As we gathered in a large circle, Sabra Reichardt asked all of us to think about our own spiritual journeys, remembering the valleys of despair and the joyous peaks of enlightenment. She then asked us to have quiet minds, alert ears, and sensitive hearts as we remembered our journeys and listened to “Ode to Joy” by Beethoven.
Following this centering, Tori DeAngelis explained that when the WTB Council was deciding how to launch this year’s agenda, we had agreed to go back to the basics, to what had begun WTB in the first place: the stories of women’s divergent—yet common—faith journeys. Betsy Wiggins, a spiritual seeker, and Danya Wellmon, a Muslim, had spent hours sharing their deepest beliefs and the journeys they had taken to reach these beliefs.
This day, four women shared their journeys of faith, acknowledged their questions and doubts, and described their external adventures, some of which served as catalysts to change.
Staying Home—Daryl Files
Daryl spoke of her nontraditional journey in a traditional faith. Her Jewish culture and roots have shaped each decade of her life in different ways, despite the fact that she does not regularly attend temple or other formal Jewish services.
Daryl was raised with the Ten Commandments, by Jewish parents who immigrated from Lithuania and Romania. She enjoyed traditional holidays growing up. She understands the importance of food in one’s religious identity, even mentioning her Passover memories that include hours of dishwashing!
As a teen, Daryl was a member of B’nai B’rith Girls; in her early 20s, she was an advisor to a B’nai B’rith youth group in Atlanta. In her late 20s, she married out of the faith, gaining four stepdaughters. One granddaughter, now 22, has kept her grounded in the holidays, celebrating with her.
Throughout her 40s and 50s, Daryl kept busy with work, family and travel. But she developed a strong appreciation for her mother’s and aunts’ traditions when she witnessed Jewish celebrations in other countries that she visited.
Joining WTB has brought Daryl back to her Jewish roots. The “Journey to the Tent of Abraham” walk last year recalled the songs of her youth. Today Daryl keeps the traditions because her religion is inside her. At family bar and bat mitzvahs, she reunites with cousins around the country, and the rituals bring everyone together as if they had never been separated.
Although Daryl and her elderly mother have not always seen eye to eye regarding the practice of their faith, at this stage of life her mother is fascinated with the doings of WTB! This has given them a renewed connection.
Leaving Home—Roxanne Gupta
Roxanne grew up in a rural Presbyterian family near Seneca Falls in the Finger Lakes region of New York. Her interest in Hinduism and Buddhism began during her freshman year at Syracuse University, when she took a course about Eastern religions. As a teen she had become increasingly interested in peace and justice issues, especially the Vietnam War and civil and women’s rights, and a revolution was born inside her.
Although Roxanne had been active in her church youth groups, she eventually found that her faith tradition could not answer her questions. When she was first exposed to Hinduism in her class, she seemed to actually recognize the symbols and ideas! Awakened to the culture and religion of India, Roxanne immersed herself in Hindi language and South Asian civilization and history, then applied for a program that would allow her to spend her junior year in India. The program unfortunately was cancelled at the last minute, so Roxanne traveled alone to conduct an independent study at Syracuse University in Hyderabad, South India. There she was adopted by a family and a community, and she studied Indian classical dance and yoga under traditional masters.
Roxanne felt an immediate sense of connection in India. Nine months after arriving there, while on a visit to Banaras, the holy city, she met an Indian man whom she married three days later. Today, her only son, Kapil, and his wife, Tara, serve in the United States diplomatic corps. Recounting events in her life, Roxanne stated that miracles are everyday occurrences in India, where people believe in the supernatural. But when she returned home after a year in India, Roxanne faced culture shock, as her identity had been forever altered.
After completing her Syracuse University degree, Roxanne, along with her husband, opened the first Indian/vegetarian restaurant in Geneva, New York. They became involved in environmental and social activism. Roxanne offered the first yoga class in the Finger Lakes region. She has returned to India almost every year to study dance and has performed her dances in various venues in America, Europe and India. Roxanne returned to Syracuse University, where she served as outreach coordinator of the South Asia Center while completing a humanities PhD in South Asian anthropology and religious studies. She now incorporates her dance into her yoga instruction and has written a book, A Yoga of Indian Classical Dance: The Yogini’s Mirror. Roxanne has also contributed chapters to several books, including Encountering Kali: In the Margins, at the Center, in the West and The Veil: Women Writers on Its History, Lore, and Politics.
Roxanne is currently studying nutrition and healing with raw foods and will be opening a healing center next summer at Burrwood Farm, her residence overlooking Cayuga Lake, located only about a mile from where she was raised. Roxanne sees spirituality and health as integrally connected and feels she has come full circle in her life. While she considers herself a convert to Hinduism, sharing the Hindu openness to all religions, she does not regard labels as being important. She feels that much of her work in this lifetime is about integration: blending the best of both Eastern and Western philosophies and practices.
Leaving Home—Diane Johnson
Diane shared a journey of faith and critical inquiry that began in early childhood, when she first questioned her father’s prejudiced reactions to children of other ethnicities. After attending Catholic school for 12 years, she entered the convent and became a nun. But her inner voice always questioned the teachings and was not satisfied when the answer was, “Because the Church said so.” She found herself questioning more vigorously the various tenets of the Catholic faith.
After seven and a half years, Diane left the religious life. She eventually defined herself as an atheist, drawing up her own ethical standards of behavior with rights and responsibilities to live by. But her inner voice did not accept that either. As a photographer who loves flowers, she found herself returning to a belief in a divine power as she pondered the beauty and delicacy of nature’s creations.
A book that inspired Diane was Many Lives, Many Masters: The True Story of a Prominent Psychiatrist, His Young Patient, and the Past-Life Therapy That Changed Both Their Lives by Brian Weiss. This book helped direct her into counseling and prompted her to learn hypnotherapy and pursue further training with Dr. Weiss. Diane continues her spiritual search today and does a range of counseling and healing work. She considers herself spiritual and prays every day. She misses Catholic rituals, although she still can enjoy them, particularly when they are celebrated in a language she does not understand. She is unsure if the term “New Age” fits her, but she is happy with the spiritual direction of her life today.
Returning Home—Janet Donoghue
Janet was raised as an Italian Catholic and remembers the time, as a four-year-old, playing with mud pies, when she felt such joy and euphoria that she wanted that moment to last forever. Much of her spiritual journey has been aimed at recapturing that exultation.
Her family celebrated Janet’s first communion as the fulfillment of a cultural rather than religious expectation. She had a party and received presents, but her parents were not committed to attending Sunday services. When Janet was 12, a friend asked why she did not go to church. Janet explained that her family did not take her, so the friend invited her along. Janet loved the organ, vestments and rituals. In high school she became very involved, three nights a week, with catechism, charity and “fun” activities, including Syracuse’s well-known Pompeian Players directed by Father Charles Borgognoni. As a student at Lemoyne College, Janet met Father Daniel Berrigan, who wanted her to participate in his service projects, some of which involved traveling to distant cities. She was disappointed when her father did not approve.
Janet and her husband, having two children and little money, felt that birth control, although against the Church’s rules, was necessary. When friends suggested she find the “right” priest for permission, she wondered, “What’s wrong with this picture?” Having already begun questioning other dogmatic positions, she wondered whether she was becoming a heretic. She began looking elsewhere for spiritual guidance.
In 1980, Janet became a drug and alcohol counselor at a high school, and 12-step programs became her new spirituality. The idea of “letting go and letting God,” surrendering and sharing, felt sacramental. She loved her work—“my crazy students and their co-dependent parents.”
Janet’s father died in 1989, and there were ugly disputes over his will. To heal from the pain, she attended Kirkridge Retreat and Study Center. Returning home after this very spiritual experience, she joined a guided meditation group. In the early 1990s Janet became trained in holotropic breath work. Evocative music helped facilitate out-of-body experiences, which were like near-death experiences and returned her to past lives; she found that she did not want to come back from being with the light. This was so profound, so energizing, so life changing, that she feels she indeed has not returned to her previous life.
After this experience, Janet read The Celestine Prophecy, by James Redfield, in which the main character tracks down an ancient Peruvian manuscript containing nine Insights that prophesize the modern emergence of New Age spirituality. Janet longed to capture the essence of the book, so in 1994, along with Diane Johnson and Gay Montague, she went to Peru. There they participated in an outing led by a female Brazilian shaman. At Machu Picchu, Janet attended rituals that did not resonate with her spiritually. She came home and continued searching.
Janet next visited the Association for Research and Enlightenment, in Virginia Beach, which houses the writings of Edgar Cayce. She took a weeklong course on improving your psychic powers, along with a seminar presented by Huston Smith. Janet found this place to be very spiritual and healing.
In the late 1990s, Janet traveled with Gay to Medjugorje, in Bosnia-Hercegovina, where they felt the vibrational changes of sacred ground. They walked up the mountain to where Mary first appeared to several local children. On the way down the mountain, while crossing bare stone, both she and Gay smelled roses, a life-enriching sign of Mary’s presence.
Janet joined a Quaker group focused on healing meditation, which she still attends weekly. She describes it as a wonderful, quiet place to be. Then, in 2000, she retired and had time to participate in a program called Grace. This involved five-day retreats three times a year for two years. It was both Christian and Buddhist based. The retreat master used channeled materials, which made the experience rich and metaphysical.
Having read a book about John of God, an internationally known Brazilian Catholic healer, Janet decided to take her son, who has a chronic illness, to Brazil. She found the people of the town of Abadiania were directly involved in prayer and meditation to raise the vibrational energy that supported the many physical and spiritual healings there. For two weeks, Janet and her son were immersed in drinking blessed water, practicing deep meditation, visiting sacred sites, and going before John of God to receive his healing touch and blessings. Visitors from everywhere experienced higher levels of energy and connection with each other.
Janet has formed a more mature concept of God than she had as a child. Then God was outside; now God is within. For the past two years she has participated in a home church of Rapha Christian Ministries that meets monthly. Rapha is nondenominational and spiritual rather than religious. All are welcome. At her husband’s urging, she has also returned to the Catholic Church because the parish at St. Andrew’s is a community of believers, not clergy. There she has found a much more inclusive atmosphere than at the church of her youth, including women participating in services and an open acceptance of people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender. She has decided that just as corporations and schools can be dysfunctional, so too can churches; but things can be changed.
We gathered in small groups to share pieces of our own personal journeys. Then we formed a circle of women who had been touched by the journeys of our sisters and were grateful for their stories.