Living in Illumination
Mirabai Starr is an author, translator of the mystics, and a leading voice in the emerging interspiritual movement. In this excerpt from her book God of Love: A Guide to the Heart of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, she reflects on her spiritual journey and the many religions that have influenced her beliefs.
Ever since I was a little girl, I have been drawn to the living heart of every spiritual tradition I have encountered. Like a night wanderer who comes across a sanctuary in the woods, I peer through the stained-glass window, aching to enter and bow down at the altar I see blazing within.
This powerful attraction to religion makes no sense. In fact, for much of my life it embarrassed me. I grew up in a secular Jewish family, in which my parents made a compelling case for renouncing organized religion on the grounds that religious institutions have been responsible for the most horrendous violations of human rights—and of the planet itself—in the history of so-called civilization. Their indictment was especially aimed at the Judeo-Christian traditions and their glorification of an abusive Father-God who is forever punishing his children in fits of divine fury.
As I began to study and practice Eastern spiritual traditions with Western-born teachers—refugees from their own Jewish and Christian backgrounds—I found the God of my ancestors being similarly dismissed. Yet these same spiritual guides could not seem to resist the impulse to winnow the Testaments, Old and New, and emerge with vibrant wisdom teachings that transcend dogma and make their way directly to the heart. My Buddhist and Hindu teachers wove these shining Western threads into their talks and books.
In solidarity with my nontheistic family, I tried to cultivate a general attitude of condemnation toward all religious institutions for being naïve, patriarchal, and potentially dangerous. Yet, a single line from the Song of Songs, the Gospel of John, or the poetry of Rumi, would make my heart fly open and soar, arcing toward a God I could not bring myself to believe in. What I found irresistible was the essential unity at the core of all that diversity; each faith tradition was singing the same song in a deliciously different voice: God is love.
Eventually, the inner conflict between skepticism and devotion melted. I became reconciled to the paradox: I could acknowledge the tragic misuses of religious authority in history and current affairs, while falling to my knees in awe of the stunning beauty at the heart of the mystical poetry in each tradition and the redeeming power of its teachings on peace and justice.
I left home in my teens and moved to the Lama Foundation, an intentional spiritual community in the mountains of Northern New Mexico, where Ram Dass created Be Here Now, the groundbreaking book that translated 3,000 years of Eastern thought into a contemporary American vernacular and turned an entire generation on to a journey of awakening.
At Lama I was exposed to the world’s primary spiritual traditions, and several lesser-known ones. I chanted the name of God in Arabic with passionate Sufis, in Sanskrit with ecstatic Hindus, in Hebrew with Kabbalists, and in Latin with Christian mystics. I participated in Native American sweat lodges and silent Buddhist meditation retreats. I met yogis and swamis, lamas and roshis, sheikhs and murshidas, progressive rabbis and radical priests. I took initiation in at least four different lineages that have traditionally wished to eradicate each other from the face of the earth. At Lama, all faiths were welcomed as equally valid means for building a relationship with the divine. Lama ruined everything for me. How could I commit to a single way after having seen the holy beauty shining from the heart of every one of God’s houses?
Since that time, my task has felt clear: to help build bridges between the world’s faiths. As a spiritual writer and translator of the Spanish mystics, a religious studies professor, and a practitioner of many spiritual traditions, I have spent my life responding to the call to honor diversity and celebrate unity among all paths that lead us home to love.
The late Brother Wayne Teasdale coined the term “interspiritual” to describe “the shared mystic heart beating in the center of the world’s deepest spiritual traditions,” (The Mystic Heart, 2001). This perspective encompasses a much broader scope of shared religious experience than does its predecessor “interfaith” movement, which focuses more on the dialog between the established institutionalized religions than on an intermingling of their common heart. Genuine interspiritual dialog demands that we draw deeply on our inner knowing and show up for the hard work of understanding. It requires that we not only study and discuss religions other than our own, but that we commit to a disciplined practice in more than one tradition, immersing ourselves in the well of wisdom they offer, allowing these encounters to change us from within.
The sacred scriptures of all faiths call us to love as we have never loved before. This requires effort, vigilance, and radical humility. Violence is easier than nonviolence, yet hate only perpetuates hate. The wisdom teachings remind us that love—active, engaged, fearless love—is the only way to save ourselves and each other from the firestorm of war that rages around us. There is a renewed urgency to this task now. We are asked not only to tolerate the other, but also to actively engage the love that transmutes the lead of ignorance and hatred into the gold of authentic connection. This is the “narrow gate” Christ speaks of in the Gospels. Don’t come this way unless you’re willing to stretch, bend, and transform for the sake of love.