The Harmony Project

Interview with Madeline Horrigan

  • The Zen Buddhist form of meditation really helped me when I had to make some huge changes in my marriage, and everything that was traditionally Catholic in me said no to those changes. I had to be this good, traditional Catholic woman who stuck by things for better or for worse, until death do us part and all that. The truth of the message of love and acceptance of Jesus Christ was able to come through to me better through Buddhist meditation, so I could salve my overdeveloped conscience. And it was actually Sister Elaine, a Catholic nun, who said to me one day when I was working with her at the prison, "I know you're thinking 'Till death do us part,' you're being a good Catholic. But she said, I just want to remind you that the death has already occurred.
  • In the structure of the Zen seshin, or retreat, you would go in to see the teacher, who was Ruben. And he would give you instruction on how to keep your meditation going, your one-pointedness. And the first interview that I had with him, he gave me this to say before I began my meditation, "This is my beloved daughter, in whom I am well pleased." He said to say that every day before I meditated.
  • …it's the Buddhist form of prayer that has helped me.
  • You have to meditate sometimes. It's a good practice, and when I lose it, I know I'm off center.
  • People will say, It was your good strong Catholic faith that brought you through difficult times. I probably wouldn't start a discussion with someone who said that, because they're someplace else other than where I am. I would say, Yeah that's true.
  • What's our place in the world, and what happens to us when we die? Well, I don't know; I probably would have given you a quicker answer to this question twenty-five years ago. I live with someone who believes that we die and then we come back again and again and again-until our soul has learned all it needs to learn and we become God-realized. There's no doubt in his mind. But I'm still living with my teachings from childhood: You try to live a good life, you die, you go to heaven. If you live a bad life, you die, you go to hell. And although I'm not a big believer in hell, I have a harder time letting go of heaven-and I don't think heavens true either.
  • … religion is a way to link us to God, and doesn't it make sense that God could use all kinds of religions? I mean even in Christianity, doesn't it make sense that you could have Pentecostals, because look how that helps certain kinds of people. What difference does it make?

Ann: In which spiritual tradition were you raised?

Madeline: Well, I was raised a Roman Catholic. Somebody probably took my right hand at the very beginning and blessed my forehead-you know the sign of the Cross that the Catholics make. I was certainly baptized with water when I was two weeks old. My father was from an Irish Catholic background, and my mother was from a German Catholic background, and my brothers and sisters and I all went to Catholic school. We always prayed-certainly grace before meals, but there was a time when our family even knelt down in the living room together and prayed the rosary. We followed the rules of the Catholic Church-I mean, you wouldn't dare miss mass on Sunday, you just didn't do that. You never ate meat on a Friday until the rules changed.

There were eight children in my family-twin boys and then five girls and then a boy. I think even the fact that we had a big family was partly because we were Catholics, because in those days birth control was not permitted, and I think my parents took that seriously. They were very traditionally Catholic.

Ann: Well, I'd like to interview you today about your involvement with Buddhism.

Madeline: Well, I don't consider myself Buddhist. I mean, if you asked me if I'm a Buddhist I would say, "No, I'm a Catholic," because I was born into Catholicism. But at a certain time in my life I turned to a Buddhist prayer form. The kind of meditation that I went for was Zen Buddhist in origin, and the person who really best taught me and instructed me in meditation is actually a former Jesuit priest who studied for ten years in a Zen monastery in Japan. His name is Ruben Habito; he was born and raised in the Philippines. Now he teaches Zen Buddhist studies at a secular university down south-I think in Texas. He's written a couple of books, and he gave us retreats. And his whole idea is to bring the Eastern spiritual way of meditation into the Catholic, or Christian, belief system. He firmly believes that the two can be brought together to deepen the roots and reality of your Christian faith.

So I think Buddhist meditation has helped, in a sense, to make me more Christian. Not in the external observances-probably it's helped me to strip some of those away-but in terms of the core message of Jesus. I would say Zen meditation has helped me to be more in line with the Gospel message of Jesus and to be less caught up in the observance of ritual and tradition. Not that I'm knocking ritual or tradition-even now, I still go to Catholic church at times. I don't feel like I have to go every Sunday or I'm going to be beaten over the head by the devil, but I still go. And I like it, even though there's a lot of it that I have to brush aside. It's so much a part of me-it's like going to Christmas dinner with your extended family, and even though there are lots of people and things that might get on your nerves, it's still family. That's kind of the way it is for me being Catholic.

Ann: So you haven't lost faith with your own tradition, you've added something that enriches it for you.

Madeline: Yes, and I was never a fallen away Catholic. There's my whole family tradition, and then I spent nine years in the convent. And I don't reject that whole piece of my life-I didn't leave the convent out of anger or rejection. I sort of grew through it.

Ann: What order did you belong to?

Madeline: It was the Dominican Sisters, an order that was founded in the eleventh century by Dominic Guzman, from Spain. It was founded at a time when there was this heretical idea in the Church that a separation should exist between the material and spiritual life, as if they had nothing to do with each other. It was like a put-down of the material. But Dominic began to preach against this heresy; he maintained that we're made such that we get to the spiritual through the material. So he started an order called the Order of Preachers-"OP." That's why Dominicans have OP after the name of the order. There was a very heavy emphasis on preaching and teaching. The order grew so that during the days when many Europeans were coming to America, a lot of European Dominican orders sent sisters and brothers and priests to America to found schools and to preach.

When I was there in the sixties, the Dominican Sisters that I belonged to were doing what everybody was doing in the Catholic Church; they were following the orders of the Pope-which were to open the windows, take in some fresh air and reform. So all that deeper studying of Scripture and reformation was happening when I was in the convent. I grew up in a day when you weren't allowed to open the Bible and just read it yourself-now people are encouraged to open the Bible and sit down with it in prayer. They're encouraged to think about what the Scriptures are trying to teach them, and to take those words into their hearts and souls. But fifty years ago when I was a little kid, you didn't open the Bible; you waited for the people in charge to tell you what it meant. You knew more about the rules of fasting and abstinence (no meat) during Lent than you did about Jesus' message about the birds of the air.

The Zen Buddhist form of meditation really helped me when I had to make some huge changes in my marriage, and everything that was traditionally Catholic in me said no to those changes. I had to be this good, traditional Catholic woman who stuck by things for better or for worse, until death do us part and all that. The truth of the message of love and acceptance of Jesus Christ was able to come through to me better through Buddhist meditation, so I could salve my overdeveloped conscience. And it was actually Sister Elaine, a Catholic nun, who said to me one day when I was working with her at the prison, "I know you're thinking 'Till death do us part,' you're being a good Catholic." But she said, "I just want to remind you that the death has already occurred."

Ann: This is the death of your marriage you're talking about…

Madeline: Yes. I think it helped me; it relieved me to hear that coming from someone who was so Catholic and so truly living out the Gospel message-on a deeper level than just following the no meat on Fridays rule. I mean who can argue with Sister Elaine?

And I went on the retreats with Ruben Habito. He calls himself a layicized Roman Catholic priest-he is married and has a family, but he's very Catholic and he's very Zen Buddhist, and he sees no conflict between the two. Thomas Merton did say that he thought the greatest breakthrough of the twentieth century was the coming together of Western theology and Eastern spirituality.

Ann: And just for the record, Merton was also a Catholic priest. Was he a Jesuit?

Madeline: I don't think so; I think he was a Trappist monk. And then there's that other fellow-he was a Jesuit Catholic priest, and he was born and raised in India. His name was Anthony Demillo, and he was very much the same. He really advocated heavily for the use of more Eastern meditation principles to bring people in line with the teachings of Jesus. And actually, some of his tapes and books talk about the fact that there are a lot of gaps in our knowledge of Jesus' life, and he brings up the question of what Jesus was doing all during all the time that he was "in communion with his Father." How was he doing that? What was that all about? Demillo proposed that Jesus spent an awful lot of his life in silent meditation very similar to Eastern forms of meditation.

Anyway, I'm not really comfortable being interviewed as a Buddhist, because I'm really a Catholic.

Ann: Buddhists often say that Buddhism is not a religion. I don't know what you'd call it if it's not a religion, but maybe a psychological way of looking more deeply into life. Because Buddha wasn't a god, he was just a master teacher. Although when you go to Buddhist monasteries, it certainly looks like he's a god.

Madeline: And the Buddhists have a lot of traditions and rituals that need to be observed too. I guess they suffer from the same pitfall that any other religion does, and that is that you can get caught up in the rituals and lose sight of the message behind it. And all these things come from the same place.

When you go to Meher Baba's tomb in India, there's a stone, tent-like structure built over where he's buried. There are four columns at the top, and at the top of each column are the symbols of four major world religions. Because he said, "I have not come to establish a religion, I have come to help bring all religions together like beads on one string." And he made it very clear that the religion you were in was the religion in which you belonged. What I get from that is that the religion you belong to is not an issue, it's the common wellspring of all of them that matters.

Ann: Say a little bit about Meher Baba-he was Hindu, right?

Madeline: Actually he was a Zoroastrian. His family was from Iran. His ancestors fled from Iran when the Zoroastrians were being persecuted, and they went to India, where Meher Baba grew up. And he was educated in Roman Catholic schools. He was born probably in 1899 or so, and he died in 1969.

He is remembered by a lot of people as "the Silent One" because he didn't use his voice for the last forty-four years of his life. That was his way of reinforcing the idea that he wasn't coming to teach anything new, that everything that needed to be taught to mankind was already taught by the avatars who had come before him-by Jesus and by Buddha and so forth. Meher Baba's job was to begin to awaken the heart-let me see if I have the quote, "To awaken the heart, to move the consciousness of mankind forward so that he can actually live what he's been taught."

So to show the world that he was not here to teach anything new, he was silent. When people asked him questions he had a little alphabet board and he would point to letters on it. Then eventually he developed a sign language that most people couldn't follow because it was so quick. But his close disciples could understand him, especially one man named Erich Wasala, he was Baba's right-hand man during his life. When Baba would answer people's questions in sign, Erich would speak it out. He was like Baba's voice; and then if he were wrong, if he'd misinterpreted Baba, Baba would just keep repeating the sign until Erich got it right. When I went to India with Barry, Erich was there and people were asking him to describe Baba's face. And he said, "Honestly, I spent so much of my time watching his hands that I never really got to look at his face." Baba kept silent for forty-four years, and Erich was his sidekick all that time. Can you imagine living your life like that? Erich did nothing but watch Baba's hands. Of course, Baba went into long periods of seclusion; there was a hill right outside the ashram where they all lived, Baba and his disciples, and it was called Seclusion Hill. Baba had a little hut up there, and he would go there for weeks on end and be all by himself.

Ann: Just as Jesus would.

Madeline: Absolutely. So there were huge stretches of time when Baba wasn't even present to people. And then there were huge stretches of time when he was out healing lepers. He did a lot of work with lepers-he does remind me of Jesus in that sense. He would find lepers and bathe them and bless them. And he also went out searching for people who they call masts in India-they look like they're crazy, but they're supposedly God-intoxicated souls. It all comes from a different cosmology than I ever learned, but it's all about going through the different planes until you come to God realization, and some souls get stuck on a plane of some sort.

But anyway, I'm not a Baba lover. People will ask Barry, "Is Madeline a Baba lover?" and the way Barry always answers them is, "Well no, but she's a God lover."

Ann: Barry is the man that you're living with now, and he is a Baba lover. And it really saved his life…

Madeline: Absolutely, no question about it. He calls his encounter with Baba an epiphany. And there's no question about it, any more than I'm sensing that my son Josh has been saved by Jesus. That's the way Josh is talking right now. I don't know much yet, because I haven't been in his presence, but I think Josh came to a place in his life where it was either life or death. So as the Gospel says, choose life.

I never had that kind of suffering in my life so I never had to have that kind of saving. My experiences have been tough-certainly going through what I had to go through to pull out of the marriage, and also dealing with Josh's acting out and just living through these last four years…he was incarcerated for three years. And that's where my prayer life had to kick in, because I had to have strong faith to keep in there with him and at the same time not enable him and not give up. It took a lot of prayer and faith, but now that I'm in the spot that I'm in, and he seems to be coming into what he's coming into, it's really been a very spiritual journey for me.

Ann: So as a Catholic, you had to make a decision about divorce, and that's when you started to seek other ways to get through the pain. And then your son got into all sorts of trouble. And Buddhist meditation along with a Catholic base is the thing that has kept you one-pointed and grounded; it's kept you from not totally breaking.

Madeline: Absolutely. And here's a very Zen Buddhist thing that Ruben Habito taught me. In the structure of the Zen seshin, or retreat, you would go in to see the teacher, who was Ruben. And he would give you instruction on how to keep your meditation going, your one-pointedness. And the first interview that I had with him, he gave me this to say before I began my meditation, "This is my beloved daughter, in whom I am well pleased." He said to say that every day before I meditated.

Then the next year when I went to his seshin, he gave me this to say, "I am your beloved daughter, in whom you are well pleased." And by the fourth retreat I went to, I was still to say, "Here is your beloved daughter in whom you are well pleased." Then he went back to Japan for two years to live and to work with his family, so I haven't been to one of his seshins since. But I still say that, "Here is your beloved daughter in whom you are well pleased." That has been a very important piece to drive into my inner being. And those are the very words God was supposed to have spoken over Jesus when John the Baptist recognized him as the Messiah, "This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him."

So how do I separate out the form of Buddhist meditation from the Catholic Christian upbringing? I just read a Catholic paper a year ago when I was visiting the nuns, and they couldn't believe this article. It was a criticism of the teachings of Anthony Demillo by the official teaching Church. It was saying that if you listen to and do what Anthony Demillo teaches you're being heretical. And yet, that's crazy because what Anthony Demillo was teaching was to get you into the heart of the message of Jesus-it's just crazy!

Ann: But again, in the traditional Church you had to go through the priest, or the Pope or the bishop. But in these systems it says I can learn directly-with great determination and focus and study and wisdom…

Madeline: Yes, a lot of which came to me through my more traditional Catholic upbringing. You can't separate one from the other.

It's like the Adrian Dominicans that I came from. About ten years ago they had to go to Rome with their written rule, which had been all revised, and they had to put it before the Pope. And if the Pope accepted it, then they could go on calling themselves Catholic sisters. But if the Pope did not accept it, they would have to change it. And the head nun called together as many of the Adrian Dominicans as she could, and she said, "Here are our rules, which we all worked on prayerfully for six years. So I have to get on a plane and go to Rome in a few days and put this in front of the Pope. What are we going to do if the Pope says no?"

Now, I'm giving you this in my own language, but evidently this was a very powerful moment, because all of these nuns from all over were present in the auditorium. I think it was Sister Rosemary who said, "Three of us are going to get on that plane. What is the sense of this congregation?"

And this one nun in her nineties, Sister Borgia, stood up and said, in effect, "We have no choice. Do we follow the Gospel or do we follow the Pope? We have to trust our own response to the Spirit. If we are no longer considered members of the Catholic Church, so be it. If we're ostracized, that's what happens, but we need to follow the Spirit." And all the nuns stood up and agreed. And that was the commission to these three nuns when they got on the plane. And the Pope was objecting to silly things-he wanted them to go back to wearing the habit for example. But evidently they went through his review commission and came back with a stamp of approval. But the fact was these nuns were willing to stick with their constitution at the cost of being excommunicated.

So now back to what you're asking me… How many years have I followed the tradition? Well, all my life in one way, but in another way I haven't, because if I were truly a traditional Catholic, I would not be talking with you right now, I'd be in church. It's Sunday morning, and if we're not finished by eleven, I will miss Catholic Church today, and you know what? It doesn't matter, even though a more traditional Catholic would say, yes it does, and it's a mortal sin.

Ann: But you probably meditated today.

Madeline: I did. I actually took these interview questions and sat with them-as well as my son's letter to me, which I've been sitting with for a week.

Ann: Well how many years would you say you've used Buddhist practice? And I'm realizing as we do this, I've interviewed a number of people who cross over various traditions-they're being enriched by a new tradition, but they're also able to go more deeply into their own religion by looking at others.

Madeline: I think so; I still go to a Catholic monastery as often as I can-the Benedictine Monastery in Vermont. The last time I went there was in December. That's where I go when I go on a real retreat now, because a strictly Buddhist retreat doesn't hold everything that I need. Going on a Ruben Habito retreat did, because he used the Christian Gospel as the foundation for his retreat. It's almost like I can't just go to one or the other. When I go to the priory for prayer, even though I enter into all their prayers deeply, I also do a lot of sitting meditation-but guess what, so do they! You come in for their morning prayer, and there they are, sitting on their cushions. They've been sitting in sitting meditation already for half an hour. So yes, it is a crossover for me.

So how many years have I followed the tradition? I'm sixty-two, so I've been a Catholic for sixty-two years. And I think I first started Zen meditation two years before I met you, so let's say ten years.

Ann: So that's when you were beginning to struggle with questions about your marriage and then Josh getting into trouble, and you needed something more.

Madeline: So have I ever lost faith in the tradition…well, I lost faith in some of the externals, but I don't think I've ever lost faith in the Gospel message of Jesus Christ. As a matter of fact, the more I've stripped away some of the externals of my Catholic tradition, the more clearly I've come to what I understand to be the kernel of the Gospel message of Jesus.

Now, have I ever studied any other spiritual paths? Definitely!

Ann: And you really spoke about how they're harmonious. So I would love to have you say a little bit about Thich Nhat Hanh; I didn't realize you were Zen Buddhist, I thought you were a follower of Thich Nhat Hanh, because we've spent so many hours talking about him. He's a Vietnamese Buddhist; is there a difference between that and Zen?

Madeline: I don't think so. He's a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, but I think it's all in the tradition. Zazen is just the word that means sitting meditation, that's all. That's about the prayer life of people, zazen. And that's where I think I am with Buddhism; it's the Buddhist form of prayer that has helped me. Thich Nhat Hanh teaches the very practical methods of mindfulness, and mindful living and mindful breathing, regardless of what your religious background is. One of his books that I think is most profound is called Living Buddha, Living Christ.

Ann: So there again he crosses over, as does the Dalai Lama…

Madeline: Absolutely. When I went to Thich Nhat Hanh's retreat at Omega, he conscientiously brought in ritual objects from various traditions. We used the shofar-the ram's horn that's used in Judaism-for attention to prayer; he used Buddhist chimes and Catholic bells. He called us to consciousness through the sounds that are traditional to different religions.

Thich Nhat Hanh met and was an associate of Thomas Merton's-he and Thomas Merton evidently had some very deep conversations with each other. His teachings were well known to Martin Luther King, because for both Thich Nhat Hanh and King, who was very Christian, the bottom line was peace.

I felt drawn to Thich Nhat Hanh because he was Vietnamese and my son is Vietnamese. At the wind-down of the war, when the American troops were pulling out of Vietnam, there was an historic event called the Orphan Airlift. Orphaned babies who were clearly the sons of American GIs-they were Amerasian or Afro-Amerasian kids-were airlifted out of Vietnam. We adopted one of them, and that was Danny. Having a child who was at least partly Vietnamese; who's Afro-Amerasian, I always had respect for where he came from.

Did I ever tell you this story? This is a profound story-I told this story once at an East-West gathering at Wainright House, and there was a Buddhist nun there who called me aside and said, "This is profound," because she believes that our religious traditions get into our genes in some way. But we were talking about the Christian tradition of Eucharist, and I told this story about my son Danny.

When Danny first came from Vietnam, he was eighteen months old. He was put on a liquid diet, so for days we weren't allowed to give him anything solid-we were giving him Jell-O and juice and things like that, but he was hungry. One day I opened up the refrigerator to get him some Jell-O, and he spotted a little dinner roll in the refrigerator. I guess Danny had been in our house for two weeks and up until then he was an extremely undemanding child-he was very passive, he wasn't really expressing his needs at all. As a matter of fact, you hardly even heard him cry or moan-in the beginning we didn't even know if he had a voice box, because we didn't hear any sounds out of him at all. The first time we heard him cry it was quite a relief.

So he spotted the dinner roll, and he pointed to it and indicated in his sign language that he wanted that dinner roll. And I shook my head no, he couldn't have that, and I gave him the Jell-O. I don't know what he did with the Jell-O, but he didn't eat it-he started to cry, and he pointed to the refrigerator-he wanted that dinner roll. And here I was, torn because it was so heartbreaking to hear him cry, but the doctors had said don't give him any solid food-we had to empty him out, because his feces was completely compacted inside him. So this was serious-this kid was sick, so it was serious business to give him solid food. But he cried and he kept it up so consistently that I thought, well what's the difference? So I opened up the refrigerator, and I took out the roll. And he stopped crying. I handed him the dinner roll and he dried his tears and calmed down. And then very calmly he pulled at my pants to sit down on the floor with him. And he sat cross-legged with this dinner roll in his hand, and he waited for me to sit down opposite him. And then he broke that roll in half, and he handed me half and waited until I took a bite before he took a bite.

And twenty-four years later I went to Vietnam, and I flew over that country that we flew those babies out of. And I wondered, among other things, what were those eighteen-year-old American kids feeling when they were flown here twenty-five years ago to blow this place up? They must have been scared skinny.

And then our plane landed and this lovely Vietnamese woman with a bunch of red roses, arm in arm with my son, greeted Barry and me as we got off the plane. And then there was Danny's wedding and everything that surrounded it. Oahn, Danny's wife, said that the tradition in Vietnam was that one married in the religion of the man, and because Danny was raised a Catholic she would marry in the Catholic Church. So she began studying Catholicism-far more seriously, as Danny said, than he did. He was afraid that she'd know more at the end of her period of study than he did. He had to get a book from his uncle Bud-What it Means to Enter Into a Catholic Marriage-and read it to keep up with her. She took it seriously-she studied for three or four hours a night for two months, she couldn't do another thing. And when they married, they combined the two traditions. They did a traditional Buddhist ritual in her home, and it was interwoven with Vietnamese cultural tradition-I don't know how much of it was Buddhist and how much of it was culturally Vietnamese. Then they had the Catholic ceremony in a church, and it was profound.

Ann: For this little boy to go back and build a whole new life in Vietnam! And his transformation from a little boy who was always shy and quiet and introverted to a full, enriched, complete man-it was one of the most profound spiritual journeys I've personally been connected to. To see that transition-transformation-was amazing!

Madeline: Remarkable. He and Oahn took me to the Buddhist monastery where the orphanage was, where he had been as a baby. It's no longer an orphanage but a school. The monastery itself is still a monastery. As the Buddhists do traditionally, they pay such respect to ancestors that one of the ancestor altars is dedicated to the woman who was the head of the monastery when the orphanage was there. She was single-handedly responsible for those babies she cared for-Danny being one of them. She's now dead, but her picture is on the altar, and her younger sister is now the head of the monastery. So she took me around and showed me the temple, or the pagoda as it's called, and then we went to her sister's altar. We lit incense sticks and bowed three times. And it was profound-Danny was crying, Oahn was crying, I was crying. If it were not for the grace of this woman, where would my son be?

When we got outside, Oahn said, "I came here couple times week and lit incense so Danba return." Because she had met Danny three years prior, when he first went to visit Vietnam. And then he came back to the States, and for two years he was living and working in Boston and she was living in Vietnam.

Ann: So he has a profoundly Buddhist-Christian life and is totally incorporated into Vietnamese culture-his culture, really.

Madeline: Oh yes. And he's trying to warn her, because she's got this vision of what American life is like. In an e-mail just the other day he said, "I'm trying to get her to understand, and I can't get her to do it, that the American way of life isn't as simple and easy as she thinks, and that she's not going to like it there as much as she thinks."

So I guess I cited profound spiritual experiences associated with birth, sickness and death-the death of my marriage and the death of a dream of what marriage meant and what a family meant.

Ann: And how many years were you married?

Madeline: Twenty-one.

Ann: So that's a deep investment, and then to know that you have to move on… It's incredibly important to have a spiritual journey to help you or the transition is that much more difficult.

Tell me about your spiritual heroes-you probably have hundreds!

Madeline: Well, I would say several Adrian Dominican sisters. Particularly my friend Jody, and Sister Rosemary Ferguson-in my last couple of years there she actually became the head nun, or the Mother General (nun in charge) as they call them, the prioress (nun in charge of a priory) of the Adrian Dominicans. She's just a profound woman. I still keep in touch with her; I visited her last Christmas a year ago, when I went out there to visit. I'd call Sister Elaine a spiritual hero.

Ann: The nun who works at the prison…

Madeline: Yes. I would say that Thich Nhat Hanh is a spiritual hero to me. Those are people in whose physical presence I've been. But if I look back in history, I'd say Francis of Assisi is a hero. And in my everyday life, anybody who really lives out what they believe is a hero.

Ann: It's such a process to do that. When you've been through the process, you let go of judgment.

Madeline: Yes, you do-I've learned to let go of judgment; I've had to.

Okay, next question-an experience that's taken me to the edge of despair. You know what, I don't think I've ever been on the edge of despair, but I think the closest I've come to it was when I had my hopes up about my son. Especially when he was out on parole for two weeks and then wound up back in prison again.

Ann: So this is Josh…

Madeline: Yes, I think that's the closest I ever came to real despair. I was so despondent, and I knew there was a relationship between my high hopes and expectations and then my profound disappointment. But trying to hit the balance between hoping for the best and expecting the worst-that been a real tough one for me. Christians strongly believe in the virtue of hope, whereas I've heard it said that Buddhists don't believe in hope-things just are the way they are. There's a way in which I think that's where it's at-but there's another piece of me that has this thing called hope. But when my hopes aren't met, I'm disappointed. And when I have profoundly high hopes for my son's well being and he seems to go in the opposite direction, then it's devastating to me. But I'd say that's the closest to the edge of despair that I've ever been.

Ann: And your sitting, your prayer, was a balance point for you, right? A lot of people have to cast their children away, because they don't have the strength to stay connected through real trouble. Not that you would let him come into your home if he was going to be destructive there-but you stayed open to the fact that this was his spiritual journey, and some learning's going to come out of this for everybody. And your centeredness is key for him-but even more for yourself.

Madeline: Exactly. It is for myself-but for him too, because as Shakespeare says, if you're really true to yourself, you can't be anything but true to other people as well.

Ann: And you're a rock for him-he's all over the place, but you're still a rock for him.

Madeline: Yes, that's why he calls me Constant. Sometimes he writes me and uses that instead of Mom.

Ann: Dear Constant! But to learn to be constant…

Madeline: I learned to be constant way back in Catholicism. Solid, constant, loyal. My sister Sue used to say-it was particular to the German Catholic in us-that we were so grounded we were sometimes stuck in mud. But we were grounded, we were solid-we knew where we were!

Now let's see, spiritual practices that help me follow my path… Regular meditation; and to the extent that I let it go and don't keep it primary, that's when I see myself losing my center.

Ann: And then your demands and expectations and hopes get out of hand.

Madeline: That's right, exactly. That's the truth.

Ann: You meditate every day?

Madeline: Yes, except on days when I get very busy. But it's not really true that I don't meditate on those days. Even if it's not more formal meditation, if I'm in the car going to work, I don't turn on the radio and listen to the news. I really try to focus on either a piece of scripture, or I might even turn on a piece of music that's a little more inspiring.

Ann: That's a form of meditation, just to be in the world. Sitting on a cushion is certainly profound, but it's not the only way.

Madeline: Exactly. But I do think you have to pray sometimes if you're going to pray always. You have to meditate sometimes. It's a good practice, and when I lose it, I know I'm off center. That's why I try to name a time to go to the priory, and it seems to be right before Christmas that works for me. That's such a good place for me to go. It's very traditional; it touches upon what I am as a Roman Catholic, and yet they are not traditional monks-they describe themselves as "monks of color." It's the Weston Priory, they're Benedictine.

Ann: I've been there-it's awesome. And I'm not Catholic, but there was something amazing happening there.

Madeline: It's wonderful ground to be on. There were a number of years-particularly when I was separating myself from my marriage and my home-when I always made the final amen on any major decision from the priory grounds. It was like there was always a setting of prayer.

When I was there just this past Christmas it was very peaceful, and it was very profound for me. I can remember sitting at morning prayers and weeping, because I just knew in my heart that it wasn't going to be that long before I would be at the priory again for morning prayer with my sons with me. I just knew it. Right now, actually, Josh is walking around with a clay cross made by one of the brothers of the priory. And I just know that that's going to happen. But before that happens I'm going to spend Easter Sunday at the mission where he is.

Ann: So he's out of prison, and he's in a kind of fundamentalist Christian program.

Madeline: Well, I asked him what it was, and he said it's not any denomination, but if anything it would be considered Pentecostal. So to get myself more in touch with Pentecostal, I opened up a book called Amazing Grace, by Kathleen Norris. The subtitle of the book is A Vocabulary of Faith, and one of the chapters is on Pentecostalism. And when I read it, I thought it made sense. I feel good knowing that Josh is with people who are Pentecostal, because the Pentecostals identify with people on the fringes-the poor, the disenfranchised. They're not known for being highly literate, or highly educated, so they're not known for being in their heads. They're more emotional in their expression of faith, and they're known for heart. I can see Josh being more at home with that than he would be in a traditional Catholic worship service.

Ann: Pentecost is when the Holy Spirit fell upon Jesus' followers, right? So Pentacostalism is a celebration of the Holy Spirit falling on individuals.

Madeline: Absolutely; a celebration of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the coming of the Holy Spirit. And the testimony-the Pentecostals do a lot about testimony to the Spirit in their lives, and a lot about personal witness. It says here in Norris's book, "Pentecost is the Greek name for the Jewish Feast of Weeks, which falls fifty days after Passover. As the Jews who constituted the earliest Christian assemblies adapted their traditions to the new religion, Passover became Easter, and the Feast of Weeks turned into Pentecost. For Christians, Pentecost marks the coming of the Holy Spirit to Jesus' disciples seven weeks after his death and resurrection."

Ann: So let's see, the next question is, Can you hear God when God talks to you-He, She, the Divine? Have you had a sense of being spoken to directly?

Madeline: Well; now that's a good question, because I live with someone who has that sense much more strongly than I do. There have been times in my life when I've felt apologetic to myself about the fact that I don't seem to have these profound epiphanies or these voices from the sky, or whatever.

And then when I went to the ashram in India, I saw a saying by Meher Baba inscribed all around the border on the entryway to the dining room, and it says something like-now I'm paraphrasing, but it's something like, "Some of you will come away with profound experiences, and some of you will come away with no experiences at all. And either way is good." I wish I knew the exact quote because I found it to be quite consoling-whether you have experiences or don't have experiences is not what it's about. And as a matter of fact, a lot of spiritual teachers will say that it's not about seeking experiences, because that's where ego is. If God chooses to give you no experiences at all, so be it-blessed be the name of God. Actually that's what Katherine of Siena and Theresa of Avila would say. It isn't about experiences; it's about doing the will of God.

But in any case, have I heard God? I don't know, but I've had profound realizations about the way things are. I'll give you one example. This actually happened at the Baba center, in the meditation cabin, when I was particularly concerned about both my boys. About Danny, who seemed to be going through depression-this was before he returned to Vietnam-and about Josh, who was in jail. And I just got down on my knees and I put it out there, and I said, "If You have an answer for me I want to know about my sons. I worked hard with these two kids and one of them is in jail for drugs and one of them is profoundly depressed."

I came out of that meditation cabin with a very strong sense that God said to me, "Don't worry-your sons are in my hands." And I knew it was true. What that meant, I didn't know. It could have meant that Josh was going to die the next day, but somewhere in there he was in God's hands. And it could have meant I don't know what for Danny. But the fact that they were in God's hands, I knew. That made me understand that I have no idea what is right and good. Just because things turn out happy, nice, looking good-that's good, and the fact that somebody ends up in the grave, that's not good? That was the first time I really was able to say, "You know, if Josh ends up dead, he is in God's hands. And if Danny ends up in a mental hospital, he is in God's hands." Although I knew Danny wasn't going to end up in a mental hospital, he just had to go through what he was going through.

And it was shortly after that that I saw Danny in Boston, and we had a conversation in which he wound up saying, essentially, that his heart was in Vietnam and his head was in Boston. I said to him that if he was split like that, he was going to have to choose one or the other-did he want to stay with his head or did he want to follow his heart and see what happened? And he sobbed; he said, "I don't have any choice, I have to follow my heart." And of course his head went along with him.

Ann: And Josh is still in a major transition, but they're both still very young men in their twenties.

Madeline: In his last note to me, Josh asked me something interesting. He said, "I'm thankful Mom that you seem so eager to see me. I'm equally thankful for the will of God as it winds itself throughout the small things in life. It's been a long, long time. But what makes this time in this place for out uniting, what makes it right? Have you ever thought about that? If you will pray concerning this question, and ask God to show you the significance of our coming together in this time and this place, I'd love to know your response. I will seek the spirit of truth for the same thing. I'm serious about this because I believe that it could be an exercise to increase our faith." And then he quotes Scripture, "'Seek and God will allow you to find, ask and He will answer.'"

Ann: This is where a spiritual path is important. If you can use religious and spiritual traditions to develop yourself, then these really harsh things you have to go through are just enrichment rather than destruction.

Madeline: Absolutely, what looked like a tragedy is not. And as Jesus says in the Gospels, you will weep-and the weeping will turn to joy. And the deeper the weeping, I guess, the more profound the joy.

Ann: But you can't just gloss over the weeping with religious language or materialism.

Madeline: And a lot of what I grew up with became the glossing over, and not allowing yourself to go through the weeping.

Ann: From my own life, I know you must go to your deepest grief in order to have your deepest joy.

Madeline: You know what I've been listening to lately-it's a tape of music by Ann Murray, and it's called Songs of Inspiration. I love lyrics like, "I was standing by the side of a neighbor crossing over the Jordan…"

Ann: I bought it! I said, "Ann you gotta cut this out! This is too traditional!" But I bought it, because at times you just need to be grounded.

Madeline: That's exactly right. I have that tape in my car, and I actually think it's preparing me to spend an overnight with Josh in this community that he's in. I'm sure they're pretty rockin' and rollin'…

Ann: Every Pentecostal church I've ever been to, music and Hallelujah and jumping up and down were a very big part-because it opens the body.

Madeline: Yes, and that would be good for Josh! Wouldn't it be better than going to St. Thomas More Catholic Church with me?

Ann: Oh he'd freeze over more, and he needs to let up, he needs to cut loose. That takes you where you need to go, if you listen-and that's the key, am I listening?

Madeline: I think that meditation, Zen practice, the Buddhist type of meditation-if you follow the structure they've created over centuries, it's a very wise way to put yourself in a frame that helps you truly listen for the deepest and the highest. Because it is about the breath-I mean, talk about what you've been teaching as far as rebirthing, about how the breath takes you where you need to go.

Ann: The body holds the truth; but to get there, there has to be movement and breath and searching and then the truth will come up. And sometimes it feels like it's bowling you over, but it isn't-it's just opening you.

Madeline: If you're truly faithful about Buddhist meditation, I think that's where it takes you. I am sorry to say I have not been as profoundly faithful as some people I've watched. Other things help though: I think good process therapy helps. I think the kind of energy work that you do with people helps-because I've even met some people who meditate who stay in their heads.

People will say, "It was your good strong Catholic faith that brought you through difficult times." I probably wouldn't start a discussion with someone who said that, because they're someplace else other than where I am. I would say, "Yeah that's true."

Ann: But it's not the only truth.

Madeline: Exactly. Whereas, if I were with my friend Doreen-she was a Dominican sister with me, and she's not any longer, she's on a path similar to my own-we would talk about all the paths that God opened to us, and all the tools that He or She put out there for us to use that have brought us to where we are. And even Rosemary Ferguson, who was the head nun when I was an Adrian-when I went to see her she told me one of the most profound steps on her spiritual path came through five years of Jungian therapy. Now, here's the head of a traditional Roman Catholic order who says that five years of Jungian therapy dislodged much for her and brought her to more profound levels of her spiritual journey.

So, your next question is about spiritual community. You know, a spiritual community is important to me, and I don't really have one now. As a matter of fact, one of the things I liked-the only thing I liked-about living in Myrtle Beach was that there was an existing community of sorts, even though it was loose.

On Sundays, Barry and I would go together to the Meher Baba Center. We would meet all these other people who were spiritual seekers-some of them definitely strong Baba lovers, and others just lovers of Baba. I would put myself in the latter category. Baba's house was open, where he lived when he was at the Center. The meditation room is actually the bedroom where Baba slept. It was a wonderful place to meditate, because you would sit with your hand on or right next to the very bed where this spiritual master slept. Sometimes afterward we had tea with people, and sometimes we would just leave. But it was a wonderful way to touch base.

Ann: And in Chapel Hill you don't have that?

Madeline: Not really. I found a group of people who meditate, and I go there. They use Thich Nhat Hanh's teaching, and they meet one Saturday a month-and on Monday nights, when I'm usually too tired. I go there, and it's very good, but it's not a community.

I lived in religious community life for ten years, so there are ways in which I miss that connection, and in some ways my community is spread all over the place now. In the Catholic Church I go to they talk about community, but I know it's not the kind I need. I find what I need more by going to formal communities, like going to the priory once a year. It's going to be interesting to see what I find when I go to see Josh, because he's definitely in a community. And there's a place Barry and I want to go called Kindness House. That's in Durham, and it was started by a man who is definitely a meditator-I forget what line they follow. But he started something called the Prison Ashram Project, and his whole mission is to teach meditation in prisons. He's also made it his mission to get certain spiritual works into the hands of people in prison. He and his community here in Durham send out spiritual books to prisoners free of charge. And they're a community, they actually live together and work together, and some of their members are former prisoners. That's a community. Barry and I have been meaning to go there on a Sunday and meet them, because they've invited us to come to dinner.

So I don't have an actual community that I live in. Being part of one has been more or less important at different times of my life. It's important, but I don't have it right now, and it's not important enough for me to leave where I am and go someplace to find one.

Ann: Now just a few more questions. Why do bad things happen to good people? We touched on that some, but is there anything more you'd like to say about that?

Madeline: Well, because we only call things bad because they seem bad to us. Because they're tough, they challenge us to let go of some of our attachments. I'm saying that rather glibly now; that doesn't mean that if I got a phone call after we hung up that my son was terribly injured in an automobile accident that I wouldn't be devastated. But why do bad things happen to good people? Because they do.

Barry's cousin Bruce just died recently, and Bruce was a good guy, through and through. For thirty years he was a health teacher and a coach in a really rough public high school in the Bronx, and he was very well loved. He left behind his widow and two daughters, and he would have left behind a third daughter, but she died unexpectedly last June. Why did this poor woman lose her oldest daughter and her husband within six months? They're good people, they live simply, they're religious Jews, they go to synagogue on Saturdays and try to live by their faith, and he was a schoolteacher and an excellent coach who was always getting these poor black kids track scholarships to college.

When his funeral happened, a whole busload of kids from the Bronx came pouring into this synagogue to show their respect to Mr. Selman. Older guys in their thirties and forties came with their wives and kids, and they started telling stories about how Mr. Selman was their inspiration and the reason they made it in life. This skinny little Jewish guy who could run like a lightning streak, who won all kinds of awards and got a scholarship to NYU because of track-he turned around and used his talent to help these poor kids in the Bronx. He was a good guy-Barry never understood how he got to be such a good guy, because he was raised in dysfunction similar to Barry's and Barry went in one direction and this guy went in the other. Barry said, "Why is Bruce the one up there dying? It should be me. I'm not leaving two daughters behind; I didn't live a good life-I lived a lousy life. Why am I living and he's dying?" So why? I don't know. It just happens.

Ann: But one leaves a legacy. Bruce Selman knew how to love; he knew how to care and he touched people.

Sometimes the bad things that people go through enrich them and develop them. I mean you certainly wouldn't wish anything dark on anybody, but you can see people who have been incredibly strengthened-look at Thich Nhat Hanh. So maybe that's it-bad things are part of being human.

Okay, so what is our place in the world as humans?

Madeline: What's our place in the world, and what happens to us when we die? Well, I don't know; I probably would have given you a quicker answer to this question twenty-five years ago. I live with someone who believes that we die and then we come back again and again and again-until our soul has learned all it needs to learn and we become God-realized. There's no doubt in his mind. But I'm still living with my teachings from childhood: You try to live a good life, you die, you go to heaven. If you live a bad life, you die, you go to hell. And although I'm not a big believer in hell, I have a harder time letting go of heaven-and I don't think heavens true either.

So I don't really think I know what happens. But I know something else happens. I watched my mother die, and I knew that only her body was dying; I knew that she-whoever she was-was slipping away and going somewhere else. I know that she lives on. What that means, I don't know. Whether she's in someplace called heaven or whether she's in an in-between state and will then reincarnate again-I tend more toward believing that now, but I don't really know. But I do think there are ways in which we live on, not only through the legacies we leave but in some other way. We are more than our bodies; we are not our bodies. I think when our bodies die, who we really are lives on, and in a sense, that's a piece of God. It's like Theresa of Avila says, we're like a drop and we just drop back into the ocean. Just because we're part of the ocean doesn't mean we don't exist.

Ann: I love the saying that's just the reverse of that-that the ocean rushes into us. They're really both the same thing.

Madeline: Well, yes. I'm sitting here right now looking at this card that I have on my little meditation table, along with lots of little things. This one happens to be a picture of Baba, and he looks just like Jesus.

The first time I went to the meditation cabin at the Baba Center, I looked up and I saw this picture, and I thought it was Jesus having his face wiped by Veronica-there's a traditional icon in Christianity that's an image of Veronica wiping Jesus' face as he's on his way carrying the Cross, and the image of his face stays on the cloth. Well I thought that's what the picture was, and I thought, "What is this traditional Christian picture doing in this cabin?" Then I realized it wasn't a picture of Jesus, it was a picture of Baba. So I was meditating in this cabin, wondering "Who is Baba? And who is Jesus anyway?" And I had this vision-it wasn't in my head, it was in my heart. These two men clad in white were coming down a rocky road, a dusty road. And as they walked closer, I could see that one was clearly the image that I'd seen of Jesus and the other was clearly the image that I saw of Meher Baba. The closer they walked toward me, the closer they were to each other, and then at one point in my field of inner vision, they walked into each other and became one and smiled at me. I honestly couldn't tell you whether it was Jesus or Baba, and at that moment it didn't matter-and after that it has never mattered.

But I have this picture of Baba, and there's a quote from him on it, "Do not worry about your own weaknesses-eventually they will go. Even if they linger, love will one day consume them. Everything disappears in the ocean of love. Because you are loved, you have a pool of love within you. When you feel wretched, when you fall in your weakness, have a dip in that pool of love; refresh yourself in that pool of love within you. It is always there. Even if you wash your weaknesses every day in that pool, the pool of love will remain clear. Don't worry; Baba loves you, and that is all that matters." Isn't that sweet?

Ann: That is sweet; and when you go the Pentecostal Church, they'll say, "Don't worry, Jesus loves you." So no matter what you do, love is there. Do the Buddhists say anything about that-do they use love language?

Madeline: Do you have that little book by Thich Nhat Hanh, it's got a red cover and it's called Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers? I'm looking at that right now, and sure enough there's a chapter entitled, "The Meaning of Love." So yes, at least Thich Nhat Hanh talks about love. This is a whole chapter on it.

Ann: Is there anything else you want to say in closing? Is there anything that comes up?

Madeline: I don't even know whose quote this is, it may be Rainer Maria Rilke, the poet-it's something about "living the questions." The older I get, the more I know that I don't know. So right now in my life I'm at a place where there's a lot that I don't know, but it doesn't matter that I don't know. I just live out the question, and I guess I'm a lot more relaxed about it.

Didn't the Buddhists say that the finger pointing to the moon is not the moon, and why do we argue about the finger pointing to the moon? It's just a finger pointing to the moon. And religion is a way to link us to God, and doesn't it make sense that God could use all kinds of religions? I mean even in Christianity, doesn't it make sense that you could have Pentecostals, because look how that helps certain kinds of people. What difference does it make?

If you're grounded in something, that's important in and of itself. I think the fact that I was well grounded in a religious tradition as a kid says a lot about the way my family raised me. My religious tradition was an important, solid container for me. Now, it's not good to keep it so solid and airtight that you can't breathe, but to be able to come out of that container having had the firm foundation is in itself a gift and a grace. It's one of the things I have to give to the world I live in.

Madeline is an educator and master teacher of teachers now living in Chapel Hill, NC.

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