Stratford Caldecott’s Conversion Story


I was still drawn to the Middle East, and the culture of Persia especially, though I was not prepared to make the radical jump to becoming a Muslim. I met a religious group called the Baha’is – after their Founder, the nineteenth century Persian sage Baha’u’llah. C. S. Lewis makes an argument for the truth of Christianity to the effect that if Christ was not who he claimed to be, he must be either mad or a liar, neither of which seems likely. Never having seriously applied this to Christ, I now applied the argument to Baha’u’llah, and began to feel I must convert. The religion seemed to combine the best of both Christianity and Islam, with generous helpings of modern rationalism: sexual equality, ecumenism, peace through world government, reconciliation of science and religion. It had even stood the test of persecution. I found in the writings of the founder mystical texts very reminiscent of the Iranian mystics. Besides, the Baha’is I met all seemed to be good people, and does a bad tree bear good fruit? I announced to my family that I was now a Baha’i. They took it in their stride easily enough.

In 1977, in deference to Leonie’s family, I was married to Léonie in Oxford’s Anglican church, St Mary Magdalen. Léonie herself was a Christian, although not practising. She was, in retrospect, failing to find in the Anglican church that source of grace which she needed: namely the guaranteed presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, the literal Body of Christ. Perhaps because of this abiding intuitive concern of hers, I could not help but learn that Christianity had a sacramental dimension to which the Baha’is were completely blind. Instead of being a mere human corruption of the original teachings of Christianity – as they claimed – the sacraments were more like the actual essence of the Christian religion. I began to perceive that in order to reconcile the religions, the Baha’is had forced them all on to a Procrustean bed of their own devising. It was little more than a shallow echo of what the Schuonians were doing, one significant difference being their greater commitment to ordinary human community, and I saw that it was in part this sense of community that had drawn me to them.

I resigned both my job with a Baha’i publisher, and my new-found faith, moving to London to begin work in a larger, secular company called Routledge & Kegan Paul. RKP had a considerable New Age list, and proved to be the perfect setting for the next stage of my spiritual journey. Before long Léonie and I were sitting at the feet of a Tibetan Rinpoche (teacher) called Namkhai Norbu, who taught meditation according to the rDzog-chen (Zogqen) school of Buddhism. Namkhai Norbu’s teaching was symbolized by the mirror. We were taught to step back from identification with the passing flux of events in the field of consciousness – to let them come and go like reflections, or fish leaping in the waters of a pool. We were to identify ourselves with the ground of awareness itself, which precedes the division into subject and object.

Even while this was going on, however, I was coming under a very different set of influences, through a brilliant metaphysician who lived in Exeter, and with whom I had struck up an intense correspondence. Robert Bolton, unlike the Tibetans, was a philosophical dualist. He had been influenced, as I had been, by the Schuonian school, but had developed an independent perspective through his study of Proclus and Plotinus, and now clearly saw the limitations in Schuon’s monism. As a result of his own researches, he had converted to Roman Catholicism.

The two sets of influences – Buddhist and Christian – flowed together for me in a dream. I dreamed of the Holy Grail, which appeared to me in the living room of my parents’ house in Dulwich. The sense of a sacred presence was overwhelming. What this made me realize was how important to me had been the stories I had read in childhood, stories of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table and the Quest of the Holy Grail, and later the Narnia books of C.S. Lewis and The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. All along, my imagination had been built on a Christian foundation, and I had never noticed it before. I knew now that in some sense, on some level, I was already a Christian. Did this just mean that for me, if not for others, Christianity was the appropriate religious form? That I had recognized myself as belonging to that ‘collectivity’ to which the Christian revelation had been addressed? Or did it suggest to me already that there was objectively something more in the Christian revelation than in any other? These questions took me some years to sort out. All I knew then was that in my dream, Buddhism had flowed into Christianity. Whatever was of value in Buddhism could also be found in Christianity. My own path lay there.

Léonie and I took instruction together from the local Catholic priest. Eventually Léonie dropped out of classes because they failed at that time to resolve her own remaining questions. Meanwhile I was reading Gilson, Maritain and Aquinas, finding there a philosophy that made everything I had studied at Oxford look like the work of barbarians. It seemed clear that most of modern philosophy was the result of a systematic failure to understand (or even to read) what had already been achieved in the Middle Ages. As for faith, although my conversion may have outwardly resembled the beginning of my Baha’i phase (a process of being intellectually persuaded), inwardly there was a major difference. My heart, as they say, ‘burned within me’ as I read. I suppose this is the normal sensation caused when the mind and the heart start to mingle; when the mind starts to enter the heart, and the fragments of a human nature begin to be gathered together in one place.

Faith differs from ‘being persuaded’ of something of the way that trusting a person differs from ‘being introduced’ to him. It involves the establishment of a relationship. To trust an intellectual system is in a way merely to trust yourself: your own grasp on truth. On the other hand, to trust a person is to give yourself, Continue Reading