I was born in Gloucestershire into quite a religious family, a mix of Catholic, Church of England and Methodist influences. I had an Austrian Catholic grandmother who married a Church of England vicar and moved to the UK as a young woman, and on my mother’s side an Irish Catholic grandfather, hence the religious mix. I loved Sunday school as a child and eagerly attended church as a teenager though I did not like the sermons and did not like the idea of someone telling me what to think and somehow standing in for God. I could not agree with the part of the creed where we were expected to say “I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church” – I would not say it. I also did not like the gender inequality. As a child, when we read the story of Christ returning and only some people recognising Him, I worried terribly that I might not. I remember deciding that the world’s problems could only be resolved through religion, and toyed with the idea of becoming something in the Church. However I was not convinced enough by its claimed ability to provide solutions.
In 1979 I went to study psychology and philosophy at the University of Warwick. While there I learned of the martyrdoms of the Bahá’ís in Iran. I did not meet any Bahá’ís but remember being impressed that they were not expressing outrage at what had happened (as was the general mood with students…about absolutely everything…). As I remember it, I learned of this attitude through a friend who knew a young man whose uncle had been executed.
After university, unemployed and quite depressed, living in Coventry, I became very despairing and wanted to give up on life. I had lost belief in God but one day in desperation I prayed that if He existed He would take my life and use it for His purposes because I had no more use for it. Within a couple of weeks I landed a job on the west coast of Scotland. Following this I moved to Skye in 1985 at the invitation of the man I was soon to marry, Tom Stephens. His parents were friends with my parents and we had first met when I was six years old and he was 18. Not having seen much of him through the years I met up with him again shortly before his mother died in 1983. We became friends and I remembered thinking he would make a very good father for my children. Some weeks before we were due to marry I recalled very vividly the conviction I had had as a six year old that he was to be my future husband. Our first child, Corinne, was born in March 1986, then Liam in February 1989 and Seren on 29th April 1992. I recall that sometime after Corinne was born I found myself wondering why I had been brought to Skye in response to my heartfelt prayer.
It was in 1987 that I next came across the Bahá’í Faith. Quite out of the blue somebody turned up at my door asking if I would teach her to spin. Her name was Trish Wilkinson and she was a lone pioneer living in my village. It happened to be during the fasting period, which naturally meant that she spoke to me about why she was not eating or drinking. We met many times and I would always be left with a feeling of great excitement except on the one occasion when we did not talk about the Faith. I was left with a noticeable feeling of flatness. I have often reflected on this when we are told about the importance of meaningful and distinctive conversations.
My reaction to meeting Trish and reawakening to my own spiritual nature was to return to church. There was nothing conscious or worked out about it, it was simply instinctive. I guess it was a desire to return to the Spirit, and that was the familiar place. Trish worked hard. I attended talks and meetings she gave. She invited me to dinner on a feast day. I don’t think I ever asked her a single question. When I ‘declared’ she was astonished. She told me she thought I was the last person who would… a great lesson in there somewhere!
When Trish was eventually due to leave Skye, there was no pioneer lined up to follow her. She was leaving an island still with no Bahá’ís, so just before she left, Jackie Mehrabi, the Board member, held a public meeting in Broadford, where a nine year old girl, Kirsty Manvell, said she believed in the Bahá’í faith and wanted to be a Bahá’í. I think this is a wonderful thing. When I asked her recently why, she said because she had never before experienced so much love. She was deeply affected by it. The next day, her mother Maggie Manvell declared. I knew Maggie a little and when I heard she had become a Bahá’í I asked her about it. She turned up the next day with the book The Light of Bahá’u’lláh. I read it in one day from cover to cover with a growing sense of excitement.
Two other slight asides:
Shortly before knowing about Maggie, I remember somebody writing to me about religion and asking me if I was considering finding my way back to God. I had just come to the end of a period of post-natal depression and was feeling alright for the first time in almost a year. I replied saying I did not want to rock my own boat again. Immediately following this I had a very disturbing experience. I felt over the next few weeks as if there was somebody, a very scary somebody, always standing just behind me, not going away. For the first time in my life I started to think about dying, with fear about what lies beyond this life. The feeling eventually left but I can’t remember when.
When Maggie gave me the book, I was plunged into great excitement, and at the same time fear. How could I know if this was the Truth? I became obsessed with the question, not speaking to anyone else about it. I prayed, and I wrote to my uncle who had been a monk. I asked Jesus. I asked my dead grandfather who had been a vicar. My heart was very disturbed. I felt cut off from any help or guidance, as if I had been put into an empty, locked room, with no recourse to books or conversation and had to make up my own mind. Eventually the words came to me “By their fruits ye shall know them” and I knew I had found something to guide me.
During the following week I received a visit from the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a most unusual visit from the rector of the Episcopalian church, and heard a radio play about the body of Christ being found and the Church being plunged into a great panic. I simply didn’t understand why it would be such an issue – surely people’s belief was based on more than a miracle. I also received an invitation to visit Maggie and meet Jackie Mehrabi and John Parris, both Auxiliary Board members at that time. I am quite shy by nature and the thought of meeting new people was pretty terrifying. On the day of the meeting I fell ill but something made me get out of bed, put aside my fear and go. I decided that I would know straight away when I met these two people, whether or not this was the Truth.
It was a wonderful evening but my unease was simply increasing. Jackie, in her infinite wisdom, gave me a copy of the Hidden Words. That night I sat up in bed beside my sleeping husband, and read them, and suddenly my heart burst open and I knew, beyond any shadow of a doubt that through these blessed words, God was speaking to me, in the most tender, loving, soul-expanding accents. That was it.
Later, Trish recounted to us that she had become quite despondent in her pioneer post, feeling she was making no headway, and started to plan her departure, when one night she had a dream in which she was floating above Breakish, the village she and I were staying in, and down below her she saw a light. The dream prompted her to take courage and stay until the end of her planned term. Within 19 months, 9 adults became Bahá’ís in Breakish, and we formed the first Local Spiritual Assembly.
It was when my second child Liam was a year old that I declared my faith in Bahá’u’lláh. This meant that I had the great bounty of giving my children a Bahá’í education alongside the many other children whose parents had declared around the same time. Years later I recalled that at some point in my life, before moving to Skye, I had prayed for guidance as to what I needed to do in my life and I had a very clear sense that I needed to have children and raise them to love humanity so that they would take that love and teach it in the world.
I served on the first Spiritual Assembly of Skye and was involved in many teaching activities, children’s classes, and supporting the establishment of a junior youth group. It was very exciting to be in a community made up of all new Bahá’ís, working together to learn about the Faith, deepen ourselves, spread the teachings and eventually establish classes for quite a number of children from the local primary school. In 1996 Corinne, Liam and I went on pilgrimage, together with Pat McNicol and her son Gavin.
I have attended a number of Scottish Bahá’í summer schools and in about 2009 was on the organising committee of one. Having completed the Ruhi sequence in the early 2000s I served as cluster coordinator for the training institute for the Highland cluster for a number of years.
In 1998 my husband suffered a severe mental breakdown which eventually resulted in our divorce but a continued friendship as we were determined that the children should always know they had two loving parents, who were as united as it was possible for us to be. It was a hard time for the family, but I think the children learned much and grew through the difficulties.
In 2011 I short-term pioneered to Malta for three months, together with Ann and Tom Mackenzie from Inverness, in order to help meet the pioneering goals. It was a very interesting and useful experience in terms of learning about putting the current plans into practice in a very diverse community. Judy Finlay from Skye and my daughter Corinne also pioneered to Malta for several months. My son is serving at the learning site in Utrecht.
I moved from Skye in 2013 and now am living as an isolated believer in a very small community where I have a Bed and Breakfast business in the beautiful countryside around Culrain, Sutherland, which is the remote and largely unappreciated wilderness area of the Northern Highlands. I also hold one to one retreats where people come for the tranquillity of the environment. Also if they wish, they can receive counselling, learn about prayer and meditation, learn to deal with stress, and start to navigate periods of personal transition. People describe this as a very spiritual place and certainly it provides an environment which is very conducive to conversation about the life of the spirit and the real nature of the transition the world is passing through, and the fact that we can all play our part in establishing a spiritually and materially prosperous global civilisation. I spend what time I can in study of the Writings and the current guidance from the institutions of the Faith in order to stay abreast of the plans and be able to develop my capacity to hold increasingly effective and illuminated conversations with my guests.
Sutherland, Scotland, May 2015