The Convert Series: Martin Sherman-Marks -The Toast

Skip to the article, or search this site

Home: The Toast

I like talking with people who have changed religions. Here is one of them. Previously: Jadai Bergolla.

Born in London and raised in Baltimore, Martin Sherman-Marks has conflicting feelings about the War of 1812. He lives in a house by the river with his wife, their son, and two absurd cats, and he is finishing a novel about time traveling historians in the year 1492.

Hi, Mallory! I’m a longtime reader, and have greatly enjoyed the Convert Series as I’ve been navigating my own relationship with faith over the past year. I just became a Bahá’í tonight, and I don’t think you’ve talked to anyone making that particular journey. If you’re interested, I’d enjoy taking about my experience.

I’d love to! Can you tell me a little bit about your religious background growing up? Did your parents talk much about their own faith, or take you to any religious services? When do you first remember being aware of the concept of God, and what did you think of it?

I guess you could call my upbringing Anglo-Catholic; I was baptized Catholic, but went to an Episcopalian elementary school, then turned very Catholic in middle school, then went to a Catholic high school which very quickly turned me into an atheist. (Based on personal observation, I think Catholic school turns 90% of kids into lapsed Catholics and 10% into die-hards.) My parents were both raised Catholic, but were far from church-going types; my mother went with me to church in my Catholic adolescence, but I think she was perfectly happy to see that phase end. My step-mother’s family, though, were Seventh Day Adventist, so I’ve probably been to almost as many SDA services as Catholic or Episcopalian. I definitely have spent enough time in church that I reflexively answer “May the Force be with you” with “And also with you.”

I don’t know how much I actually thought about God as a kid, though I certainly thought a fair bit about religion. I remember in fifth grade I had what seemed like a revelatory idea for how to reconcile the Bible with evolution: “you guys, what if Genesis was a METAPHOR???” And I remember feeling really uncomfortable calling Jesus “Jesus” and going out of my way to say “Christ” instead because that sounded less embarrassing somehow. And I remember flipping through a book of saints trying to find a really hilarious one for my Confirmation name. (After several of my more interesting suggestions were shot down, I went with St Aidan.) But I don’t really remember feeling a particular connection to God Him/Her/Itself until college. In a music tutorial my sophomore year, we were listening to a recording of Palestrina’s “Sicut Cervus“, an Early Music piece which might be the pinnacle of counterpoint. I’d heard it plenty of times before – I’d sung it plenty of times before too, since one of the best things about my Very Weird school was that every freshman was required to be a part of a college-wide chorus – but this time, something about the harmonies hit me in just the right way, and I had what might be dispassionately described as an attack of Stendhal syndrome, but which I experienced as divine revelation of the glory of God. After that experience, I spent the next fifteen years or so in a state of what might be called hungry agnosticism.

Tell me about those fifteen years! Was ‘recapturing’ that particular moment very much on your mind? Did you spend much time considering different paths to God, or did it feel less urgent and more low-key?

Honestly, no, I didn’t really work too hard in looking for a path to God. I kind of thought I had it all figured out: after the “Sicut Cervus” incident, I was pretty sure God existed but was unknowable, and that there was no point in trying to know God because it was an inherently futile pursuit. I wrote a story once in my early twenties, built around a culture that believed in a God who loved creation but wasn’t interested in micromanaging it. They believed that their God would only get annoyed by constant requests for intervention, so they demonstrated their piety by never praying and by working their utmost to solve their own problems. You could tell the most pious cities in this culture because they were the ones without any temples. That was the closest I think I ever got to articulating my own theology as it stood then.

When I moved to an apartment in midtown Baltimore a few blocks from the church attached to my old elementary school, I frequently found myself tempted to go visit. It’s a beautiful 19th century church, and I always enjoyed being there as a child. (Plus it’s got a killer pipe organ. I vividly remember the feeling when the trompette en chamade kicked in and damn near melted everyone’s eardrums.) But I never went, and to be honest I’m not entirely sure why. Even at the time, I knew it would probably have been good for me to have some kind of framework to support my ill-defined belief in God. Maybe I wanted to keep that church stored in my memory as it existed when I was ten, or maybe I’m just lazy, I don’t know.

The funny thing was that, in that story with the “let’s not bother God, He’s probably pretty busy” religion, the central prophet of that faith had recognized the importance of ritual in human life, and had established secular rituals to replace religious ones. But even as I recognized that in fiction, I never got around to setting up any kind of ritual in my own life to scratch that itch. Every now and then I’d experience things that underscored my basic faith – I remember, in particular, visiting Assisi with my family and dragging my out-of-shape self up the nearly vertical path to Eremo delle Carceri (while being passed every few minutes by excessively fit German sexagenarians with very practical walking sticks), and then arriving at the hermitage where St Francis spent so much of his time, and being like, “oh wow, this really is a sacred place.” But I didn’t have any kind of structure to deal with those moments the way a religious person does. In some ways, being a believer without that framework was harder for me than being an atheist.

Wherever in the world I have been, if there are Germans there, and if what I am doing involves any sort of hill-climbing, they will outstrip me cheerfully and smiling wearing Dockers and dress shoes, while I’m in full-on hiking gear and sweat-sobbing. GERMANS.

So what brought you from a general interest in the possibility of God to a more specific interest in Bahá’í?

I first heard about the Bahá’í faith maybe… eight years ago, I think, when I was reading a book about architectural precast concrete (which is my day job) and opened to a photo spread from the House of Worship in Illinois, which is one of the earliest and certainly one of the most beautiful precast concrete buildings in the US. I read a little about the Bahá’í at the time, thought they were pretty neat, and made a note to visit the temple if I ever got a chance (still haven’t), but at that time I was mostly just glad they existed rather than feeling personally drawn to them.

Things changed last year (in more ways than one), when my wife got pregnant. The pregnancy was incredibly hard – my wife was sick with hyperemesis the entire time – and until we switched to a very good midwifery practice, we were seeing just The Worst obstetrician. She had us do a genetic screening for some reason, and, instead of having a genetic counselor call us to talk us through our results, called us herself after misreading them and told us that my wife was a fragile X carrier and we should immediately find out the sex of the baby because we’d want to abort it (and any future child) if it were a boy. My wife is not a fragile X carrier in any particularly meaningful sense (maybe if that chromosome sticks around three or four more generations it could cause some trouble, but by then they’ll probably have lasers or nanobots or whatever to fix it) and this was actually spelled out in the genetic report, but we didn’t realize that until my wife actually had a chance to read the report herself. In the meanwhile, we were stuck in a pretty horrible place, as you can imagine. I was at work while this was going on, and since a coworker of mine is working towards becoming a deacon in the Episcopal Church, I decided to ask him if he would mind praying with me – my first intentional prayer in a very long time. By the time I had a chance to actually ask him, my wife had gotten the report and actually read all the words in it, so we were figuring out that actually there was no catastrophe here at all. But I’d made the decision to pray about it, and it seemed churlish not to after all that, so my coworker led me in a prayer, and then there was some sobbing &c., and it actually really helped me work through what was, on the whole, Not A Very Good Day.

After that, said coworker (an all-around great guy, incidentally, who genuinely and sincerely lives his loving faith) invited me to start coming with him to an occasional Wednesday evening service being held by one of his priest friends. It was really great – usually about a half-dozen people saying a Mass together, then eating dinner and talking through the readings, which is kind of my ideal religious service. Unfortunately, that priest was reassigned and the service was cancelled, but it really woke me up to a need I hadn’t realized I had, and helped me get through what was a very tough year in a lot of different ways.

Still, in all of this, I never really thought any more about the Bahá’í. But then, one day a few weeks after our son was born, he was asleep on top of me and the thought “I should look into the Bahá’í Faith” suddenly popped into my head out of nowhere. I read a whole bunch of Wikipedia articles on my phone (one-handed around the sleeping baby) and ended up on the website, where I got as far as the form to request information about the Faith before I was like, “this is crazy, Martin, don’t join a religion on a whim.” Then the very next day the Paris shootings happened, and between the terrorists and the people yelling about Syrian refugees, I said, “well, okay, maybe the world needs more peace and unity.” And so I went back to the website and filled out the form. I later learned that this sudden impulse had actually happened during the Twin Holy Birthdays – the holy days of the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh, the two prophets central to the Bahá’í Faith. Weird. Eerie.

Whims are sometimes GREAT reasons to do things. What does converting to Bahá’í entail? Do you meet with a spiritual counselor, is there a baptism, do you join the congregation? How long did it take you from filling out that form to being a full-fledged member?

Well, let me tell you one thing: the Bahá’í Faith didn’t become the fastest-growing world religion by being inefficient, no sirree. I filled out the “I want to learn more” form on, I think, a Friday night, and I woke up on Saturday morning to an email from a local Bahá’í inviting me to her monthly fireside meeting. Firesides are, as I understand, a uniquely American Bahá’í tradition, dating back to when `Abdu’l-Bahá (the eldest son of the prophet Bahá’u’lláh, who led the nascent faith after his father’s death and brought it to the West) first visited the US in 1912 and met with interested Americans in their homes – by the fireside, naturally – to talk about the tenets of the Faith. The modern version is pretty much the same; the local Bahá’í community and anyone else who’s interested gathers in a private home and someone leads a discussion about some practical or philosophical aspect of the Faith. There are no clergy among the Bahá’í, and it’s somewhat frowned upon even to describe someone as a leader in the local community; in theory, someone who’s been a Bahá’í for a day is as qualified to lead a fireside as anyone else (though they’ve probably got a lot of reading to do).

I was planning to take things slowly, to go to a few of the firesides and other meetups, then officially convert on Naw-Rúz, the Bahá’í New Year. (I could fill up nine of these emails just talking about the calendar, which is unique and wonderful and was actually a defining moment in the establishment of the Bahá’í Faith as separate from Islam.) But that meeting really was a kind of magical experience. I mean, to start with, when I got there, there were maybe five other people there, and each and every one was of a different ethnicity. By the time everyone arrived, the group was perhaps 45% white, 45% black, and 10% Asian, which is generally in line with the metro area’s demographics (although there were relatively few Latinos, even though the countries with the highest percentage of Bahá’í are in Latin America) and something that I don’t think I’ve ever encountered in a mainline Protestant church. (Did you know that the Lutherans are whiter than the AME Church is black?) But even better than that was that everyone spoke – literally every single person in the room contributed to the discussion at least once. It’s not like it was inherently a particularly scintillating topic, either (it was a discussion of the methods of governance in the Bahá’í Faith) but it was such such a good conversational vibe that everyone there felt comfortable and safe contributing.

One woman told a long and very funny story about how she got started in the Faith, which I can’t do justice in retelling, but which she ended by talking about how the Bahá’í community had become her family. It really moved me, and after the meeting was over, I went over to her and told her I’d like to be part of her family too.

And that’s pretty much it, as far as what’s required to convert. One of the local Bahá’ís got my information and a little while later I got an ID card in the mail identifying me as a member of the Faith. Not some flimsy paper thing, either, but a very nice one with a full-color picture of the House of Worship on it. Fancy! (To be honest, I’m a little weirded out by having an official ID card; as I understand, the original rationale behind them was to make it easier for us to prove conscientious objector status, which does make some sense, but it still seems a bit odd.) The only other important step in the conversion process is, of course, to send Mallory Ortberg an email and ask if she wants to interview you about it.

Ooh, would you please fill up at least one email about the Bahá’í calendar??? And maybe one or two of your thoughts post-conversion?

Well, you asked for it! First off, I need to give a very brief history of the founding of the Faith. We believe that God has sent many messengers, who we call Manifestations of God, to deliver the same basic spiritual message to humankind with different cultural messages suitable for a particular time and place. There are nine pre-Bahá’í Manifestations of God named in the Bahá’í writings: Adam, Noah, Krishna, Moses, Abraham, Zoroaster, Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad. (Which is not to say that’s all of them; we believe that there are an effectively infinite number throughout time and space. There are some whose messages have been partially or completely lost because their nations have suffered a catastrophe; many Bahá’í would count the Iroquoian prophet Skennenrahawi on that list, for example. But the writings indicate that even animals receive Manifestations of God suitable for their nature, and that other planets have received them too.) Then in the mid-nineteenth century, two Manifestations of God were sent at roughly the same time: the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh. The Báb, whose title means “the gateway”, was a sort of John the Baptist figure, whose prophecy set the stage for someone he called “He Whom God shall make Manifest”; Bahá’ís believe these prophecies came to fruition in Bahá’u’lláh, though there are a very few Bábís left who don’t believe that.

In the early days of the Báb’s ministry, nothing he was saying was that far out of the mainstream of Twelver Shia Islam. At first his teachings were considered prophecies about the Mahdi or al-Qa’im, the Twelfth Imam, well within the norms of the Shaykhi school. But as more of his message was revealed, it became clear that he was identifying himself with al-Qa’im, which was heretical, and he was imprisoned. In prison the Báb wrote his greatest work, the Persian Bayán, in which he declared himself the founder of a new religion. One of the major breaks with Islam set forth in the Bayán is the Badí’ calendar. Now, the Islamic calendar is lunar: there are twelve months of 29-30 days, each matching an actual lunar cycle, so the year is about ten days shorter than a solar year. That’s why Islamic festivals “drift” relative to the Gregorian calendar. The structure of this calendar – and particularly its lunar, non-solar nature – is very specifically and unequivocally set forth in the Qur’an:

The number of the months, with God, is twelve in the Book of God, the day that He created the heavens and the earth; four of them are sacred. That is the right religion. So wrong not each other during them. And fight the unbelievers totally even as they fight you totally and know that God is with the godfearing. Know that intercalation (nasi) is an addition to disbelief. (Sura 9)

So when I say that the Badí’ calendar is a strictly solar calendar that doesn’t have twelve months, isn’t related at all to the lunar cycle, and includes intercalation, you can see that this would be A Bit Of A Problem for Muslims. In terms of the break with Islam, the development of the calendar was up there with the moment that one of my favorite figures from the dawn of the Bahá’í era, the poet Fatimah Baraghani, showed up at an early conference of followers of the Báb, took off her veil, brandished a sword, and said the Persian equivalent of “how do you like me now, punks?” (One of said punks was so shocked he literally cut his own throat and ran away gushing blood. Bahá’u’lláh responded to those saying that Baraghani had made herself impure by giving her a new title, Táhirih, which means “the pure.” Okay, apparently I could fill up another couple emails talking about Táhirih, so I’ll stop, but I will recommend the novel The Woman Who Read Too Much by Bayíyyih Nakhjavani, which I’m totally going to finish reading someday as soon as I figure out to balance reading for pleasure and having a five-month-old.)

“Badí'” means “wondrous” or “unique”, and the latter definitely applies; it’s certainly the only calendar I know of with nineteen months. (I say “months”; they obviously don’t have anything at all to do with the moon.) Each month has 19 days, and then an intercalary period of four or five days is added to keep the year in line with the solar calendar. The calendar is so different that it wasn’t fully implemented until last year, a hundred sixty odd years after it was first conceived. (Before 2015, the calendar was still in use but was pegged to the Gregorian calendar rather than the vernal equinox.) The years are themselves grouped in nineteen-year cycles called váhid, and nineteen cycles make a Kull-i-Shay’. So today, for example, is Fidal, the 17th day of Bahá in the 173rd year of the Bahá’í Era, which is the 2nd year of the 10th Váhid of the 1st Kull-i-Shay’. The use of nineteen year cycles is particularly interesting, because the solar and lunar calendars line up roughly every nineteen years… even though the Badí’ calendar doesn’t have a lunar component.

Okay. I have talked enough about calendars. How about one or two post-conversion thoughts?

It has definitely been odd for me to adjust to being part of a religion with an actual dogma. When I discuss the Faith, I often find myself saying “Bahá’ís believe X” like a sociologist rather than “we believe X,” even when it’s one of the aspects of the Faith that really does connect for me. The parts that don’t work as well for me present their own challenges. In particular, it’s hard for me to accept that Bahá’u’lláh is the last Manifestation of God we’re going to get until the 29th century, especially when there are some (cultural, not spiritual) teachings that don’t sit right with me. The Bahá’í get a C- on LGBTQ issues, for example, and that grade would be worse if so many other religions weren’t wrecking the curve with their terribleness on that subject. In my first Fireside, we were discussing another contentious issue – the fact that women are welcomed and even prioritized on every level of Bahá’í governance except the Universal House of Justice, the official interpreters of the Bahá’í writings, and that the only reason given for that is “it will become clear in the future.” Someone said, “I can’t understand that policy and find it hard to accept, but then I look back and I see my whole heart agrees with 99% of the Faith’s other teachings, and I have to ask – how can it be only 99% true? If I accept that it’s 99% true, don’t I also have to accept that maybe there’s a reason for the 1%?” And that stuck with me, though I still feel grave uncertainty there.

But on the other hand, even though I’m still struggling to make prayer a habit, I do feel a certain liberation in accepting the dogma. That sounds perverse, and I know a version of me from fifteen years ago would be appalled by it, but having a framework around which to build my own comprehension of God makes it a lot easier for me. The nameless thing I felt when I climbed up to Eremo delle Carceri has its own prayer now: “Blessed is the spot, and the house, and the place, and the city, and the heart, and the mountain, and the refuge, and the cave, and the valley, and the land, and the sea, and the island, and the meadow where mention of God hath been made, and His praise glorified.” And even though I’ve just started to dip my toe into the Bahá’í community, the Bahá’í I have met are a passionate, intelligent, diverse group of people who think critically about their faith and who can invariably hold an amazing conversation about any tiny detail of it you can name.

Thank you for the opportunity to talk about this, Mallory! It’s been an intense pleasure. If you have room in the calendar, April 20th is the first day of the feast of Ridván and April 28th is the ninth day; Ridván is the celebration of the commencement of Bahá’u’lláh and the most important festival in the calendar, and the first, ninth, and twelfth days of Ridván are Bahá’í holy days (but the twelfth day falls on a Sunday). It would be pretty neat to see this interview go up on one of those days, if that’s possible!

It is!

Add a comment

Skip to the top of the page, search this site, or read the article again