met an unusual and engaging character, Peter Gill, who was close to my own age. I found Peter refreshingly different in that he seemed to question absolutely everything, from the way we washed and dressed ourselves to what we believed and how this affected the way we lived our lives. Over a short period we became close friends, having long conversations, debates and arguments about our plans, dreams, films, women, religion and the meaning of life. I read and discussed some of my poetry with him, and he encouraged me to question, challenge and eventually deconstruct many of my religious beliefs. He did this by having me examine closely my attitudes, assumptions and many articles of faith I had always taken for granted.
I had the ambition of becoming a great writer and Peter wanted to become a film director. His nickname at the time was Kazan, after Elia Kazan, the American film director. We decided to team up, travel and explore the world around us, and when the time arrived we would make crazy wonderful movies together. Over the course of the next year we moved from Oxford to London and from there to Birmingham and Coventry. Then we moved on to Ludlow and eventually Torquay in Devon, where we settled for a while. It was in Torquay where we first came into contact with the Bahá’í Faith.
This happened one evening while we were out for a meal and a couple of drinks. As we left a pub on Market Street, Peter spotted a shiny metal plate on a wall beside an open door. The following was printed on the plate: ‘The Bahá’í Movement’. Below was a simple and eloquent inscription ‘The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens‘.
Peter was curious and suggested that we go in and up the stairs beyond. I was a little more hesitant as Bahá’í sounded vaguely Indian and I was not at all sure what we could expect to find. Still, I followed him up to the first floor where we were confronted on a dimly lit landing by two closed doors. On the one in front of us a small wooden board hung, on which was printed ‘Bahá’í Principles’, followed by nine bullet-points. Peter tried the door but it was locked. He rapped on the door and we waited. After a few moments we were surprised to see a young woman coming down the stairs from an upper floor, carrying a candelabra with three burning candles on it. When Peter explained that we were curious about Bahá’í she introduced herself as Pauline Potter. She said she was working upstairs and didn’t know about the Bahá’í World Faith, as she had only found out about it from a couple of Bahá’ís she had met in a local cafe a month before. They had befriended her and allowed her to use the attic to study some books about the Faith. She suggested that if we were to come back on the following Friday evening we would have a chance to meet her friends Frankie (Naomi Long) and Alan Carter, who could give more information, so we agreed to make a return visit and Pauline gave us a small pamphlet containing the Bahá’í principles.
Reading through it later I was intrigued by ‘The Independent Investigation of Truth’ which I had never been encouraged to do while I was growing up. The Catholic Faith had been handed down to us, about which there was no question or reason to doubt, and we were expected to hand it on to our children. When I discussed the matter with Peter he was a good deal more sceptical than I could ever have been. Somewhat typically he remarked, “It all depends what you mean by ‘truth’ and the kind of investigation you intend to conduct. Do you simply search until you think or feel that you have discovered the ‘truth’, or do you continue to check and monitor to see how it works out?”
Still, he had agreed to come back with me to the Bahá’í Centre on the Friday. When we arrived there were four or five young people painting the walls and door of a large back room on the first floor. They were being supervised by a middle-aged woman with a dark tan and a soft American accent. I explained that we had met Pauline earlier in the week, and would like to know more about Bahá’ís. She said her name was Frankie and she was working with some friends to help spruce up the Centre. She put down her paintbrush and directed us to the small attic room where she made coffee and proceeded to tell us a little about the Bahá’í Faith and its founder, Bahá’u’lláh. I liked what I heard and especially appreciated her explanation of the ‘independent investigation of truth’, declaring that blind obedience was not enough. She went on to suggest that Faith and Reason, like Science and Religion, can be regarded as the two wings of a bird, without which it cannot fly or maintain its balance.
The next day I spent some time in Torquay Library researching Bahá’í. I discovered that the Bahá’í Faith had spread to over two hundred countries since it started in 1844 and that it had been in Britain since the end of the nineteenth century. It really seemed curious that I had never heard of it before. Although one of the encyclopaedias I had consulted referred to it as one of the ‘World’s Great Religions’, it seemed like a very well kept secret.
I then began to go to public meetings at the Bahá’í Centre on Saturday evenings. There was a pleasant informality about such gatherings and I appreciated receiving straight, sensible answers to most of my questions. I was particularly intrigued by what the faith had to say about the evolutionary nature of religion and its future development. It seemed to echo much of what the Catholic philosopher Teilhard de Chardin had written in a then recently published work The Phenomenon of Man, in which he had speculated on the future development of the human species and the prospect for our human convergence in the ‘noosphere’. I had been impressed by de Chardin’s marvellously positive vision of the future. However, I felt Bahá’u’lláh went further in offering a blueprint and a practical plan for an organic New World Order, which was being implemented in the countries where the faith was established.
Frankie and her young friend Alan tried to draw me further into the community. They suggested I come along to firesides, devotional and informal coffee evenings with some of the younger believers. I tried the last option but was wary and felt pressured. I was also a little suspicious of some of the believers, who seemed to wear permanent smiles. Peter and I called these ‘the smiles’ and wondered if they had been trained or encouraged in it. Thankfully, most of the ‘friends’, as the Bahá’ís described each other, were refreshingly normal and friendly.
I drew back from the community and their activities when I became involved with a girl at work, and lost touch with the Bahá’ís for some months, lasting until Peter bumped into Frankie at Macaris Cafe in the inner harbour. She told him the friends had missed us, and gave him the address of Joe Lee, one of the community’s older believers, who lived in Chelston on the outskirts of town. Apparently the friends met up there on Tuesday evenings for a weekly meeting they called a ‘fireside’, and she felt we might find it interesting and worth attending.
Peter was busy on the Tuesday evening so I went along by myself, mainly out of curiosity. A number of youngsters, some of whom I recognised, were working in the front garden. Joe, friendly and welcoming, invited me to help them clear the garden and build a rockery, after which Joe’s wife Elsie produced sandwiches and tea for the workers.
Afterwards we sat around in the comfortable front room of the house while Alan told us of a recent visit he had made to Truro with Frankie to meet the Archdeacon of Cornwall who already knew of the Faith and was surprisingly sympathetic. Alan said he had spoken to a number of people about the Faith on his flying visit and most of them had seemed friendly and interested. He was very encouraged, and was planning to pioneer to St Agnes in South West Cornwall with Peter Lee, one of Joe’s twin sons.
I liked this gathering and so I began to go along to the Tuesday sessions at Chelston. I got on well with Joe, who was unfailingly helpful, and he treated me as one of his large, extended family. During the following months I met quite a number of Bahá’í visitors with very varied backgrounds and coming from different parts of the world. I noted that there seemed to be a number of clearly defined attitudes and approaches to the Faith. Some emphasised the principles and social teachings, some stressed the laws, ordinances and observances, others were personally devoted to the Messenger or Manifestation, while a number were simply happy to network in the community and serve the Faith in a practical way. All seemed to share the vision of a ‘New World Order’ and seemed to be certain that we were moving into ‘a new age or era’.
I was strongly and increasingly drawn into the Faith during this period, and even managed to learn a couple of the shorter prayers. The vision of Bahá’u’lláh offered a fresh and intriguing approach to religion and the way we viewed the future. I began to feel that I could play a part in establishing the Faith and help to turn it into a tangible reality on the ground. However, my old hesitant, vacillating ways held me back from inquiring how I might become a Bahá’í. I wasn’t sure if I’d have to pass a series of tests or go through some form of weird or difficult initiation ceremony. No one had ever discussed this with me, and I had no idea what was involved until one of the younger Bahá’ís, Mike Sposito, who had long black curly hair and heavy rimmed spectacles, approached me at one of the Tuesday firesides. He said that he had noticed me at the meetings for quite some time and he wondered how I felt about what they were doing.
I told him that I was very impressed, and liked what was happening, but I still had some reservations. He nodded and told me that they could certainly use someone who had an inquiring mind and was not afraid to ask questions. He went on to say that they needed all the help they could get if we were to see a Bahá’í world established in our life time.
“Do you really think that is possible?” I asked. He replied that this was what they were working towards. He expected that the ‘lesser peace’ would be established by the end of the century, and would be a significant marker. He pointed out that Bahá’u’lláh was either telling the truth or was one of the greatest liars that ever lived. Mike suggested I go home and think about it, and tell them the next week how I felt, and perhaps discuss my reservations.
I went home that evening in an agitated and excited state. Mike had certainly given me plenty to think about. I wondered if I should simply ignore what he had said and carry on as if nothing had happened. Was he attempting to apply unfair and undue pressure? Or did I feel that I should make up my mind about becoming a Bahá’í? Could I let matters drag on? Was I blowing wishful bubbles in the air, or was I about to make a life-changing decision?
During that week I prayed, meditated and went over everything that had happened since I had arrived in Torquay. I re-read Bahá’u’lláh’s Book of Certitude which Joe had lent me, assuring me that it was a key work, and I went slowly through Rúhíyyih Khánum’s book Prescription for Living once again, which seemed to answer some of the perplexing and relevant questions about the way I lived my life. I took a number of long walks around Babbacombe, Cockington and Berry Head, and coming home on the bus from Brixham at the weekend I realised many of my stumbling blocks were lingering prejudices and hang-ups from my past. I would have to let them go if I hoped to enter Bahá’u’lláh’s ‘New World Order’ with its inevitable challenges and opportunities. I knew that it was one thing to accept the vision Bahá’u’lláh offered in a passive way but quite another to accept and act on it, and live one’s life as a Bahá’í.
At the next fireside I took Joe aside and simply told him I wanted to become a Bahá’í. He was in a special sense my spiritual father and the person I trusted most. He congratulated me and said he felt I was doing absolutely the right thing. He said the next step was for me to meet the Local Spiritual Assembly, and advised me to read through the Will and Testament of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, and have some idea of what of what it contained. The Assembly would ask me a few simple questions to make sure I knew what the Faith was about. I would then be given a declaration card to sign, after which I would be a fully fledged member of the Bahá’í community of Torquay.
When I told Peter what I intended to do, he said he felt that I had been moving in that direction for some time. He hoped I wasn’t just swapping one set of religious commitments for another, although he felt that Bahá’í made the most sense in all sorts of ways. He said what he found most difficult to understand was that although Bahá’í had been around for over 50 years, it had not succeeded in making the slightest ripple on the national scene. He suggested that Bahá’ís had not been communicating effectively, or that they had not been doing enough in a practical sense to attract people to the Faith. I told him that he was looking at things in the wrong way. It was not what had happened in the past that was important but what we could do in the future to demonstrate that the Bahá’í faith had something important to offer and could make a radical difference.
At the time, I think I rather innocently believed that the faith was destined to play an important part in the future of Britain during my lifetime. I could see the Bahá’í ‘flag’ flapping over the Palace of Westminster, while the crowds came out onto the streets of London in great numbers to greet the delegation from the World Centre which had come over from Haifa to sign the ‘Unification Treaty’.
Just a fortnight later I met with the Local Spiritual Assembly at Joe’s home. I was nervous as I approached the meeting but thankfully it was much less of an ordeal than I expected. I was happy and pleased to discover that one of the other inquirers, Cynthia Smith, had come up to declare her faith at the same time. I seemed to glide through the process when the time came and was able to answer the simple questions without trouble or difficulty.
I wandered around Torquay in something of a trance during the next few days. I vividly remember sitting on a bench close to Torre Abbey on the third evening, suddenly filled with a wonderful feeling of peace and certainty. I really felt that I had moved up a step to a new level, and I wondered if this was what Christians meant when they spoke about being ‘born again’.
I decided that evening I would prepare myself and when ready, offer to pioneer. I felt I must share the vision of Bahá’u’lláh and bring His message to others if I could. He had given us the blueprint to realize that vision, and it was now our business to build on the ruins of the old world order and allow the new to become a practical reality.
Ten months after I became a Bahá’í, and after a brief consultation with the Pioneering Committee, I was asked to go to York, in the ‘far north’. Before I left Torquay, Joe gave me some parting advice. He told me I should do my best but not to expect too much of myself or others. Then he said something that struck me as odd at the time. He warned me that some of my greatest tests might come from my fellow believers. He suggested that whatever happened while I was away, that I should keep my focus on the vision of the Faith and the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh. He finished by saying that he hoped to see me back with the community in a year’s time, and he assured me that there would always be a place there for me.
Peter came to see me off at Torquay station. As I boarded the train he gave me a rueful smile and said, “Perhaps we will get a chance to make a film when you come back.” I nodded and said simply “Maybe” but I really felt that we had let the opportunity slip by. We now appeared to be moving in very different directions and he seemed to have lost all interest in the faith. Still, I was grateful to him for having brought the faith to my attention in the first place, and had helped me to reconnect with the community when I lost touch.
As I settled in the empty carriage I was filled with a marvellous sense of optimism about the future. It seemed that my life had become more focused and infinitely more exciting. I felt I had been given a brief fragmentary glimpse into the future, not just my own, but of the collective life of mankind for the next thousand years. Not only that, I now had an incomparable opportunity to share that vision. I knew that whatever happened to me on my travels, my life would never be quite the same again.
To be continued – Part Two: Living as a Bahá’í in 1960s Britain.
Dublin, August 2013