Jane and Neil Macmillan in 2011

Jane and Neil Macmillan in 2011

Introduction

As I type this account, some 46 years after the event, of the approximately six-year process whereby I came to formally recognise Bahá’u’lláh as the Manifestation of God for this age, there appears, in retrospect, to be a certain inevitability to the decision.

The decision was the culmination of a long, purposeful and eventful process of search that began at the age of seventeen (in August 1964) on a beach below Mount Athos, Eastern Orthodox Christianity’s monastic sanctuary in northern Greece, and ended at the age of twenty-three (in June 1970) in a house in White Rock, British Columbia, Canada where I had gone to borrow some sugar for my wife Jane’s tea!

While there seems to be far less outward inevitability to my meeting and marrying Jane, my relationship to both her and the Bahá’í Faith has proved to be interrelatedly beneficial and durable.

This account will relate subjectively what transpired in my inner and outer life during this six-year period, and also relate these events to general considerations drawn from history, philosophy, literature, religion and contemporary affairs.

The process was – and continues to be – very much an intellectual effort to develop a comprehensive conceptual framework for human life that can be used to assess circumstances, make decisions and take action.  I was not so much looking for personal solutions to personal issues but rather for universal solutions to the broad challenges of global society in the 20th century.

However, this is not a role that society accommodates because most people are quite satisfied with the status quo and are generally resistant to change. In my late teens, I therefore felt I had to forfeit a birthright of relative privilege and start from scratch in many ways.

This process initially involved withdrawing from society to a great extent, and trying to survive, in order to have the time to develop a new conceptual framework.  For several years during this period I was therefore not part of the educational system or the regular workforce.

Sociocultural matrix and beyond

My physical existence began when I was “made in India” by my parents, William and Doris Macmillan. However, although conceived in India, I was actually born in Buckie, a coastal town in northeast Scotland, where my mother’s family, the Farquhars, lived and where my maternal grandfather was a fishing net manufacturer. My father’s family lived in Aberdeen where his father managed the Sandilands Chemical Works. My mother and father met at Aberdeen University in the 1920s.

My father was a distinguished industrial chemist with two PhDs (Aberdeen and Cambridge) and spent most of his career as the founding director of the Indian Jute Mills Association Research Institute (IJMARI) in Kolkata, India. My mother was a teacher of French and German, but spent most of her life running two households, one in Calcutta (now Kolkata) and one in Aberdeen. My parents were apart during the Second World War because my father stayed in India. Their first child, my elder brother Ian, was born in June 1939 shortly before the outbreak of the war and I was born as their second child in October 1946, a year and a few months after the war’s end.

I had what I felt was a very happy childhood in a secure environment and did not really want for anything. I liked living in India, was happy when I returned to boarding school in Scotland at the age of 6, and also enjoyed living at home during the school holidays. I was intellectually precocious and began reading adult books at the age of 6. I also happened to be good at sports (rugby, hockey and cross-country running), which, together with my academic skills, made my life at boarding school (Lathallan and then Strathallan) and beyond, a positive experience.

Both my parents were honourable and morally upstanding, and this ethos was implicit in our household.

My mother was very kind and self-sacrificing and my father was thoughtful, respectful and realistic about life. The same ethos of honour and rectitude was also implicit at both the boarding schools I attended with the result that I grew up with a very clear moral code that I followed conscientiously. Church attendance and Bible knowledge were also an integral part of my Scottish Presbyterian upbringing, as was an implicit pride in being both Scottish and British. In this regard, I had a very keen spiritual conscience – and still do. However, in my mid-teens, I began to experience “existential unease” in the sense that although I was fulfilling the expectations of my milieu, my soul was becoming increasingly dissatisfied. This was puzzling to me because I was doing my best in every respect.

A significant experience occurred in December 1963 when I travelled on the plane out to India to spend the Christmas holidays with my parents. One of the passengers was a 16-year-old youth who had an assured charisma that impressed me. It turned out that he practised yoga, so I bought a book called Teach Yourself Yoga by James Hewitt and began to practise yoga too. This book not only contained clear descriptions of yoga practices, it also contained a selection of spiritual writings for reflection, some of which were Christian, some were from modern Hindu sages like Swami Vivekananda, some were modern thinkers like Alexis Carrel, and one was by Bahá’u’lláh. Two concepts in particular that I imbibed from my initial encounter with yoga were detachment and purity (both physical and mental).

Around this time, I also came under the influence of the Beatnik lifestyle as expressed in Jack Kerouac’s books such as The Dharma Bums and On the Road. In fact, I believe that my housemaster at school was very insightful when he said that he thought I was “a mixture of Calvin and Kerouac!” In those days, I also became attracted to Impressionist painting and a wide range of music (classical, jazz, blues and gospel). Consequently, when the opportunity came during the half-term break from Strathallan in spring 1964 to hitchhike to Paris to view Impressionist paintings at first hand, I seized it and went on the first of many subsequent trips in my life that have reflected a willingness to travel for an important purpose.

The next opportunity to travel was one to Greece in summer 1964 after I had sat my scholarship-level exams in Latin and Greek with a view to applying to King’s College, Cambridge where both my father and my Strathallan housemaster had studied. During the trip to Greece, I intended to visit Classical sites like Mycenae, Olympia, Delphi and the Acropolis, and also carry out a project for a Trevelyan Scholarship that could be used at Oxford or Cambridge. However, while I was in Greece, I heard about Mount Athos, the 31-mile-long peninsula that juts into the Adriatic Sea, and decided to focus my Trevelyan Scholarship project on the monastic and hermetic life as practised there. Access to Mount Athos is restricted to males, and there is essentially no form of transportation except on foot. The natural beauty of the peninsula together with its monastic architecture, are extremely impressive. On one of the days during my visit, I and a travel companion from Germany climbed the 6.600-foot mountain itself, and then spent the night at a nearby monastery.

The next day after breakfast I wandered down to the beach and was sitting on a log or a rock when suddenly something shifted in my brain and my inherited value system collapsed in the space of a moment. The basic insight that I gleaned from this shift was that not only my spiritual unease but also the general suffering in the world were unnecessary, and that happiness and wellbeing could be achieved by doing things differently and more constructively and not blindly following tradition and convention. In my case, the experience was so profound that I later destroyed the notebook in which I recorded my impressions as I felt that they were too private and sacred.

However, although I was now questioning the absolute superiority of the fundamentals of my sociocultural heritage, I still appreciated most of it and simply had to disentangle the good from the bad – and this was the start of my quest.

Initial intellectual and emotional discoveries

When I returned to my family and school from Greece in 1964, I was thus in a heightened state of awareness and was no longer prepared to blindly follow what was expected of me because I now had a powerful inner compass.

During this time I came across a book in the Strathallan library called Mysticism and Logic by Bertrand Russell. I read the first words: “Metaphysics or the attempt to conceive the world as a whole by means of thought…”, and as I continued to read, I said to myself, “I understand this.”

Russell then became the first of many intellectual sources (philosophers, historians, poets, sociologists, anthropologists, economists and journalists like Heraclitus, Spinoza, Descartes, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Marshall McLuhan, Arnold Toynbee, Lewis Mumford, Alvin Toffler, Barbara Tuchman, William Blake, Walt Whitman, William Butler Yeats, Max Weber, C. Wright Mills. Ruth Benedict, John Kenneth Galbraith, Anthony Sampson and David Halberstam) whose books I devoured for information that could be integrated into the conceptual framework I was developing. At the same time, I also developed an approach of studying authors and fields as a whole, and not piecemeal even though I usually ended up with “nuggets” from their overall bodies of work.

In the meantime, I also had to continue with a normal life with a host of new ideas and perspectives swarming in my head.

In autumn 1964 I was accepted by King’s College, Cambridge for admission in September 1965. I therefore had a “gap year” to fill.

Through a friend at school I obtained a summer job as the assistant purser on the Mallaig-Armadale car ferry that served the Isle of Skye. This period was the first extended period of my life away from family and school. However, I found it awkward because of my confused identity. Apart from work, I continued to study, competed in a couple of Highland Games as a runner, and began to interact with the opposite sex in a setting away from school or family. I also developed a deep attachment to the profound beauty of the highlands and islands of Scotland.

Six months at Cambridge

At Cambridge I chose to study Archaeology and Anthropology as the most interesting of what I felt were several overly narrow options like History alone or Economics alone. However, in practice, I used most of my time at university to continue studying independently, while also playing rugby, participating in extracurricular activities and enjoying the company of other first-year students. Needless to say, this approach was not viable and during my second term at Cambridge, I decided to leave in order to pursue my research elsewhere without being bound by academic requirements. My parents were naturally upset by my decision to leave Cambridge but respected it. It was at Cambridge that I first came across the Bahá’í Faith during Clubs Day in September 1965 when I picked up a small information card with a coloured photograph of the House of Worship in Wilmette, Chicago on one side and a list of the main principles of the Faith on the other. I remember thinking at the time that those were fine principles but simply idealistic without a means for their effective implementation. I did not reject my Christian heritage but reassessed it and, in particular, found it enhanced by the conceptual frameworks of the eastern religions of Hinduism (in its modern form) and Buddhism (in Zen and so on).

A one-year time-out in the Scottish Highlands (Nethybridge and Inverness)

My initial intention after leaving Cambridge was to get a manual job as a labourer on the project to build the Victoria underground train line in London. However, when I travelled down to London from Aberdeen I discovered that the hiring was very much a “closed shop” for the Irish, so I went to an employment centre where I obtained a job as a tree planter in Nethybridge, a small village in the Cairngorm Mountains of central Scotland. I enjoyed the work, the scenery and the company of the other tree planters but also felt extremely lonely, so when the opportunity came to own a puppy (a Border Collie cross), I accepted and considered him to be the start of my “new family.” That summer it also became clear that I did not fit in with the Nethybridge community, and came up with the idea of moving to Inverness to play rugby with an excellent player I had played against at school, John Frame, who later appeared in the Scottish national team. I moved to Inverness with my dog and joined Highland Rugby Football Club. There I lived “rough” for much of the time, worked for 12 hours a day for several months on a construction site over the winter of 1966-67, and played rugby for Highland alongside people like Nairn MacEwan who later, like John Frame, also played for Scotland. Apart from my rugby teammates, my only other social contacts were mainly others like me who were living on the fringes of society. During this time I did maintain some contact with my family but primarily kept apart in order to work things out mentally. One conclusion I came to was that people living in poverty needed to collaborate and act collectively in order to get out of their impoverished state.

In Inverness, I also went to my first Bahá’í public meeting, hosted by Harold and Betty Shepherd in a downtown hotel. I remember arguing about the concept of unity with the speaker who was a former Christian minister from Peterhead. After the meeting, the Shepherds invited me and others back to their home for refreshments, and it was there that I first read the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh. I checked what He had to say about animals and was reassured to discover that humans should be kind to them. At the same time, I also found Bahá’u’lláh’s style of language to be overly grandiose compared with the more factual and spare style I preferred. What I also always remember from the visit was Betty Shepherd’s kindly and non-judgemental manner.

In spring 1967, I decided to move into a tent in the woods. However, the very first day after setting up my tent, it was stolen. The next day, I also had my suitcase stolen from a place where I had stored it. I took both these incidents as a sign to leave Inverness. The only attractive option seemed to be to hitchhike down to London to see a female friend I was interested in.

London: community engagement and finding a wonderful wife

On the way down to London, I visited Cambridge to dispose of a few belongings I had left there. In a Cambridge bookshop, I saw a poster for a forthcoming conference in London called The Dialectics of Liberation.

I found the conference itself very stimulating, saw a few renowned figures like poet Allan Ginsberg and psychologist R. D. Laing, and met educationist Paul Goodman.

The conference took place in a building called the Roundhouse, in the Chalk Farm district of London. Nearby was an excellent bookshop in Muswell Hill where I also spent time. In those days I used to go into a bookshop and essentially review all the books before choosing one or two that would cover important gaps in my evolving conceptual framework. At one point in the conference, a young woman called Charlotte Yonge offered space in her Notting Hill flat for anyone who needed a place to stay. I and a few others accepted her offer and that group more or less became a commune. However, Charlotte actually shared the flat with her sister Jane who was a student dancer with a ballet company and was away on tour at the time. When Jane returned, she was naturally surprised to discover several strangers sharing the flat but graciously accepted the situation, as that was how things were in the hippy summer of 1967 – the so-called “summer of love.”

Since the parents of one of the people associated with the Notting Hill group had a farm near Betws-y-Coed in North Wales, a group of us went with her to the farm to explore the possibilities of establishing a rural commune. While we were there, an Indian guru called Maharishi Mahesh Yogi gave a talk about transcendental meditation in the nearby city of Bangor, and I travelled to hear him speak (as did The Beatles and several hundred other people).

During this time, I also hitchhiked to Portmeirion where Bertrand Russell (then aged 95) lived in order to see the “great man in person.” I arrived at his house in the late evening but, after seeing just a light on in what was presumably an upstairs bedroom, left and did not ring the bell.

A few weeks after the Wales excursion, the Notting Hill commune began to dissolve with some staying and some leaving. I was one of those who left. However, in the process Jane and I ended up together and have been together ever since!

In 1968 Jane and I decided to get married and move out of London to Kent where Jane’s father had arranged a job for me as a laboratory technician at what was then the East Malling Centre for Horticulture and Plantation Crops. This job confirmed my affinity for farming and biology, which I had not fully realised until then in my life because they had not been part of my upbringing.

Jane and Neil's wedding: 7 September 1968

Jane and Neil’s wedding: 7 September 1968

Emigration to Canada

In 1969, I began to pursue the goal of emigrating from Britain, but could not decide on the destination. Initial considerations were the Caribbean (to grow bananas) and Australia (because of Australian government assistance with the passage). However, after considerable analysis and reflection, I became convinced that the destination that most suited my circumstances was Vancouver, British Columbia, because of its diverse agriculture and apparently British heritage and also because rugby was played there.

However, unlike Australia, there was no assisted passage to Canada. I therefore decided to ask my father to finance the emigration of our family (which by then included our first son James) to Canada.

I was naturally disappointed when he said no, but was still convinced that Vancouver was the only place in the world where I had a future.

I was also convinced that I would find a book in Kensington Public Library in London that would contain information about charitable associations that would finance our emigration to Canada. So I took a day off work and took the train from Maidstone to London, keenly aware that my whole future depended on this act of faith.

In a directory in Kensington library listing British charities, I discovered an organisation called the Emigration Assistance Fund with an address in London, but on arrival there found a demolished building with a couple of labourers burning debris. I asked them about the offices of the Emigration Assistance Fund, and they gave me a phone number and said that I needed to speak to General Campbell of the Fairbridge Society. With considerable trepidation I telephoned the organisation and spoke with the General. He was extremely gracious and gave me an appointment for the next day! The upshot was he contacted my father with the result that the Fund and my father equally shared the cost of my family’s emigration by boat and train to Vancouver, which occurred in September 1969.

General Campbell arranged for Fairbridge’s agent in Vancouver to welcome us, find us accommodation, and find me a job. As a result, in October 1969, I began working in a flower greenhouse near White Rock, a small seaside city about 35 miles south of Vancouver. Shortly afterwards we moved from Vancouver to White Rock for more suitable accommodation.

White Rock and the Bahá’í community

Unbeknown to us, White Rock was an Assembly goal of the Vancouver Bahá’í community with the result that before Ridván 1970, a total of nine people, who all happened to be unmarried males, moved there to form its first Spiritual Assembly. By coincidence, most of them rented two floors of a house directly opposite our own, and we all became friends because most of them were members of the counter-culture, as we more or less were; in fact, we used to share things. For instance, I had a car and they initially didn’t so I used to help out with rides.

One evening while Jane and I were having supper, she discovered that we had run out of sugar so I offered to cross the road to the Bahá’ís to borrow some. When I entered the house, I noticed that a meeting was just ending and someone was reciting a prayer. Out of simple respect, I stopped to listen and heard the last half or so of Bahá’u’lláh’s Tablet of Ahmad… and that was it! I felt deep in my soul that this was the Voice of God since only God could speak like that. Over the next couple of hours or so, I conversed with the Bahá’ís because I knew I was on the brink of a momentous decision. I had a list of around eight questions that I systematically asked, and after receiving what I felt were satisfactory answers that were consistent with the conceptual framework and the ideas of community action I had already developed on the basis of my studies and experience to that point, I told the Bahá’ís that I wanted to join the Bahá’í community. Around this time, Jane came over to look for me and says that she arrived just as I raised my arms and made my decision, but I honestly don’t remember that part.

When I attended the next event for the Bahá’í community, the 19-Day Feast, I left Jane at home with James because it included a consultative phase which was for Bahá’ís only. While I was away, Jane read an inspiring talk by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in a book called The Chosen Highway by Lady Blomfield, which made her want to join forces with the Bahá’ís as well. She came over to the Feast to share her decision with the group. The Assembly met right away in the attic and accepted her request. Ever since then, both of us have served the Faith in Canada and in other countries (Central African Republic, Dominica, Bermuda and, since the 2011-2016 Five Year Plan, the UK) and continue to do so.

I would just like to close this account with two excerpts from the Bahá’í Writings.

The first is by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá:

The Promised Spot will be made a racecourse for the steeds of the race of Knowledge…

The significance of this quotation is that when I recognised Bahá’ulláh, the force that had been inexorably driving me to seek truth wherever I could find it immediately switched off because it had found the object of its quest.

The second is from Bahá’u’lláh Himself:

“For whereas in days past every lover besought and searched after his Beloved, it is the Beloved Himself Who now is calling His lovers and is inviting them to attain His presence.”

The significance of this quotation is that, given the sequence of events I have described here, it seems that the circumstances of my life navigated me to both the Bahá’í Faith and to Jane.

At any rate, some 52 years after that initial life-changing experience on Mount Athos, I now find myself completely reassured about the future of human civilization (thanks to some 46 years of ongoing involvement with the Bahá’í community in practice on four continents), and, on a personal level, totally grateful for the family life and common service I have shared with Jane (thanks to her constant love, kindness and support).

___________________ 

Neil Macmillan

Ontario, Canada, June 2016

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