Lessons from the Ashram

(Sermon by Lori Erickson at New Song Episcopal Church in Coralville, Iowa, on August 20, 2017)

A week ago, Bob and I were camped in the middle of a cow pasture on a Hindu ashram in New Mexico. You wouldn’t think that a Hindu religious center would be a fruitful place to contemplate today’s Gospel reading, but it was. And I think our experiences there have some larger lessons for all of us here today as well.

As many of you know, I’m a writer who specializes in spiritual travels. That means that I’m always on the look-out for holy places wherever we go. And so when our friend Philip Lutgendorf, a professor of Hindi and Indian Studies at the UI, told us about the Neem Karoli Baba Ashram in Taos, I knew we had to visit. It sounded like it was worth a detour from where we were camping in southern Colorado.

“You will love it,” Philip said. “It’s a little bit of India right in the middle of the U.S.”

He was right—we did love it. Thanks to Philip’s friendship with the director of the ashram, we were able to camp for three nights in its cow pasture (the ashram, like many Hindu temples, keeps its own cows, which are considered sacred animals in Hinduism).

Neem Karoli Baba Ashram is located in Taos, New Mexico. (Bob Sessions photo)

Picture this: Bob and Lori setting up our little pop-up camper not far from a temple dedicated to Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god. Though thankfully the ashram’s two cows were grazing in an adjacent field, not ours, we still had to be careful as we walked to avoid the many cow pies in the grass. And our dog Cody had to get used to the noisy peacocks that strutted around the property.

It was an educational experience for all of us.

Each day I attended the evening ceremony at the temple, which began as soon as the sun dipped under the horizon. The ritual included incense and lighted oil lamps and rhythmic chanting, a feast for all the senses.

So what does this experience have to do with the Gospel reading this morning? More than you might think.

The story is one of the hardest passages in the Gospels to interpret. Here we see a different side of Jesus than the loving rabbi we’re used to—instead he’s seemingly dismissive and harsh to the woman who beseeches him to heal her daughter. She’s a Canaanite woman, a group that the Jews of the day considered infidels.

“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” he says. “It’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

But the woman won’t give up. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

And then Jesus praises her for her faith, and says that her daughter has been healed.

We don’t know if Jesus was testing her, or if he really did think that she was unworthy and then changed his mind. The important part is that from then on, his message is clearly directed to everyone, not just to his fellow Jews. So this disturbing story actually marks an important turning point in the Gospels.

That dichotomy between outsider/insider is a perennial issue in any religious tradition. There are always people who get pushed to the margins and left outside the gate.

Which brings me back to that ashram. Because there, everyone was welcomed. And I think we can learn some lessons from our Hindu brothers and sisters.

The temple room at the Neem Karoli Baba Ashram has a beautiful statue of Hanuman. (Bob Sessions photo)

About ten people live at the center permanently, but a much larger number flow in and out of its doors each day. Some are prosperous Indian-Americans who come mainly to worship at the Hanuman Temple, and others are aging Hippies who’ve been on the Enlightenment Trail for a long time.

And some are poor people and folks who just need a hot meal and a place to rest for awhile. No matter who comes to the gate, the ashram feeds them. The center serves three meals a day, with everyone sharing the same simple food. And everyone can take part in the worship ceremonies, even if they didn’t know the words to the songs or the prayers, though they don’t have to.

During those meals, we met a number of people who reminded me of the crowds who followed Jesus around, desperately seeking his cures and his comfort. There was a woman who’d had her children taken away from her by social services, for example, and another who claimed that her lawyer was trying to kill her. There was a man with sad and haunted eyes who never spoke.

Such people have always been drawn to religious communities. Meeting the mix of people at the ashram, I was reminded of the monasteries of the Egyptian desert during the third and fourth centuries and those of the Middle Ages in Europe. These places have always attracted the lost and the seeking. People come, one after another, to eat, to find spiritual comfort, and then go on their way, their wounds patched for a short time, at least.

This was the world of the Gospels, too, as we see in the reading from this morning. Even someone from a despised religious minority sought Jesus out, because when you need healing, for yourself or someone you love, you’re willing to do anything.

I think our church can learn a lot from such communities, whether they’re ashrams or communes or monasteries. I don’t think we need to get a cow here at New Song—though I’m actually a big fan of them. But I think the kind of radical hospitality that such places practice is part of what we need in our fractured society. We need places where everyone is welcomed.

The guru who founded the ashram in Taos was Neem Karoli Baba, an Indian holy man who died in 1973. His words are posted at the entrance to the ashram: Love everyone, serve everyone, feed everyone. Remember God. Tell the truth.

The temple room at the ashram includes a shrine to Neem Karoli Baba, an Indian saint of Himalayan lineage. (Bob Sessions photo)

Now it’s easy to think of such places simply as eccentric curiosities or places that are so outside of the mainstream that they have no effect on the larger world. But you’d be surprised by the influence that a small religious community like this can have. Think of those monasteries in Ireland that kept Western culture alive after the fall of the Roman Empire, for example.

Or in the case of the ashram in Taos, let me tell you about one of its members, a man named Ram Dass. Born as Richard Alpert, he was a Harvard professor when he first met Neem Kaoril Baba in India in 1967. That encounter changed his life forever. He became Ram Dass, which means servant of God, and he left his academic job to devote his life to serving others.

You might recognize Ram Dass’s name from his book Be Here Now, which has sold more than two million copies and been translated into many languages. Ram Das is also known for his non-profit foundation called Seva (which means “spiritual service” in Sanskrit). Seva is credited with restoring eyesight to more than three million people who suffer from cataracts in places that include Tibet, Nepal and Bangladesh. All of this has happened because of a spiritual encounter been a holy man in India and a seeker from Harvard.

There’s another remarkable person associated with this ashram, a woman named Mirabai Starr. And I want to end by telling you a bit about her story, because I think it relates to those lost and lonely souls who follow Jesus around in the Gospels—and to us as well.

Mirabai Starr is the author of a new book called Caravan of No Despair: A Memoir of Loss and Transformation. I read it while we were camped in the cow pasture, because much of it is set in that very ashram. The book, whose title is drawn from a quote by the Persian poet Rumi, is about the death of Starr’s daughter in a car accident when she was a teenager. It’s also about Starr’s unconventional childhood raised in a variety of alternative communities, her daughter’s mental illness, and her own meandering spiritual path. It’s about grief and a search for healing and the holy. It’s a beautiful book, one I highly recommend.

Now here’s one of the intriguing things about this book. Starr, who was born Jewish but who is a long-term member of the ashram community, is also one of the world’s leading specialists in Christian mysticism.

Here’s how she describes the paradox of her professional career in her book:

“It is through his friends – both living and long dead – that I have come to know and love Christ. Lucky for me, the Prince of Peace has never demanded that I swear sole allegiance to him. He seems to venerate my interspiritual heart and bless my bridge-building hands. This makes me love him all the more.”

It’s stories like this that make me think the Holy Spirit has a finely developed sense of humor. Think about it. Richard Alpert, a Jew from Massachusetts, meets a Hindu man in India and devotes his life to serving others. Mirabai Starr, a devotee of that same Indian guru, discovers the Christian mystics and begins to love Jesus. And I travel to the ashram to learn about Hinduism and find myself also learning about Christian mysticism.

Life is wonderful, isn’t it?

Now I don’t want to idealize the ashram we visited in Taos, because I’m sure it has its issues  like every other religious community. But I do know that I’ll remember our stay there for a long time. I’ll remember the seekers and the lost souls who came through its gate each day, showing up just like the lost souls who populate so many of the Gospel stories.

And at the ashram, I was reminded that healing comes in many forms. Sometimes it’s in a box marked Hindu and other times in one marked Christian, but once you unwrap them, you see that the contents are remarkably similar. And like Jesus demonstrated in the Gospel story for today, the boundaries between groups of people only separate us if we let them.

You can learn a lot when you’re camped in a cow pasture. I highly recommend it.

 

 

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