A little before I was born, my parents were living in London, although they soon moved away to a genial bungalow on the outskirts of Sevenoaks in Kent. For a child it was a beautiful setting of woods to explore, herds of fallow deer, an old sand quarry where we would tunnel, slide and play, and lakes and waterfalls we picnicked by so often with our mother, sometimes getting stuck in the mud. I was born here, the youngest of four, with two brothers and a sister. My mother Pat lived through the blitzing of London as a child, and perhaps because of this she watched over us through our many cuts, scrapes and bruises in a surprisingly relaxed and detached way. On one boisterous occasion we even managed to pull the living-room door and its frame out of the wall. She kept the house looking well and the garden a delightful jungle of colours, typing at night for my father’s business, which was a remarkable outlay of effort. My father William boarded and grew up in an environment of car mechanics, building his own car when he was 15, and worked long hours as a solicitor in London in international and maritime law fighting down overweening establishments. I saw and remember rather little of him.
When I was nine we moved seven miles south to Tonbridge on the River Medway, into a large house with an extensive garden in the countryside. With incredible work my mother kept the garden beautifully. We were surrounded by woods and streams, and I spent my time immersed in the timeless essence and breezes of nature. I didn’t socialise in groups or in town, I would always meet with my friends in our homes as individuals or in pairs, whilst spending a lot of time wandering the woods and streams on my own. I lived here until I was eighteen, at which age I went to University and my parents stumbled their separate ways.
In my first eighteen years I passed naturally through a number of schools. My education generally was private, and the secondary school being particularly well-run. After this I went to Durham University, which I chose for its enchanting trees and winding river.
Throughout my upbringing there was no mention of religion. My mother was a staunch atheist, and my father a closet ‘something-out-there’-ist, which I didn’t learn about until I was 20. I had almost no religious education at school; the first teacher was incomprehensible, the next never turned up, another taught everything except religion, and at other times there were timetable clashes. At 12 we did succeed in covering Muhammad’s life, which I found incredibly moving and interesting – I was enchanted by the vivid story of the caves and the desert.
Entering my University years as an atheist, one late summer in 1989 I met two local Muslims, who were younger than me. I decided to read the Qur’an so I could relate properly to their culture, and that in turn led me to read the Bible to compare it with. Having rather by accident read that incredible work Human Personality and the Survival of Bodily Death (F. W. H. Myers), I was inspired to carry out a personal investigation of the paranormal and I interviewed all my trustworthy friends for any unusual experiences they had had. I obtained a few sufficiently reliable accounts, and that led me to recognise the reality of an ethereal plane of existence. My friend and neighbour related an event that his mother would tell him of when he was four. She took him out to a telephone box to ring his grandmother, but as they approached the booth he blurted out, “Don’t bother: she’s dead!” Too horrified to continue to ring, she went home, only to discover a little after that the person indeed had died that day. When I was 19, as I was undertaking these investigations, I myself had a visionary experience which led me to become a Christian, and I will relate how it happened, as it is what I call my ‘spiritual birthday’.
It was the warm summery months, and I lay snuggly in my bed one morning listening to music. It suddenly occurred to me that it was incredibly arrogant for anyone to fathom for themselves matters concerning God: if such a conscious Being were there, He or It would know best of all, and should be the first one should try asking. So at that very moment, at 8.15 in the morning, I sat up on the midst of my bed sheets, my hands resting on my upper legs, my head lowered forward, and I prayed to God if He existed and could hear to give me a distinguishing sign. Eager to assist, and not wishing things to be ambiguous, I suggested half a dozen rather material signs He might find helpful to convince me with. After about fifteen minutes I went back to my music and soon forgot wholly about the prayer. An hour later, at 9.30am, I was enjoying listening to some music, when I unexpectedly found myself flying across fields of green grass, passing some ball games of tennis or golf. There was suddenly a very bright flash of light, yet soft, and a great roar, yet gentle, and I became separated from my body. I found I could see in two worlds, in a spiritual manner, and yet also with my material eyes. These two worlds were the same, the material world being able to extend in a different way from our familiar dimensions. When I raised my arm, I felt it lift, saw it lift, felt the breeze as it lifted, yet my material eyes saw it stationary. An ache came upon my heart, and I wondered who was breathing, me or Me – my physical or my non-physical me? I quickly began to wonder what my mother would do if she called up to me, whether my response would happen in the non-physical but not in the material: I wondered about how she then would see me lying silent and rush me to hospital, when I was quite alive and could see everything. There was no fear except the fear of perplexity at what to do next. There came an attracting awareness that I could take a flight far away to unrevealed places. Realising my unfathomable predicament, for which no experience had prepared me, I began to wish with all my life to return back to the physical; yet I was unable to, despite this strong wish. It was a wholly baffling and perplexing experience. In the three dimensional world we are all used to, we decide where we want to be, judge our distance from it, and then act to move there. But how do you act if you are already at the correct position, exactly where your body is, yet unfathomably separated from it by an unbridgeable distance in some way you have never encountered before? It was a truly baffling wonder, which nothing in experience or thought up till that time was of any help in solving. It was wholly beyond understanding or solution. Suddenly the words began flowing through me, ‘Jesus Christ, Emmanuel!’ five times, and I was restored to my body.
Three days on, I happened to be in the attic, where my mother lived. It was 11 pm, and I vividly recall saying goodnight, and wandering down the steep stairway, ambling along the red carpeted passageway, past my sister’s room… crossing my eldest brother’s room… passing my next elder brother’s… and then, unsuspectingly, on this ordinary, commonplace day, opening the door to my own room……
What I encountered in my room was beyond description, or human imagination; it was full to the brim with forces on a truly galactic scale. Everything was overwhelmed by the terrifying intensity of these forces. There was no sense of running away, any more than you would attempt to flee from an exploding sun, they were there and all-encompassing, all-involving, all-touching. Never before, nor after, has my prayer ever been so perfectly urgent and powerful as it was at this moment, as my room filled with immense terror at the indescribable magnitude of such all-pervading power. I must have prayed for a very long time until I fell asleep; I cannot recall or imagine how I got to sleep amidst the overwhelming experience; yet somehow I did, and at length I awoke the next morning, an entirely transformed person. Before, I was the shiest of all people, yet suddenly overnight I had become unafraid of anything, outward-going added to an inward-looking nature; suddenly I had been filled with a permanent happiness that never leaves, even to this day 25 years after.
These two experiences arose from a simple, sincere fifteen-minute prayer asking ‘Are You out there?’
Some years later I discovered people sometimes had experiences of leaving the body, although they had particular differences from mine. In the standard experiences, a person finds themself away from their body position, often looking down, and the slightest thought of the body or the slightest wish to return will cause the person instantly to return back into it, whereas here I was in the same position as the body, and no amount of wishing to return back would move me in that direction.
I wrote the experience down at the time. I have always considered this my true or spiritual birthday, for compared to switching on a connection to the Great Consciousness, all other achievements are smaller details. It took place somewhat symmetrically on 1.9.1991 at about 9 am.
Roughly a week after, I figured I had better ring my brother Peter, a Christian, and explain my sudden change of heart about spirituality and religion. He lived elsewhere in the town, and I had not seen him for some while as I lived much of the time at the other end of the country. As I unravelled to him the sequence of events over the phone, he explained to me an amazing matter which had been occurring at his home for those very same few days. On the morning of my prayer and separation from my body, he had suddenly become overcome by an inexplicable and great urgency to pray exclusively for me for 40 minutes; this urge happening each morning, until the morning on which I awoke transformed, at which point he told me the need to pray for me completely disappeared. He had not experienced before such a strange and pressing need to pray for someone.
At the time, I took the experience to be a call to Christianity. Later on I saw it as a general encounter with the Spirit of the Great Consciousness experienced through the lens of my knowledge, and I realised that the path of the Spirit called for by Christ is the same path called for by the other Great Souls who have arisen from time immemorial ushering man heavenward, and who will continue to appear.
Over the months ahead I widened my religious reading. This at first was for somewhat debative purposes; however I quickly found stirring wisdoms expressed in new ways in the works of other faiths. I formed my understanding of Christianity solely from reading the Bible, unguided by any later views, and as a result saw Christ not as God but as a special Soul, just as a natural reading of the Bible conveys. The college Christian Union found my view of Christ so anathema that it banned its members and also an atheist friend from speaking to me, as he years later told me. It is often the case when you are similar yet different, you are felt to be a threat far greater than those who are entirely different.
It was about this time I came across the Bahá’í Faith.
Any story of a person’s journey will benefit from a mention of personality – to be taken of course with a pinch of salt, as it’s written by the person themself. I’m somewhat of a mixture of everything, rational yet artistic, subjective and objective. One thing I really loathe is sensationalism and hype, and praise makes me shrink away; I like to help things behind the scenes, and seek more individual company, avoiding large groups (at this time a large group was anything more than two or three!). I’ve been generally minimalist in my possessions, lacking an interest in gadgets or computer games, and have always avoided travelling except by my own legs on bike or on foot. I find that beauty shines all around and does not need travelling to be found: that wherever you are, you are always enveloped by the exotic and rare balancing the familiar, if only the eyes open to it. As a child I always listened to Radio 3, and I suspect its more unaffected and ordinary presentation very much shaped my comfortability in the unexaggerated. To get to school I had to cycle 120km a week, uphill all one way, which built in me a silent perseverance in life. Summer holidays were spent every year poking around rock pools for months, fuelling a sense of curiosity. I’ve generally always been fascinated by everything, except sports, party politics, and salacious music. Having done many temporary jobs, my longest work has been programming computers, which feels like painting ideas and concepts on a kind of canvas of the mind, much like an artist with a brush. My ideal job would definitely be writing stories or botany – though as a young child I wanted to be a clown. I don’t rush to mention the Faith anywhere, preferring to let things flow in their own natural ways, however I am always forthright in pressing for ethics and justice.
It was in this way that in December 1991 my friend the Rev (such titles he disliked very much!) Theo Harman the Hatfield college chaplain gave me a contact number for the local Bahá’ís in Durham, as he thought it would add to my wider explorations. I asked many questions at firesides, but the responses given by individuals there were insufficient for me. However I read Bahá’í books voraciously, as I found them clear and representative. For most of my religious wonderings I found answers flowing to my mind just by reading about the Faith and its history. I remember reading ‘The Dawnbreakers’ in three days. This large work I found especially inspiriting, telling a story of the Báb that paralleled the story of Christ so well. I felt if I held to one I would need to hold to the other, since they both strode the earth with the very same character and power.
With all new ideas there are usually some barriers to overcome. As a Christian the theological outlook I had gained from the Bible, undoubtedly shaped by having read the Qur’an first, was fairly similar to the Bahá’í one. Generally, the spiritual thunder of the story of the Faith in the Dawnbreakers and minute examination of Biblical prophecies, particularly Revelation, led me, following a lucid, startling vision-like dream, to become a Bahá’í on 7 Mar 1992. I had in the process though to relinquish the idea of the superiority of Christ; and although I didn’t believe in Satan, the religious notion of evil spirits still had to be put entirely aside. Being used to a Christianity preoccupied with theology, I found the lack of theology in the Bahá’í writings discomforting for some while; however, the style of the Writings soon won me quite away from the often ‘clockwork’ spirituality of conventional religion which I had experienced until then. I found my new being exhilarating as I reordered my thoughts and interpretations of the universe around this elevated spiritual outlook.
In my first year as a Bahá’í, I experienced how everyone along with being an individual also participates in the organisational, consultative, group side of the faith. Until then I had always been used to a personal, organisation-free approach to life and spirituality, which in a sense left mundane matters of organization to others. In retrospect I imagine too much ‘leaving organisation to others’ will ultimately lead to a stratification of organisers and organised that we too often see around us, and that can result in the disempowerment of the organised and the overburdening of the organiser.
My family and relatives didn’t mind at all my becoming a Bahá’í; they were mildly interested, and whilst I was at University my mother would unasked collect local newspaper clippings about the Faith for me. They generally reflected well upon the Faith through its comparison with a rather fundamentalist type of Christianity close to home. My friends were used to my individual approach to life and equally did not find this difficult, being interested to learn what it was all about and represented for me, or at very least they were merely indifferent.
Generally I had been a person who disliked groups, and I do still always prefer groups of no more than a few; however from the outset one of the most attracting things I found was that it is a very comfortable thing being among any group of Bahá’ís of any size, who to the present have without any affectation always made every person feel perfectly and naturally at home and at ease.
In Edinburgh where I have been for the last 15 years, I have found it extremely satisfying and inspiring to experience people’s constant openness to ideas and untiring and humble endeavours for service and learning.
As with all things, large events are good for some yet are less suiting others, so I invariably avoid the conferences and choose the small, engaging groups. The great National Bahá’í Festival in Scarborough was always an exception and such a pleasure to look forward to with its full weekend of performances and arts.
Elections I have always felt to be of utmost importance, and the yearly review in April at Ridván I find very insightful with free-flowing input from everyone present. The most delightful consultations I have found always occur at the local Unit Convention where our delegates are elected to the National Convention.
I feel spirituality and divine conversation is like the air that’s all around, equally everywhere. This means I have never myself felt any urge to go on pilgrimage. However I appreciate pilgrimage from across the world to a centre helps bind the world in a material and spiritual unity, and tangibly establishes historical reality for the pilgrims when they visit the physical history and artefacts of the Faith. I suspect that if millions or billions of people in the world are all praying with their heart and mind toward a particular point, visiting that spot may lead to some very interesting and transforming spiritual immersion in all those prayers. When I went on pilgrimage in early 2007, we visited the shrines, archives, gardens and locality, attended various talks and met with other pilgrims. Because the Ridván Garden was closed for improvements, we were given extra time at the Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh. I found the most beautiful of the experiences was just at the close of the nine days, circumambulating the Shrine of the Báb. Being the last to go around allowed me to circle the Shrine as many times as I felt moved to, which I did three times, and it was a beautiful feeling of gently spiralling into a heart. The experience of Bahá’u’lláh’s prison was unanticipated. On entering Bahá’u’lláh’s cell, outwardly just another cell, a sense of a physical ethereal “dust” drifted like fine clouds through me – a neutral, but very mysterious, experience indeed, which left an effect on me for many months after.
After the pilgrimage I married my wife, a Bahá’í who is from Turkey – such a wonderful soul, full of patience and love. It is an inexpressible and wonderful thing to walk life with such loving support “through all the worlds of God”.
Edinburgh, March 2017