Someone once told me that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá said the world had no end and no beginning. Like infinity and eternity, the concepts are beyond our comprehension. That resonated with me because early in life I had come to the conclusion that some questions could be answered and others could not. I was on a mission and determined to find some answers; as a mature student I studied divinity for four years. Eventually wisdoms and assumptions based almost totally on the intellect became open to question. I concluded that some things were beyond our comprehension during our earthly experience.
I have my mother to thank for my belief that there were other lives beyond this life, “other worlds beyond this world”. They would of course be Protestant!
My questing mind moved between these mysteries of life. Individual ideas and emotions were not looked on as being important among the peoples of the Borders, except those of course that explained our volatile history. For instance it was understood that there were certain clans we never considered marrying into and my generation didn’t! As I got older I came to the conclusion that some of our assumptions were based on racial memory, as Jung explained, ‘the collective consciousness’, but that is another story…
I came to believe that all paths to God, as revealed by existing religions, must be equally valid. I felt any other interpretation would be unjust. I also believed it was not what we call ourselves that was important, but how we responded to life. That was the heart of the matter, but the idea of progressive revelation never occurred to me, even though my whole life philosophy was based on the idea of historical evolution. When a Bahá’í explained Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings on this principle, in a moment my world re-formed and my intellectual and emotional contradictions were swept into new patterns. It was the Road to Damascus for me. I had firmly believed that when Christ returned I would be among the first to know. How are the mighty fallen! The Bahá’ís in Carlisle used to say that when a soul accepted Bahá’u’lláh it was often with mute rebellion or grovelling submission.
I had actually written a list of why in my opinion it could not be true. I thought of nothing else for weeks. The children were having lunch, I was cleaning a land drain…how symbolic was that? Going over the list in my mind. ‘I think… I have always believed… It’s too simple… I know for a fact…’ The ‘I’ collapsed in the face of an all-enveloping love which embraced me when I wondered for the first time whether I might be wrong.
The existence of the first Bahá’í in a family calls into question all the assumptions of the past that we had held as sacred. That, and the inevitable influence of the Covenant, recognised or not, begins a process of change, towards equality of gender, education, acceptance of differences, all the “isms”… The re-evaluation of long-held opinions and prejudices…above all the possibility of choices in our collective destiny……I wanted to go forth and do great deeds. The convergence of history, intellect, and emotions led me to new understandings which are still evolving after more than 40 years.
I am a Bahá’í. Thank God. I am Bahá’í.
I was born during the Second World War in Haltwhistle, Northumberland to a Scottish father (Burns), and an English mother (Armstrong). The Borders culture is still very distinct. I was brought up Church of England although many of the family had been Quakers. The eldest of five, I worked hard at home and school and was the first in the family to have the opportunity to do ‘O’ Levels. I was an auxiliary nurse until I married young and had four children. As they were growing, I studied Humanities and became a teacher. I met a Persian Bahá’í, Jenna Twiname. She and her husband John, with Olive Smeaton, held weekly discussion groups in Carlisle. I could not stay away. Although I’m sure they thought me very sceptical, after only a few weeks everything they said really resonated with me and I knew I had found what I was looking for. This was in 1974.
I think the most powerful experiences of my early Bahá’í life were the summer schools. Children, friends, tents, over the Stranraer ferry and down to Waterford in Southern Ireland. Hours in sunny gardens listening to Adib Taherzadeh explaining the Covenant, even more hours of music and prayers. We never wanted the evenings to end. Great memorable experiences which firmed a faith that has lasted the rest of my life.
It was also the time of the troubles in the 1970s. We were often searched and once while driving I frightened the life out of a man by making him pull over on the side of the road. I mistakenly thought he was someone I knew. My husband Dave and I travelled in the North and as we strolled over the bridge into Derry we were stopped and had to show the contents of our fiddle cases. Then there was the time we got onto the Falls Road by mistake and got caught up in a demonstration and had to be escorted out!
I remember visiting the mother of a Northern Irish Bahá’í and she said to me she thought the Faith was a great thing, but to be sure it would never unite Ireland.
On one occasion we arrived a day early at a Northern Bahá’í summer school and set up camp with my son and my friend, Jane Sadler (now Jane Helbo, serving the Faith in Denmark). Jane was not registered as a Bahá’í at that time but when the police helicopter was hovering overhead looking for someone who had shot two people in a post office, her nerve snapped and she decided it was a good moment to sign the card.
We were so few on the ground in those days. When John Parris from Ayr came into the Faith, we in Cumbria were amazed, since we considered Ayr to be the back of beyond. There was also huge excitement when three young Bahá’í couples moved into a Pennine hill farm to begin the work of building a community – and what a community, now in its third generation, attracting and teaching. Wonderful ways, a vision of the future. In later years it was to become of massive importance in my own life. Before that time the nearest Bahá’ís to Carlisle were Glasgow and South Lakes. Winter conditions on Shap were always a problem. The best way to travel was to follow in the snow ruts of a heavy vehicle. I soon learnt the prayer for travel. Although I was in my early thirties I had not travelled much, big family, early marriage … children, work, little money… It would all soon change.
Not only was it the start of new friendships, it was the beginning of many journeys. I went to Poland two or three times after the Berlin wall came down. The first time was to Wroclaw with Jane Sadler. Every morning about twenty people of nearly as many nationalities met in a room in the youth hostel. Consultations took ages. Every morning we went to a square in the city where a Bulgarian Bahá’í, Dimcho, had a theatre set. It looked like a giant blue wardrobe but opened out into a little stage with a PA system. Some of the friends played music and with an interpreter, I called circle dances. The Polish people were happy dancing and were obviously used to it. Other Bahá’ís had conversations and gave information to those who wanted it. People would queue up for leaflets. It was all so new, the freedom and ideas. Very moving was the time an elderly gentleman, housebound in a flat, sent down for information. He said he had not seen a Bahá’í for forty years. Also there was a heart-rending and stilted conversation with a lady engineer who had lived in a village near Auschwitz. She said no one would talk to the children about why so many people went in and didn’t come out. After all those years she was crying, just to be able to talk about it. Precious memories. We performed a Jewish wedding dance in a square where the Jews had once danced, a small part of the founding of a community. Jane Sadler later pioneered to Katowice in Silesia and we stayed with a university teacher who spoke some English. She had learned it by listening to the BBC World Service while her sister listened at the window to make sure no one could hear the English radio. Katowice is in an area of ecological stress with deep coal mines under the city, blocks of flats built where pillars of coal were left in for support, trams passed slowly to avoid vibration, and cement facades peeled because of air pollution.
In the 1980s I went to the dedication of the Bahá’í (Lotus) Temple in New Delhi. The light, the air, the sound of birds, the singing. Incredible experiences. When I went to a family wedding in Australia the plane I was travelling on refuelled in Bombay. I longed to see more of India. Then in a summer school in Aberdeen I met a water engineer from The Gambia. I told him I wanted to trace my spiritual ancestors which he thought was rather odd. I told him about John Twiname. He stood up, said “I am your spiritual grandfather”! He had been in Manchester University with John, who learned about the Faith from him. On his mother’s side he was connected to the Bábi martyrs in Yazd.
The greatest journey of all of course was my Bahá’í pilgrimage. When the North East teaching team went on a three-day visit to Haifa in early February 1986, it was my birthday at the time (7th February). I had tea with Rúhíyyih Khánum. She had such a sense of humour. Looking at an animal skin on the floor of her house she said the Greenies got quite worked up about it. I did say that she hadn’t shot it. Studying it for a moment she replied that well, she might have done!
In 2000 my former husband Dave died while on a music tour in Cyprus, and is buried in the English cemetery there. Out of respect for his Jewish roots, I returned a year later to mark his grave, and met the Jay family from Carlisle on their way to pilgrimage. My friend Susan Brown was there too and she played one of Dave’s compositions…Lament at Tabriz…on a violin he had made. Later that day we went to a feast in Famagusta and danced and played music under the pine trees with the lovely community there.
Another memorable experience was the Bahá’í World Congress in New York in November 1992. We were transported to another world. When it ended I had to force myself to leave the Jacob Javits Centre; could not believe it had ended. The music was so wonderful…
Soon afterwards I moved into the Tynedale community and lived at Burnlaw for twelve or thirteen years. My spiritual home in Britain, it was an amazing time of my life. To live and work with people of the same beliefs is very challenging and incredibly rewarding. I love them all. If I know in time when I am going to die I will go back and they can sort it all out! I arrived at a time when it was possible to convert spaces for public meetings and accommodation for courses. It made the work with people of all ages, which the community had been doing for years, a lot easier. A major part of my contribution in the early years seemed to be shovelling manure and making gardens. I did love serving on the Local Assembly, something I had done in Allerdale and Carlisle beforehand. Also it makes you realise we do not own the land, we are its guardians. People before us created landscape and it will continue after we are gone. The youth courses contributed to this process too. As a form of service we restored the old Quaker cemetery, tidied it up, planted flowers, and had a wonderful rededication with Quakers. Our own prayers by candlelight at the cemetery the night before were magic. On the day, a dear friend from one of the original Yorkshire families addressed the youth. Of their efforts, she said to them, “Ye have kept the Faith”. We were near to tears. Another time we created a spiral from stone as an aid to meditation and landscape preservation.
The youth work begun by Garry and Rosie Villiers-Stuart continued for me with the development of the Infuse Project with Darren Howell, an organiser inspirational! Also present were Helen and Grant Morley, Ken and Sue Finn, Gawayne Mahboubian-Jones and Ian Holland, among others. I met Ken and Sue in the Orkneys when we were travel teaching there, and they are still dear friends. We worked on north eastern housing estates with the North East teaching team which was probably the richest experience of my Bahá’í life. For the first time I could hear in my heart what Shoghi Effendi was telling us. A friend in an Aberdeen summer school told Sue and me after a presentation that we had crossed a line he did not know existed. Above all, we learnt that no projects could succeed without a solid plan of consolidation, something we are trying to develop in our current plans.
The festival of ‘Earthing the Spirit’ which is an event organised every year at Burnlaw is so, so groundbreaking. This year it was attended by large numbers of our former children’s and youth classes, with their children and quite a few grandparents too. Visitors included sound workshoppers, Buddhists, sweatshop workers, angel seekers, environmentalists, and clergymen wishing to help after the foot and mouth outbreak. Being isolated and sacrificially careful about rural hygiene we were not directly affected, although our neighbours were. Anyway, the clergy and I had a very demanding day replacing dead elm trees. We also re-planted the orchard, the highest in the valley, created by Quakers in 1912. All of this work was part of our Bahá’í practice, preservation, continuation and evolution, organic in all forms of life. It deserves a book of its own.
A massive bounty for me was being able to officiate at some of the weddings at Burnlaw. I was very nervous about the legality of my efforts the first time, but three days later the happy couple phoned me to say they had checked, and everything was in order. I remember in another community organising a baby-naming ceremony for a friend who had married again after being widowed and had given birth to another baby many years after her first. We included the words of Baha’u’llah, “Whoso raises the son of another, it is as though he had raised a son of mine”. The new dad ended up in tears.
The decision to move to Catalunya, Spain, was a sudden one. I needed a change, but above all I wanted to help family who were living there at the time. I was visiting and we went to the Greco-Roman city of Escorxador. Being brought up near the Roman Wall I was overwhelmed by the feeling of one people, one country. The contrast between my life there and at Burnlaw could not have been greater. Language, cultivation, climate etc, and the next ten years as an isolated believer. Struggles with weak infrastructure, family commitments, power breakdowns, financial things….they do say it is good for your spiritual growth. I remember my Bahá’í friend Brian Parsons telling me he was so thankful for spiritual tests. I on the other hand secretly prayed I would have no more.
Now I work with a Bahá’í family in a neighbouring town, the Ruhi books in Castellano, junior youth in Catalan and teaching English, all on the same day. Catalunya is a curiously open-minded society, post-Catholic, post-civil war, passionate about education. The firas (village festivals) are sponsored by the local authorities as the greatest means of encouraging social cohesion after the teaching of the mother tongue and an international language. Society is inclusive, with a long history of North African residents who continue to arrive. The small British community has embraced the teaching of no backbiting and the belief that we are family to each other. Life is good, as the Catalans say…Ojalla (inshallah). So far, my only official duty has been to organise a funeral. Must be something to do with my age!
“From the sweet scented streams of Thine eternity give me to drink O my God…”
Carlisle / Catalunya, November 2016