By Dana Trent
Saffron Cross: The Unlikely Story of How a Christian Minister Married a Hindu Monk is a boy-meets-girl love story with a theological twist. I am an ordained Christian minister in the Southern Baptist tradition; my husband, Fred, is a devout Hindu who lived as a monk and priest for five years.
We were married in July 2010 and began navigating our east-meets-west spiritual lives. One of the first and greatest challenges was discerning how we would spend our sabbaths. Where would we worship? How would we worship? Would we worship together? Or separately?
The following excerpt places the reader into this tough place of exploration.
Formulating and maintaining an active, balanced sabbath-keeping schedule with a devoutly religious partner of an intrinsically different faith is like asking a spatially challenged person to move a wide armchair through a narrow doorway. The victim will try to squeeze the furniture through the doorway as is, struggling and cursing, banging the doorframe repeatedly. She determines she will surely have to saw off half of the chair to make it work until some clever person points out that the chair can be turned on its side, tilted, and gently guided over the threshold. The chair hasn’t changed; its volume and shape have remained the same, but the perspective has shifted.
Our armchairs were the religious traditions we brought to the marriage. The depth or breadth of neither tradition was lost, but we had to figure out the angle by which we could get it in the living room.
This is not as simple as brokering a deal between a Baptist and a Presbyterian. We’re talking about solving a puzzle that has, according to most religious circles, diametrically opposing theological tenets. There was no meeting in the middle with Moses, Abraham, or the Trinity, and no common Resurrection, baptism, or scripture. These were the Mutt and Jeff of religious perspectives.
“Worshiping separately would be easier,” I offered, when I had taken the time to consider the consequences of merging traditions that felt as though they were on opposite ends of the God spectrum.
“No,” Fred replied adamantly. His intuition told him that choice would be the beginning of the end. We’d stop talking about faith; we’d begin to segregate our other interests, and our life together would be over.
“You sure about this?” I asked, mostly because I wasn’t.
“Yep. If we split up our sabbath, we are admitting to God, to each other, and to our friends and family that this was all a hoax and that there was no such thing as an interfaith marriage. We might as well rewind the last three years, be single again, and do our own thing.”
I was surprised by his conviction.
“OK, then. We stick together?” I proposed.
We shook hands, kissed, and agreed to our own interfaith household
golden rule: always worship together.
We brainstormed about a smooth schedule of Christian and Hindu services—equally balanced, equally attended. It was a circus rose solution—a beautiful hybrid of yellow and red flowers, shimmering in our budding garden of interfaith marriage. But we hadn’t anticipated droughts, malnourishment, questions, resentment, and imbalance that bore thorns on the stems of even the most heavenly of blooms.
Shortly after Fred and I married, Fred’s guru began visiting North Carolina each April and October. Dubbed the “Swami months” in our interfaith household, these weekends were scheduled to the brim with travel and Gaudiya Vaishnava activities.
Swami’s semi-annual visits to North Carolina were what his Hindu students called “nectar.” These visits were the sweet patches of life—the concentrated good stuff of the spiritual journey. For Hindus, a guru is a miniature God here on Earth who demonstrates to his or her students how to love and serve God. The guru’s role is one of mercy because God is merciful enough to show us what to do through a human servant. Protestants have a difficult time with this concept; Baptists, especially, get worked up when anyone tells them how to follow Jesus. But I knew it was important for Fred to take advantage of Swami’s proximity. And because I did not want to be the first offender of the “worship together” rule, I wanted to take advantage of Swami’s wisdom too.
I participated in the first Swami month eagerly and willingly, happy to see Fred inspired. But I hadn’t armored myself for the frustration and resentment the Hindu season would bring—a bitterness whose culprit was not the Eastern tradition itself, Swami, or his students. Rather, it was a blend of disapproval from my usually sweet-natured husband and my own gravitation toward feelings of spiritual inadequacy.
Fred is a good man whose one tragic flaw is his persistence toward spiritual perfection that actually makes him a little edgy. He has high spiritual ideals, a quality that served him well as a monk and priest. But in the secular world, this tendency manifested itself as a critique of his own actions and, ultimately, of mine as well. During the Swami months, I felt like Fred was holding a spotlight to all of my religious shortcomings.
Hinduism, when practiced devoutly, is an intense religion in which all things are sacred and every aspect of life from dawn till dusk flows toward the hub called God. There are no notions of one-hour sabbaths and we’re done; Hinduism is a full-on commitment to living a life oriented to devotion. Hindus sit for hours on hard floors meditating, chanting, and focusing on intense exegetical sermons offered by wise gurus. Hindus are austere creatures, putting aside material desires, grumbling tummies, and wandering minds to worship God.
Swami’s students do this very well because he has modeled the way. His students keep impeccable standards of study, worship, and dietary habits. Fred’s monastic training with Swami gripped him, leaving deep imprints on his heart.
And now Fred had married little ol’ me, whose constitution is not made for fasting and sitting still in two-hour shifts. My first Swami months were filled with flubs, mistakes, and a lack of reverence that overcame me once I slammed into the one-hour mark of Hinduism. Fred’s embarrassment manifested as critical statements and looks that felt like a heavy chain of insults flung at my soul.
Fred’s comments stemmed from a near decade of intense study and subsequent monastic training. In order to be a priest at a remote Hindu monastery who rises each morning at 4:00 a.m. to preside over predawn worship, one must have cultivated more spirituality than the average person. Though his comments to me were typically justified, I found it difficult to bear up under the weight of the critical observations he made of me throughout a “Swami month” day: “You’re not doing that right! Don’t put that music sheet on the ground! Don’t point your bare feet at anyone! Don’t stand too close to the deities! Don’t eat before the food has been offered! Think pure thoughts if you’re helping in the kitchen! Don’t touch the monks! Don’t talk about meat! Wash your hands before you go back for a second helping!”
Fred’s assessments came from a place of devotion, yet I ended up feeling paranoid in the temple setting and constantly fearful of messing up. My inadequacies and Fred’s grasping for spiritual idealism were more than enough fuel for our first interfaith fights. A part of me expected Fred to blanket me in compliments of how I was the most tolerant interfaith partner who lovingly made sacrifices to worship with her husband these two months of the year. But instead of compliments, I was constantly receiving critiques. Finally, I cracked.
“This isn’t working for me,” I said.
“What’s not working, Dana?”
“The Swami weekends, Fred. They are not working for me.”
Silence. No reaction.
“You think I am not good enough for you, Fred! You think I’m not good enough for the Hindus! I don’t know what I’m doing, you always yell at me, and I feel stupid! This just isn’t working!”
“What are you saying?”
I kept the silence this time, and the air grew thick between us.
“What do you want me to do?” he asked.
“I dunno. Maybe we need time and space to think this through,” I replied, as if the next word to roll off my tongue would begin with D, and I didn’t mean Dallas.
The conversation ended there, but my internal monologue got worse, as each day shared with Hindus was like surrounding myself with Mother Teresa’s clones. Everyone was pious; everyone loved God. Everyone thought of what he or she could do for God before breakfast, while the lone, grumpy Protestant snarled to her husband and Jesus: “You two owe me one!”
In the presence of others on their own spiritual journeys, I always felt like a mess of a Christian. I replayed thoughts of my inconsistent prayer life, lack of daily Bible study, and apathy toward making the sacrifices Jesus calls his followers to make and found these to be my heaviest, most insidious flaws. But worshiping with Hindus brought the perceived inadequacies I’d carried in Christian circles into bright lights, and I felt like a slug among gilded angels. Swami’s students never implied that I was a repellent creature; they never offered me anything but grace and love and hospitality. But worshiping with sojourners who made God the center of their lives was a reminder that I was a me-centered Christian with immature religious tendencies.
So I prayed. When I sat for hours in Hindu worship, I begged Jesus and the deities and all the holy creatures for mercy.
“Mercy,” I breathed. “Grace,” I repeated.
Nothing happened at first; but over time, I experienced a shift. Deep in my heart, I realized Jesus loved little sluggy me, and he loved me so much that he wouldn’t let me stay in this shape forever. He wanted me to grow, and that may have been the reason he introduced me to the Hindus.
As the cycle of Swami months passed, I embraced two rules of survival: one, not to allow Fred’s monastic idealism to feed into my own self-loathing and two, that Jesus was bound to be lurking around the Hindu weekends somewhere, I just had to find him. After all, he wasn’t banned from Gaudiya Vaishnava functions.
Over time, I learned not to take Fred’s appraisals of myself so seriously. I told him to lighten up and tried not to allow his spiritual expectations to change how I felt about myself. I did my best, always showed respect, and sought to learn what I could from each interaction with Hindus. And Jesus always showed up—through a devotee’s kind words, Swami’s sermons, or shimmering Holy Spirit moments during deity worship.
Jesus had been there all along; I just needed to see him.
Our temporary intensity toward Hinduism for two months of the year was a small price to pay for the theological and spiritual wealth Fred experienced through the association with his guru and friends. It was worth the by-product I received too, albeit stubbornly.
I began to see Hindu weekends as a time for nourishing my own faith walk. I meditated on Christ and Krishna, prayed the Lord’s Prayer with my japa beads, and learned how universal principles can be applied to both Hinduism and Christianity. Christians paid big money for Christ-centered weekend retreats, and I had been gifted with a whole slew of them—the benefit of marrying a man whose devout faith attracted me to him in the first place.
I just had to tilt the armchair.
From Saffron Cross: The Unlikely Story of How a Christian Minister Married a Hindu Monk by J. Dana Trent © 2013. Used by permission of Fresh Air Books®