Interview with Anne van Geldern
- When I was a kid, things were very ceremonial, even in her house. She (my grandmother) had little fonts of holy water on her walls, and statues of saints. If any of us were ever sick, she would put our school pictures near the saints.
- I went to Rome and to Assisi. I took my daughter, who was ten at the time, and we visited many, many churches in Rome-there's a church on every corner. I think there are seven significant churches you're supposed to go to in Rome, and I think we went to five. Partly it's for indulgences-after a Catholic dies they spend less days in Purgatory if they receive indulgences by doing particular activities, and that was one of them.
- (while traveling in Assisi) we were waiting for the opening of a church that seemed to be closed for lunch. Apparently there's a piece of the Cross in this church, so we really wanted to wait to see it. As we sat there, we started to be harassed by some gypsies, and we realized that we really weren't in a very public area. But just as we thought they were going to harass us again, these monks in white robes came by and the gypsies went away, and the monks followed us for a little bit and then they were gone. And when we returned from our trip, Maryann asked many people what order of monks had these white robes, and no one could think of any monk they'd ever seen in white robes. So we felt that maybe they too had been there to protect us.
- you use the first part of the Mass (Catholic service) to reflect on what you may have done the week before that was or wasn't good, and then you listen to the readings to reflect on how those apply to your life, or how they should apply to your life. Then you take communion, you take the bread or the host. Then there's a short meditation, and then you're actually given a blessing or a dismissal-they use the words, "Go now and serve the Lord." So the idea is that you're dismissed as a community to take what you've heard and what you've learned and live it.
- I think in some way I use teaching as a way to learn more myself. I learn something every time I teach, even after having taught the Mass for three or four years now.
- Sometimes, particularly if I feel overwhelmed, I say, Well I wouldn't be given this much if God didn't think I could handle it. So I'm supposed to be handling it some way-maybe I'm just not approaching it the right way the first time.
- I always say that I'm doing this international job for a reason, and I ask myself what I'm supposed to be getting out of it. I also feel like I didn't necessarily "choose" this-and that makes me look at it in a different way. Giving up control is the hardest thing, especially for me, but I think that's something I've learned over the last five years. If you say that you're not making these decisions, but somebody else is guiding these decisions, then the good or bad of the decision is much better.
- Situations are given to us for a reason, to allow us to learn something. Or someone may be living their life in such a way that they're getting back what they're giving off. But for me, if something bad happens the question is really, What am I getting out of this? I'm supposed to get something, or it wouldn't happen.
- I think connectivity is what makes us different from animals or others forms of life. I think it's all about relationships and learning from relationships. And then as you're journeying through whatever time you're in, what are you gaining from it? I think the way we all interact with each other, and how we understand and honor one another's differences-I think that's what we're all here for.
Ann E: In what spiritual tradition were you raised?
Anne vG: Roman Catholic. My family is descended on both sides from Italy, so I would imagine everyone's been Roman Catholic on both sides for generations.
Ann E: And you were raised in one town, and went to the same church all your life. Do your children go to the same church that you went to as a child?
Anne vG: Yes, so I'm the third generation, and I'm raising the fourth generation in the same church.
Ann E: And have you followed Catholicism your whole life?
Anne vG: I think it's called being a cradle Catholic! I've pretty much always followed Catholicism. For a short time in high school I still went to church, but I went to the Methodist youth group because the Catholic youth group was not very active. During my first two years of college I attended church, but more sporadically. And then after I was out of college I stopped going to church, and probably didn't go again on a regular basis until I was pregnant with my first child.
Ann E: You do go regularly now, and your daughters go, right?
Anne vG: Yes. But I wouldn't say that I was not a Catholic during the time I wasn't attending church-I just wasn't attending church in a formal way. I was just trying to fit it in, and at the time I didn't really know what role Catholicism had in my life.
Ann E: Have you ever studied any other spiritual path?
Anne vG: I'm very interested in spiritual things; I'm very interested in the whole idea of angels. In Catholicism, angels are kind of a formal thing, but they interest me more as spiritual guides. I think most of my spiritual exploration has been somewhat Catholic centered.
Ann E: Studying angels is absolutely harmonious with the Catholic tradition. So there are very traditional ways for a Catholic to study angels, but you've also studied them in less traditional ways. Are there any spiritual heroes in your background, people who have strongly influenced your beliefs?
Anne vG: I wouldn't call them spiritual heroes, but there are people I admire for being steadfast. My father has always had a very unshakable faith. He has a pocket full of religious medals, and whenever he found a medal he would put it in his pocket. So when he got undressed at night he'd put them in a row on his bureau. I remember when I was a kid they were things to play with. And he always kept his rosary beads with him, no matter what. And he stopped into church every day-he didn't go to Mass, but he stopped into church every day. He would say he went to light a candle-I think he was praying, but he would say, "Oh, I stopped at church to light a candle."
Ann E: Talk a little bit about the medals, because other cultures don't have that specific kind of symbol.
Anne vG: He had a two-inch wooden cross in the little leather pouch with his black rosary beads. I think he kept those because he had them when he was in the army. And then he had a St. Christopher medal and the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which has always been his personal saint. And whenever he found other medals he would just add them to the collection. He had to have had at least ten things in his pocket. No matter what has happened in his life, I think his faith centers him in some way, and I admire that he's stuck with it.
And then there was my grandmother. She didn't speak English, so it was hard to communicate with her, but she was so strong in her Catholic faith. When I was a kid, things were very ceremonial, even in her house. She had little fonts of holy water on her walls, and statues of saints. If any of us were ever sick, she would put our school pictures near the saints.
A tire once blew up in my brother's eyes, and there's a patron saint of eyes in Catholicism, so my grandmother went and bought a holy card of her-now, again, this is someone who didn't drive or speak English! Someone had to take her to a store, and she bought these holy cards with a prayer on the back and a picture of the saint who guards eyes on the front. Then she gave one to my brother and put the other one on his picture. At the time, these were all just rituals that she did-if you got hurt she threw holy water on you. But thinking back, that was such a deep part of who she was.
Ann E: She had faith.
Anne vG: Yes. She had four sons who went to war, and they all came home. People always say now that it was because she prayed so hard about them. Again, at the time I didn't really understand; I didn't really even understand her as a person-we couldn't communicate because of the language barrier. But her faith was a huge part of her life.
Ann E: That's a beautiful story. Is there anybody else you can think of? Anyone who moved you spiritually by the way they lived their life?
Anne vG: I guess my friend Maryann. She's now in a convent seeking to be a nun; at the age of forty she turned her whole life away from material, more traditional living to go into a community. I don't think you could say she was too young to know any better-she made a very aware choice to live her life totally dedicated to Jesus. She's actually consecrated her heart to Mary (mother of Jesus) and to Jesus, and everything she does is based on that.
Ann E: And she was raised Catholic?
Anne vG: She was raised Catholic and went to all Catholic schools when she was growing up.
Ann E: And she was successful in the world and tried the world very sincerely, and now at forty she's made this transition. Did you go to Medujorie with her?
Anne vG: No, she went to Medujorie, I didn't go. But she was the one who got me interested in all the readings on it. And I would say studying that was probably very pivotal in her transition and in my own renewed faith. There's so much that's very real, and also very current, about what is happening with the apparitions in Medujorie.
Ann E: Talk a little bit more about Medujorie, because I don't think people will know about it if they're not Catholic.
Anne vG: In Catholic history there have been several places recorded where the Virgin Mary appeared to different people. In-I'm not sure what country it's considered-Bosnia, I think-there's a village where there have been apparitions of the Virgin Mary since the early 80's. So it's become quite a pilgrimage place, because although the apparitions aren't formally sanctified by the Vatican, the Pope has been there and recognized them.
Even if you don't believe there are apparitions, just the spiritual movement in a war-torn country is amazing-and with all the fighting happening, it has never reached the area where the apparitions are. I think it's around three o'clock every day that Mary appears in a chapel, and so people make all sorts of devotions and pilgrimages and bring prayers to the site. And there are other spiritual things that have happened in that area. There's a mountain where people say that Mary's appeared at times. People make pilgrimages up the mountain and they do something almost like the Stations of the Cross, or a rosary or some sort of prayer at each level as they ascend the mountain.
I think Mary is calling for change; she's calling for everyone to turn their hearts back to Jesus. She's sent a lot of messages of healing, peace, reconciliation-messages that people should informally reconcile, search their souls, ask for forgiveness for things they've done, and sort of prepare themselves for the Second Coming, or prepare themselves in terms of being better Christians.
Ann E: You went on a pilgrimage though; where did you go?
Anne vG: Maryann and I went to Rome and to Assisi. I took my daughter, who was ten at the time, and we visited many, many churches in Rome-there's a church on every corner. I think there are seven significant churches you're supposed to go to in Rome, and I think we went to five. Partly it's for indulgences-after a Catholic dies they spend less days in Purgatory if they receive indulgences by doing particular activities, and that was one of them.
In Rome, we also went to the Scala Santa Steps, and apparently these steps were brought from the Holy Land (Israel) to Rome, and they believe it was on those steps that Christ was condemned to death by Pilate. There's supposed to be blood on the steps, so they're now covered in wood, and there are places where you can look through glass at what's supposed to be blood. I can't remember how many steps there are, but you go up them on your knees and do penance and say prayers as you're going up all of them.
Then we went to Assisi, where St. Francis of Assisi is from. St. Francis lived in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and he was very wealthy, but he gave up all his wealth to found the Franciscan monks-to wear a brown wool robe and go about promoting peace. We were very moved everywhere we went, but I think we had some particularly strong spiritual experiences when we were in Assisi. I had very, very strange dreams when I was there, and some of them were actually quite dark. One night it appeared that St. Francis came to save me from whatever dream it was that I was having. It seemed that as I was getting closer to things that were more spiritual, dark things seemed to be invading me too, so it was quite an interesting time for that reason. I guess when you're opening spiritually you're open to both good and bad.
At one point in our trip we were waiting for the opening of a church that seemed to be closed for lunch. Apparently there's a piece of the Cross in this church, so we really wanted to wait to see it. As we sat there, we started to be harassed by some gypsies, and we realized that we really weren't in a very public area. But just as we thought they were going to harass us again, these monks in white robes came by and the gypsies went away, and the monks followed us for a little bit and then they were gone. And when we returned from our trip, Maryann asked many people what order of monks had these white robes, and no one could think of any monk they'd ever seen in white robes. So we felt that maybe they too had been there to protect us.
Ann E: They were really spiritual beings who had come for a short period of time to care for you. That's beautiful!
Anne vG: That was a beautiful trip-particularly Assisi, because you're in a mountainside village in Italy, and there are so many pilgrims who go there. We hiked up a mountain to see an old fortress, and there were kids sitting on the mountain with guitars, singing. It was just a very, very spiritual, quiet place. And I think Rome's formality is very overwhelming in a spiritual sense, but it's also very special-you see nuns in habits, and there are all kinds of monks. My daughter had never really seen that, because people more often dress in lay garments now.
Ann E: Did the Pope say prayers on the balcony at the Vatican?
Anne vG: The Sunday we were there we actually ended up in some sort of special ceremony in the church. We weren't sure how we got there, we just showed up and there was this special ceremony with a choir, and parts of the Mass were said in Latin. One of the prayers was said in seven languages. And then afterwards we went out to the square, and the Pope gave his five blessings that he gives on Sunday, none of which were in English while we were there. But we still felt we got his message, even though we didn't hear it in English. Just the power of seeing a little man in a window-you could really feel his presence!
People hold up signs, so he recognizes the people from different areas of the world-so the blessings were in the languages he saw represented. He saw Poland, which is his home country of course, and there was a large group from Spain in back of us. And as he started to speak in their languages people just went crazy-as if he were speaking just to them, the individual people. I don't even know how many people there were, just an amazing number of people. I've since gone a second time to see it, and it's still overwhelming. People from all different places and religions are there to see him-just for that fifteen minutes, it may be less than fifteen minutes, that he comes to the window. People will stand and wait for an hour.
Ann E: Are there any other people you know, or any books that you've read, or stories about spiritual heroes that have helped you lead your life?
Anne vG: Well, my mother-in-law. I think because she approaches spirituality in a non-formal way. Sometimes in Catholicism you don't know how to live your life day-to-day, outside of Sunday. My mother-in-law really lives her life in a way that takes into consideration how one should treat people and what one should give off-which is what you get back. I think she's also very open, not only to people, but to ideas, and to more than just what's happening in the everyday grind of life. She believes there are things that are more important than that-she keeps pushing beyond the everyday to keep seeing what's out there. So I think that's the perspective that she gives me-I always tell people at work that she is my perspective! I think the exposure she's given me to different books and to less traditional, less religiously based spirituality has been very important; the idea that regular people can be very full of spiritual power and use it in a very positive way. I think I'd really develop that if I didn't have the kind of job I have. That's going to be my next life, after fifty! There are times in my life when I'm more spiritual, and I feel that I'm open to spirituality, so I think if I could focus on it, I could really do it. I always feel like I'm not doing all that I should with my spirituality, because I get glimpses every now and then of greater possibilities.
Ann E: But you do have a spiritual presence in your work. Your work is with a big company, and you travel internationally, so your spiritual work may be in the world-in the sense that you bring a special light, a special compassion. But it is nice not to have to be in the world. It's tough-if you bring up spiritual things in a worldly place, you're considered crazy, bizarre. Except that occasionally somebody will take you aside afterward and say, "I've been doing that!"
Anne vG: Right, and I do believe those people are just being put in my path. Even in my corporate job I keep finding these little pockets of spiritual people, and I think there's a reason for that. That's why I can justify continuing that crazy life.
Ann E: You're in a finance division, right?
Anne vG: I do product development for the company's international consumer lending division. But that puts me in touch with different people around the world, so I think I've learned a lot in terms of seeing people outside of this part of the country, which can be very fast paced. You know, I've spent so much time in India, and I've really seen people who have nothing and appreciate anything. One gentleman at the office taught me to write on the back of paper and never to throw paper out and never to throw out a pencil, no matter how small it is. Because they don't have abundance, they don't have access to the types of resources that we have. And when you see people, children, begging-people have nothing-you're thankful for whatever you have after that. So I think that element of the job has been rewarding. I've tried to go to church in different parts of the world too, sometimes even when it's not in English, just to see what it's like and observe people there. I ask myself why I'm in this part of my life, what I get out of it. That's one thing I think is positive about it.
Ann E: In these different countries do you have a sense of spirituality in people? Can you see a difference between someone who's living in a worldly way and someone who has a spiritual journey, a spiritual path that's directing them?
Anne vG: Maybe not so much in the people I come in contact with in business. But when I was living in Australia I was there for a long time, so I actually had a little neighborhood church that I went to, and it was a Vietnamese church. I didn't know that at first-it was the closest church to my apartment, so I started going to it. And it turned out the neighborhood around the church was mostly Vietnamese people, who lived just beyond where my apartment was.
The people in the congregation were very spiritual. Every Sunday they stayed and they did the rosary after Mass. And it was a real community-I would watch people, and no one just got up and left at the end of church. They all stayed and talked with each other. You could really see that it was more than church for them, it was a community. That impressed me. And then one time I was in Singapore and I went to a church that was all Filipino. Again, it was Singapore, so I just figured everyone would be Singaporean-but everyone was Filipino, and it was very much like the Vietnamese church. So I found that interesting.
When I was in India one of the hardest things was having beggars stand outside the church, so when you came out of church you were suddenly hit with people. It was a beautiful big old church and there was a little grotto. The first time I attended services there, I went to the grotto after mass, and all these beggars and handicapped people came up to me. So I dashed to my car with the driver. And part of me says, "Well okay, you just came out of church so that's not so good," but part of me says, "Well, they're here very specifically to make you feel like that." I actually ended up going to church at the Vatican Embassy after that, because your driver can drive you inside and wait for you. But again, the congregation was probably all non-Indians, they were probably all expatriates living in India at the time, and they were very community oriented. I was there on Palm Sunday and it was really interesting to see how a whole other place with a mix of cultures was celebrating Palm Sunday, a very significant Catholic Sunday, in a very different way. There were different missionaries in to say the Mass. And the person who gave the sermon had a really moving sermon about asking each of us where we were on our spiritual journey. I went up to him after Mass (Catholic service) and told him how much I had enjoyed the sermon, and he was very taken aback. I don't think anyone had ever told him that. Part of it I think is that people outside of the U.S. are more humble, and I think he didn't know how to handle praise, but I think that no one had every told him they were going to take his sermon back to another place.
In Indonesia, there was a prayer room in the office. Employees could go in twice a day for prayer.
Ann E: So it was for Catholics?
Anne vG: The prayer room in Indonesia was for the Muslims.
I guess the thing I've seen in the U.S. is the gentleman who founded Domino's Pizza. I think he was an orphan. He was eventually adopted, but he was raised by Catholic nuns, and he attended all Catholic schools. He's given a lot of money to Catholic orders in his area in Michigan as a way of giving back. Then three years ago he had a private audience with the Pope, and when he came back he sold Domino's Pizza and gave away his assets. His idea now is to die with nothing. And he created a group of Fortune 500 executives to promote Catholicism within the context of business. At Domino's headquarters there's a chapel that celebrates Mass three times a day, and you can't get into it, it's fully packed. I thought that was really interesting, I'd never seen anything like that. I tried to find more information about what he does, but he's very quiet about it, he doesn't want any recognition, he just wants to do it. But he interests me.
Ann E: Wouldn't it be amazing if our American companies had prayer? I have a friend, and one of his ideas is to talk to big companies about having a meditation room-a quiet place for contemplation of the spirit. That would really change things.
Anne vG: During Lent one year, a colleague and I decided to go to church every day for the forty days of Lent. And then we decided to keep doing it, to see how long we could do it. Eventually we no longer worked together, but for six months we went to church every day at lunchtime. You come back with a totally different perspective. It was a very good thing to do. I've tried to do it a couple of other times, and I haven't been able to keep it up with the same rigor. I think it was good having a spiritual buddy.
Ann E: What would you do when you went to church? Do you have specific prayers that you always use?
Anne vG: Well, we would go to Mass. Actually in Stamford, at the large church downtown, which is near the company, they have a Mass at 12:05, which I assume is for people who leave for lunch at twelve o'clock. I would say there are a hundred people a day there. Afterwards they do a rosary, so sometimes I would stay for that. We actually found another Mass at five o'clock, so sometimes we would leave and go to that. It's nice to stop and reset your pace for the day.
Ann E: So what actually happens in a Mass?
Anne vG: There are two main parts of the mass. There's the Liturgy of the Word, which is the readings; typically there are three readings on a Sunday and two during the week. The first reading is from the Old Testament, so it ties everyone back to their roots. And the second reading is from the New Testament, typically from works of the Apostles-letters from St. Paul as he was evangelizing around Corinth and Collaseus-and the Gospel, which is directly from one of the books of the New Testament. There are three cycles of Gospels, so at the end of three years you would have been through the whole Bible, the whole New Testament.
Then the second part of the mass is the Liturgy of the Eucharist, which includes the transubstantiation-changing the wine and bread into the body and blood of Jesus. As Catholics, we believe that that is not a reenactment of the Last Supper, but that the change is truly happening-at the point in the Mass when the priest is blessing the bread and wine, he's asking the Holy Spirit to come down and change them. And then at the end of Mass, if there's any bread left over after the distribution of Communion to the community, it's put on the altar in a special place, and there's always a light or a candle that's lit near it, representing Christ's presence.
Ann E: So the priest blesses the wine, and Jesus' spirit becomes real, his life force becomes real in the wine and the bread. And then when you go up to take communion, that energy or that force enters your own body?
Anne vG: Right. I think the idea is that you're nourishing your soul to go out and to live as a Christian. So you use the first part of the Mass to reflect on what you may have done the week before that was or wasn't good, and then you listen to the readings to reflect on how those apply to your life, or how they should apply to your life. Then you take communion, you take the bread or the host. Then there's a short meditation, and then you're actually given a blessing or a dismissal-they use the words, "Go now and serve the Lord." So the idea is that you're dismissed as a community to take what you've heard and what you've learned and live it. One of our priests says that when you come in every week, you should leave whatever you come in with at the altar. One priest referred to it as the gas station, you come in empty and you fill up. But I like the idea of leaving something-he says no matter what you come in with you just leave it, and you don't need to be troubled by it.
Ann E: So if you've done something during the week that isn't good, or you're filled with anger or hurt or resentment, you can leave that at the altar and go out clean. Jesus takes it-or Mary or a saint-so you can start fresh, which is quite profound.
Your daughters have been part of the church since birth, and now they're altar servers, which used to be just for boys.
Anne vG: Actually that still hasn't changed in some parts of the world. My daughters have both done it since they were eight or nine. It gives them a way to participate. If they have a role in the service, I think they understand it more; I think it's allowed them to have good relationships with the priest, and then they understand that if they want to talk to somebody, who has a formal spiritual role, that person is accessible. I wanted to give my children something formal, and then they can decide when they're older whether they want to continue with it. But I'm giving them the package I know best and then letting them figure it out.
Ann E: Can you cite any profound spiritual experiences you've had associated with birth or sickness or death? Something that transcended the everyday?
Anne vG: I think there were several things that happened when my mother was sick with breast cancer. She had been sick, and she'd had a mastectomy and was fine for four years, and then after a recurrence she very quickly went downhill. She was hospitalized for a little over ninety days before she died. There were several things that happened during the ninety days that she was in the hospital. We were praying over her and with her and calling on my grandfather, and I really, really felt him in the room. She was very close to her father, so I guess I sort of knew that he would be there. I felt him really deeply then.
One night towards the end she very clearly said goodbye to each of us individually, one on one in her own way. She had a different message for everybody, and she called us in one at a time. And then after that she never really spoke again. But in the room that night-after we were all back in the room together-there was a sound in the corner of the room that we still can't explain; we all have different explanations. And she turned and focused on that part of the room. We really think it was something spiritual-I say it sounded like a dove, my sister says it sounded like a curtain. When I told the priest about it, he said that it was a glimpse to the other side, and that she had transitioned spiritually but not physically. He thought that was what we heard, and that we were lucky to see a little piece of it. She stayed focused on that part of the room until she died; she moved a little bit, but that was her focus. Every now and then she would talk, but we couldn't hear her. She was moving her hands, but we couldn't hear her. One day she said something about her father, she said, "Daddy," and we said, "Our daddy?" and she said, "No, my daddy." So I really think it was my grandfather coming to get her.
I think we were given that gift to tell us that it was okay to let her go, that she was okay. It changed the whole way I looked at her death. I felt like I was actually given a gift instead of having something taken away. I felt her sickness and dying had significance. I think that experience also made me realize that there's much more to everything than what we see, and I should probably be better about thinking about those other things.
I was sitting in the church while the funeral was happening, and I was thinking, "This is the circle-I've been here to baptize my children, I've been here to be married, and now I'm here for my mother's funeral." The church used to be the center of the community, and I really didn't think I had a sense of that up until that point. It hit me that I've had such happy times in that church, and my mother's funeral was a sad time-but it's all related. That made me realize that faith transcends time, it doesn't exist just while you're here. It exists before you're here, after you're here-this is your faith community, and these are all the people who are here to take you forward. And you know, my mother had a thousand people at her funeral, so that gives me perspective-how many people would show up at my funeral? Am I doing the right thing that more than two people would show up at my funeral?
Ann E: And it's a small town-Darien, Connecticut-and somehow your mother had touched a thousand people. And she was just a local woman; she wasn't famous.
Anne vG: Just your regular mother of four, wife…
Ann E: But she was deeply invested in the church, deeply invested in the community…and then the community poured back to support you and to ease the transition.
Anne vG: I use that a lot to check into my own life and say, "How are you treating people?" The garbage man was in line at her funeral; he said she always left him clothes for his sisters, because she knew he had five sisters. She would always clean the clothes and fold them and leave them nicely for him. And in that way she touched his life-and it always makes me ask whether I'm touching people's lives in a positive way.
When we had my mother's gravestone erected my father was not here, so I was in charge of making sure everything was fine. She died on September thirteenth, but when I went and looked at the gravestone, it said September third. And I thought, "Well how could they have made this mistake; this is wrong. They forgot the one…" And I ran my hand over it, and it said September third.
So I called the stonemason, and he said, "No, it's September thirteenth, I've got the paperwork, but I'll go down to the cemetery and check it." And it turned out that it said September thirteenth.
I told my father about it on the phone, and I said, "But it's right, so don't worry about it."
When he got back from Florida he went to the cemetery, and he saw September third. And he said, "Anne said it was right!" And he kept looking at it, and it did not say September thirteenth to him, it said September third. He called me and said, "You said it was right."
And I said, "It is right." And he went back the next day, and then he saw the thirteenth. And he even knew it was right-but both of us saw September third the first time we looked at it.
Ann E: You moved into the spiritual realm. If you have those mystical experiences then you can't just say, "This is it."
Do you think that her gift of having a thousand people at her funeral in a small town had anything to do with her spiritual journey?
Anne vG: Well, I don't know. She was always quiet about it. My father was so outward in his religion; I never saw the same with her, so I don't know. I had a niece who passed away when she was three, and my mother would not go to a church for a long time after that. She was very angry about that. As a kid, it was interesting seeing her question something I'd thought about my whole life. But I never felt that she was outwardly religious, other than herding us all to church. Or maybe for her it was one and the same; it was just how she lived her life.
Ann E: Do you have a spiritual practice? I suppose one spiritual practice for you is to go to church, and to take Communion. Do you take time for spiritual readings or any kind of study?
Anne vG: Well, yes and no. There have been times when everything I read was spiritually related, and there have been times when I just couldn't get to it. But for three years I was a seventh grade religious education teacher, and for the past three years I've taught adults who are converting to Catholicism. I've taught about the Mass every year, and this year I taught about community, and in May I'm going to teach them about Mary.
I think in some way I use teaching as a way to learn more myself. I learn something every time I teach, even after having taught the Mass for three or four years now. I was thinking that community would be a really small subject, and I ended up with so much information about it. And I'm looking forward to teaching about Mary-again, I'll be teaching about her in the context of the Catholic catechism, but it's still a challenging subject to research because there's so much information. I think subconsciously I teach because it forces me to devote time to studying.
Ann E: The word catechism-what does that actually mean?
Anne vG: Catechism is the formal teachings of the Catholic Church; they're published in a volume called The Catholic Catechism. And it's all the basic Catholic beliefs, commandments, rules-and it contains references to Biblical sources.
Ann E: And do you take any time to meditate?
Anne vG: I try to pray at night. When I was doing yoga I did actual meditation-that may be different than prayer. I don't do it as much as I should do it.
Ann E:Can God hear us when we talk to Him or Her or the Divine? Do you think that there really is a being of some sort who can hear us?
Anne vG: I think that there is. I think we might not always get the answer we want, so we like to interpret that as not being heard. Sometimes, particularly if I feel overwhelmed, I say, "Well I wouldn't be given this much if God didn't think I could handle it." So I'm supposed to be handling it some way-maybe I'm just not approaching it the right way the first time. So yes, I do think we're heard. I think you have to be disciplined about listening for what it is you are getting back rather than what you want to get back.
Ann E: Can you think of a time when you know you heard God, you heard some Divine revelation-some way that you were answered?
Anne vG: Before I took this international job, I went through a time in my life when I did have the time to be quite spiritual. And so as jobs came up, I actually went and prayed about each of them. It was such a good place to be, because if the job didn't come through I was able to say, "Well I'm not supposed to have this job. I don't know why, but I'm not supposed to have this right now." Maybe that's not answering my prayers, but I think God was directing my life in some way at that time. That's why I always say that I'm doing this international job for a reason, and I ask myself what I'm supposed to be getting out of it. I also feel like I didn't necessarily "choose" this-and that makes me look at it in a different way. Giving up control is the hardest thing, especially for me, but I think that's something I've learned over the last five years. If you say that you're not making these decisions, but somebody else is guiding these decisions, then the good or bad of the decision is much better.
Ann E: And you mentioned that people at work sometimes ask you questions that have to do with spiritual wisdom. So somehow they know that you have that gift-even though you're an executive with GE, people come to you with spiritual questions. They must be led, because it's not on your door!
Anne vG: When my mother was sick, I was working with two people who were very spiritual, and I really think they were put there for me at that time. There was the man I went to church with-and I think it's rare to find a man who demonstrates his spirituality, and he was definitely put there for me. But, yes, it's weird.
I have a new boss, and so we're still sort of learning about each other, and he's a second generation Korean-American. Anyway, just last Friday he asked me where I grew up, and the conversation got around to me being Italian. He said he grew up in an Italian neighborhood in Princeton, New Jersey, because the only place his parents could live was with other immigrants. And he said all his friends were Catholic and they all went to CYO-which is the Catholic high school religious class-and he could never go. And I said, "Well, you could have gone." And he said that he was going to be confirmed, but he stood up in high school and said that he couldn't believe what he'd been taught. And so I thought, "Okay, well the door's open!" So I told him that I used to teach seventh graders, and I told them that what their parents believed didn't count anymore, what was important was what they believed-so they had to decide what to say when they made confirmation and were asked to declare their faith. And so we got into a discussion about whether or not kids should declare their faith just to get on with it. It was not a normal discussion for a young GE officer; it was very funny.
Ann E: I think it's spirit-I think you radiate a certain vibration, and that draws people, and that also opens the door for you to say something. And all of a sudden you notice you're not just talking about the world.
Since you travel so much, do you feel like you have a spiritual community here? You have children, you're married, you travel around the world. Do you have time for a spiritual community? Is that important for you?
Anne vG: I do feel like a part of a community, because, for one, the chief priest at the church knows that I travel, and he's always very interested in where I go. I've met people by teaching, so I feel like I have a connection to them. And as a person, who's involved in doing training with new Catholics, I'm almost their point person as they're coming into the church.
When I first started going back to the church I felt like, well, I've been in the church my whole life, and I feel like I don't know anybody! But I think even my husband would say it's really a community there. It's a small congregation, people know everybody. It's twelve hundred families-it's grown over the last few years, it used to be eight hundred families. I also give money to our church, so I think that's another reason I get some recognition from our priest-not that I'm buying that! But I think that's one reason I'm included in social activities at the church. We've been at dinners where we're the only people younger than sixty!
Ann E: Well, it says in the Bible to tithe, and it's very important-does it say in the Catholic Bible that you should tithe a certain percentage? Or do you just have to give back?
Anne vG: Well, our priest says you should give time, treasure or talent, and you should decide which of those you can give. Some people have more time-there's one woman who irons all the church linens, which is an amazing thing to me! I could never do that. Some people can write a check, and then they're done with it, and some people have a particular talent that they give-such as helping to teach or speaking or doing a ministry of the church. Maybe this goes back to having the outpouring of community when I really needed it, but I feel the church is something that's worth giving my money to. They've demonstrated to me why we are a community and why what happens here is important.
Ann E: This is a hard question, but I think many people ask it when they're questioning God. Why do bad things happen to good people?
Anne vG: This is hard to do, but I think people have to think about what they're being dealt or given, and how they should be dealing with it. Situations are given to us for a reason, to allow us to learn something. Or someone may be living their life in such a way that they're getting back what they're giving off. But for me, if something bad happens the question is really, What am I getting out of this? I'm supposed to get something, or it wouldn't happen. But sometimes you're not supposed to understand.
Ann E: Right-there are things we never understand, like the death of a child. That's not something you can get your mind around.
When really harsh things happen, people who have a spiritual path have community, they have form, they have prayer, and they have meditation. There is a circle of help that comes back to them-and it's different for every single situation. When people don't have a spiritual path-and maybe they have a religious path, but not a real spiritual path-then they can become so embittered and dark and limited.
Anne vG: People tend to be more hostile at work, and my old behavior used to be to act back with the same hostile attitude. Now I don't do that anymore, and it makes such a difference.
Ann E: What happens? How do you react if you're attacked?
Anne vG: I've learned to try to diffuse it in some way-by taking it in and going away to diffuse it, or by using humor, or by getting more facts. But it's totally changed the way I work. My work is very important, and I do dedicate a lot of time to it, but it's not the only thing. And every interaction, even with people at work, is who you are…
Ann E: I know several people, who have lost jobs, and they come to me and they're just devastated. Until they look at the bigger picture-your job is not your life.
Anne vG: Not that my job isn't important and I do need it, and I need it to support the other people that I have. But my job is not who I am, and I think that puts everything else in a whole different context as I work with people now.
About five years ago I was in a new job, and I was under a lot of pressure, and I had people who had worked with me before and then some newer people. And I wasn't happy with the way the newer people were describing me. So then I asked myself, "Well if that's how people are seeing me, will I be less successful if I don't act that way? I need to try it and see." And then a year later I switched to this job, so it was a way to start over. And I've behaved differently in this job, and it's been much better.
Ann E: What do you think is our place in the world, as human beings? Is a human being any different than an animal or a tree? Do we have a soul, is there a mission for each generation?
Anne vG: I think connectivity is what makes us different from animals or others forms of life. I think it's all about relationships and learning from relationships. And then as you're journeying through whatever time you're in, what are you gaining from it? I think the way we all interact with each other, and how we understand and honor one another's differences-I think that's what we're all here for.
Ann E: I think that we've touched on this already, but what do you think happens to us when we die? Is there an afterlife? Is there something that we go on to?
Anne vG: In Catholicism they believe there's purgatory and then there's heaven or hell depending on how you've lived your life.
Ann E: And what is purgatory?
Anne vG: Purgatory is a time you spend cleansing your soul for things you've done that may not have been quite so good. So it's preparation or waiting time.
I do believe that we're connected to people who have already been here, who are gone-so in some way we live after this, I just don't know how. One time when I had a dream about my mother-this was shortly after she died-she looked so specifically as I recall her at about forty-five years old. So maybe you go to the place that you think you look your best, because to me she looked really beautiful. And maybe that was my childhood memory of her. Part of me was saying, "Well maybe that's what happens to you." Obviously you're not sick. I do think we go somewhere, because I do think that people who move on are still guiding people who are here. I think part of their role after they've passed on from here is to continue to guide.
Ann E: Is there anything you want to say to people about the importance of having some sort of spiritual discipline, or spiritual community, or any of those things?
Anne vG: I was brought up with a faith, so I know in teaching adults, one thing I try to understand is how people in their thirties and forties make this leap to a faith. I read this book called Faith is a Verb, meaning faith is something very active, it's not just something you have or don't have-it's something you should continually work at. I don't understand how people who have no faith have a balance to the real world. You know where do they get strength? Because I think you can get strength from your spiritual life. Where do they get guidance? In some ways faith could help them get better control, because they would have a community, or something greater than themselves to help them through times when maybe things aren't going so well, or even to celebrate when things are going well.
Ann E: And you want your children to have a faith, so you're setting it up so they have that as a choice. You wouldn't demand that they stay Catholic for the rest of their lives, but you do believe it's of value. Have you seen its value to your children? Is it supporting them?
Anne vG: I think it does support them, I think it gives them some sense that they're not the center of the world. It gives them a broader context for the way they're living their lives-it shows them how saints have lived their lives, how priestly people live their lives. They want to go out to the convent and see my friend Maryann, so it gives them the idea of community. But they've been exposed to so many other religions. I think it helps them to understand that Catholicism is their faith, but other people do things differently.
I think they understand that Catholicism has a place in their lives. My oldest daughter has a friend who went to Young Life (Church youth group) with her, and my daughter said she thought it was good for her friend, because now her friend can understand what she believes. When I grew up, all of my friends were Catholic. I think when you're brought up in a faith it's just something you have, you don't really understand or question it. So I guess my daughter's sort of questioning-well why doesn't my friend have something? More of my children's friends are not Catholic, so I think their faith gives them some sense of who they are in relation to other people.
Anne is an executive with General Electric. She lives with her husband and two daughters in Rowayton, CT.