How St Beuno's changed my life

Published on 30 Mar 2021
View of St Beuno's in spring

by Farifteh Robb

The first time I set eyes on St Beuno’s was almost half a century ago in 1973. I was a young girl from Iran, a post-graduate student of Hopkins at Nottingham University, and because I was a Muslim my academic supervisor suggested I should get acquainted with Jesuits and their way of life. That visit was a vital step towards my eventual conversion from Islam to Christianity. Older Friends of St Beuno’s may remember it as it was in those days. Fr Michael O’Halloran was the Superior, and over time I also got to know Fathers Thomas Northover, James Hogbin, Charles Byrne, Tony Nye, and Gerry Hughes. They were always non-judgmental, always ready to listen, and they were imbued with an inner light that shone forth from their words and actions. I remember each one of them with great affection— especially their kindness to me, a female student who was not even Christian, let alone a Catholic! I had no family in the UK, and the welcome and support I received from St Beuno’s made it my spiritual home from home. The old house itself with its lovely grounds is a wonderful haven for any lonely student. But it really was the people within its walls who showed me Christ Himself.

Over the following four years, until the completion of my studies, I made several visits, and was allocated an unofficial mentor or guardian angel. This was Fr Peter McIlhenny SJ, an elderly Scot in a wheelchair. We met for discussions lasting half an hour every evening after supper. These usually took place beside a window at the far end of the Long Gallery (I never saw inside his room!) During the day I spent a great deal of time in the chapel, and regularly attended Mass and Benediction. At first these were unfamiliar rites, but they soon became a balm to my soul. I eventually confided to Fr Peter my inmost desire to become a Christian, and it didn’t take long for him to deduce that I had sought and loved Christ secretly in my heart for many years, but I was not brave enough to consider a move as radical as turning away from Islam. He listened patiently to my long litany of reservations about this dilemma, stretching from ‘God’s will’ to parental disapproval, fear of apostasy, and the absence of a church back home into which I might fit. After a long silence he simply said: “Why not try the Spiritual Exercises? the God of Surprises may surprise you!”

So it was that in July 1977 I entered the silence of a modified Long Retreat. The improbable nature of this step did not escape me: The Disabled Priest, The Muslim Girl, and The Exercises—a scriptwriter would have been hard-pressed to invent it! I admit I struggled with much of the material, and skipped blithely over a number of the colloquies, but I did emerge with a much calmer frame of mind, though still unsure whether it was really God’s will that I should leave Islam. Fr Peter’s response was both wise and generous: “You say you really want to do God’s will—have you considered that this may not be God’s will?” When I heard that, a great weight seemed to lift from my shoulders (St Ignatius might say that I had received a Consolation). I was not yet ready to take that final step, but I knew that God loved me and He knew what was in my heart. That summer I left Britain and returned home to Iran. On parting Fr Peter presented me with a small Miraculous Medal—I still have it.

But all was not well in Iran. The Islamic Revolution which would depose the Shah, and throw the whole country into political chaos was already making itself felt with violent street demonstrations, imprisonments, and the imposition of martial law. I was sharing a flat in Tehran with an English girl who was a Christian, and it was she who introduced me to the Persian Church of whose existence until then, being a bona fide Muslim, I had been completely unaware. Iran is a diocese of the Episcopal Church In Jerusalem & the Middle East and this indigenous church had many Iranian converts from Islam. Hearing the familiar Anglican liturgy in both Persian and English I instantly felt at home. Years ago, Christ had called me to Himself, and I now I finally felt I was able to answer that call. God’s timing was indeed perfect—it was just months before the Islamic Revolution changed everything in Iran. Had I waited any longer it would not have been possible. The Revolution and its aftermath caused my family much suffering, but that is another story. I was Baptized and Confirmed in St Paul’s Church in Tehran on 5 May 1978 wearing my Miraculous Medal. It was an unforgettable day of great joy.

I now live in Edinburgh. I’m a retired midwife and a grandmother. If you would like to know more about my experiences at St Beuno’s, and what happened to me next you may wish to read my book: In the Shadow of the Shahs: Finding Unexpected Grace, published by Lion Hudson in 2020. It’s the story of my life and Christian faith journey.