Interview with Rev. Cynthia Trapanese
- I wrote a manuscript on attitudes toward death and dying in many different religious traditions, and I included information on how to care for someone from each tradition. It‚s a guidebook for chaplains and caregivers. It includes the prayers, the songs, the attunements that would be meaningful to someone from each tradition at the end of his or her life. That was wonderful, fascinating work, and it was a beautiful way to tie together my inter-religious ordination in my Interfaith ministry and my pastoral work. I actually use the guidebook in my hospice work.
- It’s a wonderful background for my pastoral care, my chaplaincy work, because I have familiarity with Jewish prayers, I know the Catholic prayers-they roll off my tongue! I find it such a blessing to be familiar with those traditions. I would be familiar with them anyway from my training in the Sufi order, but it’s even more powerful to have been a practicing member of the different faiths.
- My children will find their own way, but certainly they’re being raised in an inter-religious environment. Eliza’s kindergarten teacher called me last year and said, I just need to ask you this. Which holiday do you celebrate? I said, Actually, all of them. And she said, Well that’s what Eliza said, but I just didn’t know if that was possible.
- I’ve had the grace of deep faith from childhood, a very devotional sense. If anything, I have suffered from wanting to be more devotional. Sometimes I’ve struggled with the fact that I chose not to be a nun. There’s a part of me that is quite contemplative. And I’m learning how to answer that part of myself while being in the world, with a family, without the habit.
- All of the religions teach love, harmony, human-to-human connection, neighborliness, respect, peace, compassion. Human limitations cause religions to appear inharmonious.
- I had a hospice patient who was so adamant that there isn’t a God. She said, I’m not religious. I believe in goodness for goodness‚ sake!" Well that’s a religion! That’s a belief system, and it’s a beautiful one. It’s not in contradiction with any of the religious teachings
Ann: I'd like to start with a little bit about your work. You’re just beginning a chaplaincy program for hospice.
Cynthia: It’s actually not for hospice; it's a clinical pastoral education residency at Westchester Medical Center. The residents and the interns in the chaplaincy department are a big part of the chaplaincy services offered at Westchester Medical. We have a few paid, full-time permanent staff members, and then we round out their services with this program. It‚s nine months long, forty hours a week.
Ann: And the training that you received in the Sufi Order International was the stepping stone to this work, right?
Cynthia: Yes, there was a program called Shared Path that was approved by the Clinical Pastoral Education Association. It was one unit of clinical pastoral education, and it was an eighteen-month program. We met for four weekends-every six months, four weekends in that eighteen month period-for three days of very intensive work. Each of us had internships in our hometown, and we corresponded with our mentor and did projects. So I tied my hospice work into that, but I was doing hospice work before and after that program.
For that program I wrote a manuscript on attitudes toward death and dying in many different religious traditions, and I included information on how to care for someone from each tradition. It‚s a guidebook for chaplains and caregivers. It includes the prayers, the songs, the attunements that would be meaningful to someone from each tradition at the end of his or her life. That was wonderful, fascinating work, and it was a beautiful way to tie together my inter-religious ordination in my Interfaith ministry and my pastoral work. I actually use the guidebook in my hospice work.
Ann: What if somebody‚s not religious, or not aligned with any religion?
Cynthia: I find that the dying really long for beauty and peace. That‚s the way into the heart-beauty, gentleness, just the human-to-human contact. Maybe someone loved poetry. Or a lot of people have an attunement to classical music, so playing a beautiful piece of classical music might really answer the need of someone’s soul, or flowers or pictures-beauty in all of its different forms. Some people are very clear that they don‚t have a belief system, and even not having a belief system is a belief system. But just about everybody responds to music. The soul is so present in the dying process that it‚s easy to access the beauty within a person and a person‚s reaction to beauty.
Ann: Even for children, in pediatrics?
Cynthia: I haven’t been in pediatrics yet as a chaplain, and I didn’t have any children as hospice patients. We had some on the program, but I didn’t work with them. So pediatrics will be different. The hospice work was almost easy for me-the intensity of being present, singing, holding hands, praying, being attuned to someone as they die. It‚s different with each person, but there are similarities, and I know how to do that work. As a chaplain it’s going to be different, because there will be people to be prayed with before they go into surgery, or people who have a new diagnosis, or people who lose somebody unexpectedly-all the different ways of ministering and being with parents, staff and kids.
Ann: Let me ask some very basic questions. In which spiritual tradition were you raised?
Cynthia: This will be fun! Ready? I was baptized Episcopalian when I was a baby. My birth father was Catholic, but he had been married a few times before, so he and my mother were not married in the Catholic Church, they were married in the Episcopal Church. So my mother had all of us baptized Episcopalian as we were born-I was the fourth child. But then there was no connection beyond that.
My father died before I was two, so my mom was a single mom. I was the youngest by many years, so I spent every weekend at my great aunt’s house, because my mom worked two jobs. My great aunt was a wonderful, wonderful person. She taught me how to bake, how to read, how to write. It was just an incredible blessing that I was able to go there every weekend until I was about twelve.
There was a Presbyterian church right across the street from my great aunt’s house. So at a very young age, I think it was the year before kindergarten, I went to Sunday school there. My aunt was Methodist, so she didn’t come with me; I went to Sunday school and church by myself every Sunday all through my childhood, and I loved it! I went to Bible camp in the summer. I loved the training and learning about Jesus; it was very gentle, very artistic in Sunday school. Then when I was around twelve, my best friend was Lutheran. So occasionally I’d have a weekend with her and go to her church.
When I was thirteen, my mom remarried. That’s a long but beautiful story. She had been engaged to this man before she even met my real father, and he found her many years later. And for the next twenty years before he died, they were able to live the life they were meant to live together. He was Jewish, so my high school years were spent going to synagogue and his parents‚ house and learning all the Jewish holidays. I didn’t learn Hebrew, I didn’t have any formal religious training, but I certainly was exposed to Judaism in a deep way.
In my third year of high school I started to learn about Hinduism and Buddhism. I didn’t like the idea of land ownership or citizenship. I felt I was a citizen of the world and of all these religions. That was the beginning of freedom of thinking for me, in a way.
Then I met a boy who was Catholic, and I went to Mass with his family, and I was just opened. So I lived with that for a little bit, and then my senior year of high school I went to Catechism after school every week, and I was confirmed Catholic in May of my senior year of high school. My parents were very supportive, although they felt it was a rebellion against my stepfather. But it wasn’t. If it was, I‚m still not in touch with that. The beauty of the Catholic Mass really, really called to me. Then in college I wasn’t living up to the rules of the Catholic Church, I felt like I just couldn’t do that, and I didn’t feel comfortable breaking the rules and still going to church. That‚s when I discovered Rilke, existentialism and a more intellectual way of looking at things. I can’t say I was affiliated with any tradition, but I would go to Mass occasionally.
Frank Lloyd Wright became a big part of my life. I was working at a theater out in Spring Green-his summer home is Taliesin, in Spring Green. He spelled God with a capital N, for nature. His family built the Unity Chapel, a Unitarian church. So I went to Unitarian services during the end of my college years, and that was beautiful. I missed the devotional side of the Catholic Church, but there was great beauty in the Unitarian Church, beautiful music, very uplifting. It didn’t entirely answer my need, but I don’t think I even realized that. I was into intellectual discoveries for a time. And then I was living different places, and when I married Steve-the father of my kids-we were looking for a place to get married, and we went to Grace Church, at Tenth Street and Broadway in Manhattan. It’s a beautiful Episcopal Church with a wonderful minister. So that reconnected me with the Episcopal Church, and I stayed there until we moved up to Westchester.
Ann: Is your ex-husband Episcopalian?
Cynthia: No, he was raised Catholic. When I moved up here I didn’t really have a connection to a church specifically, and I kind of just let it go. And then a series of miscommunications led me to a place I wasn’t even meant to be. I misunderstood where a rehearsal was going to be for a play I was in; I thought I was early for rehearsal, but I was actually in the wrong place. But it turned out to be the right place, because while I was waiting, I found a copy of the Omega Institute catalogue, and I saw Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan’s picture. He’s the head of the Sufi Order International, of which I’ve now been an initiate for ten years. I’d never attended anything at Omega, but I looked at this man’s picture, and in hindsight, I think I just said, "Okay."
I called the next day and signed up for the workshop, which was a couple of months later. And that was the beginning of my training in the Sufi order. I went to that workshop, and my head just split open, like I’d been struck by lightning. He taught us to whirl-you know, the dervish Turning, in the Mevlevi tradition-and I crashed to the floor.
Ann: It’s easy to crash! You’re not the first one!
Cynthia: I was altered for a couple of days. Then I went to the Abode of the Message, the Sufi Order retreat center in New Lebanon, New York. The Omega workshop was in August; I went to the Labor Day retreat and was initiated into the Sufi order. And I’ve never taken a break from it. I study, go to classes, read, do my practices. But really, my life opened up.
Ann: It’s quite a distance from Westchester County to the Abode. Do you go often?
Cynthia: It‚s not so far; under two hours by car. But there are Sufi centers all over the world. The closest one is really Yonkers right now, although we’re kind of developing an annex in Golden’s Bridge. I’m teaching classes now on alternate Friday nights. We do studies and readings and dhikr. That’s a Sufi practice, spelled d-h-i-k-r, or z-i-k-r. The translation of the word is "remembrance." It’s the practice of remembering God. It’s repetition, generally. For instance, we’ll repeat the phrase, "La illaha il‚allah," which means "There is no God but God," or it can be translated, "Everything is God." And there are movements with it and variations on it. There‚s also, "Ishq Allah, Ma’abud Allah," which means, "God is love, God is the Beloved." You repeat it in a group meditation. It’s the practice of remembering that nothing exists but God-God is everything, God is love. That’s really a powerful thing to do. My ministry, the Universal Worship Service, is within the Sufi Order.
So that’s been my path. It’s a wonderful background for my pastoral care, my chaplaincy work, because I have familiarity with Jewish prayers, I know the Catholic prayers-they roll off my tongue! I find it such a blessing to be familiar with those traditions. I would be familiar with them anyway from my training in the Sufi order, but it’s even more powerful to have been a practicing member of the different faiths.
Ann: Oh indeed! God led you from birth on. And your children, have they become Sufi?
Cynthia: Well, in the Sufi order, generally you can take initiation at age sixteen. My kids come to camp every summer-we were up at the Abode for twelve days in August, and they did the children’s camp up there. I’ve been teaching children’s classes for three years, exploring the world’s religions, and they’ve taken those classes. So they’re getting exposure to all these different things. My son is now eight, and I feel he needs to deepen his understanding, so I gave him the choice of learning Hebrew, Arabic or Chinese this year. He chose Chinese, so hopefully I’ll take him to the Chuang Yen Buddhist Monastery in Carmel. He’ll go maybe once a month, and he’ll begin to learn Chinese and have exposure to that tradition.
Ann: What an opportunity for a kid!
Cynthia: If he opens up that language center in the brain, he’ll be set for life. He’s always had an affinity for China. When he was about fourteen months old, we saw a dragon dancer on television, and he said, "Mommy, I was in the tail of that dragon." And he talked about how "grandmother" drank her soup-he picked up a bowl to show us. At that point, he didn’t even call my mom grandma, because he couldn’t say it-he called her Munga. He wasn’t even two. But he said, "Grandmother drank her soup like this," when we were in the Chinese restaurant! Reverend Tao Long hugged him at the monastery once, and it was a very meaningful event for him, just to feel that connection. We’re lucky to have that monastery nearby.
So my children will find their own way, but certainly they’re being raised in an inter-religious environment. Eliza’s kindergarten teacher called me last year and said, "I just need to ask you this. Which holiday do you celebrate?" I said, "Actually, all of them." And she said, "Well that’s what Eliza said, but I just didn’t know if that was possible."
And I said, "Yes, this year we have the menorah and we say the prayers every night, and we celebrate Christmas, and we acknowledge Eid and Ramadan, and we celebrate the Solstice also."
Ann: It seems that you’ve never really lost faith, you’ve just changed and expanded. It’s almost as if you were ready and so the door opened.
Cynthia: Oh yes, that old saying, "When the student is ready, the teacher will come." That’s how it felt to see Pir Vilayat’s picture. I wasn’t looking for a teacher; I didn’t know I was looking anyway. But I cannot say I’ve ever lost faith. I’ve had the grace of deep faith from childhood, a very devotional sense. If anything, I have suffered from wanting to be more devotional. Sometimes I’ve struggled with the fact that I chose not to be a nun. There’s a part of me that is quite contemplative. And I’m learning how to answer that part of myself while being in the world, with a family, without the habit.
Ann: But it’s still the devotional life.
Cynthia: It is the devotional life. So I can’t say I’ve ever really lost faith. I attribute that to the grace of God.
Ann: Do you see these different religious paths as harmonious, or are they in conflict with one another?
Cynthia: I see them as absolutely in harmony. I only see conflict in the places where human beings have taken religion and made it dogmatic, where it’s been institutionalized. And I understand why that’s happened-human limitations, human needs; someone at some point thought human beings needed these rules.
There’s a story about Mohammed: When he had his vision, the Buraq (winged donkey) took him as far as it could take him and said, "Now you go the rest of the way," and Mohammed went to have his audience with God. And God was giving him the rules for the religion of Islam, which means surrender, and God said, "You know, people need to pray five hundred times a day."
And Mohammed said, "No way! I know these people, there’s no way!" And they bargained down to five times a day. Mohammed said, "Maybe they can do that." But there’s an attitude toward human beings-there‚s a belief that they need that type of structure in order to stay connected to the goodness, to the faith. That’s why you’re supposed to pray five times a day-so that you’ll stop what you’re doing and remember God. That’s all that means. Prayer has been imposed as law by the government in some countries, and that’s where the conflict happens. But the meaning behind those rules is in complete harmony. All of the religions teach love, harmony, human-to-human connection, neighborliness, respect, peace, compassion. Human limitations cause religions to appear inharmonious.
That’s what the Universal Worship is about-finding where religions unite, but not in a way to make them uniform-unity, not uniformity. In a Universal worship service, I always work with a theme. The next one I’m doing is on dance, and on places where various scriptures talk about that type of joy or expression. I’ve done services on wisdom and compassion.
Ann: Who are your spiritual heroes?
Cynthia: Well, maybe the first was Aunt Gert, my great aunt. She had a very strong sense of right and wrong-you know, a good Christian woman in the traditional sense; she was very deeply considerate. She didn’t drive, so people would pick us up to go out to dinner on Friday night, or out for a Sunday drive or something. And she would always be ready and downstairs ahead of time so they didn’t have to wait. That type of consideration taught me beautifully as a child and into adulthood; I really appreciate those lessons. So I would say she was a bit of a spiritual hero.
Reverend Clark was just an incredible role model, the minister from the Presbyterian Church across the street from my aunt’s house. He’s very ill now actually. I went to visit him the summer before last. He may not be alive any longer-it’s been a year and a half since I talked to his wife. But I attended that church for at least eight years. He and my aunt come to mind immediately.
And as I mentioned before, Frank Lloyd Wright was important to me, as strange as that seems. I know there’s a lot of controversy around his personal life, but his work and writings opened me in some way. It frustrates me when people discount all the beauty because of a couple of stories about something else.
Certainly Pir Vilayat is a spiritual hero; he’s an incredible being. He‚s eighty-four, and he looks younger every year. And Pir Vilayat’s son Zia, who’s only thirty, has taken over his role in America. He’s an amazing man as well. Incredibly scholarly, and he has a beautiful heart. So the Order appears to be in good hands.
I have affinities for Jesus, Buddha, Zarathustra-the prophet of the Zoroastrian religion. I feel very close to and connected to St. Francis and St. Anthony, I can call on their presences. When I’m with someone Jewish who’s dying, I can feel the presence of Moses. Certainly Murshid-Pir Vilayat’s father, Hazrat Inayat Khan. "Hazrat" is a posthumous title; his name was Inayat Khan. His presence is very real and strong, and his teachings are amazing. And the Dalai Lama-that smile!
Ann: He says his religion is kindness! We should all start with that, and then we can refine it, right?
Cynthia: I had a hospice patient who was so adamant that there isn’t a God. She said, "I’m not religious. I believe in goodness for goodness‚ sake!" Well that’s a religion! That’s a belief system, and it’s a beautiful one. It’s not in contradiction with any of the religious teachings.
Ann: She’s probably not into dogma and religiosity, which can be very oppressive.
Can you think of any profound spiritual experiences you’ve had around birth or sickness or death-or just nature?
Cynthia: During that first workshop with Pir Vilayat, he was teaching us to turn, and he said, "If you begin to get dizzy, turn faster." Now he’s probably never said that before or since, because that’s an absurd thing to say when you’re teaching someone to turn, but I believed him! So I started to get dizzy, and I turned faster. And I crashed to the ground, and it was like being struck by lightning. It just opened me in an incredible way. I turn a little bit by myself, it’s a part of my
practice, but it’s so sacred and powerful to me that I’ve spent ten years going into it very gently. In the next month or two I hope to begin to take turning classes, and I’ll really begin to enter that more deeply. But it’s such a powerful experience that it’s taken ten years to integrate it into my regular practice.
Ann: I know it’s very hard to give words to mystical experiences, but could you say something about what that means, "I crashed to the floor, and I had an opening"?
Cynthia: Well, I have to use the lightning analogy again, because there was some aspect of light. It was as if lightning struck my brain and light came into it. It was like some type of baptism by light-but sharp, not gently flowing water. Then the other part of the opening was something in the heart. Steve, my ex-husband, had come with me to the two-day workshop, and he wanted ice-cream afterward. So we went into this little ice-cream shop, and I couldn’t function, I couldn’t decide what I wanted-and I‚m not like that, I’m very grounded and very clear, almost always. But I couldn’t function; I was just somewhere else for hours. It wasn’t frightening, I didn’t feel that it was dangerous or anything bad would happen, I just needed to process. I needed to be in a retreat space, but instead I went back into the world. It took a few days to come out of that state.
So it was like a lightning bolt and then a sense of needing to center, or needing a space to process the experience. I know you’re trying to get me to say what that was, what I needed to process. It was like an awakening, for lack of a better word, an awakening to another phase of life. It was serious-not happy, not burdensome. And it was without great clarity as to what it would be-it was just a wake-up.
Ann: I’ve had those experiences, and I know you can’t really name it. But when that happens, you know your whole path has expanded, and you also know that it’ll take you years to understand it. As I look back, those experiences have been focusing points to keep me going and keep me straight on my own path. There are so few people I’ve met who have experienced things like that that it’s hard to talk to people about it; it’s hard to get information.
Cynthia: You have to be careful that it’s not misconstrued or misinterpreted. It’s sacred. I don’t talk about it to too many people.
Ann: But people need to know about these experiences. Most of the people I’ve interviewed have had an experience of feeling as if they were directed out of danger, or opened spiritually. Each of them has described it in a totally different way. And after such an experience, you come right back to being an everyday person-you still do the laundry and go to school and watch your kids. But it’s a very enriching experience. You can’t call on these experiences, you can’t ask for them, you can’t will them. But they’re blessings.
Cynthia: And as you said, we’re regular people. There are stories of the mystical experiences of the saints, but we’re everyday people. We didn’t have these experiences and then retreat to a cave somewhere.
Ann: And those experiences don’t have to be in a religious context. Some people can be moved into another space by music, or by being in the middle of the woods. I think that’s why we hunger to be in nature, because we know it’s a place to at least be replenished, and there’s the possibility of something awesome.
Cynthia: I lived on a boat for two years, so I spent time at sea. We were over near Martha’s Vineyard, Rhode Island, that area, and then we sailed south in the winter. We went from Rhode Island to Bermuda and from Bermuda down to the Caribbean in a small boat, a twenty-seven foot cutter. We had no modern navigational equipment; we used a sextant to plot our position. And then on the trip back we decided not to stop anywhere. We sailed from the British Virgin Islands to Block Island and we actually landed at Montauk. That took twenty days at sea in a small boat, with some storms. And that was a spiritual experience-finding my own strength, connecting to nature in a different way. I missed the trees terribly! Sometimes I felt like there was no nature out there, it was total sensory deprivation. But then I kind of surrendered to that, and I discovered the beauty of the stars and the depth of the water. It definitely strengthened me.
Ann: So you know that mystical sense of being close to nature-and the danger of nature too.
Cynthia: Oh, the incredible power of those storms! It can’t be explained. I wasn’t afraid for my physical well-being, although I probably should have been. It was more about survival, just figuring out how to go minute to minute in the horrendously violent storm-I mean, we were just getting thrown all over the boat. I have an incredible respect for water and wind!
Ann: Working in hospice, what has your experience of death been like?
Cynthia: My experience with death has been incredible gentleness-gentleness, peace, even joy. Of course, I’ve worked with people who know they’re dying; there’s time to reconnect with the family, and it’s almost always profound and beautiful. And then the death itself is more profound and beautiful and gentle. I haven’t had a lot of experience with traumatic death-I suppose that’s stormier. You know, I don’t feel called to be in an emergency room or a trauma center at the hospital. The hospice is like smooth sailing in a small lake.
Ann: Do you have a regular meditation practice? That’s a way to open yourself to that divine energy.
Cynthia: Daily practices are a big part of the Sufi tradition. In the Sufi Order International there’s no dogma, daily practices are self-motivated and self-directed. There are suggestions-there are prayers three times a day. But there’s no judgment if you don’t do them. It’s all gifts, jewels-you can choose to make a crown or a necklace from the jewels, or you can choose to leave them on the table. That works well for me. Some people want someone to tell them what to do, but that’s certainly not the way the order is. But daily practices are suggested.
When the kids were really little, I did my practices late at night before I went to bed. At some point that needed to shift for me. It’s more traditional to do practices in the morning, and that’s worked better for me in the last two years. I do purification breaths, which are the Order’s attunements to each of the elements-purifying earth, water, fire, air. That’s very grounding and balancing. I do some practices with light, and then I do my prayers, which are the prayers written by Pir-O-Murshid Inayat Khan, and then I do my practices.
In the Sufi Order International, each initiate, if they follow the tradition, has a guide who gives him or her spiritual practices. It’s individualized. You might sit with your guide once a month or once a year, depending on where they live; you might talk on the phone. They give you practices, and then you talk to them about those practices. Some people have the same practices for ten years. Some people need to change. And the practices might be the wazaif, the ninety-nine names of God, the qualities of God in Islam, or they could be Buddhist practices, they could be Christian practices, they could be Jewish practices. Your attunement could be any of the different religions. So after my prayers I do my practices. I have one that’s been the same for many years, and then I add additional ones. In an interactive relationship with your guide you can say, "I feel like I need to do something more devotional," or, "I feel like I need to honor my gifts more by working with this quality."
I generally do prayers at midday and evening-very privately, to myself. Sometimes even when I’m driving. I can watch the road, and I can still be present to my prayers. Or I do them waiting in line; I spend a lot of my time in prayer. I’m a mom, and as you said before, being a mom is a spiritual practice. I’m also an initiate in the Sufi Healing Order, and there’s a healing service, so I do a mini, individualized version of that. Sometimes I do that each day, and I pray for people who have asked me to pray for them. Sometimes I do it in the morning with my own practice.
Recently I do an invocation even before I watch a movie. I’m used to being in the role of pastoral counselor or caregiver or to leading a service or teaching a class, and I feel as if I need to attune to everything I’m about to embark on. At first I thought, "Oh that’s silly!" And then I thought well no, it’s all sacred, there’s no separation-what isn’t sacred? So my day is filled with spiritual practice.
Ann: Can you actually talk to and hear God, or Goddess? When you do your invocation or your prayers, do you have a sense of presence or some acknowledgment, some answer?
Cynthia: Absolutely. Talking to God is funny-I think it might have been Inayat Khan, who said, "God doesn’t need to hear our prayers, but we need to hear them." Prayers are our way; God doesn’t need us to talk to Him/Her/It. But our souls need that. My understanding of this is very fluid and changing and flowing. I don’t feel conversational when I talk to God, although when I work with kids, we’ll pretend to climb up a mountain and ask questions; we pretend to be Moses listening for answers. I believe that kind of communication is possible, but my concept of God is so all encompassing-the energy, the beauty.
For example, if I’m praying, if I’m doing the healing prayers, I have a mental list-or even a written list-of people who have asked me to pray for them. When I’m praying for someone, it’s energizing, not conversational. I don’t pray for anything specific, I just try to see them in their highest self, "Thy will be done." I really feel that we cannot know what that will is. I’m very careful what to pray for, because you can’t know what comes with a specific prayer. If I pray to be guided throughout the day, I know there are answers in my heart, but they’re not in words. Maybe there’s some visual quality of light, or I feel some clarity, but I absolutely feel guided. I love the Jewish tradition of arguing with God, but I believe that it’s about arguing with our own higher selves. God is so enmeshed in us-the Sufis say, "God is closer to you than your jugular vein." Why do you search for God up there? God is here.
In the Koran it says, "If all of the trees on the earth were pens and the oceans ink, with many more to replenish them, the understanding of God would never come to an end." God is so vast that even if every tree were a pen and every drop of water ink, God still couldn’t be understood.
Ann: And yet, somehow I‚m connected to that vastness. So one of my questions is, How can we hear God’s answer to us? You’ve been answered many times and called many times. Can you say anything about that? Is it good for people to ask God?
Cynthia: Absolutely, and there’s another Sufi saying, "If you take one step forward, the masters, saints, prophets, God will take a hundred steps toward you." They will not impose-God, the masters, saints, prophets, angels-will never impose. But if you call out, they’ll come running. So I think calling out is very important. And it’s in the heart; I really believe our hearts know.
Ann: You’ve had, and have, many spiritual communities. Do you think it’s a necessity to have a community?
Cynthia: No, I don’t think it has to be. I think it’s very important, I think it’s wonderful. But I think whether community is necessary depends on whether an individual’s soul longs for it. I can’t say there’s a need, but I think that most human beings long for community. America is an incredible country because of the possibilities for freedom, but there is also a lot of shadow to our culture. In some way even churches and synagogues reinforce that material side of earthly life. I think there’s a need for deeper community in America.
Ann: There is a sense of isolation here. We’re challenged to get the bigger house, the bigger job, the bigger car. We have a kind of hunger, and the ability to move forward, but I think we hunger for some rootedness in spirituality and community.
Cynthia: Maybe it’s the depth. I mean, there are some communities that go to church, but is there a real depth of sharing? I feel very lucky to have the Sufi order.
Ann: You create community by being a teacher, and you live in a little community. Is there any other community you want to be a part of that you haven’t been able to as yet?
Cynthia: You know, there might be, but I don’t even know what it is. I’m certainly a social being; I’m a people person. I think I could even live communally.
Now that the kids are older it‚s not as much of an issue, but the one aspect of community I didn’t have-this isn’t so much spiritual-was a community in which to mother. You hear about communities where families live together and the mothers help each other out. I think that’s beautiful! My family is all in Madison, Wisconsin, my mom and my brother and sister and their families. I go there for a month every summer, and it’s like that there. There’s no question-if you have someplace to go, Mom takes the kids. My brother and sister help each other out all the time.
That’s what it is-I don’t have family here. When I leave Madison, I think, "What am I doing?" I mean, my family‚s not perfect, so in some ways it’s good that I’m not there, because I’m ever the little sister. I needed to leave to be able to spread my own wings. But they do things together, and I’m not there participating in that.
Ann: And just being able to drop your kids off at Grandma’s and know that they’re safe. I think that family connection is very spiritual; to me that’s a profound part of life.
Cynthia: Nurturing the children in a larger group?
Ann: Nurturing the children in a larger group. They all have a wonderful sense of the way people live and how they act and how they take care of one another. That is so important, and it’s lacking in a lot of places.
What does your faith say about really bad things happening to good people?
Cynthia: It’s a difficult question to answer. Personally, I’m certainly aligned with the Sufi order, but all the religions inform my understanding, it’s very broad. But in the Sufi tradition, there’s an acceptance that bad things exist in the world. It’s important to be very, very conscious of your perspective. If someone has mistreated you, it’s important to try to shift your consciousness to that person’s perspective, that person’s pain, where that person came from. It’s important to try to find compassion that way. Not that you let yourself get walked on, not that you don’t get outraged at injustice, but you should strive to understand where that injustice came from. I’ve heard Pir Vilayat say, "You don’t blame a tiger for biting you."
If the bad thing is circumstantial-like an earthquake or some sort of natural disaster, or the death of a child-again, I think it‚s necessary to broaden your perspective to understand that the earth isn’t stable, the continents are still shifting. We shouldn’t interpret an earthquake as some kind of horrible thing that’s being dropped on us; it’s happening to everybody.
There’s the mustard seed story from Buddhism. The Buddha instructs a woman whose child has died to go from home to home, and he tells her, "Bring me a mustard seed from a home that hasn’t experienced the death of a loved one." So she goes to find the mustard seed, but everybody tells her stories of death.
And she returns to the Buddha and says, "Well, of course I don’t have a mustard seed, for every home has experienced death." She feels the connection, and she’s experienced compassion and shared people’s grief and she’s experienced the healing of her pain. The story’s about recognizing and accepting that pain and suffering are part of the world.
It doesn’t take away the pain, I don’t mean to underestimate the pain, but you do have a choice about how you deal with it and what your perspective is. And you can choose not to feel victimized, but to do something positive.
Ann: To use the pain for enrichment rather than destruction.
What is our place in the world as human beings?
Cynthia: That‚s a big question. That’s a place where religions might differ.
Ann: Well what’s your personal feeling, from your journey?
Cynthia: Well I definitely believe that human beings are set apart from other beings in the sense that we have access to our divine inheritance. I remember as a little girl I learned about Jesus and unconditional love, and I absolutely, adamantly believed that every human being was capable of unconditional love. My Sunday school teachers said, "No, no, no?" But I understand this, I can feel that this is possible, that it’s a potential that we have. I still believe that. It’s very difficult; I can’t say I’ve achieved it, but I can see the potential. I think that was one of Jesus’ teachings. He said "our" Father; he didn’t say "my" Father. He didn’t say, "I’m the Son of God, I’m here to teach you schleps." He said to love your neighbor. We’re all children of God, we all have that divine inheritance. Jesus just recognized it and accepted it. Not that I don’t recognize the other qualities, the incredible gifts that he possessed, and not to say that we’re all capable of that, but in a way we all have unlimited potential. I believe that’s a gift that God would like us to recognize and take responsibility for.
There’s a little church nearby with a wonderful Episcopal priest, and he’s actually an initiate in the Mevlevi Order. He says Sufism is his spirituality, and the Episcopal Church is his religion. He tries to get his congregation to take responsibility spiritually; he tells them, "You’re spiritual beings!"
And they say, "No, we’re not!" because they don’t want to take that responsibility. But it’s true, we all have access to that. So I believe it’s our role as human beings to recognize and honor our spiritual side, and to honor all life-all human life, all bugs, everything. I try to teach that to kids. I teach classes outside, and we talk about the harmony of all life. I say, "Just for the time we‚re here, don‚t kill anything. Don‚t slap a mosquito. Blow it away, give it a blessing-just try it for ten minutes."
Ann: In Christianity you look for the Christ within, right? So that would be the divine within. And there’s a Buddhist monastery where they have the largest Buddha in the western hemisphere, and in back they have ten thousand small Buddhas, because they believe that the Buddha is within. Does Islam believe in that same principle?
Cynthia: Absolutely, that’s why there’s no clergy in Islam. There’s someone who leads the prayers, there’s a call to prayer; but there’s no clergy, because every human being has their own understanding and relationship with God, a direct connection. That was one of the things that Mohammed said. It was 600 C.E., and Christianity was already quite established, when it was revealed to Mohammed that it’s important to assure people that they have a direct connection to God. The bishop and the priest have no authority over another human being; they’re there to support and nurture, like the leader of the prayers in the mosque is there to support and nurture. And they’re scholarly: If someone says, "I’m confused about this, what does our religion teach us?" they can say, "Go to this passage in the Koran," and guide them. But they can’t say, "I can absolve you of your sins," because only God can do that.
Ann: What do you think happens when you die?
Cynthia: Well again, I have knowledge of a number of religions, so my personal belief is informed by a lot of different teachings. My personal belief is that our experience of what happens after death is as individual as our experience on earth. I really believe that it’s an individual journey. There are common human experiences in life, so there are probably common human experiences after death.
I’ve been with many dying people, and my experience is that death is absolutely a parallel to birth. That’s why I call my book Soul Midwifery; when someone is dying it’s like tending to a birth, the energy is almost the same. It’s the birth of the soul from the body. During my pregnancy, I was blessed to have an incredible woman as my labor support person. The way she took care of me was amazing, and when I first started doing this work, I found myself drawing on that experience-I found myself caring for people who were dying as she had cared for me when I was giving birth. With all my training, what came to me was my experience of being cared for that way. And then I realized that birth energy is very similar to the energy of dying. The soul knows what to do, the body knows what to do. Just as with birth, we don’t really need to do anything external. Of course things can go wrong, but death isn’t a medical experience; the soul is being born into another way of experiencing life. I believe absolutely that there’s a continuation, and that it’s different for each person.
Now, do I believe in reincarnation? Not 100 percent clearly, but there’s something to all the evidence people have of past lives. Sufis say that as the soul descends into manifestation, other souls are ascending back to the other plane, and the old souls can meet the new ones and pass on information. So rather than returning to this life, the old soul leaves an impression on a new soul. That’s a possibility. I think maybe some souls come back and maybe some don’t. I believe in the angelic sphere and the Jinn sphere, where it’s more intellectual, more creative-the artists and the poets spend more time there before they incarnate. There’s the metaphor of the sun-the sun is God and all the rays are of the sun. So the soul is like a ray of God; it’s never entirely detached. Maybe the light retracts back into the sun when we die, it returns to the source. It may take a long time, so maybe during the journey we can communicate with those who have gone before.
Almost 100 percent of people who are dying are visited by people who have gone before. There’s a lot of research into the experiences of people who didn’t know they were dying. Someone will say, "It’s the strangest thing, my mother came through the doorway calling me," and the next day they die in a car accident. So there’s got to be life after death. It’s not just intellectual, because people who don’t know they’re dying have the same experience; as they’re dying, they’re thinking about those who have gone. I think there’s a whole other world. There’s definitely a shedding of weight when someone dies. Time is different, I’m sure.
Ann: Is there anything that you would want to say to people about choosing a path?
Cynthia: Follow your heart. I remember reading that the path with the heart is the only path that’s right. If there’s a fork in the road, choose the path with the heart. I know that’s a little bit vague; the path with the heart is a whole other interview! Finding it requires the ability to discern between wishful thinking and fear and true guidance. But you do know. Be true to yourself!