My story begins on the 6th December 1958 when I was born into the family of James and Charlotte Hillard. I was one of seven children; my father was an unskilled worker and an atheist while my mother was a devout Christian who taught by example. My father was distant though in the same room and had a Victorian view of childrearing; I have no memories of him playing with me though later in life we grew much closer. I was very close to mum and used to feign illness so as not to go to school to be near her.
My school days were happy but I missed an opportunity as I was considered bright and put in a class a year above my age group. A recurring theme on all my reports said that I was a likeable member of the class, easily distracted and could do better.
We lived in a village and my childhood memories are of playing in woods, down by the river, haystacks and scrumping. I left school with a somewhat Epicurean and Hedonistic view of life. My attitude was that if we only make one pass in this world, make it a good one. I soon drifted into the world of drugs and had a few minor scrapes with the law. On a superficial level life appeared to be good, embracing such diversions as water-skiing, parascending, clubs and live music.
In my early twenties I was transferred to a department at work where I was told a “religious nut” was employed. I had never believed in the creationist theory of evolution; to me it was just another example of a blind adherence to dogma that I saw in organised religion. However, I did have a few questions for him. To my surprise he answered them all using the Bible in all cases. I guess at the time you would call me an agnostic who wanted to know more. We arranged to meet outside of work and I was soaking it all up like a dry sponge. Eventually I joined that organisation and was married soon after. We had children, I was as happy as Larry with my little family with wonderful memories of days out. I remember taking them to a carnival in Essex with one float standing out from the rest – I had no idea at the time that that day would change my life forever.
As the years passed some well-founded concerns about the religion I was in started to form and I eventually left. I would occasionally read literature from the world’s religions with an unbreakable faith in God. About two years later my twin brother visited me in Devon and asked what my religion was these days. I thought about it and replied, “I will take counsel from Krishna, Buddha, Jesus, Moses and Mohammad, that is my religion.” About four years after I read something in a book about Buddhism, thought it couldn’t be right and went to seek out some Buddhists and ask them. I looked them up under religious organisations and just above them on the list was the name Bahá’í and a telephone number. Somehow I remembered the float I had seen at the carnival some fourteen or fifteen years earlier with the name Bahá’í on it, which meant nothing to me at the time. I had never heard of the Bahá’í faith before, so with an attitude of just finding out about them I called the number.
Before long I was spending four or five evenings a week with the Bahá’í I had spoken to on the phone, John Pirkis, learning all I could about this faith which accepted all the prophets I had faith in and wonderfully knitted them together in a cohesive way that I could never do.
I declared my faith in the Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh and in a matter of weeks started on the Ruhi course. My first tutor was Clare Mortimore, who taught me more about how to be a Bahá’í by her character than anything else. It was important to me that I saw a sermon in a person’s life and not just listened to one. She inspired me more than any teacher I have encountered in my life.
My first summer school was in Wales in 2004, year 161BE in the Bahá’í calendar. At that time my hair was very long and the youth had nicknamed me Aragorn, a character from the book Lord of the Rings. The week was amazing, and I met wonderful people, many becoming dear friends with whom I am still in contact. I was challenged to write a poem for the talent night, to be read out. I remember it well – you could have heard a pin drop as I read it. How can I not mention Sue Cave at that school? Unbeknown to her she made a massive impression on me, along with Paul Profaska. The lovely Bartlett family were all there too at this school and I remember one day the much loved and missed Rita set a whole day aside for prayer. As a family unit they worked together very well and came to decisions through consultation. It is always a pleasure to me to see people applying the Writings so well in their everyday lives. It reminds me of a verse in the Book of Psalms, Chapter 133, Verse 1: “Look! How good and pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity!”
I ploughed my way through the series of Ruhi books, doing some of them in a week at various places around England, and started tutoring shortly afterwards. We were privileged at the time in Devon to have a young man called Barry Thorne as our Cluster Co-ordinator. His enthusiasm was both contagious and inspiring. Barry soon moved abroad and handed over the position of Cluster Co-ordinator to me. I felt unworthy of the responsibility but determined to do my best. I was visiting Local Spiritual Assemblies in the Cluster and worked with Kay Hughes on occasion. I always tried to make Cluster meetings as interesting as possible, with skits and all sorts. Within a short space of time I became very busy; meetings in London and other cities, training days for our tutors, tutoring and being assigned to take care of the CRB side of things. I travelled all over Devon and once to the far end of Cornwall, which was an excellent opportunity to meet isolated believers and for them to get to know me. This period was especially important to me as I learnt the value and meaning of consultation, which when applied correctly was a joy to experience. All of this had a truly humbling effect on me, working with people who had served on National Spiritual Assemblies in different continents, many with a lifetime of experience and service in the cause; then this greenhorn comes along very wet behind the ears and is completely accepted in a position of responsibility. What a wonderful faith this is!
I have many experiences that will stay with me forever. I remember being at Wellington school when one night ‘Abdul-Bahá came to me in a dream. I was walking down an avenue of trees with a friend when I suddenly stopped in my tracks because I became aware that my deceased father was right there with me. In the dream I was in full view of a most violent and gruesome battle. With mayhem ensuing on all sides I noticed a small clearing in the centre of the battle of about four metres diameter, and in the middle stood ‘Abdu’l-Bahá looking at peace and serene, His gaze never leaving me.
The meaning of this dream when I awoke was very puzzling but when the following day it appeared that my life was beginning to fall apart, its true meaning became apparent to me, in that whenever we face great battles in our life – we are all spiritual warriors – we should look to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and the example He has set before us rather than react negatively to challenging situations.
I incorporated the dream experience in the following verse of one of my poems:
Be happy with grief
Be at peace in the battle
Empty the cup
And dissolve every shackle
Looking back over my time as a Bahá’í I have faced many challenges with Baha’u’llah’s words ringing in my ears, that He “… slay[eth] the lovers….” Our compassionate Lord has never left me, and has provided some wonderful Bahá’ís whose kindness and advice has really helped me in testing periods. I can still remember seeing for the first time Baha’u’llah’s writings in the Hidden Words, “Possess a pure, kindly and radiant heart…”. I was so impressed that I had them written in calligraphy and put in a frame which is on my wall to this day. My Bahá’í friends have no idea how their kindness has helped me; I am truly grateful. Geoff and Michaela Smith in particular helped me when I was at an utter loss to know what to do at a difficult time in my life. Great guys!
Unfortunately my health began to fail and I was becoming weaker; fatigue was playing games with my memory. It reached a point where I would be bedbound for months at a time, with a doctor whose only game plan was to do yet another blood test. After a couple of years of this and having no idea what was happening to me I went to another doctor who referred me to a specialist who diagnosed Myalgic Encephalopathy (ME) on my first appointment. The following year I had a heart attack which caused 30% of the left-hand side of my heart to be non-functioning.
During my health trials and other testing times I wrote another poem which included the verse:
I faintly hear the Songbird sing
Dulcet tones that bear no sting
This broken bird flies back to Him
Who lovingly repairs my wings.
The nearest Bahá’í meetings are quite some distance from me with a travelling time of about 1 hour 45 minutes return journey. Most meetings are in the evening and impossible for me to attend. I guess I make about two meetings a year, and because of where I live, with a dispersed, and ageing community, visitors can be a little thin on the ground. During this time I have been in regular contact with two amazing Bahá’ís for whose support I will forever be indebted. Dermod Knox is an unassuming man whose wife Roshan herself has health issues. Nevertheless, Dermod takes time out of his schedule and we have many interesting conversations, especially about how he has introduced royalty to the Bahá’í faith. His encouragement has helped me greatly. To encourage literally means “to put heart into,” which he does so wonderfully well. Another very dear friend, Mrs Amouie calls me from time to time and not a day passes when she does not pray that I will soon be returned to good health. She is a lovely Bahá’í and a great cook! I am also in regular contact with Fereshteh Best who is like the sister I always wanted. When we talk it is often accompanied with much laughter – a real tonic! As Byron said so accurately “Then stirs the feeling infinite, so felt/ In solitude, where we are LEAST alone”.
Often it is the little things in life that get overlooked and kindliness is unfortunately one of them. I shall never forget the kindness and support of the people I have mentioned here and the many others I could have written about.
I do believe that we are not tested beyond what we can bear and proof of this was given to me only two years ago. I found out that as a young child I was at the mercy of a paedophile but fortunately through Divine Providence I have no memory of it. When the discovery surfaced I was sufficiently deepened in the faith that it only took about an hour to process and has no effect on my life or thought processes whatsoever. Since childhood I have suffered horrific pursuit nightmares which stopped when I discovered the truth about that incident. What an incredible faith this is. Allah’u’Abha!
I look forward to a time when my health returns and I can do more in the faith. My daughter Sara commented that when I was at my busiest in the faith, I was at my happiest. This period has been a blessing in that I have learnt so much about myself along with many principles that will stand me in good stead for whatever the future holds.
I would also like to mention the benefits of someone who is a good example. My first was my mother whom I not only love, but also admire and respect. We are blessed as Bahá’ís with so many exemplars in the faith, and they are mostly unaware of the effect they have on others. Along with all the help we have, in the writings, such as prayer and meditation, in dealing with life, we also have these examples which help us endure the trials and tribulations of our sojourn here.
The Bahá’í Faith has been and will continue to be the biggest learning curve and challenge I have ever faced. It gives us the opportunity to discover the true reality of who we are and our place in God’s family. The rewards I have experienced are beyond measure. If we keep digging we will find those gems which are truly there. Allah’u’Abha!
Devon, February 2015