What Interfaith Spirituality Means to Me: My Faith Journey
by Sally Jo Gilbert de Vargas
I was raised in a family with no real faith tradition. Actually, my parents had an interfaith marriage…my father was Jewish, my mother was Greek Orthodox, but after their marriage they totally rejected both religious traditions. Both of their families rejected their marriage quite strongly. So much so that, my mother’s father totally disowned my mother after her marriage, even though my father “converted” to Christianity and became baptized in a Greek Orthodox church in order to gain his acceptance. To no avail. He wore a death band, pronounced my mother dead, and never saw her again until she visited him on his deathbed. My father’s family wasn’t much better. Even though my parents married (a second time) in a Jewish temple, his family never accepted my mother, and did not have much to do with our family until many, many years later. As a result of these and other experiences, my parents both rejected organized religion in general. They felt that over-zealous religious beliefs were the cause of most conflicts in the world, and they tried to raise their children to reject religious practice. They never showed intolerance towards people or individuals because of their religious beliefs, they just thought religion was something that intelligent people should avoid. They were, instead, secular humanists, with the highest moral values, who both gave themselves in service to their communities and their highest ideals of humanity. In a sense their God was Truth and Universal Beauty.
At age sixteen I began to read about and study Eastern religions. I became a vegetarian and began to study Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism. I met a spiritual teacher from the Sikh line of Gurus (beginning with Guru Nanak), and at age 18 I was initiated into the path of Surat Shabd Yoga, a meditative path which focuses on Divine Light and Sound, and the principle of Ahimsa (non-violence). One of the most important premises of this path was the belief in the universality of all religions, which I readily accepted. I followed this path with great vigilance for 10 years. However, the structure and form of the path was not fulfilling me in some important ways in my life, and after an intense personal crisis which nearly led me off the deep end, I changed course and left off any outward spiritual path. I still believed deeply in certain moral principles that guided my life, but I turned outward and discontinued any inward spiritual searching for many years. I became interested instead in human psychology, and came to know my psychological make-up through working with therapists and reading Freud, Jung, and other psychologists. I was still intensely self-introspective, but I believed that my purpose in life was to live my values and beliefs by offering service to others, and that my own inward growth would come naturally as a result.
Later I got married and had two children. I wanted my children to have some spiritual grounding, so I decided to join a liberal Christian church with a woman minister who was able to interpret Christianity to me in a way that made it acceptable and palatable. I told her honestly that “I wasn’t very religious, and I didn’t believe that Jesus Christ was the only son of God.” In fact, I still believed in the universality of religions, and the belief that there had been and always would be many important spiritual teachers on Earth. My pastor agreed that I could join the church having these beliefs, so I did. My children and I were baptized and participated in this loving community for over 10 years. I made connections between mystical Christianity and the mysticism I had studied and practiced in my adolescence, but I also knew that other religious traditions had the same kernel of truth buried deep within them. When my son decided he was interested in Buddhism, I encouraged him to pursue this.
I became a student of different religions. I read the Bible all the way through, as well as the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, and the Tao Te Ching. I continued to try to uncover the universal truths that could be found in all religious texts. I re-read Aldous Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy and Will James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience, and used them as guides to my way of thinking and being in the world. I re-connected with my original spiritual belief that all sacred texts and all great religious teachers gave the same basic message about God; that God is within and without, that God is imminent and transcendent, and that we can have the ultimate experience of God in this life, and we do not have to wait until death to meet and have an experience of God.
At this point I stopped going to any church whatsoever. I went through another intense personal crisis when my marriage ended. I became very depressed and was seeing a pastoral counselor who tried to help me re-connect with my spiritual self. But I resisted. I do remember memorizing a poem by Rumi and using it as a mantra in my head for an entire year, to try to help me out of my depression, as I was bound and determined not to take medication. The poem was this:
“God picks up the reed-flute world and blows.
Each note is a need coming through one of us,
A passion, a longing-pain.
Remember the lips where the wind-breath originated,
And let your note be clear.
Don’t try to end it.
Be your note. “
After nearly two years of struggling with this longing-pain, I still had not found relief. Then one evening, Sept. 10, 2004 to be exact, I went to a program at Town Hall, entitled, “Lullabies and Love Songs from the Axis of Evil.” The title intrigued me and I went to see what it was about. The program was inscribed with a poem by Hafiz that struck me in such a way as I have never forgotten:
“How did the rose ever open its heart and give to the world all its beauty?
It felt the encouragement of Light against its being.
Otherwise we all remain too frightened.”
That was the night I heard Jamal Rahman speak. As I think back on it now, my situation can be described perfectly by this poem by Adi Riga (which I encountered later):
“ I was sleeping and being comforted by a cool breeze
When suddenly a gray dove from a thicket sang and sobbed with longing
And reminded me of my own passion.
I had been away from my own soul for so long,
But that dove’s crying woke me, and made me cry.
Praise to all early-waking grievers!”
Jamal was that gray dove from a thicket, and I knew immediately that I had just awakened from a long sleep. (Instead of being comforted, however, I had been tossing and turning, restless and uncertain.) Even to this day this poem brings tears to my eyes when I recite it, as it describes my awakening with such poignancy.
For the last two years, since that day, my life has been transforming in large and small ways. Through my continued association with Jamal and his Interfaith Community Sanctuary, attending classes, workshops, retreats, and services, I have developed a series of spiritual practices which now have begun to totally envelop my life. This has happened slowly, almost imperceptibly, little by little, like a rose petal opening up to the sunlight.
I strive to take Jamal’s teachings to heart and use them to transform my life. My goal is to transform every aspect of my life into a form of spiritual practice. I strive to work equally on the inner and outer planes, in the visible and invisible worlds. I strive to have my hands faithfully working in the world while my heart is forever in sweet remembrance of God. I accomplish sweet remembrance through various practices. Every single day begins with meditation and ends with meditation. Every day I walk for at least an hour, during which time I recite verses, poems and chants to myself. During the day I strive to keep my attention focused on my heart, and tell my heart, “I love you.” (This has been the most difficult practice for me to accomplish. It has taken me a long time to realize that I am saying this to the Divine Heart within, not to my ego or little self.) I try to let my heart guide me in all my decisions and interactions. In the back of my mind I try always to have a chant or verse going, like a tape recorder. When all else is still and my mind is idle, the chant or verse emerges. At the end of every day, before I meditate, I write in a journal, reflecting on my day, thinking about what I am grateful for, what is challenging me, when I succeeded and when I failed to remember God. I reflect upon my “10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows of life” and try to embrace them equally. When I become overwhelmed with sorrow and self-pity, which happens!, I try to perform sacred holding, which is a process that allows me to accept and integrate my negative feelings, and transform them, little by little, into a source of strength and wholeness. Often I read or even write poems to express my innermost longings. When I meet someone during the day, I try to meet the Divine in them, and to learn from them something important and lasting. For not only does every religion embody the Truth, so does every person, every encounter, and every experience, if only we are open to receiving its message.
The message of Interfaith Spirituality resonates with me because it embodies the belief that “All paths lead to the same God,” and that one must search and find the path and the set of spiritual practices that suits one’s life circumstances, history, and personality. It is not so important what practices one chooses, what outer forms are most suitable. This will certainly differ from person to person, and may even vary from time to time in one’s own life. What really matters is that one just does it! Whatever we practice, if we do it with sincerity, humility, and with the intention of drawing nearer to God, we are bound to succeed. If we take but one step towards God, God will take 10,000 steps towards us. “God guides to Himself all who turn to Him, those who have faith, and whose hearts find satisfaction in the remembrance of God. For truly, in the remembrance of God do hearts find rest.” (Qur’an)
I give thanks to Jamal and to the Interfaith Community for providing me with the means to draw nearer to God and to my own true Self. I hope my experience will in some small way enrich and inspire others who are also seeking to draw nearer to God.
“Favor upon favor have you bestowed upon this handful of dust.
Thank you, God!” (Sufi prayer)
~ Sally Jo Gilbert de Vargas (8/25/06)