by Jack McLean
Opening remarks at the memorial service, Ottawa, July 7, 2011
“Know thou of a truth that the soul, after its separation from the body, will continue to progress until it attaineth the presence of God, in a state and condition which neither the revolution of ages and centuries, nor the changes and chances of this world, can alter… The movement of My Pen is stilled when it attempteth to describe the loftiness and glory of so exalted a station.”
(Bahá’u’lláh, Founder of the Bahá’í Faith)
On behalf of the Keedwell family, beloved wife Mary, his sister Mary Minns, son Mark, daughters Lisa and Emily, and grandchildren Christopher, Jessica and Geoffrey, I welcome all of you to this commemorative service. Providence has called us here today so that we may pay fitting tribute to a truly great soul, Charles Austin Keedwell. It is, of course, impossible to encompass at such a time and place, as fitting as it is, the rich magnitude of Charles’s life: his early days, his career, his love of family, his spiritual, intellectual and creative attainments, and his great love of music. For Charles was a man of many talents. But the family ardently hopes that through his passing, in the readings, the prayers and the music that follow, those of you who did not know him, will be able to catch something of the fragrance of this man, and what his life signified to his family, and to those who were fortunate enough to have known him and called him friend.
Early Life, Education and Marriage
Charles was born in Chatham, Ontario and spent his early life there. One of his childhood friends, Mr. Douglas Martin, was a distinguished Bahá’í scholar who rose to the highest office in the service and administration of the Faith. Doug was later to have a significant impact on the spiritual life of Charles and Mary.
Following primary and secondary school, he was educated at Western University and later at Harvard where he pursued a Ph.D in political science and foreign affairs. Charles completed all the course work, but the obstacles posed by the political ideology driving the Chinese government made it impossible for him to complete the thesis without severely compromising his intellectual honesty.
Charles and the love of his life, Mary, married in 1950. Charles was over-the-moon when his son Mark was born four years later and daughters Lisa and Emily followed. His love of family was renewed with the addition of his grandchildren, Christopher, Jessica and Geoffrey. Most of the Keedwell’s adult life was spent in Ottawa. His wife and family were Charles’s fundamental verity in life, you might say. They were the pillars in his temple and the light that shone in his darker moments.
Following a brief stint at CMHC, Charles worked as a civil servant and speech-writer, mostly in the department of Health and Welfare, working for such noted politicians of the day as Judy LaMarsh and Paul Martin senior and at one time the president of IBM Canada.
Significant Spiritual Turning Point: The Bahá’í Faith
A significant spiritual turning-point occurred in the lives of Charles and Mary when Charles’s childhood friend, Douglas Martin, came to Ottawa for a visit. Charles and Mary noticed that there was something remarkably different in his demeanour, something transformative. Charles, ever the perceptive one, wanted to know what had brought about this remarkable change in the aura of his friend. “You don’t want to know,” was Doug’s coy reply. Well, whether Douglas meant it or not, the inquiring mind of Charles Keedwell did want to know. It turned out to be a good strategy. It started an investigation of this youngest of the great world religions, the Bahá’í Faith, and its progressive teachings. Douglas introduced Charles to another of his remarkable mentors, statistician and deep thinker, Winifred Harvey. Charles and Mary decided to become Bahá’ís together in 1957 in Ottawa at the Lord Elgin Hotel, and the rest is history.
Although others had passed through, the Keedwells were the first Bahá’í pioneers to settle in Eastview, now Vanier. In the late 1950’s and 1960’s, they served among the pillars of the Ottawa Bahá’í community for more than a decade, as chairman and secretary of the local administrative body, the Local Spiritual Assembly, along with Helen and Andy Andrews, who are here with us today. Now this will bring a smile to your lips. Little Lisa thought all those “LSA’s” marked on the calendar were all about her. How very loved Lisa you must have felt by Mommy and Daddy, and, of course, you were!
Intellectual and Creative Gifts
I would be remiss if I didn’t close these brief remarks with the mention of Charles’s intellectual and creative gifts, for these things, in a way, were the essence of Charles Keedwell. I have mentioned his ability as a speech writer, a craft that required long hours of labour and discipline. Now I must tell you of his creative writing and musical skills. Charles and Mary were bonded by music. Mary sang and Chuck played the piano. Charles was truly a musical connoisseur, with a very finely tuned musical ear. His musical collection was substantial in sheet music, records, LP’s and CD’s. Charles would on occasion acquire several recordings of the same composition. His love of music was so great that he would sit and analyse the various versions until he was well acquainted with the particularities of each performance. Once his labour of love was complete, Charles could tell you which recording was the finest, but more than that, he could tell you why. This love of music was, of course, passed down to the family.
But Charles did not merely appreciate music; he made it. At one point in his musical studies he became so accomplished that he contemplated becoming a concert pianist. But the loneliness of the musician’s lifestyle was something that he did not favour, and so this project was abandoned. Yet in the ensuing years, Charles continued to play, to listen, to appreciate.
He was a romantic at heart and his best musical man was his beloved Gershwin. Two of Charles’s and Mary’s favourite Gershwin tunes are on the program today. I wonder what Charles and George Gershwin are talking about now as they listen to the strains of celestial music. What a conversation that must be!
At a trying time in his life, Charles’s creative writing gifts, and his spiritual development, were liberated in a quasi-magical, even mystical moment by his friend and mentor, Winifred Harvey. Now there was much more to Winifred than met the eye. Winifred knew something that we did not know. On a visit to her apartment, Winifred asked Charles to look into a painting hanging on her wall, and to tell her what he saw. Although he didn’t know it, Charles was on a vision quest, and Winifred was the shaman. As he stood gazing at the picture, suddenly, Charles was liberated. A flood of visions was unveiled to his eyes in that moment, rejoicing his soul, and planting a seed. In this remarkable encounter of two Bahá’ís, there in Winifred’s apartment, Charles’s masterpiece, Conversations with a Fish and Others was born.
Now friends, I must tell you that in my opinion, without any word of exaggeration, Conversations with a Fish and Others is unique in its genre. I have found it to be the most delightful, lyrical, winsome, and instructive piece of spiritual literature of its type that I have yet encountered. It recounts admirably, in a free-flowing, simple but profound series of delightful conversations, not the burden of religion and its doctrines, but the joy and liberation of spirituality, when the soul takes wings and is able to fly into the atmosphere of God’s love, and the imaginal world of visions. It’s the wine of astonishment, freely bestowed, where everything good, fine and sublime becomes possible and available through the bounty of the All-Possessing. So thank you Charles and thank you Winifred for this wonderful work that reveals to seekers that the path to God, when properly understood, becomes the path of joy and liberation. This was Charles’s great discovery. We all look forward to its publication . It will appeal to people of all faiths and deserves to find its way onto the best-seller list. You will hear an excerpt today.
Conversations with a Fish has had an enormous impact on the life of Mark Keedwell. The seeds of his own spiritual journey and scholarly attainments were planted by his father in the pages of that remarkable book.
Now, friends, let us continue to remember the wonderful life of Charles Austin Keedwell and to pray for the progress of his luminous soul.