As I’ve said in an earlier post, I was asked if I had prepared an account of how I came to join the Bahá’í community. I’ve now completed the story at least in draft. I was planning only to send it quietly to the Bahá’í Histories website and leave it at that, in the hope that very few would read it outside the Bahá’í community. But then I wondered why I should be so quiet about it. Yes, I think it’s a fairly ordinary story about a fairly ordinary person, and to that extent, why go public? But then also it is just about the most important thing that ever happened to me and connects very closely to two of the other most important events in my life. So, I thought, ‘Share it and see what happens.’ It might do some good and probably won’t do any harm. So here goes.
Religious conversion runs in my family and from childhood I was familiar with its potential consequences, all of which tended to inoculate me against religion rather than draw me towards it. This is one of many threads in my life linking to my decision to join the Bahá’í community. For anyone who gets lost as I unravel the tangled knot they create into a narrative of sorts, there is always a slowly evolving diagram at the top of the post to convey some sense of where we’re up to!
My mother, who came from a family of Catholic converts, had married a man from a staunch low church Protestant family, most of whom promptly disowned him. I never met two of his sisters until they came to our house for the funeral after my father died. This contributed to my disillusioned view of religion, which had begun to develop at a very early age.
In the year prior to my declaration in 1982 my deceased mother’s last surviving sibling, my Aunt Anne, urged me to talk to a Roman Catholic priest. She hoped that I would at last return to the one true church as she saw it.
I told her, I hope gently, that I was not prepared to talk to a priest but that I would read about Catholicism again. My strongest association with the priesthood from my early years was, possibly unfairly, with the eschatological preachers I had heard, ranting after the manner of the hell-fire sermoniser in James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The one I remember best had been a boxer in his younger days and was reputed to visit the homes of his less enthusiastic parishioners and drag them out of bed to Mass. Both these details could well have been apocryphal but they influenced my attitude strongly at the time. Apart from such stereotypes I had not internalised a clear sense of what a priest might be as all that remained in memory of all the other priests I had come across was a blurred palimpsest of mildly authoritarian impressions. I’d certainly few if any positive experiences to draw on and none had stuck in my memory, not even from my confirmation classes.
What I had read later of the way the church treated its unorthodox members such as Gerard Manley Hopkins, Teilhard de Chardin and Hans Kung did not encourage me, a self-styled rebel at the time, to feel I would get much joy out a conversation with someone from the Catholic mainstream.
My aunt was saddened with my answer. Their parents, hers and my mother’s, had converted to Catholicism in the Nineteenth Century as a result of what was called the Oxford Movement under Cardinal Newman’s influence. They had been quietly passionate about their faith, and my aunt was their eldest daughter and loyal to their memory to the last.
As I had promised, I read a book about the faith I had left behind at the age of sixteen and remained as unimpressed as ever. Even earlier than sixteen my doubts had been aroused about the reliability of the Church’s teachings. My first communion in my early teens, for example, was a great disappointment to the part of me that wanted to believe, and compelling reinforcement of the case being made by the sceptic within, who had been steadily gaining ground as adolescence progressed. It was a decisive experiment in a way: would the host taste of bread or flesh? It was definitely a raw dough flavour.
Another time, when I was much younger, possibly marks one of the earliest roots of my doubt. It was an experience in church when I was very young – maybe five years old or so. Everyone was bowing down at the same point in the Mass and I asked my mother in a whisper why they were doing this and she replied, in a way which she thought fitting for my age and degree of understanding, ‘Because it’s too beautiful to look at.’
This was a challenge too difficult to resist. Something that beautiful and I couldn’t look! This I must see.
And I looked up and I looked round everywhere. The only objects I could see were the same old altar, the same old pictures of the stations of the cross, the same old man in a funny dress standing in front of the altar.
The only difference was this big round golden thing he was holding above his head. This seemed to be the object everyone was bowing to, but I didn’t get it. It was quite pretty but definitely not too beautiful to look at.
In any event my faith was possibly not of the strongest, as I had not gone to a Catholic school, as was usually the case, perhaps because my parents were of different views about the wisdom of that, though I never really knew why my mother had departed from tradition in this way. So, it was not too difficult to undermine more or less permanently the ambivalent faith I had developed by this impressionable age.
By the time I was in the second term of my clinical psychology MSc in early 1981 at the age of 38, which was when my aunt had made her request, my sceptical antipathy to any kind of church had a long history and very deep roots.
Even so, I did take a further step that summer and read a book on the world’s religions by Trevor Ling, honouring the spirit of my aunt’s request if not the letter. I stopped when I had almost finished a Chapter on Islam in the modern era and before I had read the section on the Bahá’í Faith. I only read the book through to the end after I had declared my intention of trying to become a Bahá’í. This was fortunate in that, if I had read that version of the Bahá’í religion before I read the book that drew me to the Faith, I might never have bothered to investigate any further. It felt almost as though I had been steered away from what would put me off. I reverted to reading about Buddhist psychology and practising meditation, neither of which confronted me with the need to believe in a god – but more of my relationship with Buddhism later.
There were two other curious facts worth mentioning here before we reach the critical point.
First of all, there was another way in which I appear to have been steered away from a possibly off-putting encounter with the Bahá’í Faith. My clinical training was at Surrey University. One of the clinical tutor’s was a Bahá’í. However, my cohort of trainees was not impressed with some of the ways in which the course was being run and we were all rather disillusioned with the staff who were defending it, of whom this Bahá’í was one. I never discovered, in the whole two years I was there, that he was a Bahá’í. This only became apparent to me when I joined the Bahá’í community after I had qualified and left the course.
Secondly, much of my second year from late 1981 onwards was a very testing time. I was undergoing significant upheavals in my personal life and, perhaps as a result of the distress I was feeling, had also made at least one very poor decision, which impacted adversely on others as well as on myself. I was extremely distressed by all this, particularly because I had brought some of this on myself and could also see how others were suffering too. By Christmas, I knew I needed help to sort the situation out and rectify what I could in terms of damage done, but I couldn’t see where to turn.
To my astonishment, in early January 1982, I found myself alone in a snow-bound cottage in the middle of Sussex, a complete unbeliever as I thought, on my knees in tears saying, ‘God, if you exist, please help me now.’ It was a short prayer, if prayer it really was, but it was undoubtedly intensely felt. I was on my knees a lot longer than it took to say those improbable words.
I set about putting the situation right and found the means to do so, working at rectifying it over a period of many months. I qualified as a Clinical Psychologist that September. I started looking energetically for work. During this period of unemployment I read a lot and, as my interests were wide and I lived halfway between two massive libraries, one in Hendon and the other in Swiss Cottage, I was never short of reading matter.
Books had always been my most reliable and supportive companions in times of stress, illness, loneliness and boredom. This dated back to childhood when long absences from school were made bearable by Rider Haggard, G A Henty, Baroness Orczy, Conan Doyle, G K Chesterton and many others. Not surprisingly, books helped me through the frustrations of job-seeking.
I had no idea quite where this lifelong passion was about to lead me.