Judeochristianity Jewish star Christian cross

Being on the Path

C. Gourgey, Ph.D.

Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.
Matthew 7:13-14
But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
Matthew 6:33

The spiritual journey is often likened to traveling a path. In Buddhism one finds the “Eightfold Path” that leads to enlightenment. In Judaism the term halachah, which refers to guiding principles of behavior, also means “path.” Jesus spoke of the “road that is hard,” which few are blessed to find.

Unfortunately there are many who confuse being on the right path with a narrow notion of being “saved,” preserved for heaven rather than hell. Quite often such people claim to know who is on the path and who is not, and inevitably they are certain that they are on the path and they want you to know it. The Bible warns that things are not so simple. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).

We can never know when someone is not on the path, because we cannot really know what is in another’s heart. If Jesus taught us anything, it is that the one whom we judge, whom we reject, and to whom we feel superior, will often occupy a higher place in heaven than we who think we know about real faith. This applies even to the worst sinners, because we can never know when they will realize the consequences of their actions and become truly repentant (just ask the prophet Jonah). This is why Jesus warns us: “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get” (Matthew 7:1-2). Often those who suffer, who struggle, who have doubts and are troubled, possess a deeper spirituality and love than many who are complacent and sure of their beliefs and quick to judge. Our teachers come in strange disguises.

The spiritual path that Jesus taught does not give us freedom from suffering: “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27). It does promise us God’s presence: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). What this means in practice is that when we are on the path, nothing in our lives is wasted. Everything, even our suffering, is used for the fulfillment of our destiny. We can have faith in this: even a missed opportunity may be used for a greater good, if we are following our destiny. A person’s suffering may be visible to another, but a person’s destiny is not. Therefore we can never use suffering or infirmity or disability to judge another human being, because we do not know what role those hardships play in actualizing that person’s destiny.

Now while we cannot know who is not on the path, sometimes, in rare and special circumstances, it may be given to us to identify a few of the people who are. Sometimes a person’s life touches ours with a love so great we sense it must come from something beyond the personal, from God’s actual presence. And the person who shows us this presence need not be old and wise and accomplished. It once came to me in the form of a 7-year-old girl. While in college I worked as a recreational therapy aide on a hospital pediatrics ward. I was young and new and a little awkward at my job, and not very beloved of my superiors. But Lillian Ojeda had different vision. She was one of my kids, just 7, with congestive heart failure. She was extremely frail and she lived her life in and out of oxygen tents. I worked with her when I could and let her rest when she needed. Unfortunately she could not attend the playroom as often as I would have liked, so on those days I would make some extra time to visit her at bedside before I went home.

One day she came to me and asked me to tie her shoes. I bent down to reach them, and then I suddenly heard the words coming from her perch above me: “Charles, I know that you love me.”

Those words shook me: How was this child able to read my heart, and tell me something I did not even see was there? Yet as soon as she named my feelings, I knew. I opened my mouth to respond, but no words came out. It didn’t matter. She simply responded, “I love you too.”

Lillian died a few days later. A death so young is always tragic; yet I had no doubt that her life and her journey were complete, not because of anything to do with me but because of the depth of her spiritual development that I was able to witness. The kind of love she expressed - which brings with it a discernment into the soul of another - originates from something greater than the personal.

After taking a few detours, years later I returned to the hospital setting as music therapist at Cabrini Hospice. While the field of music therapy has been trying to evolve more towards the model of a hard science, I took a different direction. I was interested in exploring the use of music to provide a nonverbal loving presence to people who are isolated, imprisoned in bodies that can no longer respond with words. To do music therapy at this level one needs to be attuned to many nonverbal factors, cues the person gives you with the slightest movement of hand or eyelid or the tiniest change in breathing. Beyond these there is something even more subtle, which is the atmosphere in the room. I learned a lot about the state of my patients by sensing the atmosphere of the rooms in which they lived, and how it changed with the presence of other people.

The nonverbal world of the terminally ill is a totally different world from the one we all know and take for granted. To understand this world it helps to have a guide. And I had an excellent one in Barbara Suter, a hospice nurse who became my mentor because she sensed my deep interest. It was she who taught me to be sensitive to these nonverbal ways of communicating. Barbara’s colleagues sometimes thought her weird, off in some dream world that made no sense to them, wondering why she couldn’t just be a traditional nurse. But Barbara made total sense to me. She took me into that world, and showed me the patients living in it, and how to feel them and understand them. It increased my effectiveness with patients who were so far advanced in their illnesses and so minimally responsive that most caregivers would just have written them off.

I also began to realize what made Barbara’s approach work. It was love. She truly loved her patients. That is why she was able to be so close to them without harming or threatening them. The community of professional caregivers tends to frown on the idea of loving patients; it sounds too much like countertransference or inappropriate involvement. But Barbara’s love was different. It was Christly love, non-self-interested love, based on the awareness of the other individual. Love rooted in awareness rather than desire cannot harm. It knows when to stay and it knows when to go. It knows when to be close and it knows when the most loving response is distance. Awareness tells us that. I will never forget the greatest compliment the husband of a hospice patient once paid me: “You know exactly when to disappear.”

So there is no question in my mind that Barbara was on the path, because she showed me dimensions of non-self-interested love whose nature I barely suspected, with people I might otherwise have believed were beyond my reach.

Of all the “detours” I mentioned earlier, one stands out in tragic relief. It happened on a Saturday night in August: my first wife had spent the Sabbath with a friend and was on her way home. Instead of her key in the lock telling me she had come home, I heard a buzzer. It was the super asking me to come downstairs: my wife was “hurt,” he said.

Actually she was more than hurt. I found her lifeless body in the street, blood pooling all around her and far off onto the pavement. A would-be rapist armed with a knife ambushed her just before she reached our front door, and being who she was, Binyamina would rather lose her life than submit. And that meant that my life as I had known it had also come to an end.

I was numb with shock for weeks. In time I felt the need to reach out, to find a place to pray and feel safe. I began attending evening services at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where I once attended classes. I recited the kaddish, the Jewish prayer for those who have died. At the end of that evening service an elderly man came up to me and asked for whom I was praying. I told him.

He held up his hand and stopped the people from leaving. “This young man,” he told the congregation, “has come to say kaddish for a 26-year-old woman. We need to make him feel at home here.” And he invited me to return another day and lead the congregation in prayer.

I attended those services often during the next few months, and the two of us would walk down Broadway together on our way home. The man was Simon Greenberg, Vice-Chancellor of the Seminary. He was one of those whose very presence makes one feel calm, accepted, and loved.

One night early on he invited me up to his apartment. I told him of the excruciating moments I spent imagining how my wife must have experienced being attacked and dying: the fear, the panic, the screaming. It was a maddening pain I had never known, and I wondered how I could continue to bear it.

Dr. Greenberg took from his shelf a small, slender hardcover book in a florid blue dust jacket. The cover read “Words of Poetry,” by Simon Greenberg. He turned to page 34 and read:

The pain of loved ones is a red hot rod
To sear the soul and conjure in the mind
Visions of terrors, teaching men to find
Surcease in prayer and in firm faith in God.

The pain of loved ones is a red hot rod
In the hand of Satan, to unhinge the soul
From lofty purpose or exalted goal,
And turn the faithful from their faith in God.

The pain of loved ones is of that strange kind
That it may give vision or strike men blind.

He had written those words while his wife was very sick, and he suffered the pain of seeing her struggle. Often when one experiences a loss, well-meaning people come by saying “I know how you feel” when they really haven’t a shadow of an idea. I had met way too many of those. Dr. Greenberg never said that to me. He didn’t have to. What he gave to me of himself, both his compassion and his life story, showed me that he really did know.

Dr. Greenberg signed the book, added a personal inscription, and gave it to me. It became a cherished possession. I will always remember that first year after Binyamina’s death, and all the weeks I spent conversing with Dr. Greenberg and sharing the Sabbath table with his community at the Seminary. They made me feel completely at home. Years later I realized: someone on the path had found me. Or perhaps I was led to find him. Now decades later, my memories of that first year after Binyamina’s death are no longer dominated by grief, anger, and a feeling of horror, but rather by a sense of a presence greater than myself, greater than any person, caring for me and cradling me until I became strong enough to start my life once again.

It would not be for another ten years - it took me that long to get over the shock of Binyamina’s loss - that eventually I felt ready again for marriage. My present wife Karen has become a true spiritual partner. One of our joint activities was conducting workshops on spirituality and disability (we are both people with disabilities). One of these took place at Ghost Ranch Conference Center in New Mexico. I was asked to deliver the sermon at an interfaith service.

Afterwards the spiritual director of the center, a minister named Julie Swanson, herself in a wheelchair (I believe it was polio; she was practically quadriplegic), came up to me and told me how much she had learned from the words I preached. In spite of her humility I knew immediately that she was far more spiritually advanced than I. It was I who needed to learn from her. And she was gracious enough to be willing to teach me.

Julie was American Indian (that is what she always called herself; she never said “Native American”), and she suffered the prejudice that usually comes with that, as well as with being a woman in ministry and a person with a disability. She never found a job that paid her what she was worth, and she lived a life of service and poverty. Her home was a trailer, and with her was only her dog for companionship. Julie worked as a hospice chaplain, unpaid, and had much to teach me about people who are dying and developing one’s intuition to be able to understand their needs. I spent many long hours conversing with her, and also learning about American Indian traditions whose spirituality supplemented and enhanced her training as a Christian minister.

Julie had a rare form of cancer, and no health insurance. She went for years without treatment - I will never know if early treatment might have saved her, but I imagine that it would have. Still Julie never complained. She was learning much from her experience of being sick and dealing with her illness, as the spiritually gifted are able to find meaning and even redemption in their deepest suffering. She made it very clear to me that she would not have had her life any other way. It was her journey, and she trusted it.

When Julie’s final moments arrived she was living in a nursing home in Wisconsin, no longer able to speak. I called, and her nephew put the telephone close to her ear as I took my last opportunity to express my gratitude to her for all the attention and the love she had given me. By her example she taught me much about what it means to be on the path, and how to show love to people that is both appropriate and transforming. I may never become close to what she was, but at least I have a vision of it that will stay with me.

One thing Julie used to tell me over and over again, something I never really understood when she said it, but she said it anyway. “Trust your journey.” What on earth did that mean? How can I trust a course through life that might do anything to me at any unexpected moment, even including the murder of my wife? But she said it anyway, “Trust your journey,” until it became a koan finding a place in my brain that it still occupies years after her death.

Usually we cannot even see our journey until years after we’ve traveled much of it. But once we begin to discern it, we can sense that its pivotal occurrences are not coincidental. My encounter with Lillian Ojeda was no accident. Neither was the appearance of Barbara Suter, to show me what I needed to understand hospice patients and what it meant to love them. And neither especially was finding Dr. Greenberg, whose loving presence I feel today as real as it was those years ago when he was still alive. Then Julie appeared just when I needed spiritual direction to understand the direction that my life had taken.

As I continued this pilgrimage my own theology developed, which I have called Judeochristianity. Long ago Julie told me that my destiny in this lifetime would be to build a bridge between Judaism and Christianity. I regret that she did not live to see the writing and publication of my book. But that fulfilled her prophecy for me, and I’ll bet that somehow she knows it.

What is our destiny anyway? Jesus hints at it in the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-28 ). It is working with what God has given us for the sake of God’s world. It is our contribution to life, and the place in the world that life gives us.

Our destiny is the fulfillment of our individuality during our earthly life. It is like the flowering of a planted seed. The seed is the person; the flower is the destiny. In biblical terms, our destiny encompasses the resources given to each one of us as their steward; for each it is different and unique. Destiny is not a deterministic “plan.” It is not something that happens no matter what. It is rather the realization of the specific goodness given to each of us as a potentiality. (The Real Presence of God)

Years ago, when I was music therapist at Cabrini Hospice and provided the music for their memorial masses, the priest who delivered the homily told the audience, in a gesture of consolation, that “this world is not our home.” I pondered that for a long time, so one day when I saw him in the hospital I felt compelled to ask, “Father Dan, if this world is not our home, then why are we here?” His terse reply: “to build God’s creation.” Of course! What other reason could possibly make sense of all that we go through?

Our destiny is a gift but not a given. We must choose to seek it. We participate in building God’s creation by seeking our destiny, so that our lives conform to the vision of a God who is All Goodness. And it is important to understand that “destiny” is not just for those with exceptional talent or education. That is the message of Jesus’s Parable of the Talents: we all have a destiny, no less sacred if seemingly modest. Again a long time ago, while I was working the night shift as an Admitting Office volunteer at Roosevelt Hospital, I started talking to a cleaning lady on the night crew. I don’t remember how our conversation took this turn, but after describing (with no resentment or regret) something of what it was like to be black and poor and left behind by the political process, she told me how important it was to have faith, and she said it with such confidence and authority that I was struck by the sense of a presence greater than she, commanding my attention in a way I did not dare ignore. I don’t remember her name, and clearly she led a very modest existence, but I knew she had a calling and found it, because I still can’t recall that encounter without feeling shaken, and I was in high school then and now am old enough to retire.

I am still learning these principles of faith, still trying to draw from the wisdom of all these people who were sent to guide me. As I continue working with these experiences I come a little closer to the faith I never had as a child but so admire in the many people who have shown it to me: not a faith based on dogma or creed, but on the commitment to love in a way that pulls us beyond ourselves and gives our lives a sense of direction.

This is why it is so helpful to recognize, when we are given the chance, these people who are on the path. They point us toward a direction in our lives that surpasses our own limited efforts. If we can begin to see that directedness working in our own lives, we will find something we can trust in spite of the threats to our being that surround us constantly. We will even find reassurance that our own mistakes cannot deflect us from our destiny. These divinely appointed couriers, whom we must recognize in spite of their human form, can show us that God is real.

Know your teachers. Trust your journey.

July 2015