(celebrating my 50th spiritual birthday, Ottawa Bahá’í Centre, June 2, 2012)
‘Abdu’l-Bahá once befittingly called a believer’s life a “pilgrimage.” When I look back now upon this pilgrimage, I realize that three principles have guided me above all, three principles that I continue to hold dear: first, the importance of teaching the Faith; second, the impact of magical, that is, mystical moments; third, the influence of great souls. My life has been largely determined by these three things. I hope you will enjoy the condensed story I am about to tell. There are gaps in it to be sure. Regrettably, within the limits imposed by time, I can touch on only the highlights of this wonderful journey taken within this youngest of the great world religion, the one that holds in its grasp, not only the promise, but the means to accomplish the unity of the human family and peace on earth. But I hope, nonetheless, to be able to give you just a taste of this wonderful life that I have been blessed to enjoy — a blessing and a bounty that does not come without its accompanying share of responsibilities.
Where does the Thought of God Begin? Five Bright Moments
We are at 156 Hay Avenue, a simple two-story home, in the town of Mimico, in the southwest part of Toronto, now Etobicoke, circa 1950. I am a child, about 5 years old. I am standing and watching two young women rejoicing. One is my mother, Joyce, the eldest in her family; the other is my aunt Edna Halsted (later Nablo), my mother’s youngest sister, the mother of my cousin Heather Cardin, and the last surviving member of my mother’s immediate family. Joyce and Edna are standing in the kitchen, joyously hugging one another. They are celebrating the fact that Auntie Vi (Violet Halsted), their aunt and my great-aunt, my grandmother’s sister, Jesse, had become a Bahá’í. That little scene, played out before my eyes, in the lapse of only a brief moment, taught me a significant life-lesson: that becoming a Bahá’í was a great thing; it taught me that it was the cause of the rejoicing of the people whom I loved; that it made them happy. Without my knowing, I was both witness and participant in the laying of the foundation of my spiritual life.
In Sunday School
We are still in Mimico, this time in Sunday school. While she was studying the Bahá’í Faith, or perhaps even after she became a Bahá’í, my mother felt that she should expose her children to the benefits of the spiritual education that Sunday school had to offer. I am thankful that she did so because, although I did not attend Sunday school regularly, the following “defining moments” took place there. One of these moments is associated with the famous story of the wisdom of King Solomon (I Kings 3:16-28) as told by our Sunday School teacher. You will recall that Solomon proposed to cut a baby in half to satisfy the competing claims of two women — prostitutes actually — who claimed to be the infant’s mother. Since the real mother could not suffer her child to be killed, she yielded her claim to the other woman who had stolen her baby. By this bold gesture, Solomon awarded the child to its rightful mother.
I was greatly impressed by the drama of this story, the decisiveness of King Solomon to bring the issue to a head, and by the great wisdom for which he is known. Through this story, I gradually understood that God bestowed wisdom on His chosen ones and that divine judgement was both required and decisive in certain situations.
We are still at Sunday school. This defining moment came as a mystical experience when I became suddenly aware of a warm, divine love and light penetrating the room. It happened during a simple game. After we gathered in a circle, our teacher would have us repeat this little chant: “I point to the East. I point to the West. I point to the one that I love best.” Then we would choose our favourite friend. I still do not know who that Presence was, whether it was Jesus, Bahá’u’lláh, the Holy Spirit — perhaps they are all the same thing — but in any case it was a clear manifestation of Divine Love. That living force revealed itself with strength, assurance and peace. When it suddenly appeared that Sunday morning, I felt loved, acknowledged, illumined and safe.
The Bliss of the Shining Waters
The fourth bright memory represents both a literal and symbolic awakening since it occurred one summer morning when I first opened my eyes. When Mary Lou, Stephen and I were young children, our parents took us occasionally to a cottage owned by Auntie Vi, the great aunt mentioned above, and her husband, Stewart Halsted. It was located in cottage country, on Deer Lake, in beautiful Haliburton, Ontario, not far from the town of Gooderham. I slept on a friendly little cot on the screened-in veranda. One summer morning I awoke early. The sun was already up. I opened my eyes, but the vivid brightness of the sun’s rays forced me to squint. I closed my eyes, lay still for a moment, then turned on my side to look out again onto Deer Lake.
There I beheld an entrancing scene! I saw and felt the reflected sun, dappling its thousands of luminous jewels on the surface of the pristine water. The effect produced a magical dance of vibrating energy, absorbing me completely. My entire being opened up to embrace the beauty that I saw. I was entirely suffused by a joyful, peaceful bliss. There was nothing in the world that I desired or lacked; I was completely satisfied. This experience of nature mysticism, as a glorious oneness between the sun, the symbol of the Divine Manifestation and myself, opened up my soul to its first experience of beauty, and to a hidden world within, a magic realm of serenity and peace. This realm is, of course, just one of the many bounties of Divine Revelation.
The fifth bright memory is the snowfall. We are still at 156 Hay Avenue, the first home I can remember. I am standing at the front door. My mother Joyce is standing by my side. It is the first snowfall of the winter season. My mother and I watch the gently falling snow in the white light of the street-lamp. It is an experience of joy, anticipation, serenity and peace as mother and son watched the first snowfall together.
Our Spiritual Mother: Ruth Halsted Kern (“Auntie Ruthie”)
One of my mother’s younger sisters, Ruth (“Ruthie”), was a twin. When the twins, Ruth and Frank were born, and laid on her stomach, my grandmother Jessie Halsted dedicated them to the service of God, in the same way that the biblical mother Hannah had dedicated her son Samuel. When she was about 18 years old, Ruthie moved to Washington, D.C. to work at the British Embassy. It was in Washington that she met a young sailor, David Kern, and married him. Before she left Toronto, Grandma gave Ruth her bible and said: “Ruth, I don’t care which church you attend, but find a church where God is truly worshipped.” Grandma’s prayers were answered in a way that she did not suspect for Ruthie became the first Bahá’í in our family.
Ruthie first heard of the Faith through a man named Bob Hart, a friend of her husband, David Kern’s friend, Lou Newkirk. One day, circa 1950, Bob came to their home at 717 Maple Avenue in Rockville, Maryland, to use David’s dark room. Ruth was reading the bible Grandma had given her when Bob Hart, a perfect stranger until then, passed through. He saw her reading the holy book, took the direct approach, gave her the message, and judging by her response, told her she was already a Bahá’í. That was the beginning of Ruthie’s investigation of the Faith.
When I was a child, Ruth made a special trip to Toronto from D.C. to tell my mother, and her other sisters, Edna and Hope, familiarly called “Babes,” and her twin brother Frank, about the Bahá’í Faith. One of my early memories is of Ruthie and mother sitting at the kitchen table at 156 Hay Avenue, discussing the Faith in what I sensed was a very earnest conversation. The approach she had been taught and used was the second coming of Christ, I later learned.
One of Ruthie’s teachers — I think we can safely call him her spiritual father — was one of those many wholly consecrated servants of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the energetic and flamboyant Ali Kuli Khan. Before she was a Bahá’í, Ruth met Khan, as she called him in one of her letters, when she was working later as a secretary in the Persian consulate in Washington. (I presume Khan was still working there as Chargé d’Affaires). Ruthie was intrigued by the personality of the Iranian diplomat who had been granted the great favour of becoming ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s translator of Persian and Arabic letters and tablets. Khan, as you know, was the father of the accomplished writer Marzieh Gail. His wife was Alice Breed and their marriage was the first of the unions that symbolically united East and West in the Bahá’í, Faith. Being much intrigued by Khan, one day Ruthie expressed an interest in hearing more about his religion. Khan smiled and said: “Well, some time I’ll tell you more about that.” The rest, as they say, is history. I am not exactly sure if Ruthie met Khan before or after she met Bahá’í, Bob Hart, who came to the house to use David’s darkroom, but in any case, both men played major roles in Ruthie’s life. Auntie Ruthie, who was dark-haired, artistically and musically talented, charismatic and beautiful, was taken in mid-life with cervical cancer but her legacy lives on in the hearts and minds of those she taught. She passed away on October 8, 1965 at 42 years of age. She is buried in the Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia.
Our extended family of the McLeans, the Halsteds, the Nablos, the Hubberts and the Kerns, is grateful to have received many spiritual blessings. We are not far-removed in time from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá Himself. Khan served the Master; Khan confirmed Ruthie in the Faith; Ruthie taught my mother and so on. The story continues even today and has cast a wide net throughout the families and descendants of the 4 sisters. Uncle Frank, Ruthie’s twin brother, heard the call, but regrettably he decided that the Faith was not for him. I hope that by now from his vantage point in the next world, he has recognized its truth.
It was pointed out to me just the other day that my Aunt Edna and Uncle Ron Nablo’s three great-grandchildren, are the 5th generation of Bahá’ís in our family. (Here I am making the daring assumption that these children will actually become Bahá’ís). Having 5 generations of Bahá’ís is remarkable for a Canadian family, but it has happened not because we were born into the Faith, but by choice and conviction. What a wonderful bounty this has been and continues to be.
Remembering the Bahá’ís
Now who were these people the Bahá’ís whom I met and observed as I was growing up before my declaration of faith at the age of sixteen? Above all, they were warm, friendly and peace-loving people. They seemed to glow with an inner gentility and radiance. These friends showed a graceful courtesy, quiet assurance, an easy sense of humour, a reasonable conviction that bore no trace of fanaticism, and a firm determination to spread the divine teachings. And, of course, the Etobicoke friends manifested a warm love for the Faith and for one another.
But there were characters among them. I recall the young, outspoken intellectual, Douglas Martin, who might as well have been speaking Greek as I listened to his erudite talks in my pre-teen years; the slightly eccentric Laura Davis, mother of the Toronto Bahá’í community, who was not at all shy about telling everyone who was willing to listen that she loved the Guardian, Shoghi Effendi, more than she loved her husband Victor. (Victor would smile his patient smile; he knew it was a spiritual love). There were other distinguished believers: my sister’s practical, incisive and no-nonsense spiritual father, Hussein Banani, son of the Hand of the Cause Musa Banani; the decisive Allan Raynor, for whom firmness in the Covenant was everything because of an incident that happened in the presence of the Guardian and Mason Remey. Allan told me he was “electrified” by Shoghi Effendi and “nothing could have prepared me for meeting the Guardian.” I remember with affection the stalwart and distinguished believers, Gale and Jameson Bond, Knights of Bahá’u’lláh for the Arctic, and, of course, Shoghi Effendi’s highly distinguished wife, that great ambassadress of the Faith, Ruhiyyih Khanum herself. I should not neglect to mention Hand of the Cause of God, John Robarts and his wonderful wife Audrey, with her sparking sense of humour, and that flame of fire, Hand of the Cause of God, William Sears.
I should say another word about Mr. William Sears, for he was to play a decisive role in my declaration of faith. I first met him when I was a child. Well, I should say that I did not actually meet him at that time. Rather, I heard him. And what I heard was only a brief snippet from his talk but it was telling. Mother took me on a day trip to a Summer School at Lake Couchiching, a small, tear-shaped lake in Central Ontario, just north of and separated from Lake Simcoe by a narrow channel. Now, it was not what Bill Sears said that captivated my attention, but rather the conviction with which he expressed himself. To me, even though I was just a child, his words were like tongues of fire. They tore off veils. Now some people are veil-makers and others are veil-lifters. Bill Sears spoke with such overpowering certitude that he qualified as a real veil-burner, that is, if you were willing to have your veils burned off.
He had, of course, been entirely transformed by Shoghi Effendi. He said that when the Guardian looked into his eyes, “all the world became as ashes.” Bill Sears had no time for the in-between and careful, hedging qualifications. The message was urgent and the message was now. It was his entire mission and life’s work to let you know. Teaching the Faith was his only reason for living. Any other time spent was for Bill Sears a waste of time. Of course, I didn’t understand all this at the age of 7 or 8, but I did understand that Mr. Sears spoke in a way that I had never yet heard before in my young life. His conviction in its own way prepared the spiritual ground for my becoming a Bahá’í. A few years later, when I had just entered the teen years, he was the first man to have given me a hug at Malton airport, now Pearson International. But that’s another story.
My Declaration of Faith: Etobicoke, May, 1962
All these things, I realized much later, were spiritual preparation for the big event that was to come. The turning-point came when I was listening to an inspiring talk on an L.P. vinyl 33 and 1/3 RPM record, by none other than Mr. William Sears, just mentioned. The talk was entitled “The Meaning of the Feast of Ridvan,” and it was given at the Wilmette Temple during the Most Holy Festival in 1959, I believe. I listened to it several times, captivated by its gripping message. That talk brought the spiritual potential that was latent within me bursting into life. His message centred in the Old and New Testament prophecies of the return of Christ, the same material that is found in his book, Thief in the Night, which is still the best-selling book, Dr. Wendi Momen tells me, at George Ronald Publisher. The Promised One had come! What greater news can there be than this? This was the same approach that had brought my aunt Ruth into the Faith, and subsequently, with the exception of my father, my entire family. Dad came through another door.
My spiritual birth, like its physical counterpart, was dramatic if not traumatic. I was joyous but overwhelmed — overwhelmed by the great weight of a sudden, fuller realization of so momentous a claim and so great a revelation, but deeply saddened that the world had missed its Promised One. Moved to the spiritual depths by William Sears’ talk, I declared my faith in Bahá’u’lláh. But it hardly seemed like a choice. The evidence was so overwhelming, the proclamation so dramatic that I did not want to withhold myself from plunging into that Most Great Ocean.
I was lovingly received into the Faith one night by the Local Spiritual Assembly of Etobicoke which counted among their smiling and happy members, my mother Joyce. Their welcoming gift in May, 1962 was a red, hard-cover copy of The Hidden Words, signed in Craig Weaver’s graceful, flowing hand in green ink. Incidentally, Craig and Maude Weaver were the first Bahá’ís in Etobicoke and they patiently nursed my mother into the Faith for two years after Auntie Ruthie’s initial visit. The inscription read: “To Jackie with love from the friends in Etobicoke.” I still have that beloved little book, but sadly Craig’s inscription became detached and has since disappeared somewhere into the time machine.
A Bountiful Harvest: The McLean Firesides at 6 Emery Circle, Etobicoke
During the mid-and-late 1960’s, a bountiful harvest was reaped through fireside teaching at the family home at 6 Emery Circle. The declarations that took place at 6 Emery Circle came at a very magical, God-assisted time in our lives. I have never experienced anything quite like it, before or since. Some of you have heard of the remarkable stories of mass teaching at that time. Well, we were some of the fortunate ones who were blessed enough to have caught and rode that rolling wave. Every thing we did for the Cause at that time was palpably aided by the grace of Bahá’u’lláh. It all unfolded like a heavenly script written by an unseen Hand. We all simply played our parts.
In 1959 at 6 Emery Circle, Etobicoke, our parents purchased a modern, split-level home with a mustard-yellow roof overlooking a ravine — now a park — with a creek running through it. Father actually found the home and mother agreed it was ideal. Our home was well-suited to holding firesides with its L-shaped living and dining room. Some Friday nights both spaces were packed with between 30-40 people. After the firesides, and between them, young people would gather downstairs in the “recreation room” for conversation and socializing.
The success of those firesides happened largely through the concentrated and courageous efforts of my brother Steve. I assisted him summers when I returned home from the academic year at the Sorbonne, and later at the University of Toronto. Together we made a dedicated and determined teaching team. Steve had been teaching the Faith actively, first at Richview Collegiate in grade 9, and later at Scarlett Heights Collegiate until he graduated. He had no special teaching technique. He would simply invite his friends to come and hear about the Bahá’í Faith and the new, progressive ideas it had to offer. Their curiosity brought them out, and much to our amazement, they kept coming. They listened and were moved. One by one, to our great joy, they embraced the Faith. Steve also served his friends. He drove them to the Wilmette Temple, to Lake Kashabog, other summer schools and to firesides around Toronto.
It was at Scarlett Heights Collegiate that Steve was led to find a nucleus of fine young people who would soon enter the Faith. These new believers included our neighbours, Sandy and Linda Gershuny, who lived around the corner at 20 Saskatoon Drive, Anke Petersen (Samii), another neighbour from 17 Emery Circle, now living in Brussels, Belgium, Larry Raymond and Vicki Eeles, who later married, Marg Rumpel (Niego), Fred Rocca, President of the Students’ Council at Scarlet Heights Collegiate, Michael Beechey, Michael Bailey, David Eeles, Vicki’s brother, Tom Story, Mary Rose Imbroll, Sandra Hutchison, later Dr. Sandra Hutchison, my old friend, David Rosati, Irene Mary Doran, Lucy Kazmarek, Rick Blake, Ward and Will Hazen, Jay Telfer, Suzanne Chipman, and a trio from Brampton, named Lee-Anne, Debby and Dave — last names now forgotten. Bob Crane did not attend our firesides but learned about the Faith at Scarlett Heights and declared his faith later in Winnipeg. For a while our cousins, Linda and Susan McLean attended.
My father, Allan James McLean, was also counted among that favoured company of friends who signed their card in those days. How wonderfully astonishing was that evening at the supper table when my father quietly got up, left the room, returned and put his signed his declaration card on the table on January 31, 1969. When mother picked it up and looked at the signature, she broke down and wept with deep emotion. Father sat quietly, never uttered a word and looked a little embarrassed. Joyce had waited patiently for 17 years, praying all the while, for her beloved husband to join her in the Faith. Fireside teaching had yielded the precious fruit of those constant prayers. Our firesides were, of course, only part of each seeker’s spiritual story, but they served well that essential and indispensable core activity of the Bahá’í Faith. For many it was the first experience of community and/or spiritual family.
Maintaining the Spirit of Teaching
With each declaration, we encouraged each new believer try his or her wings with a fireside talk. That way, the love for teaching and its momentum were maintained in high spirits. We also invited more senior, experienced believers to fireside and deepen us. We were favoured with some of the Faith’s best teachers of the day. They included our mother, Joyce, who taught and mentored many, Husayn Banani, former, long-serving member of the Canadian National Spiritual Assembly, Douglas Martin, former member of the Universal House of Justice, and Alex Frame, who at his retirement in 2002 had risen to become Vice-President of radio at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). Other fine teachers included Betty Frost and Barbara Phillips, who both eventually went on to serve in Haifa. The great jazzman, Dizzy Gillespie, came out when he was playing in Toronto and gave a moving and humorous talk to a packed house. (John Birks, as his friends called him, was buzzing his mouthpiece in the car after I went to pick him up at the Park Lane Hotel).
The Steadfast Teachers and Pioneers Who Arose
Unlike some believers who entered and then left the Faith during the 1960’s period of mass teaching, a good number of these friends remained steadfast. Some of them became great teachers and exemplary pioneers. Linda Gershuny eventually pioneered to Haiti from Gatineau, Quebec and became a Continental Counsellor for the Americas where she excelled in mass teaching; she is still serving in her adopted homeland with distinction. Her sister Sandy became a homefront pioneer to various places in Quebec and did some short-term pioneering in Africa. Marg Rumpel Niego went north to the Arctic and sub-Arctic in 1968 until she retired to Renfrew, Ontario in 2006, with her late husband Joe, where she continues to do homefront pioneering. The Raymonds pioneered to Sarnia, Falconbridge, Timmins and spent 17 years in London, Ontario. Now they continue to serve as the only homefront pioneers in Mount Forest, Ontario. Larry is close to retirement but is still a pilot with Air Canada.
While studying in Paris, at the same time I was there, my former neighbour from 17 Emery Circle, Anke Petersen, met and married Dr. Kambyse Samii. As a young chairman of the LSA of Etobicoke, I had the privilege of officiating at their wedding in Toronto in December of 1970. Anke’s heart was touched in Paris by a talk given at 11 rue de la Pompe by a sincere believer from North Africa. Through her tears, she told me that her heart had been moved in the same way it was when she once spoke with my mother about spiritual matters at 6 Emery Circle. Anke and Kambyse have been actively serving the Faith in Brussels, Belgium ever since.
The Paris Years (1965-1968): Hands of the Cause and Pioneers
One of the blessings of my university sojourn in Paris was meeting some of the great souls of the Faith who either lived there or were passing through. Foremost among them were the Hands of the Cause of God. Each Hand stands out now in memory as a bright gem that reflected a different colour and hue. Remembering them together, they presented contrasting but complementary facets that lent rich lustre and prestige to the Faith. It was in Paris that I met the princely and gracious Mr. ‘Abu’l-Qásim Faizi, the deeply thoughtful, contemplative Dr. Aldebert Mühlschlegel, who had the sacred priviledge of preparing Shoghi Effendi’s body for burial, the quiet, self-effacing General Shoaullah Alá’í, and that congenial, humble and loving soul, Mr. Paul Haney. I had the pleasure of meeting Bill Sears again and savouring his witty sense of humour as well as his earnest and always informative presentations of the Faith. I also met at a fireside in the old Bahá’í Centre at 11 rue de la Pompe, the great medical doctor, Dr. Manuchir Hakim, whose contributions to anatomy are recorded in authoritative medical volumes, who later gave his life for the Faith in Iran. He struck me as a very deep, thoughtful, dedicated and serious Bahá’í. In Paris I met his daughter, Christine Hakim who along with her mother attended my first Bahá’í talk in French at the Centre.
That dynamic, good-humoured, courageous pioneer to Europe, Marion Little, lived in Paris and Versailles. I had the good fortune of visiting her twice and hearing something of her life-story. Marion had travelled at one time with Martha Root down the east coast of the United States. Shoghi Effendi called Martha Root “the archetype of Bahá’í teachers” and “the star-servant”. She was in a category by herself, easily deserving the rank of outstanding Bahá’í teacher of the West. In any case, Marion recounted the following scene. At one of their stops, Martha was scheduled to speak at a public meeting. But only one solitary soul showed up! Martha said to Marion: “You go and sit beside the man and say the Greatest Name and I’ll give the talk.” Marion followed the advice. “Martha went up on the stage and spoke,” Marion said, “as if the hall were filled to capacity.” It didn’t matter to Martha whether the audience were one or one thousand. (In passing, I have no idea what became of the man). Marion came out to help send me off when George and Diane Starcher, who at this writing (2012) are still pioneering in France, as far as I know, hosted a going-away party at their home in the Paris suburb of St. Cloud, just before I returned to Canada in February, 1968.
I also met Lucienne Miguette, one of the early French believers, who had been taught by May Maxwell, I believe in Lyon. She lived in the 20th arrondissement in Paris, but did not come out often although she remained in contact with the NSA until she died. I remember her telling me proudly that she had received 26 letters from Shoghi Effendi. (I know from what Rúhíyyih Khanum has written about the over-burdened pen of Shoghi Effendi that she would have considered 26 letters to one believer too many). I served on the Paris LSA with Anita Ioas Chapman, the elegant and distinguished daughter of Hand of the Cause Leroy Ioas, Shoghi Effendi’s executive secretary, and met her sweet mother, Sylvia, who spoke with such admiration and respect about her beloved husband “Roy.”
Interview With Laura Dreyfus-Barney (1967)
But the greatest privilege of the Paris years was meeting early American believer, Laura Dreyfus-Barney, the compiler and translator of Some Answered Questions, described as an “imperishable service” by Shoghi Effendi. After he had become Guardian, Shoghi Effendi addressed Madame Barney, whom he had first met when he was only six years old, in his friendly letters respectfully as “Laura Khanum.” I consider it a great privilege that Madame Dreyfus-Barney even agreed to meet me at all, but I am quite sure that I would never have met her at all had I not been actively teaching the Faith in Paris. She indicated to my mother on the telephone that she had heard about my teaching efforts and was grateful for them. This kind comment indicates in itself how much importance Laura Dreyfus Barney still attached to teaching the Faith, right up into old age.
It was 1967 and Madame Barney was 88 years old and very frail. (I was 21). After the Ahmad Sohrab affair, which had seriously troubled the Paris friends, Madame Barney continued to supervise Bahá’í activities for an indeterminate period to correct the situation. She retired subsequently but continued to receive visitors by appointment. So I count myself among the very fortunate.
A formal, unsmiling Spanish maid opened the door of her apartment on rue de Ranelagh and invited me to sit down. I cannot say she welcomed me, for I had the impression that she considered my visit as a sort of inconvenience, if not an intrusion. She withdrew for a moment and returned to notify me that Madame Barney was ready. The maid led me to the door of the bedroom. I entered and saw Laura sitting propped up in bed. Now Laura was dark and beautiful when she was young. The fine portrait by her mother-artist, Alice Pike Barney, shows that much. But I must admit that to my young eyes Madame Barney looked very old and very pale. But Laura was to live on, another 7 years, until her passing in 1974 at the advanced age of 95 years. She is buried in the Passy cemetery with her sister Natalie.
We greeted one another and I sat down in the chair that had been provided for me at the foot of the bed. The chair had been placed directly opposite Laura, rather than at an angle. At this writing, it has been exactly 45 years since that conversation took place; regrettably, I do not have total recall of all her words. But her manner of speaking was the following. Madame Barney was not loquacious. She spoke economically, keeping things simple, perhaps because of her age. Even in describing her impressions of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, she stayed to the point.
If she had personal feelings about the Master, which she must have, unlike other souls who were fortunate enough to have had the inestimable bounty of meeting Him, she did not share them — at least, not with me. Although she did tell me about her early pilgrimages to Akká, I do not know now if she was recounting just one of them or incidents from the several visits she made there from 1904-1906. Laura referred to her meeting with May Maxwell in Paris in 1900. It was at May’s that Laura met her future husband, Hippolyte Dreyfus, the first French Bahá’í ,but this did not come up in our conversation. Laura referred to her as May Bolles. “In those days,” Laura said, “we knew her as May Bolles before she married Sutherland Maxwell.”
I asked about the compiling of Some Answered Questions but because of her advanced age, and the great respect I held for her, I did not want to question her too often or too closely. Madame Barney did not tell me much more than what is written in the Introduction to that book, except that one of her earliest questions was about strikes. The word came to her in French — “grèves” — and since we were speaking in English, I supplied the translation.
But I do remember clearly what she told me about ‘Abdu’l-Baha. There were three things and they were brief: the first was that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá loved harmony and had an aversion to disunity. In the conversations that she observed between the Master and others, Laura said: “If a difference of opinion entered into the conversation, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá would change the subject and put the conversation on a more harmonious track.” The second thing was on a sad note. One day, she said, a Jewish couple came to visit ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. I am no longer sure what they were seeking; I don’t think Laura told me. But when they left ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s presence, He began to weep and said: “They are spiritually dead.” (Such was the Master’s great perception and his concern and compassion for the spiritual life of the soul). The third thing was a comment. I’ll call it the anticipation of liberation. One day as He sat in His chair, looking out onto the Mediterranean, in the dining room of the house of ‘Abdu’lláh Páshá, the same room where the talks recorded in Some Answered Questions were given, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá said: “Oh, won’t it be wonderful when at last we are liberated from the body and we’ll be able to fly throughout the universe.” When I entered that room on pilgrimage in March of 2007, looking through the window, I saw that the Mediterranean lies only a stone’s throw from that room. Laura’s words, spoken 45 years ago, came back to me; they became then all the more real. Abdu’l-Bahá’s remark took on a special poignancy when I realised that, at that time, because of the scheming of the covenant-breakers, the Ottoman authorities had renewed their restrictions on His movements.
When the hour was up, I took my leave, thanking the maid as I left. As I descended the carpeted stairs of the apartment in the affluent 16th arrondissement, I realized that I had been graced by the presence of a great soul, one who met other great souls, one who had seen great things, and done great things in the service of the Greatest Servant of humanity.
I returned from Paris in February of 1968 and completed my studies in French literature and Religious Studies at the University of Toronto. Following graduation, I completed my M.A. in the History of Religions at the University of Ottawa and went into high-school and middle school teaching in the Province of Quebec, where I taught of a variety of subjects for 23 years, including French immersion and moral and religious education. I married Brigitte Maloney in 1972 and after brief stays in Rockland, Ontario and La Pocatière and Low, Quebec, we settled in Gatineau where we raised our two lovely daughters, Mukina and Leah, and served on the first LSA of Gatineau, formed in September of 1975, if I remember correctly.
It was in Gatineau that I first tried my hand at creative writing and scholarship. Although I had written some poetry in my teen years, I returned to it in a more systematic way in Gatineau, and began also writing Bahá’í-related articles that had to do with spirituality and Bahá’í theology. My first book, Dimensions in Spirituality: Reflections on Spirituality and Transformation in Light of the Bahá’í Faith was published in 1994 by George Ronald Publisher and has sold well thus far. I am pleased that this book received favourable reviews from both Bahá’í and non-Bahá’í reviewers. I wrote Dimensions when I was teaching full-time, getting up at 6:00 o’clock in the morning to do research and write before going to school. It was a busy time of our lives, with raising a family, both of us serving on the LSA, and my teaching full-time. Lasting friendships were formed at this time, on both sides of the river, friendships that continue to do this day.
Among those whom I met in those early days in Gatineau, I have fond memories of the arrival of the Toeg family in Hull, from Iraq via Iran — the three boys, Jamal, Kamal and Jalal, and their parents Daoud and Latifa. Daoud was another of those great souls who went on pilgrimage during the time of Shoghi Effendi. Latifa shared with me a few years ago, the many written appreciations of his services to the Faith from the pen of Shoghi Effendi himself, appreciations that in my eyes were simply astonishing by their loftiness. As for Latifa, Shoghi Effendi himself testified that she had attained the station of certitude.
Transition Years: Salt Spring Island, British Columbia (1997-1999)
In 1995 my father passed away quite suddenly. My parents were deeply devoted to one another, and after fifty-four years of marriage, our mother was attempting a hard return to normalcy. Within months of father’s passing, I would be making my own transition, trying to recover from the demise of a 23 year old marriage. After 24 years in the classroom, in a move necessitated by psychological survival, and an undeniable indwelling thirst for knowledge and creativity, I decided to take early retirement at age 52, with a much reduced income. Although I had written Dimensions in Spirituality while I was teaching full-time, after I turned 50, I felt increasingly the urge to devote myself entirely to research and writing. This change would also free me up to offer more time for Bahá’í community service.
After a series of vivid dreams in which I kept seeing islands, it finally dawned on me that I was being led westward, in a direction that proved ultimately to be Salt Spring Island, where my widowed mother and sister Mary Lou lived. Now Salt Spring is the most well-known of the southern Gulf Islands, just off Victoria, B.C. It is a fascinating place, full of wonderful, vibrant energy and colourful characters, a sort of California of the North. At the back of my parent’s cosy bungalow at 131 Mount Baker Crescent was a sleeping cabin that was used occasionally by visiting relatives and guests. It had once been the workshop of a Scot also named McLean — no relation — who was the original builder and owner of the house. Before my arrival, mother had it converted into a writing studio. The finishing touches were being added when I arrived one sunny day in July, 1997, having driven all the way from Hull, Quebec. I furnished it with a wall of bookshelves. After some 35 boxes of books arrived from Gatineau by moving van, I spent an entire morning setting them up. A welcoming retreat had become available at just the right time. Just beyond the sliding glass doors, the gently nodding white daisies and giant firs kept me company.
The two years on Salt Spring provided a much-needed rest and welcome period of transition. Not only was I able to accompany mother through her grief, and attend to some of her health needs, my stay there also allowed us to become reacquainted. Her understanding and wise counsel in the post-divorce phase greatly helped in the restoration of my sanity. During our discussions, I also learned some interesting points about family history that I had not known before.
Within a few months I started up a writers’ group which included both amateur and professional. One of our members was the colourful, senior local personality, the witty Alex Mitchell, a Scot who wrote a humorous column for The Driftwood. I wrote reflective pieces called “Pilgrim’s Notes” for the same paper. During the two years that I wrote for The Driftwood, I submitted 30 short essays on a variety of spiritual, social and moral issues, some of them topical.
It was on Salt Spring that I did the final revisions of Under the Divine Lote Tree: Essays and Reflections for George Ronald Publisher and began writing the first drafts of A Celestial Burning: A Selective Study of the Writings of Shoghi Effendi. This thick volume, after all these long years, and after encountering several challenging obstacles along the way, is finally receiving its finishing touches and will be published, I hope, in time for the Association of Bahá’í Studies Annual Conference in Montreal this summer.
I might be still living on Salt Spring Island had it not been for a common factor that affects everyone — the weather. Although the summers are usually sunny on the island, winters are generally rainy, cloud-covered and damp. It seemed that summer enjoyment would be inevitably cancelled out by the winter blahs. Reluctantly, I came to the conclusion that Salt Spring Island did not augur well for long-term residency. I had arrived in the summer two years earlier; two years later I was planning another summer departure.
In August of 1999, I packed up my 1987 two door Honda Accord Hatchback and headed out. On my way to the ferry, I stopped in to say good-by to mother. I had no way of knowing if I would ever see her again since she had had a number of gradually debilitating mini-strokes. But I did my best to keep my emotions under control. As I drove up Mount Baker Crescent, I looked back in the rear-view mirror to catch a last glimpse of her bending over to pick up something on the driveway. Joyce McLean surprised us all by surviving for two more years. I would see her one last time on Salt Spring before she passed away in December of 2001.
The Return to Ottawa (1999-?)
They say you can never go home but if fortune smiles on you, you can. In returning to the Ottawa Valley, I had a sense of going home. Here I have been able to complete A Celestial Burning: A Selective Study of the Writings of Shoghi Effendi. I continue to host the Ottawa Creative Writers’ Group, after its saintly and winsome dean, the delightful Larry Rowdon, passed away in 2001. About 10 years ago now, and after a period of interruption when we were left off the Religion and Ethics page, I was asked to contribute again the Bahá’í response to the Ottawa Citizen’s “Ask the Religion Experts” page. I have also participated in the institute process, and periodically I continue to offer deepening courses to the local Bahá’í community and to speak at firesides. Sometimes I make presentations at the Study of Religion Special Interest Group of the Association for the Association for Bahá’í Studies or submit the occasional article, commentary or book review to Bahá’í journals. With Mark Keedwell and Harold Rosen, I have taught courses with the now defunct Furutan Academy that once had branches in Ottawa and Vancouver.
In 2004, I made a month-long travel-teaching trip to Britain and France where I had BBC and French radio interviews. In 2009, I spent 3 fruitful months in Gibraltar, and in the summer of 2010, a more challenging short-term pioneering assignment awaited me in Fiji. Every morning, I visit the café around the corner where I have a coffee and do some writing, hoping to meet new acquaintances who can become friends to whom I can teach the Bahá’í Faith. I try to be a faithful friend to those who are close to me. I aspire to be a joy, an inspiration and a solace to their lives. In return, I am grateful for the friendships I have received.
A friend of mine said that I lead a “civilized life.” But my life at 145 McLeod is no Bohemian heaven. No soul escapes the tests of life, and I have not escaped mine. All the same, I am very grateful for the life that I have. I have never regretted leaving the classroom, but the great classroom that is life itself is inescapable. Sometimes it’s “the school of hard knocks.” It has already been 15 years since I took early retirement to pursue the life I lead which involves teaching, writing, research and volunteering at the Jack Purcell Community Centre with disabled people. The time has just flown.
Learning From Life: Twelve Ongoing Observations
I would like to conclude this 50th spiritual birthday celebration with the following twelve observations that I am learning along the way. I emphasize that I am still learning these lessons. I continue to strive to follow these precepts.
- Make divine love, in all its expressions, the great principle of your life. It is still, and will always remain, the greatest phenomenon in the universe. ‘Abdu’l-Baha has revealed that the foundation of the entire universe — perhaps I should say in the light of the new physics “universes” — and life itself are based on divine love. Jesus said that God is love. Bahá’u’lláh is Love. All the Divine Manifestations are the foundation and the pillars of love.
- Although we should always count our blessings and strive to be a “happy and joyful being,” following the phrase from the prayer of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, in this life, we cannot fully expect to be entirely free of sorrow. It seems to follow joy around. But what else is heaven for?
- Try to remember that the unhappy or negative people that you meet became so for a reason. Don’t judge them. You don’t know what they have been through. This does not mean, however, that you should choose them as close companions.
- When I turned 50, I tried to write about wisdom. But I was far from being wise. Then I discovered that it was only in my 50’s that I truly began to learn something about this mystery called self. Now in my 60’s, I am learning a little more, but I am still not wise.
- The famous psychologist, Carl Jung, said that our major issues persist to the end of our lives. We have to keep working on them. In most of his patients, he said, forgiveness was an issue, either of oneself or others. Learn to forgive others, no matter what they or life has done to you. What is even harder, learn to forgive yourself; it is necessary for happiness.
- Go easy on yourself. The Dali Lama has said there is too much self-loathing in western peoples. If you claim to love God, then you must love yourself too, for He created you. Sometimes it is easier to love others than to love self.
- Discover the great joy there is in teaching the Faith and serving others. But remember that teaching and learning are a two-way street. Bahá’ís must be as willing to humbly learn from others just as much as they are keen to teach them from the ocean of His words.
- Appreciate all things true and beautiful.
- ‘Abdu’l-Bahá said that the greatest joy was to read the Word of God with a spiritual mind. Make it your daily food. It is the foundation of everything else.
- Be prepared to admit it when you are wrong.
- Love everyone from the depths of your heart, but don’t be surprised if everyone, including some Bahá’ís, will not want to be your friend. Some people prefer to remain anonymous. Not every relationship works out.
- Pray that Bahá’u’lláh will graciously accept any good deeds that He has permitted you to achieve in His path. We owe our very life and breath to Him.
See more in my brief bio.