I love reading about people’s spiritual experiences; I find it extremely interesting and it strengthens my faith. I hope by sharing mine, it will do the same for you.

When I tell some people I am a Bahá’í they find it strange. The word is new to them, unfamiliar, and they don’t like it. How strange the name Jesus Christ must have sounded to the Romans. I believe God has sent a new messenger to us. His name is Bahá’u’lláh, His followers are Bahá’ís. His message is so beautiful; if we follow His teachings we will all come closer together. We will all be as one family (mankind), as the fruits of one tree, the leaves of one branch, the flowers of one garden.

I was brought up a Catholic. When I was a teenager (about 14), I was reading the evening paper. There was an exhibition advertised, being presented by missionaries back from Africa, and they would be there to talk to, and would answer any questions, so I decided to go. It was held in the large Baptist church hall, with information displayed on stands and lots of tables. I found it really interesting and there was a lovely atmosphere. We had Hungarian goulash – delicious! I had never met so many interesting people. Somebody gave a talk and people were invited back to join a service so I went.

To me, this church was more alive and active than the Catholic church I went to. There was a youth club once a week that I started going to. I made some new friends. The Minister and some people of this church went out into the streets singing hymns (folk hymns) hoping to draw lost souls to the church. I would go with them. The Holy Spirit was with us and I was so happy. Some people would play the guitar, and we planned a trip into the centre of Liverpool and across the river Mersey on the ferry. It was, I felt, the most worthwhile thing I had ever done, challenging and exciting.

The church was in a rough area of the city, Toxteth. One day we had been singing on different street corners when the minister was challenged by a local yob outside a pub we were passing. ‘Ah, you lot go to church – you think you’re so good! ‘The Minister shouted back, ‘No, we go to church ‘cos we know we’re bad!’ No more was said.

After my experiences attending the Baptist church I realised that being a Catholic was not the only way to God, which was not what I had been taught.

I was still a teenager when I married at the age of 18. I had been doing a pre-nursing course at college but my heart wasn’t in it. I remember feeling very lost. Once I was married I didn’t feel lost any more. I had been married for three years and our daughter was one year old when a friend asked me what Islam was all about. ‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘Well, you’re married to a Muslim!’ So it was sheer embarrassment that led me to ask my husband to explain. He was happy about my interest. I was very moved when he spoke of the Holy Quran. The strength of his faith was so powerful, I was filled with a sense of longing to read it for myself. I was deeply impressed with the characters he knew and told me about back in his homeland, Morocco. They were deeply devout Muslims sincerely devoted to God, whose love for God’s word was so great, tears would stream down their faces. I received the Quran for my next birthday, I was about 22. When I picked it up and held it for the first time, I felt as if I couldn’t wait to get all that goodness inside me, and fill my mind with it. I felt it was the most precious book I had ever held. I felt honoured.

The Quran was to be treated with reverence. You had to be clean before you picked it up. If you were married and had been with your partner and had sexual contact you were unclean. Not that sex was regarded as a dirty thing; on the contrary, men and women are a gift to each other from God. You would need a full bath to be clean. We’ve all heard the saying ‘cleanliness is next to Godliness’.

Some mornings would find me sitting on my concrete balcony in London (we lived in a tower block) with my hair still wet, my Holy Quran in my hands and a sense of wonder in my heart. I read wonderful things: God has breathed His own breath into us. He is closer to us than our life vein. He was a friend to Abraham. How Job was rewarded for his perseverance, and how he suffered patiently, and we too should try to bear suffering patiently. How suffering can teach us humility if we react to it in the right way. I loved my Quran so much.   It was translated by Yousef Ali. In his introduction, he writes, ‘O gentle and discerning reader …’ and explains how the Quran is no ordinary book, to read it slowly and take time to contemplate its meaning; to follow the good examples of the Prophets and apply them to your own life. If you do this, your life will be transformed. My Quran taught me how the arrogance of the Pharaohs brought about their downfall. I was repeatedly reminded that this life is temporal, the next life is everlasting. We should make great efforts to prepare for the next life.

I felt in my heart I was a Muslim. My husband taught me some prayers. I wanted to fast at Ramadan, the holy month for fasting. When I fasted, I felt purified and wholesome. I felt my spirit soar. It was the most exhilarating thing I had ever experienced. Sometimes it was very hard to fast physically, but your spirit helps you endure. I had been far from God. Thanks to my husband, I felt Him near again. I embraced Islam, as the Muslims say, and took it to my heart.

For once in my life, I was sincerely interested in the Prophets. I bought a Bible to compare stories. I found it ironic that it was now as a Muslim I wanted to read the Bible. No other Muslims I knew read the Bible. In the second chapter of the Quran, verse 62, I read: ‘Believers, Jews, Christians, Muslims and Sabaeans – whoever believes in God and the Last Day and does what is right – shall have their reward with their Lord: on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.’   To me, this was wonderful. So Jews will go to heaven. When I spoke to other Muslims about this, they didn’t share my point of view. They were wrapped in a veil of prejudice. I used to attend the London Central Mosque, near Regent’s Park. The attitude towards women I found disturbing and disheartening but it did not put me off my faith though.

Sometimes on my way to the Mosque I would take a short cut through Regent’s Park. In the summer, on warm sunny afternoons, I would observe Middle Eastern families; some of them wearing bright exotic clothes, some all covered in black. Jews would be in sharp contrast, with their dark hats and dark suits and their long sidelocks, walking along enjoying the sunshine. I would marvel at what to me was a beautiful sight. Here were various Jewish and Muslim family groups enjoying the afternoon in the same park together peacefully – and yet, at the other side of the world (it was in the news at the time) they were killing each other.

Prejudice, what a terrible thing! Bahá’u’lláh encourages us to get rid of all our prejudices; this will make the world a better place. To me, the world is one big family.

My Quran advised me to contemplate the beauty of nature, and realise God’s love. Living in London at the time, I thought, ‘There’s not much nature around here.’ I had a yearning to get far away and draw closer to God. I left my husband because I felt he was hindering my spiritual progress. It was the hardest thing I have ever done.

I felt drawn to the distant islands of Scotland; there was something mystical about them. I went to Shetland. I always feel closer to God by the sea. I used to love walking by the sea. I couldn’t believe how beautiful it all was. The air was pure, the sea was clear, the sunsets were breathtaking. I told a friend of mine in Essex that I had seen some seals. ‘Oh, are there any penguins?’

I felt God very close; I felt a profound sense of peace. I would study my precious Quran and would meditate and pray in the early hours. One particular morning, I experienced something mystical, so beautiful it is beyond words to describe but I will try. It was 2 am while I was saying prayers. My daughter must have woken up. She came into the room, saying she was thirsty. I remember thinking, ‘Oh no, I’ve got to go back, my daughter is thirsty’. I have no memory of where I was, or where I had been, just that I hated to go back – but I had no choice in the matter. So I went and got her a drink. Where I had been was so beautiful and wonderful it goes beyond the mere words, I didn’t want to leave it.

I first heard about the Bahá’ís from a woman I chatted to on the town service bus for Lerwick in the Shetlands where I lived at that time. After I had known her for a while, she suggested I would get on very well with some friends of hers who were Bahá’ís; did I want to meet them?

I thought the word ‘Bahá’í’ sounded pretty strange, so I wasn’t interested. Probably all a load of weirdos, I thought to myself. About a month later I saw a programme on TV all about them. As I watched it, something stirred inside. It just shows you how wrong you can be, I thought. I was too quick to pre-judge something of which I was totally ignorant.

Bahá’u’lláh, who was born a Muslim, was a messenger sent by God. He had come to change things, to bring the world together in unity, as one family. Well, things definitely need changing, I thought. Those Muslims down there in London, with their prejudiced attitudes towards women, and the Imams – supposed representatives of God – they needed to change their attitudes. I must find out more about this. I told my friend on the bus that I would like to meet her Bahá’í friends. Someone called round to my house.

Before I met the Bahá’ís, I was severely tested. I was determined to remain celibate until I remarried. I went through a horrendous inner battle, you know the kind – higher self versus lower self. I prayed earnestly. I was in a church. It just so happened to be an Episcopal church. After my prayer, a desperate prayer, I felt I was at the end of my tether. I spied a bookshelf at the back of the church. Without thinking about it, I automatically walked straight down to it, as if compelled. I sat on a chair and picked up the first book at random. I read the story of Amnon and Absalom, taken from the Bible. It was so apt and directly to the point! My anxiety left me. I was filled with something wholesome. I felt rescued.

After this period in my life, I went on to meet the Bahá’ís. I was invited to a Unity Feast, held in a community centre. We sat on chairs in a circle. There were about fifteen of us and I was nervous at first. I was given a prayer book and asked if I would like to read a prayer. Yes. I read over it nervously to make sure there were no big words I would stumble on. We were ready to begin. Two men, Alan McKay and Robert Bennett, were playing guitar, and Sean O’Rourke was on the flute. I was in for a rare treat. They played a beautiful gentle tune to the words of Bahá’u’lláh:

“Blessed is the spot, and the house, and the place, and the city, and the heart, and the mountain, and the refuge, and the cave, and the valley, and the land, and the sea, and the island , and the meadow where mention of God hath been made, and His praise glorified.”

I was so uplifted! Various prayers were said; I said mine. Such a profound, moving prayer I had never studied before. Something stirred inside. Then came the social side: we all went and sat at tables and had something nice to eat. I was treated so kindly, I’ll never forget it. I was offered some Bahá’í books to read – The Seven Valleys, and The Book of Certitude – and I was given a prayer book by Fleur Bartlett, a Bahá’í travel teacher from Wales. When I first said some prayers from it, like the long obligatory prayer, I felt a pull on my soul, which was quite startling – like a quickening. I knew that this new Bahá’í Faith was a wonderful gift from God. When I first read the first page of The Book of Certitude it was like nectar to my soul. I wanted to be a Bahá’í and I marvelled at this, because I never thought I would be changing my religion.

The true meaning of Muslim is ‘one who submits to God’. So in that respect nothing had changed. In a way, I didn’t want to change. I was on the Sufi path, studying the mystical side to Islam, going to its very essence, and I loved it. But, Sufism is concerned only with the development and advance of one’s own soul. The teachings of the Bahá’í Faith go beyond that. Bahá’u’lláh teaches us to consider not only our own spiritual health but also that of others.

I now know that all religions are one in essence. They are all just different paths to the same Source, for the age in which they came. My brother is a Buddhist. He likes to meditate on the writings of Buddha. This brings him peace and calmness. I can see that it is a good thing. My father was a Mormon. I had some Mormon friends in Shetland who were extremely hospitable and spiritual, so I could see that their belief was a good thing too.

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Susan Coughlin

 

[Susan was previously known as Sarah Connor – Ed.]

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