I was born in Birmingham. My mother belonged to the Church of England, but she always said that the way we live our lives is more important than what we say we believe. She had been a nurse before having children, and worked with Hospice care in later years. My father was of Quaker background and was involved in an electrical engineering business in Walsall.
My favourite memory of my mother was of her sitting by the open fire in the evening and reading books to my sister and me while we drew or made embroidery. My favourite book was The Robe by Lloyd Douglas. It traced a fictional account of a Roman centurion who witnessed the crucifixion of Christ, inherited His Robe and became inspired to discover His story and die in His path. It was not literally true, but was very compelling and had its own truth. There must have been other similar stories now lost in the mists of time. I would wonder what it would really be like to have lived so close to the lifetime of a Messiah from God.
In the early spring of 1978 I was just about to turn thirteen. Intense blue carpets of Chionodoxa, or “Glory of the Snow” brightened the skeletal rose beds around our home in the midlands. I sat on the floor of our drawing room, browsing through my mum’s copy of Grace magazine. This was a loosely Christian publication of articles, photos and recipes. On the front cover was a beautiful photograph of daffodils with an old church in the background. It reminded me of our holidays in Devon at Eastertime, when God laid out a wreath of purple and gold in memory of His Beloved Son.
One of the articles caught my attention. Case by case it drew comparisons between the circumstances prophesied for “the time of the end” and recent world events. Wars and rumours of wars; the return of the Jews to Israel; social upheaval; the decline of religion… The hairs rose on the back of my neck as I realised that I could myself be living in the time that would see the return of Christ. I tried to imagine Him as a tangible person. That night I was brimming with excitement as I prayed to God that I might be enabled to recognise Him. The following morning I had the feeling that my prayer had been answered, not because I deserved such a bounty, but because I had asked the question. (“Ask and ye shall receive. Seek and ye shall find.”). How could a Guest refuse a host who awaited Him with so much joy?
Shortly afterwards I started to experience dreams that were out of context to my everyday life, and gradually I realised that they were predicting future events, usually with a two-week interval. I came to recognise them by two methods; they were completely irrelevant to anything I had recently experienced, and they were always accompanied by intense emotion.
At school and church I was on the edge of my seat with excitement at any possible reference to the Biblical prophecies. The 1848 revolutions in history – surely this would have been an ideal time for Christ’s return. And the beautiful New Testament passages: “Your old men will dream dreams, and your young men will see visions”. The mysterious significance of the “Door” which the “Good Shepherd” would enter by. The “Days of Noah” and the “Clouds of Heaven”.
My Religious Studies teacher told my parents that it was a pleasant novelty to have a student who looked interested, but by fifteen I was struggling with it. The question of personal moral accountability in the context of a Christ who “died for one’s sins”. The purpose of suffering. The lack of love and justice in the attitude of some Christians towards those of other religions or none, although their God was supposed to stand for those qualities. Who was the Real Christ? I dropped out of confirmation classes, and chose not to take Religious Studies at ‘A’ level. Much later I realised that the problem did not lie in the content of Christian texts but in their interpretation. Religious texts could be compared to a love letter from God to mankind, and as with any letter the meaning depends not only on the content but also on the giver. If we know that the Giver represents love and justice, then any interpretation that is not compatible with at least one of those principles must be incorrect.
My father’s business had been subject to a hostile takeover in the 1970s, and we moved to Devon in 1982, while he did consultancy work and served as a Trustee at the Ironbridge Museum in Shropshire.
By the age of twenty I had turned from my fascination with religion to other matters, when I had another dream. I did not give it religious significance but it was so strange that I wrote it down.
In my dream I was standing on a hilltop overlooking a valley, with other hilltops in the distance. Around me were the ruins of an ancient city in Romanesque style, completely white with age. Some buildings were still standing, others part collapsed, and a fallen Corinthian column almost blocked my path. In the valley before me lay another city, breath-taking in its beauty. It was Middle Eastern in style, with golden domes and minarets. It was lit with a thousand tiny lights, and the countryside around it was bathed with luminescence like a watercolour painting. It reminded me of how I used to imagine Jerusalem to be, but gleaming and untarnished. Suddenly two birds shot out of its ramparts as fast as arrows. They wheeled around towards the city where I was standing. The birds attracted much attention amongst the people around me who recognised them as something extraordinary and significant, and tried to catch and imprison them. However the birds took every opportunity for freedom to search intently under rocks and in deserted buildings. It became apparent that they were searching for other birds, and every one they found began to make its way to the glorious city in the distance. The question of whether I would join them was left hanging in the air.
A sense of wonder consumed me, and I asked, not knowing of whom,
“Where is this place?”
There was a pause during which I knew that the place I was seeing did not have a geographical location, then an answer came, more in the manner of a clue:
Iraq then. Why on earth would I be dreaming about Iraq in the middle of a Devonshire summer?
I was also unaware of the Bible prophecies about Babylon, ancient enemy of Israel, and how it would be redeemed in the last days, even linking this event with the coming of the New Jerusalem.
I had recently been offered a place to study graphic design, specialising in illustration, at Exeter College of Art and Design. The college did not have its own accommodation, so I looked for digs in the city. In the late summer of 1986 I stood in the hallway of my new home, being introduced to a fellow housemate who looked distinctly Middle Eastern. He was studying computer science at the university. I felt sure that my dream must relate to him in some way. However he was Iranian, not Iraqi, and had never visited Iraq. He was a human being of great beauty, and I gradually learnt a little about him and his unusual religion, the Bahá’í Faith. The striking feature about him was not so much what he said but how he lived, and several years later his influence bore its full effect.
By the early 1990s a succession of close bereavements had caused me to look closely at my shaky Christian beliefs. Like the city in my dream, they stood in partial ruins around me, but also barred me from moving forwards. I remember one funeral service when the ghost of my faith seemed to be disappearing backwards into the darkness. The harder I looked, the faster it shrank away, and I felt like Orpheus trying to grasp at Eurydice. I began to suffer from panic attacks as I struggled to grasp for the meanings of life and death.
I was passing through Exeter library one day when a book caught my attention. It was about the Bahá’í Faith. I remembered my Baha’i friend, his gentle compassion and his wise counsel; I remembered too the phrase which had struck me from the pages of his marriage service, and which had sent a thrill of trepidation up my back:
“By the righteousness of the one true God! If one speck of a jewel be lost and buried beneath a mountain of stones, and lie hidden beyond the seven seas, the Hand of Omnipotence will assuredly reveal it in this day, pure and cleansed from dross.”
My husband was attending a craft fair in London when I took the opportunity to slip away to the Bahá’í Centre in Rutland Gate. A Norwegian lady was there, with prayer beads she said had belonged to ‘Abdul-Bahá. I only had the vaguest idea of whom she was speaking, but she pressed the beads into my hand and closed her own over it. I bought several books, including Thief in the Night and Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah.
A few nights later I sat in the hallway of our home gripped with fear. The events I had been reading of were too close, too relevant to be ignored. I could neither go on reading nor put the books aside. They spoke of cities of religious revelation, and souls as birds. How the circumstances of a dream would be fulfilled ten years later…
It felt as though the doors of paradise were blowing in the wind before my eyes…
“Beware of false prophets, of those who come in sheep’s clothing…”
What would be the price of my belief? I thought of the Siyyal Chal, and those who voluntarily found their way to imprisonment there. If I were mistaken and belief in Bahá’u’lláh led me to damnation, then surely damnation would be turned into paradise by His very presence. I took a breath and carried on reading. I had the strangest feeling of a flower endlessly unfolding inside my head. That was the night it all clicked, like being inside a giant pinball machine. The universe convoluted itself and then stretched out again in a new order. I ran outside to gasp the air and stared up at the starry heavens. I went from near atheism to suddenly seeing the Divine in everything, as though it had been transmuted from monochrome to glorious technicolour. A New Heaven and a New Earth…
I declared at the house of the Rouhipours in Exeter, early in 1997. It was there that I met a Bahá’í who had touched the robe of Bahá’u’lláh. I still love to listen to stories, but now the stories are real, and I know what it is like to live close to the lifetime of a Manifestation of God.
One of my greatest privileges as a Bahá’í has been to serve on a grant-making charity with other Bahá’ís and help to support the advancement of humanity. I am constantly inspired by how many good people around the world are trying with all their might to make a positive difference.
I have been privileged too at times to see flashes of pure greatness, of outstanding courage and compassion, among apparently humble individuals, and I have realised that, to God, we must be like the flowers of the meadow who are completely oblivious of their own Reality, their pure scent and great beauty, let alone the Reality of others, so judging others is not only wrong but pointless as we only have the dimmest and most limited grasp of who they really are.
Nowadays I split my time between our farm in East Devon with my husband who is not a Bahá’í, and my children, one of whom attends a Quaker school near Bristol, and the other two who attend a specialist school for dyslexia near Andover. They have also spent intermittent periods in home education.
My favourite moment of recent years took place at Wellington Summer School, and it resulted in our youngest son asking my husband for permission to attend Bahá’í events, which he granted.
I returned from a short trip to the summer school in the August of 2012, and my youngest son was awake and eager to know how I had enjoyed it. I did not tell him about the interesting talks or study materials, I did not tell him about what I had learnt or the conversations I had had. Instead I asked him to picture the scene at eleven thirty at night, in the covered walkways outside the halls of residence. It had been a very intense day, and we had been left in no doubt about the plight of the world or the enormous task awaiting us. We had no doubt of the high ideals we are being called to. But I did not dwell on these things.
“Imagine if you can” I said “the late evening light from the V&A café reflected in the water gardens of Wellington College, and the lavender in full bloom. Music could be heard faintly in the background. Otherwise the courtyard was silent and deserted, and the brick-covered walkways were almost completely dark with the occasional spotlight. I was about to press the code for my dormitory when a movement caught my eye. A girl of about seventeen was dancing for joy in that darkness, into the spotlight, and into the darkness again, alone, unseen until I came along, with an energy that seemed limitless. I stood transfixed until she saw me, and faltered in her steps.
“Please don’t stop,” I said but she was gone.
Her radiant dance told my son more about the faith than words ever could, and the following year he attended summer school with me. We paused for a moment to look at the pinpoints of light in a darkened walkway.
“It’s just how I imagined it”, he said.
What greater joy is there than to pass God’s message for mankind to a new generation?
Devon, January 2016