I am a “cradle Catholic.” Attended Catholic grade school. And despite occasional lapses in my early adult years, I was generally comfortable in the Church. In fact, I eventually wound up entering an abbey and began preparing for the priesthood. I was in that wonderful religious community for two years before deciding that I needed to move on. But I still remained in the Church, becoming actively involved in my parish for several years afterward.
About thirteen years passed between my leaving the abbey and the beginning of my Baha’i journey.
It was at that time, a little more than nine years ago now, that the word “Baha’i” popped into my mind out of nowhere. It was totally out of the blue. I had heard about the Faith probably 30 years beforehand but knew nothing about it and hadn’t read or seen anything since that would prompt me to think about it on this occasion. Perhaps coincidentally, this happened on what is known as Holy Thursday (which commemorates the Last Supper) during the days leading up to Easter in the Catholic Christian tradition.
I immediately did a search on the Internet for the word “Baha’i” and found a discussion forum called Planet Baha’i; it was my first point of contact with Baha’is as there were none that I was aware of at that time in my area (I have since found out otherwise). Through online conversations with Baha’is and others from around the world, I gradually opened up to read scriptures beyond the Bible; not only the Baha’i Writings – which I found quite challenging — but also the Qur’an and the Bhagavad Gita. I eventually noticed the same “voice” present throughout these texts, which confirmed for me the Baha’i concepts of a single source for all Revelation, as well as Progressive Revelation — something which I had previously never heard of but that made a great deal of sense once I studied it further. Baha’u’llah’s statement that, “The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens,” also resonated with me.
I also appreciated the fact that Baha’is embraced the harmony of science and religion. And, further, went on to say, quoting ‘Abdu’l-Baha (son of Baha’u’llah), that “If a religion become the cause of hatred and disharmony, it would be better that it should not exist. To be without such a religion is better than to be with it.” You don’t hear that from many or most other faith traditions.
The Baha’is, I concluded, were correct in saying that there is only One Religion, the Religion of God, with Baha’u’llah being its latest Messenger. But I wasn’t ready to declare myself as a Baha’i yet.
Baha’u’llah, I must admit, was a challenge for me at first, and for a long time. Just learning to correctly pronounce His name was difficult. His Writings…His many, many Writings…what to make of them? And even more to the point, what to make of Him? If He was who He said He was…then what? What to do? What would family and friends think if…I…became…a Baha’i? (Here’s a tip: unless you come from a Baha’i family, you will likely have to help educate them on exactly what that means.)
I studied as much as I could about the Faith for the next six years (yes, I took the scenic route, as I tell people), reading histories, biographies, sacred Writings, etc. I eventually connected with some Baha’is in my area and attended a few devotionals to see how they prayed and worshipped, and if I could be comfortable with that, as well as with a much smaller faith community than what I was accustomed to. I visited the North American House of Worship in Wilmette, IL, to see what that was about (clue: it’s open to everyone!). I also tried to see if I could actually live a Baha’i lifestyle (at least as I understood that to be); no sense becoming a Baha’i, I thought, if I couldn’t live out the Faith as prescribed. Turns out, I could.
Finally, a little more than three years ago, after being given a gentle nudge in a phone conversation the night before by a dear Baha’i friend of mine in Canada (whom I had also met online), I declared myself as a Baha’i…online, of course! As it worked out, it was the date on which Baha’is commemorate the Declaration of the Bab, May 23.
As I told friends at the time — including some friends from my abbey days who are now priests — it wasn’t about rejecting the Catholic Church but rather about moving toward a way of being that — to me — better suits the times we now live in. (Just as an aside, since becoming a Baha’i, I have become increasingly aware of many former Catholics who are also now Baha’is.) Taking the clergy, hierarchy and rituals out of the faith experience means each Baha’i becomes a teacher and organizer of the Faith because there is no one else to do it. When it’s up to you rather than a professional clergy or parish staff to make things happen there’s a reality and responsibility there that, at least for me, is both empowering and daunting. We are, after all, living in what amounts to just the second Baha’i century.
Becoming a Baha’i, as some say, isn’t about arriving…it’s about agreeing to go. The road and destination are the same as when I was a Catholic, but the ride I’m taking is now different.
Or, as Abdu’l-Baha says, “Truth is one, and without division.” To accept Baha’u’llah is to accept Jesus. And Muhammad. And Abraham. And the Bab. As well as Buddha, Krishna, Moses and Zoroaster, too. Conversely, rejecting one is rejecting all. It’s as simple – and as demanding – as that.
Over my nine-plus years’ association with the Faith, I have met incredible Baha’is doing amazing things in their local communities. I have heard remarkable stories of individuals and entire families “pioneering” in various parts of the world because of their commitment to the Faith. I have shared table with Persian families and been treated to not only marvelous food but even more marvelous examples of holding onto one’s faith in the face of horrendous persecution in their home country of Iran. And in the last year, I have experienced God’s grace in the form of finding my spouse through the Faith.
I also recently went on Pilgrimage with my wife to the Baha’i holy sites in and around Haifa, Israel. It was an incredible experience. I told one of my fellow pilgrims before we returned home that prior to the Pilgrimage I had the Faith in my head through my study. What the Pilgrimage did for me was to put the Faith in my heart. Being in those places, with fellow Baha’is from around the world, and praying at the shrines makes it all come alive in a very special way.
It can be easy to hang on to what we know and believe (or think we know and believe) and very difficult to open up to other possibilities. But as Abdu’l-Baha reminds us in His talks and Writings, we have a duty to ourselves to independently investigate the truth rather than blindly imitate things. That includes following a particular faith tradition just because we happen to be born into it.
God, as the Bible says, “makes all things new.” Why would the lone exception be God’s own means of instruction for humankind, religion? I believe, in looking through history, that God renews the state of religion with a new Revelation as the evolution of civilization requires it. It makes sense to me much more than does a one-time only event.
Our task – our challenge — is to recognize that new Revelation when it comes.