Jane O'Brien

Jane O’Brien

I was born in St Louis Missouri, USA, to parents who each had different viewpoints on religion. My mother was raised as a Presbyterian and she took me to Sunday school and church whenever possible. My father, on the other hand, had been interested in religion at one time in his life, but he felt comfortable with his own integrity and ability to make decisions without a formal religion. Therefore I learned very early in life to appreciate differences in viewpoints and that just contributed to the richness of my life.

In my second year at university my life was about to change considerably in a way that I would never have dreamed possible. I was 19 years old returning to the University of Illinois from a trip to Florida for Easter vacation with some of my friends. As we drove back, I noticed a configuration in the clouds that looked to me like Jesus Christ with his arms outstretched coming to embrace me. I wasn’t a religious person in the conventional sense, but I did hold spiritual values that I considered important. I valued honesty, truthfulness, caring, helpfulness, selflessness, devotion, and loyalty. I spoke to my friends about what I saw and what it meant to me, but there wasn’t much discussion of it. Nevertheless the image in the cloud felt like a good omen to me.

For the next few weeks I went about my business, doing my usual studying and attending classes. One day in May, I drove to Chicago to get my hair cut at a hairdresser recommended to me by a family friend who was an agent in the entertainment industry and represented models, actors and actresses. This was a journey of about 150 miles, but I thought the recommendation was worth the trip. It didn’t seem like a long journey because I had often driven back and forth between St Louis and Chicago and really enjoyed driving. I also wanted a day out away from the campus where I was just coming to exam time. I had been studying a lot and needed a break.

I got to the hairdresser, and there was a real buzz in the atmosphere. People were very busy, and hairdressers were flying around the place. The clients looked as if they had good reason to have their hair done by experts like these. They might have all been actors or models. These were the physically beautiful people of Chicago who went to great pains to make sure that they looked beautiful at all times. There was a level of professionalism, and I had the feeling that the hairdressers here were brilliant at their work. The man who was going to style my hair was called John. He was an extremely energetic and enthusiastic man of about 25, so not much older than me. There was something about his energy, enthusiasm and character that made me trust him and what he had to say. As he was cutting my hair, we got through the small talk fairly quickly and began to speak of our deeply held beliefs.

I told him that I had been raised as what I called a “lukewarm Presbyterian”. I used that expression because my mother was the only parent who was religious and took me to the Presbyterian Church. I loved going to church at one time, but later I became more like my father and appreciated his views. Like him, I didn’t think that I needed a priest or minister to intercede between God and me because I felt I could develop my own direct relationship with God. I also felt I didn’t need to go to church because I could pray anywhere and at any time. Often on Sunday afternoons my grandmother would ask me, “Did you go to church today?” I would reply, “No I didn’t go to church, and I don’t have to go to church to prove that I am religious. I can pray wherever I want”. I also told John that I didn’t like the prejudice that I witnessed in churches where diversity was not allowed or accepted. I felt that Christ gave us a message of love without saying that we needed to love only people of a similar colour to ourselves.

John exclaimed that what I was saying was just what the Bahá’ís believed. I said doubtfully, “There is nothing that goes along with me”. I had, in my own way while growing up, attempted to understand something about several different religious beliefs, and I didn’t think I would ever find a religion that truly expressed what was in my heart. I was thrilled, however, to hear that there was a Faith that might be aligned with my beliefs, as much as I doubted that it would be possible. I was also thrilled to have heard the word Bahá’í mentioned because I had seen the Bahá’í House of Worship on the North Shore of Lake Michigan in Chicago. I had been travelling in a taxi one day from Lake Forest College to Chicago, and I had passed a most beautiful building on Sheridan Drive beside Lake Michigan that looked as if it were in the wrong history book. I was stunned when I saw it and asked the taxi driver what it was. He said that it was the Bahá’í Temple. I asked, “What is that?” He said he didn’t know, and that was the end of the conversation. My mind had been filled with questions, and at the time there was no way to get the answers that I sought. Those were the days when women at the hairdressers spent hours under massive hairdryers. I hadn’t brought a book with me, so John gave me a book called The Hidden Words by Bahá’u’lláh and I read it cover to cover immediately.

I was gripped by what I read, and I felt an energy that I can only describe as higher than that to which I was accustomed. I felt as if some part of me that hadn’t received nourishment in this form before was now being fed very gently and very thoroughly. That part was really hungry for what it was receiving because I read that book in its entirety with much joy, and then I asked John if he had anything else for me to read.

John gave me another book by Bahá’u’lláh, The Seven Valleys and The Four Valleys. As before I felt a new energy as I read this book and digested what I could from it. Again, I read it in its entirety. It is a very mystical book.

By then surely my hair was dry, and John came to comb out my new coif! I was delighted in so many ways, both with the haircut and with my reading. John offered me the two books, and I said that I would be in Chicago during the summer and would return them to him then. I drove back home quite changed: very pleased that I would have some time to read the books again and again.

The days went by, and exams grew closer and closer. As they did so, I slept less and less. I often found it impossible to get to sleep. I tried counting sheep that I imagined jumping over a fence. That certainly didn’t work. Smoking sometimes helped but at that time it didn’t. I had a new ally however, and I saw that after I read the books by Bahá’u’lláh, I was able to go to sleep without any difficulty. I guess it was to do with a kind of relaxation that came from the nourishment that I was receiving in some way from those books. I didn’t understand it, but I was very grateful because after I slept well, I could take my exams in much more comfort.

After the exams were over, and I had been to St Louis to see my mom and other relatives, I drove to Chicago and stayed in a motel near Skokie on the north side of Chicago. I had a job starting soon in a department store called Carson, Pirie, Scott which was nearby. I stayed in the motel for a few days while I found a place to live. I remember feeling so terribly lonely and thinking to myself that I could have gone back to St Louis to be with my relatives and find work there, but something was driving me to stay in Chicago on my own. My mom was ill and barely recognised me, and the other relatives were aunts, uncles and cousins. My parents had been divorced for some time and my father lived in Switzerland with his new wife and daughter. I had visited them during the previous two summers, and I felt I ought to work this summer. I really felt nearly like an orphan, I was so lost and lonely.

During that evening when I felt such extreme loneliness, I wondered seriously what I was doing, and yet part of me knew I had to do it. I didn’t know why, but staying with my decision to work in Chicago for the summer seemed to be one of the most important choices I would be making in my life, and indeed I feel it was. It was the beginning of a lifetime of joyful service, adventure and support in which I would be meeting people from all over the world whom I never would have met in any other way. This was the most important turning point in my life, and I nearly gave up before I even started. But I didn’t give up. I stayed the course, and I held my lost and lonely feeling and kept on keeping on.

The next time I saw him, John invited me to go with him and his fiancé to a Bahá’í fireside the following evening. I readily accepted. That began an intense two-week period during which time we met almost every night to go to Bahá’í meetings. I wanted to know everything and to read everything.

I lived very near the Bahá’í House of Worship in Wilmette. I went there and bought books and devoured them. I loved them. I was still hesitant, however, about diving into the lifestyle. I am not a joiner. I don’t join clubs, organisations, religions etc. So I tried really hard to knock holes in the argument.

I met Bahá’ís in many different areas of Chicago and one day we even went to a fireside in Milwaukee. It was fabulous. I found these people to be special. They seemed very gentle, good and concerned with life, people, the world and the improvement of all of the above! I found new energy in myself and a new kind of peace, joy and happiness.

When I thought of the ideas and principles of the Faith, especially the ones about the elimination of all forms of prejudice and about the invitation to investigate the truth for ourselves, they made so much sense to me. I could imagine that humanity as a whole would develop similarly to an individual because I saw that when I was a young child, God was to me someone like my father or Santa Claus, whereas when I got older, I couldn’t imagine God in a human form, but something far beyond that. I used to think of God as something like energy or electricity or the atoms and molecules in the universe, but more than and different from all of that. I loved the inclusion of all the faiths in a way that was filled with appreciation and respect. I felt the unity which had been described in the Bahá’í teachings whenever I attended a Bahá’í meeting.

I was already beginning to fall in love with Bahá’u’lláh and the Bahá’í teachings, so I continued to seek to learn more. Time seemed to stand still as I was learning and absorbing so much in those few days I spent with John and his fiancé and met so many wonderful people. Then at the end of the two weeks he left Chicago because he was going out to work with Native Americans in Arizona and he was going to marry his fiancé when he arrived there. I will be eternally grateful for John and his gift to me. He had shown me the way to my soul’s desire. He had set me on the path, and introduced me to numerous people. It was up to me now to continue or not as I chose.

John left on a Saturday. On the Sunday afternoon I went to my first worship service at the Bahá’í Temple in Wilmette. It started at 3pm and I went into the glorious auditorium in the building that looks like concrete lace with nine doors. Because the doors were made of glass alongside many big windows, I could see outside as far as Lake Michigan, which was across Sheridan Road and a little distance from there. I could also see the lovely gardens with pools of water that were visible on all sides from the auditorium. It was uplifting to have such a view and be in the midst of an auditorium filled with people with one thing in mind, and that one thing was the worship of God. It was like being in a dream of how life could truly be, and I longed to see our world become such a harmonious and glorious expression of love and unity. All of this was in the suburbs of one of the biggest cities in America.

I looked around the room at the people gathered, and I saw people of varying colours and age groups, all sitting there gathered together in worship. I had never seen such a mixed group of people in any church service that I had attended. I could tell by the kind of clothes that people wore that some people were wealthy and others were living on a more meagre income. By listening to the people around me in the audience I could tell that there were people of various national and educational backgrounds. I felt completely at home, comfortable and filled with the joy of such a spiritual meeting. In the half-hour service, there were readings from the Koran, the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Bahá’í writings. There was no clergyman telling us anything about how to live our lives or what anything means. There were two hymns sung by an a cappella choir. We couldn’t see the choir because it was on the first balcony and quite high up in the dome, so we just heard the voices. It was magic. In the centre of the dome was a stunningly beautiful gold engraved symbol which means “God is Most Glorious”.

I felt that the Bahá’í Faith expressed all that was important to me personally as well as my hopes for the world. After that first meeting, I went home and telephoned John’s fiancée and told her I wanted to be a Bahá’í. She suggested that I write to the Secretary of the Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Evanston, where I was living. I did just that. The secretary lived on the same street as I did at the time.

It was suggested that I study with a member of the community for a little while, to help me know for sure if I really wanted to be a Bahá’í. I was thrilled to do that because I was able to learn more and ask more questions. There is no longer such a requirement to study and becoming a Bahá’í is a much simpler process now.

My desire to be a Bahá’í grew, and after meeting my tutor a few times and studying the book, Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era by John Esslemont, my tutor told me that she thought I understood enough about the Faith to become a Bahá’í. Then I met with the Local Assembly at the next meeting. I went along on the 27th of August, 1963. There were nine people present, and they spoke to me about what I understood of the Faith. I told them that I was deeply committed to it. We spoke for about an hour and a half. Then I was sent home not really knowing what had happened and certainly not feeling that I had been accepted to become a Bahá’í. My flatmate asked how it went and I said: I don’t know if they want me!

Suddenly the phone rang, and it was a member of the Assembly asking me to come back. What I didn’t understand was that they needed time to consult together on whether they felt that I did understand what I was accepting in becoming a Bahá’í, whether they thought I should study more or if they felt I was ready. I nearly ran down the sidewalk to get back to the Secretary’s apartment, and when I went in they welcomed me with open arms and gave me tea and cakes.

I was over the moon, and I think that I must have floated back to my home that evening. I remember waking up the next morning and many mornings after that looking in the bathroom mirror and saying to my reflection, “You are a Bahá’í!”

That was just the beginning. I had decided to visit California with my flatmate shortly after that. We were both adventurous, and I felt that I needed to see California then for fear that I might never again get such an opportunity. And so, I wrote to my father. I told him that I was becoming a Bahá’í, and asked him to please read the enclosed leaflets. I added that I was going to travel to California in my car with my flatmate from England instead of returning to my course at the University of Illinois in that September. That last declaration is not the kind of thing that is designed to thrill fathers! However, I assured him that I would return to the University after Christmas for the spring term.

Well, my father looked at my letter and responded: “You’re crazy, but God bless you!” I then wrote to him and said that he couldn’t have read the material on the Faith that I had sent because he would have seen how reasonable it was if he had done so. He wrote again saying that I was right and that he hadn’t read it. When he did, he described the principles of the Faith as “most admirable”. I was relieved to have his support because the reaction from other members of my family had been rather more circumspect. Because my father validated my choice of Faith, I was able to withstand some of the other objections.

When I again saw my mother, on my way to California, I told her I had become a Bahá’í, and she was lucid enough that she exclaimed, “What you? Religious?” I certainly hadn’t been consciously looking for religion. I wasn’t known for my devotion in the traditional sense at all, but I had a profound sense of spirituality, of God as an unknowable force, and of life after death. That was a surprisingly good reaction from my mother, who was so ill that she didn’t remember or register much of what I said to her. Other family members were suspicious that it might be somewhat Communist, and I assured them that it wasn’t. This was around the time of the McCarthy trials, and everyone feared Communism.

When I arrived in Los Angeles with my friend, I contacted the Bahá’ís immediately and became involved with activities and began to meet people and make friends. It was wonderful. I stayed there for just about two months before I returned to Chicago to work again at Carson, Pirie, Scott near Skokie, Illinois. Once again I found a place to live – a little one room flat with a Murphy bed that resides in the wall in the daytime! It was great fun.

I had been to see my mother several times, and I had a feeling that shortly after I returned to my course at the University of Illinois she would die. That was correct. She waited till I was having lunch with a dear cousin whom I hadn’t seen for years due to disagreements in the family between our parents. Once there had been that symbolic reunion with the two opposing sides of the family, she passed on. I was not there with her, and I never saw her body. That made it very difficult for my mind to take in the fact that she had passed away. At one level I knew it was so, and relatives advised me not to see her body. As a result, I now make it a point to see the body of loved ones who have died, because it is easier for me to relate to their deaths when I have seen the evidence. I find that viewing the body of a loved person is sacred and a privilege that I greatly appreciate.

I had a bit of an argument with the minister whose duty it was to lead my mother’s funeral. He refused to read my favourite Bahá’í prayer: “From the Sweet Scented Streams”. I absolutely loved that prayer, and it was very significant and would have been appropriate for my mother’s funeral. I really felt that as my mother’s only child, a simple request to have my favourite prayer read at her funeral could have been honoured by a man whose duty it was to conduct the funeral and offer some pastoral care to me in my loss. I was so distressed by that because I was truly her closest relative especially considering that she had been divorced from my father for such a long time. That minister’s refusal lived with me for many years. Much later, and in the company of some Catholic friends and a priest who held a small memorial service for several of us during a summer school workshop in Psychosynthesis, I was able to read that prayer aloud with others in her memory which helped to redeem and heal the hurt that minister caused me with his lack of cooperation and caring at my mother’s funeral.

And so I had become a Bahá’í: a decision that changed my life unbelievably from the day I made it. It has taken me to live in other countries, to develop friendships with a wide range of people, to live as part of a worldwide community that supports, encourages and loves me. Becoming a Bahá’í was the first step. When ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was asked how do we become Bahá’ís, he said, “little by little, day by day”. I knew it would be a gradual process, but I was impatient with myself. I longed to improve myself and become a better person through learning more about the Faith. I looked back at my life and began to be grateful for both the good times and the difficult times because I felt that all my experience had enabled me to find this Faith in which I could truly believe.

My Bahá’í Life

I had become a Bahá’í in 1963 and in the summer of 1964, I met the man who was to become my husband. I was at the University of Illinois in the spring of 1964 when I decided I wanted to spend my summer as a volunteer guide at the House of Worship, and I wrote to Philip O’Brien who was the ‘co-ordinator’ there saying that I wanted to do whatever I could to help even if it meant cleaning the dome of that beautiful building with a toothbrush! He wrote back to say that he didn’t think that would be necessary but that my service would be appreciated by people in all the countries, islands and territories of the world. I thought that was good enough for me! I spent most of the summer guiding at the House of Worship and loved every minute of it including the time I spent working with Philip.

Although he was an actor by profession Philip’s work as ‘co-ordinator’ at the House of Worship meant he greeted groups of visitors and tours and gave talks to these visitors. He also managed the day to day running of the House of Worship, making sure there were volunteer guides on duty to help visitors, answer questions and point them in the right direction. He also dealt with planning weddings there. One such wedding was interesting because the bride and groom said that they really wanted to be married at dawn with the sun coming up over Lake Michigan. He told them that there are certain things over which he had no control, but he would see if he could arrange for a dawn wedding. Dawn at that time of year would have probably been at about 5 or 6 am. He had to find one other local assembly member to act as witness at that hour. He would be there anyway to welcome the couple, so it would be easy to find one other person from his assembly to fulfil that requirement. He arranged for the heating to be put on much earlier, so the place would be comfortable for the wedding. Philip and the other assembly member got there well before dawn and waited. The sun came up and no bride and groom appeared. Then finally at about 8 am, they arrived at the door and the groom said, “Gee it is tough getting up in the morning.” Philip was not all that pleased because he and the other assembly member had been there since well before dawn!!

In September of 1964 I transferred to Northwestern University which is near the House of Worship and during that time I was able to attend services and take part in the life of the House of Worship and I was also able to get to know Philip as a real friend. We eventually decided to get married at the House of Worship on 23 May 1965 which was Philip’s birthday as well as an important Holy Day. That was a remarkable experience. We organised everything ourselves, planned the wedding, picked out my dress, organised a reception. My mother had passed away the year before Philip and I got engaged, and my father lived a quarter of the world away so he didn’t attend. Philip’s mother had passed away many years before. Philip’s father and his wife, Betty, came to the wedding but because it was not the usual format, he said to his wife after the ceremony was over, “Do you think they are really married?”

Philip and Jane on their wedding day

Philip and Jane on their wedding day

In addition to prayers said by our friends for the ceremony we each said the usual Bahá’í marriage vow: “We will all verily abide by the will of God.” That was sufficient for me. All I wanted to do in my life was to abide by the will of God, and that covered our marriage as well.

After we married, we lived in a Northern suburb of Chicago, Glencoe. I was elected Secretary of the Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Glencoe so I had to do administrative tasks. I was very nervous and didn’t know how to manage, but because Philip had had a lot of experience in the Faith and its administration he was on hand to help me. I grew to enjoy my work as secretary and to look forward to meetings where I could share minutes and keep a record. Being secretary was good training which enabled me to be more organised in every area of life.

I particularly enjoyed my experience of meeting Hand of the Cause, Bill Sears, who was a friend of my husband. I remember driving Bill Sears from Chicago to Milwaukee on one occasion and during the drive he talked about how if we admire a virtue we needed to act as if we already had it, and he said that if we continue to do that, we eventually would have it.

We both wanted to pioneer. Philip had hoped for Africa or the Philippines. However the NSA requested that we go to Ireland which needed pioneers because the name O’Brien and Philip’s Irish ancestry would help us to fit in. We pioneered to Ireland in 1966 which was a thrilling and adventurous thing to do. We wanted to have a family and to serve the Faith, and were happy to do it there. I will never forget the view outside Cobh, in Cork, when we arrived by ship with 17 pieces of luggage and two dogs. The various shades of green of all the fields were just beautiful and we were enchanted with the island that was to be our home.

I remember when David Hofman, who had been a member of the Universal House of Justice, came to spend some time in Ireland because he was writing a book about George Townshend who had been a Church of Ireland minister in Dublin and later became a Bahá’í. I enjoyed driving David around while he was there. One time, he told me that he liked me because I had the appropriate degree of irreverence! I loved that – I think he was really noticing my sense of humour which even I didn’t recognise at the time.

I have been on pilgrimage to Haifa on three occasions. My first pilgrimage was in November 1966. I was pregnant with my first child. In those days there were usually about 10 – 12 Western pilgrims and about the same number of Eastern pilgrims on any pilgrimage. We, the Western pilgrims, stayed in a little building very near to the original Pilgrim House at the World Centre. The Eastern pilgrims stayed elsewhere. We were guests at the World Centre for nine nights. Also in those days we were all invited to spend two nights living in the Mansion of Bahjí. What a wonderful experience that was. The Western pilgrims all went together and on other days the Eastern pilgrims had their two nights there. The Eastern and Western pilgrims were separated for those two nights because the beautiful House of Bahjí could only accommodate a small group of people. What a privilege it was to be able to sleep in that wonderful house. In fact the practice of inviting pilgrims to sleep for two nights in Bahjí stopped very soon after we were on that pilgrimage.

When we visited the Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh we were guided into the Shrine and we gathered around the inner garden of wonderful plants that lived successfully under a large skylight. The place where the remains of Bahá’u’lláh were buried was off to the side in another room that we saw from the room with the garden. We all sat on the beautiful Persian rugs which surrounded that garden. We were invited to spend time there in the quiet peaceful atmosphere so I got out my prayer book and read some prayers. Whilst there I felt such a strong presence of love and light that I knew that in that place I could do my best work. I also knew that it was a feeling I would never forget. I felt enthralled and uplifted as if my life had meaning and purpose and was truly worth living as well as I could.

On the first night in the house at Bahjí, I woke up in the middle of the night and walked out of my room. In that deep and dark silence, I stood in the common area between the various bedrooms filled with sleeping pilgrims. The only sounds were those of the breeze knocking against the windows from time to time and I felt that I wanted to go to sit briefly in the room that Bahá’u’lláh had occupied when he lived in that wonderful house.

I went in there and knelt on the floor in a worshipful position and read one of my favourite prayers, The Tablet of Ahmad. I was aware of the powerful energy in the room. I felt that the tiny foetus in my womb was also imbibing the Divine energy which I hoped would enable that child to be a valued contributor to the life of planet earth after he/she grew and developed. It was such a meaningful and ‘pregnant’ time for me in so many ways. I felt my Faith sustained and enhanced and even though I was terribly shy, filled with doubts and fears about my own abilities, something deep inside of me was strengthened and confirmed by having that experience then.

Nearly two years after that in August of 1968, we again went to the World Centre via Palermo, Sicily. This was to attend an International Conference celebrating the arrival of Bahá’u’lláh in the Holy Land just 100 years before. It was the hottest time of year both in Palermo and in Israel, and I had just given birth to a beautiful baby girl five weeks before we left. When I think of it now, I wonder how I could even make such a journey with a new baby and a son of 1½ years. Well it happened and we did it. We took a friend with us who could help to look after me and the children. In Palermo I mostly stayed in the place where we were living for a few days because I was tired and needed to be on hand to feed the baby. Philip went out to take part in some of the activities and my friend and I looked after the children.

Then we travelled on to Israel from Sicily. It was a tedious journey with several flights. I was exhausted by the time we arrived in Haifa. Once again I stayed in the room a lot because the sun was so hot that I couldn’t take such young children into the sun for very long. Because of that we went only to visit the House of ‘Abbúd with the children. Philip went to Bahjí on his own to take part in the actual celebration of Bahá’u’lláh’s arrival in the Holy Land. That was going to be a 6 hour event out in the hottest sun of an August day and I knew that I couldn’t take that nor could my children, so we stayed around the hotel. I was glad to have gone and to have participated because I felt it was important for both children to experience the powerful energy in the Bahá’í Shrines but I was unable to take the children to the Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh on that journey and for years I felt terribly guilty that I hadn’t done so for them. I told myself that they had felt the energy in the Shrine of the Báb and of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá but somehow it just didn’t feel good enough.

In 1971 I had a beautiful baby girl who died a month after she was born and after that I had a miscarriage, both of which were excruciatingly painful experiences for me. However, I still had two living children whom I adored and was blessed with one more baby born after those experiences.

I attended many Irish Summer Schools and the thrilling event in 1972 when the first Irish National Spiritual Assembly of the Republic of Ireland was formed. Indeed Bill Sears was there for that event and he stayed with us in our home as he had done several times before then.

At one of the Bahá’í summer schools there was a talk by Hand of the Cause Mr Furútan who had been an educator and he said something along the lines of, if you hit your children, it makes their souls recoil. I was shocked because while I wasn’t in a big habit of hitting my children, I was aware of rarely having given one of them a tap on the backside or the legs to get their attention. Suddenly I had found another way to beat myself up as mother. I felt terrible believing from then that I had three recoiled souls in my care. On a subsequent visit with Bill Sears, I told him that story expressing my sadness at what I had done to destroy my children. He looked at me with his lovely kind expression and said: “Frankly when my children were young it was sometimes a case of either their souls recoiling or mine!” I was freed of that worry by his statement and I could get on with my life and not feel as if I was a terrible mother in that way.

In 1981 I had a huge turning point in my life because memories began to surface indicating that I had been sexually abused as a child by someone close to our family. Those memories drove me to seek assistance which I found first in hypnotherapy and later in counselling and psychotherapy. My initial response was one of horror and disbelief but also a kind of relief because it explained a lot about my anxieties and even just knowing that I had been abused began to lessen some of my insecurities but it created another insecurity which was a fear that I really didn’t deserve to be a Bahá’í as I was too damaged.

In therapy I was able to work through the trauma and decided to train to become a counsellor and later a psychotherapist. I had found that there are some issues that emerge in our personal lives which need professional help and cannot be solved simply by praying. Instead we need to work through such issues with a sensitive therapist and I always felt and continue to feel that it is the prayers that led me to the appropriate healing. We are such complex beings with a body, feelings, mind and a soul, and we don’t get an instruction manual that tells us how to deal with and balance all those aspects of ourselves. Counselling and psychotherapy enabled me to live more authentically and to understand myself much better.

In 1982 there was an International Bahá’í Conference that took place in Dublin and I was asked to organise the food arrangements for that event. That was a job that took a good year of hard work to do. It was a really rewarding experience and the conference was very exciting. At the last minute I took on responsibility for children’s activities as well. During the conference we had a lot of visitors staying in our home from different parts of the world and that made the conference even more exciting for our whole family.

Our next pilgrimage was in 1983 about 17 years later than the first. I felt throughout that pilgrimage an overriding sense of guilt and shame for having been abused as a child. I guess at that time I hadn’t really digested the fact that as a child I had been a victim and it wasn’t my fault.

We had the whole family with us on that pilgrimage and in many ways it was a mixed blessing because two of the children were teenagers and while one really enjoyed it, the other didn’t feel very interested in being there. Our youngest child was engaged and happy to be there but was disappointed because he was just a matter of months too young to visit the Archives building because children had to be over 10 years old.

In 1986 I left Dublin and moved to London with my youngest son. Philip was already there working and we had been without him for at least a year and a half. The older children had moved to London after completing secondary school, and I could see myself left in Dublin with everyone else over in London and I could not have continued in that way. Philip and I had been having difficulties, not the least of which was that he was away from the family in Dublin for long periods of time so we were divorced in 1987.

Once in London I was able to serve the Faith again by being secretary of the Bahá’í Community of Ealing for over a decade. There was once a message that came from Bill Sears to the Bahá’ís of the World in which Bill said, if you don’t feel as close to God now as you did when you first became a Bahá’í, who moved? I thought that said it all. I was really excited when the Universal House of Justice in a Ridván letter of 1989 advised Bahá’ís to seek individual transformation. I was by then a very newly qualified Psychosynthesis Counsellor and thrilled with that work because I felt it enabled me to be more true to myself and to my Faith. I was all in favour of people working to get to know themselves so they could be more authentic. I had been able to do a lot of work on myself and I was able to address many of the negative things that had impacted our marriage. Having resolved those as best I could, I felt better able to work with Philip on our relationship.

We were delighted that in August of 1998 we remarried. We both felt that the divorce was actually part of our marriage. He was unwell at the time, having been diagnosed with prostate cancer some years before, which had by then travelled to the bone, so we knew we did not have much time together, but it was really important for both of us that we married again before he died.

Aside from my remarriage to Philip, the ‘90s were a nightmare for me. In the mid ’90s I experienced first the loss of my money, a devastating process that had begun in the late ‘80s. Subsequently my home was repossessed in ’96 and then in September of ’97 my eldest son committed suicide. That was followed by the death of my husband, Philip, in January of ’99 and finally, my father died in May of ‘99. I also had two house moves during those years. Those experiences which followed one after another drove me deeply into the ground and made me feel as if there was nowhere on earth where I belonged and that I was not worth anything at all. That was my dark night of the soul and I did not know if I would ever come back. I was angry at God, angry at Life, hurt and crushed and in the depths of despair like never before. I felt I would be next to die, and I hoped that it wouldn’t be that long before I did. I was kept going only by the fact that I still had two living children and two grandchildren, and there were to be more grandchildren later. After so much family death, I couldn’t see myself also dying and leaving them behind.

I always felt that I held on to life by a thin thread and at my most difficult times I felt as if I was at the very bottom of that thread. I knew that if I dropped off the thread then I would lose it altogether and other people would become responsible for me, so I would always reach that very darkest of moments and say to myself, “you can’t do this, you have to climb back up again” and I would. One healer whom I went to occasionally said to me that she could see that I was angry with God but that was OK because God could take it. For a very long time, I couldn’t even pray or allow my intuition to function.

In early 2000, my youngest son and I went on pilgrimage. Because of all I had been through, that pilgrimage was in many ways the most difficult. I was completely shattered and yet I felt hugely supported by being in Haifa.

Gradually however, the light began to dawn on me and I began to choose life. I kept breathing and was kind of surprised at that. I put one foot in front of the other and began to step forward very hesitatingly at first, but that strengthened over a long time. Then I thought to myself, well if I live, I will have to work so the only thing that would make sense would be to get my Masters Degree in Psychosynthesis Psychotherapy which would be the revision and re-engagement I needed in the principles that animated my work. I did that and from then created a very part time practice which gives me a small income but also fulfilment in my life and a feeling of meaning and purpose. My work enables me to make a contribution to that ever advancing civilisation of which we are all a part.

In the process of writing my dissertation for the Master’s Degree I discovered that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had been in touch with Dr Roberto Assagioli, the man who had developed Psychosynthesis, and had sent him a tablet in 1914 which included glowing praise of his work. That really heartened me and made me feel as if I was in the right place at the right time. I did gradually become able to pray again and to feel able to allow my intuition to flow. One of the real benefits of all those experiences is that I feel I have become more street wise, less naïve and better able to say “no” when I need to do so. I am far more discriminating too and better able to evaluate situations for what they are.

I am struck by how important it had felt for me to work through and resolve, insofar as I could, my childhood issues as I had done years before. That meant that subsequent trauma, such as what I experienced in the ‘90s, did not land on top of other unresolved trauma that came from childhood. I believe that is largely why I have been able to heal and progress through it all. Ongoing psychotherapy has been a huge power for good in my life in so many ways.

Through all my experiences I have been able to write a book, Dancing in the Heart of Life, which is largely autobiographical but which has discussion and reflection on the issues raised in each chapter. People who have read it have found it very moving and have been excited by it. I intend to write another book very soon and hopefully more after that. My life is very much involved with my work now. I am of an age and stage where my work takes up much of my time and energy as does my family and general life.

In terms of direct service in the Faith, I served for many years as secretary of local communities in the Chicago area, Dublin, Ireland and in two of the boroughs of London, England. In addition to that, I also served as assistant to the auxiliary boards while living in London both for propagation of the Faith and for its protection at different times. Teaching activities were done in a variety of innovative ways in those days, and I participated wherever I could. Mostly it was teaching by sharing the Faith and making friends.

I look back now on over fifty years of having been a Bahá’í and say to myself that being a Bahá’í has enlivened and enriched my life beyond belief. I have had a very interesting life, met and made friends with people I never would have met, travelled, lived abroad and continued to learn and grow. I have gotten to know myself in a variety of circumstances and I feel that through it all I have done a good enough job of getting through life.


Jane O’Brien

London, January 2017

Jane at college

Jane at college

Philip O'Brien

Philip O’Brien