The annual woman's interfaith event drew perhaps 600 women for the theme "Love in Action," and Armstrong was the keynote speaker calling for all world religions to recognize compassion as their common root.
A really real cathedral
The soaring cathedral took my breath away. I had forgotten that this is a really real Cathedral which was perhaps shown off to its best by the contrast of classic stone pillars as backdrop for childrens' art and colorful displays from world religions. A portrait of First Lady and President Obama's inauguration day visit graced the entryway.
But it was the pageantry of the evening itself that most struck me. And I have to say that my appreciation was heightened ten-fold by a conversation I had a few hours earlier with my fellow Ken Wilber fan James Jones of the Personal Awareness Institute. James knows everybody and everything in personal and spiritual growth. He had just been telling me over coffee that all religious rituals can be identified with one or more of the levels of consciousness described in Spiral Dynamics (similar to the chakra system).
- from the archaic level, use of the body
- from the magic level, recognition of good and bad forces
- from the power level, sacrifice for protection from enemies
- from the mythic level, joining with God in an agreement to work together
- from the higher levels, calling forth God from within ourselves
Next came Anglican scholar Esther de Waal wearing black and gold with a necklace that appeared to be a large iron cross. In a formidable Teutonic voice she called forth the Celtic gods. (I am mis-remembering some of the theologic details, but you get the idea.) And finally came a beautiful bald woman in dangling, red earings and cream-colored robes that appeared Buddhist but for the starburst on the back. This was Rabbi Phyllis Berman who told us she lost her hair as a young person because of an allergy. After 20 years of hiding under a wig, she learned that facing the world as she is brought her the gift of being able to see others as they are, as well. With a radiant smile she led us in a Hebrew chant she translated as "Expand the boundaries of my tent."
Walking up the chakras
I felt exactly as if I had just walked up the chakras --except, of course, for intellect, the hole filled by Karen Armstrong. She told us of her project with TED to create a worldwide charter for compassion. And she told us of her journey: from failed nun, to producer of British TV shows that mocked religion, to time in the silence that drew her to study the monotheist tradition in a whole new way--from within its own perspective. She said that when she studied the prophet Mohammad, she worked to see the world through his eyes. As a result, she began to see all people with more compassion. And that's where I wanted to stand up and shout, because that was exactly my experience in the two-year dialogue with a fundamentalist bishop that led to my book.
The final speaker was an elfin Muslim woman from Afghanistan. Peeking out from a softly flowered headscarf, Sakena Yacoobi told of facing death threats and armed blockades to bring education to girls in her country. Her story reminded me of the thrilling and amazing book "Three Cups of Tea" which tells the similar adventure of an American man overtaken by desire to provide education to Afghani girls. I was struck by the difference that the miracles he achieved appear secular while Sakena credited God for hers.
Not a blessing, just a wish
Just before the evening ended, Armstrong got up to scuttle out a side door--the door that I was sitting beside. I stood, smiled, and reached out the postcard that desceibes my project. She took it and paused just long enough for me to tell her that she had inspired me and that I would love to have her blessing. "I don't do blessings," she said. "but I will wish you well on your spiritual journey." And with that, she gave me a hug, and she was off.