Doing Your “Ministry”

Last week, I watched the film, Hallelujah, about the life of Leonard Cohen and the journey of the song that he wrote, Hallelujah. A documentary, I was drawn quickly into the film. The soulful closeups of Cohen were mesmerizing. His deep bass voice seemed to touch a chord that my whole body responded to. And the words, his words are soulful. When I left the theater, the thought that rang true was
“He was doing his ministry.”

There was a period of five years when Cohen lived in a Buddhist Monastery. It was during the end of that period that he discovered that his manager had embezzled most of his money and sold the publishing rights to his songs. This forced Cohen out of retirement to recoup his losses. Those last years of touring around the world to sell-out crowds, in my estimation, brought out the quintessential minister/entertainer that he was. There was an added profundity, humor and presence to his performances. The audiences responded to his charisma.

All of this to wonder…how do I do my ministry? How do you do your ministry? What does that look like? In previous blogs, I’ve written about my Conversations with Daniel…a man with whom I had extensive intimate conversations about male/female relationships. For three months, we met weekly. I recorded our conversations and gave him a copy of the recording to review before the next meeting. The intention, was that we could witness how we communicated as a man and a woman in conversation.

Daniel quickly established himself as the teacher and that left me in the role of the student. However, in reviewing the recordings, he witnessed his ways of dominating the conversations. He made his best effort at being less imposing. He also had a lot of knowledge, wisdom and passion and a strong desire to impart that. It was challenging for him not to interrupt and insert himself frequently. Towards the last of our twelve weeks of conversations, I noted that I was doing at least an equal amount of talking and there seemed to be more of a balance.

Daniel passed away yesterday, suddenly. I got the news last night by telephone from an acquaintance. It was like dropping a mini-bomb in the midst of my bumpy life. Today, the day after, I can’t quite believe it. I was listening to one of our recordings last week. I put his name on my to-do list “Call Daniel!” I got so busy preparing for an upcoming art exhibit that I didn’t call him. And then the finality of the news, the phone call– “I’ve got some sad news. Daniel died.” The shock and immediate protest on my part. “No!” I wanted to turn back the hands of time by even one day so that I could call him without hesitation and without an excuse.

The reason I bring Daniel into this is that he was doing his ministry. His life was his ministry. His journey and sharing it with others was his proclamation. “I’m here!”
In the last ten to fifteen years, Daniel became a quieter man, following a spiritual teacher and doing a daily meditation. He was himself always, through his various stages of evolution. He was a poet, a writer, an actor, a friend. And likely more that I don’t know. His lived life was his ministry.

I sometimes collect quotes. This one appeared in my paper pile yesterday:

“I hope you will go out and let stories, that is life, happen to you,
and that you will work with these stories from your life–
your life–not someone else’s life–water them with your blood and tears and your laughter till they bloom, till you yourself burst into bloom.
That is the work, The only work.”

author unknown

This quote reminded me what a ministry might look like. Being you is your only purpose and a brilliant one at that.

I dedicate this post to my friend, Daniel.

Aha’s: Part Three–Separate Unity

I first heard of Gurumayi Chidvilasananda in my late thirties. She migrated between several ashrams, one in India, one in New York and one in Oakland, California. An acquaintance told me about the ashram in Oakland, bordering Berkeley. In search of a spirituality that my Catholic upbringing didn’t offer, one spring day I visited the ashram.

When I think back on this time, I remember myself as a questing young woman. I was married and with children. I was in search of deeper meaning, spiritual solace and a community. There were things that stood out about the ashram. There was the indoor garden, like an arboretum, with fragrant Jasmine climbing trellises. The Chanting Cave was a sequestered room that was pitch dark. Being in a totally dark space, sensory stimulation was lessened. The constant was the recitation of the mantra “Om Namah Shivaya” as chanted by Gurumayi. This mantra played repeatedly over 24-hours. Anyone could go there at any time and find comfort and serenity. It felt like a womb to me, protected and cushioned.

Seva, meaning selfless service, was a participation in making meals and cleaning up afterwards. It could mean cleaning the bathrooms or whatever else is on the list to keep an ashram running efficiently. The meals were vegetarian and they were nutritious and delicious.

Although it was communal, it felt like a private experience to me–quiet, respectful, and non-intrusive–as we walked through the halls or prayed or chanted together.

I did spend one overnight there. I had a little room to myself until a woman walked in late in the evening to share the space. She emphasized that her given name was Barbara but she had taken a spiritual name which I can’t remember. She methodically took her stones–they traveled everywhere with her–from a pouch and placed them on the little shelf behind her bed. They were her companions and support. She told me that she snored. All I needed to do if it got loud was to call her by her given name and she would stop snoring.

That evening, settling down for a night’s rest, the sounds rose up from the street below. There was a bus stop and voices congregated and they seemed to be aggressive. Finally, they moved on. Barbara also settled in for the night. Within minutes, she was snoring. Not a soft, easy snore…but a loud and grating one that couldn’t be ignored! After several minutes, I called her name softly. And then again, softly. “Barbara, you’re snoring.” She woke and thanked me, turned on her side and continued to snore loudly throughout the night. In the morning, she thanked me for being “so gentle” in waking her. She got up refreshed and went downstairs for the morning service. I declined and stayed behind in the little twin bed for a few hours more.

The thing about the ashram was that it felt like a safe place to be. Your personal needs were met–food and shelter, if I wanted it…but the spiritual talks, the music, the atmosphere was permeated with a deep feeling of peace.

One very auspicious day, Gurumayi was coming to visit this ashram. When a holy person comes to visit, it is called darshan. I parked the car blocks away and walked to the ashram. The line to get into the hall wrapped around the building and down several blocks. I couldn’t even count the number of people in line and wondered if we would all fit inside the hall. Food was being served. I remember standing in another line to get a tray of delicious food. I walked into the hall. On the floor, there were little mats to kneel or sit upon. I sat with my tray of food. I looked around the room at this sea of humanity. A sudden insight of our separate unity washed over me. We were all unique individuals and here we were, bound together by a common purpose, need, desire or just a shared meal. Whatever it was, it felt profound–that we could sit there together, peacefully, respectfully and connected in a deep way as we anticipated the blessing of Gurumayi.

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What did this separate unity mean to me? We live in isolation in so many ways. There are those of us who live alone and perhaps far from family. We think that no one else feels or thinks as we do. We protect our isolation because we don’t want to be too vulnerable. Yet, that day, sitting among strangers, I felt that deep thread of connection to all of humanity, to all of life. Each one of us is unique and we bring our gifts to the life we are living. And yet, it is so supportive to realize that I am united with others as I walk this pilgrim’s path.