When a Spiritual Teacher Passes Away: Reflections From a Student

Gary Corson courtesy of his daughter Rochelle

When great teachers die, it is as if access to a whole library of knowledge is now denied to us.

That certainly is the case for many Baha’is in New Zealand who learned so much from Gary Corson. He passed away in Invercargill in the South Island of New Zealand last year.

But all of us can imagine Gary (1934-2023) calling out from his high perch in the Abha Kingdom: “For goodness’ sake remember what we discussed!”

Gary would be reminding us that by using our own minds we should continue in our eternal process of learning about reality. That process, he would say, should be guided by our own understandings of the sacred Writings of our Faith, as well as its authoritative interpretations.

His encouragement of independent investigation of truth has proven increasingly important in recent years as a worried humanity seeks refuge in authoritarianism, agnosticism, atheism, amorality and apathy.

Gary Corson, born and raised in the United States of America, discovered the teachings and scripture of the Baha’i Faith in the Pacific where he and his beloved wife, the late Carol Ann Corson, had settled and where Gary pursued his profession as a teacher.

He told us that he encountered the Faith via the wonderful compilation Baha’i World Faith. That selection of Writings of Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha confirmed for him many of his existing beliefs, including that creation is a continuous process.

Gary went on to study and deeply contemplate the Baha’i Writings, delighting in sharing and discussing his findings with others.

Many of the fortunate participants in these conversations say that before they had met Gary, they had never experienced such a concentrated education, such a deepening in spiritual truths. The sessions he hosted gave them an understanding of Baha’i concepts that have shaped the rest of their lives.

Lured partly by the chef-like dinner creations of the lovely and wise Carol, we would arrive at their home in Christchurch at 5pm on a Saturday for a formal deepening based on passages of the Writings.

Then, as the culinary delights and coffees kept on coming from Carol, Gary would lean back in his recliner chair, light up with his trademark smile, and deliver a point of view that would challenge us all. We had current and future doctoral graduates in our group as well as artists, schoolteachers, homemakers and, yours truly, a journalist.

The discussions would go back and forth, with Gary encouraging us to ponder deeply on the views being expounded by those present. His lightning sense of humour would get the jokes rolling in, giving us a comforting pause as our minds struggled with the concepts under discussion.

The first experience of this led me to say to my wife as we were leaving: ”What on earth was that?” We eventually concluded we had been in the presence of a great philosopher.

Gary emphasised two Baha’i teachings– the relativity of truth, and that humanity was now in its collective adolescence. He said that humans would move into maturity, signalled by an ordered global society built on justice and love.

His method of teaching the relativity of truth—that we have limited understandings of reality because we see it from our own viewpoints—was not always verbal. On one occasion, he placed a multi-coloured ball in the centre of a room, with those present sitting in different sides of the room. The idea was that the ball was an apt symbol of truth, and that we observers saw the same truth from different angles. The way to obtain an ever-increasing idea of truth, he pointed out, was to get information from the other observers. “Everything,” he wrote in an essay, “would depend upon truthfulness, honesty and trustworthiness.”

Naturally, he was very interested in the process of consultation, the consensus decision making process that Baha’u’llah taught, that Abdu’l-Baha encouraged, and whose facets were clearly listed by Shoghi Effendi.

As a member over the decades of two National Spiritual Assemblies and six Local Spiritual Assemblies, Gary had years of experience with those who worked to refine their use of Baha’i consultation.

Gary warned about adopting from secular society the concept of precedent, well known in legal systems as a way of resolving issues by following past decisions. He described the use of precedents as having “no place within the Baha’i concept of administering that all important concept of ‘justice’, which is the ‘best beloved’ thing in the eyes of God.”

He warned about limiting consultation by “time” and “money” (the cost of members getting together). Those materialistic factors, he said, could push Assemblies to come to a conclusion prematurely, for example, thinking they had to decide by the end of a meeting.

As for the teaching that humanity was currently passing through its collective adolescence, he would happily point out how so many factors confirmed that observation. Just look, he said, at the obsession with sex, the love of speed, the demand for rights but the neglect of responsibilities.

By his way of life, he demonstrated his own spiritual maturity as seen in his loving regard for his three children, his wife, and his extended family—those who attended formal and informal sessions in his home.

For many years, Gary’s role as a traveller for his business enterprise enabled him to visit Baha’i communities and individuals throughout the South Island of New Zealand. His arrival elicited excitement at the learning about to take place (as well as the entertainment by his unique and often hilarious personality) and then sadness that he was moving on to the next city, town or rural community. He deepened the understandings of the Baha’is of that vast and scenic island, and united them by passing on messages and news.

Any deep sorrow at the passing away of this loveable genius is mitigated by the knowledge of all who knew him that he was longing to experience the Abha Kingdom. We grateful students feel so happy for him.

And what is more, we can imagine that he will be reaping the rewards as promised by Baha’u’llah for the departed who “hath walked in the ways of God”. Among those rewards will surely be further explorations to the questions that Gary posed. That process, as he would say, could mysteriously affect us in our earthly lives. As Baha’u’llah proclaimed:

“The light which these souls radiate is responsible for the progress of the world and the advancement of its peoples. They are like unto leaven which leaveneth the world of being, and constitute the animating force through which the arts and wonders of the world are made manifest. Through them the clouds rain their bounty upon men, and the earth bringeth forth its fruits.

Footnotes & Citations

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Michael Day

Michael Day is the author of a new book, “Point of Adoration. The story of the Shrine of Baha’u’llah 1873-1892.” He is also the author of “Journey to a Mountain”, “Coronation on Carmel” and “Sacred Stairway”, a trilogy that tells the story of the Shrine of the Bab. His photo book “Fragrance of Glory” is an account of the Ascension of Abdu’l-Baha. A former member of the New Zealand Baha’i community, Michael now lives in Australia. He was editor of the Baha’i World News Service in Haifa 2003-2006.

Michael Day

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