Born into a reformed Jewish family and growing up in a suburb of St. Louis in the 1950s, my first memory connected with Christ was my dawning awareness, in elementary school: “That’s the word we don’t say.” In fact, the word was probably more verboten than “fuck.” In fifth grade I liberally used the latter, without the slightest idea what it meant. Whereas, like many Jewish children required to put on a red cape and take part in a school Christmas carol program, I refused, in the tradition of the Maccabees of old, to kowtow to an alien idol, and lip-synched the taboo name.
It is difficult to convey how psychologically sanitized even our assimilated Jewish community was from the Christian world around us in the soup of American culture. It’s possible that the negative “We don’t believe in Christ” was even primary to “We believe in God.” I never met anyone in my congregation, with the possible exception of an elderly rabbi who retired when I was a little boy, whom I felt knew God. Words I heard on spiritual subjects always sounded like a travel article by an author who hadn’t visited the country.
On the other hand, my elders could be very animated in their negative admonitions about Christianity. My favourite religious school teacher regaled us regularly with his fervent belief that Jesus never existed. And if he did exist, he had actually been Rabbi Hillel.
In religious school one year, our class visited a Baptist church. Once inside, I felt I had to protect myself from “contamination.” The little swimming pool in the church smelled like chlorine and sanctity. The pews and radiators smelled like a school cloakroom. A smell of candles, which I identified with piety, permeated the Catholic and Episcopal churches my family ventured into for, respectively, a wedding and an interfaith sermon by our rabbi.
The suburb I lived in, University City, Missouri, was known as “U. City.” Wags sometimes morphed this into “Jew City” which described about 90 per cent of our population. Growing up was a curious blend of being a national minority and a local majority. I never experienced extreme anti-Semitism the way my dad did as a boy when his family drove to a resort in the boondocks and found a sign that said “NO DOGS OR JEWS.” In comparison, the only dose I ever encountered was homeopathic. During a summer when a friend and I caddied at a golf club, I asked two co-workers where they’d been. One of them pointed to the club restaurant and replied with a snicker, “Oh, we were up there eatin’ ham!”
In the closed system of my upbringing, not much could change. However, going away to college at Northwestern University, 300 miles from parents’ watchful eyes, opened up practically unlimited possibilities. And in the year 1966, this was even more true than usual.
I wasn’t consciously seeking anything religious. The word “spiritual” was one I scarcely used. New values bored themselves into me, weevil-like, initially using the most accessible entry, the rather traumatic experience of being roughed up by campus security guards. This occurrence took place during the week of student government elections. I ended up standing atop a big rock on campus, holding a bullhorn and telling my story to a crowd. I’d gotten a new identity, as a Radical.
But even before that, during the winter of my lonely freshman year, a seminal spiritual event took place in my life. One weekend I accompanied my roommate to his parents’ home in the Chicago suburbs to study for finals. Saturday night we took a break and watched the film “King of Kings” on TV. This was really my first experience of the forbidden Jesus, who had seemed from afar a white and pasty figure smelling of piety like the Catholic churches. In the film, Jesus was kind and loving. I wished I had somebody like that in my life.
On returning to the dorm I wrote my rabbi, asking how our people could reject such a caring, compassionate man. In reply, he sent me a copy of the sermon he’d given when “King of Kings” had first come out. I tried to read it, but the highly intellectualized text would not admit my understanding. I was left only with the fading image of the kind, white-robed Jesus. During spring break I mentioned my appreciation of the film to my dad. “It’s a fairy tale!” he replied with contempt.
I saw “King of Kings” in the late winter of 1967. Not long after that, “the sixties” began to involve me in earnest, beginning with the aforementioned radicalizing experience. Within a year or two I went through my political phase, lost my virginity and then—six months later—my relationship with the girl with whom I was deeply in love; took LSD; got expelled from my college; helped start a utopian commune; suffered a severe nervous breakdown; was prescribed anti-depressant pills, strong ones that were reserved for the toughest cases; and finally, had a genuine mystical experience. This was the first “metaphysical solid ground” I’d ever touched.
The experience had to do with an Indian spiritual figure named Meher Baba, whose photo a friend showed me, telling me Baba claimed to be the current Avatar, a word synonymous with Christ or Buddha. My friend also told me Baba had said this Avatar figure returns to Earth every 700 to 1,400 years; and in recorded history had previously come as Zoroaster, Rama, Krishna, Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed. Then he added that Meher Baba had passed away two years earlier, in January, 1969.
Absorbing all this information, it seemed logical to ask, “Where is he now?” and these words indeed popped spontaneously out of my mouth. My friend smiled, but did not speak. As I stood there waiting for him to reply, I felt something changing in the room. Some veil of separateness that had always filtered my perception was dissolving. I was suddenly experiencing everything—myself included—as an aspect of One Love! This Love, clearly, was what sages since time immemorial had meant when they used the word God.
After this experience, I accepted Jesus as a previous Avatar. The master-disciple relationship, so vital to Christianity, was now something I could understand from personal experience. The writings of Meher Baba, which I immediately dove into, further explained this relationship.
I still knew nothing about the life of Jesus Christ, beyond “King of Kings.” Reading Kahlil Gibran’s beautiful book, Jesus, Son of Man, re-imprinted the story in my mind. It was several years, though, before I felt ready to make my way through the New Testament itself.
When I finally did, I was stunned! There was nothing pasty about Jesus! He was meek at times, but he was also a lion. And above all, he was a poet! I was astounded by the power of the words in red in the Bible: “Rivers of living water shall flow out of your heart!” “All secrets shall be shouted from the rooftops!” “Ye are as whitened sepulchres, whom men walk over and know not!” “If thine eye be made single, thy whole body shall be full of Light!” The miracles—these words themselves were miracles! “Heaven and Earth shall pass away, but My words shall not pass away.”
Meher Baba even explained the physical miracles that Jesus performed. There are “supervening orders in the spiritual panorama” he wrote. What appears to be a “miracle” for someone who is gross conscious, is completely natural for someone functioning from the inner, subtle realms of energy. Baba and Jesus both said, in addition, that the only truly worthwhile miracle is to awaken a sleeping heart.
I was thrilled by the Acts of the Apostles, as well. In other reading, I also learned that neither the Master/Disciple relationship nor mysticism were foreign to Judaism. Both had been embodied by such figures as the Baal Shem Tov (“Master of the Good Name”), who lived in 18th century Poland, and his followers.
One day in the Spring of 1976, living back in St. Louis after several years in other parts of the country, I walked into a new little health food store in the “bohemian” part of the city, the Central West End. The proprietor standing behind the counter was a young man I’d known in high school and had last seen five years before.
At that time I had been working in the city’s first natural foods restaurant. This fellow, whose name was Phil, had come in one day carrying a big bag of organic cherries, and had asked me to juice them. I hadn’t known Phil personally in high school, but he’d been one of those notorious characters everyone knew of. He had a reputation for being “tough.” By the time he brought in the cherries, he seemed more troubled than tough. “I’m hoping this cherry juice will help mellow out my bad karma,” he told me as I put them into my big commercial juicer.Now, five years later, he stood before me, strong and manly. Clearly, he had found something to better his life. The store had the purest atmosphere I’d found in the whole city! I made a note of this because, although I was a follower of Meher Baba (a “Baba-lover,” as they are known) there was not yet a Meher Baba group in St. Louis, and I longed for spiritual companionship. “Are you connected with a spiritual group?” I asked Phil.
He seemed a bit surprised at the question, but he nodded and said, “Come around back here and I’ll show you something.” I rounded the end of the counter until I stood next to him behind it. He pointed to the inside wall of the counter, next to the cash register. There I saw a sepia picture of someone. Looking closer, I recognized it as Jesus. It looked almost like a photo.
As I watched, the photograph began glowing very intensely. “Wow!” I said. “It’s glowing!” What is the group you’re in?
“It’s called the Holy Order of MANS,” Phil said. It’s a group that tries to practice the Ancient Mysteries of Christianity in their original form.
“Hmmmm. What does that mean, MANS?” I asked.
“It’s an acronym. When you reach a certain degree of initiation, you’re told what the letters actually stand for.”
“Where do you meet?” I inquired, feeling a strong intuition, “I’d like to visit.”
“We have a Christian Community that meets on Sundays. There are four Sisters who live together in a house on the south side. You’re welcome to come any time you like.”
So I embarked on my next “Adventure with Christ.” It turned out that I had had previous contact with the Holy Order of MANS. That spring I had begun seeing pairs of beautiful young women, each wearing a sky-blue tunic or habit, walking together in the city. I would see them in even the toughest neighbourhoods. They didn’t proselytize; they just walked, smiling naturally at people, looking relaxed and happy. I felt instantly inspired by these lovely ladies who seemed to personify the sky, like some feminine aspect of it, and bring it down to Earth.
When I came to the Sister House that Sunday, I found these women in sky-blue smiling at me as I introduced myself. A little later, we filed into the chapel room and one of them led the communion service. I could feel the prayers going out to the Living God, whom I had personally “met” as Meher Baba, but knew to be ultimately beyond name and form. After the service we snacked and socialized, and I felt I would always be friends with these dear, beautiful ladies. I felt that most of the other community members, too were—just like me—hippies whose lives had taken a spiritual direction.
For the next three years I enjoyed my informal membership in the Community. I even had a vision of Meher Baba, once at a service. Sister Rose was reading the Bible passage, which told of Jesus saying, “Tear down this Temple and I will build it up again after three days.” She pointed to her body and said, “This is your Temple.” And for a just a moment, but with brilliant clarity, as I watched, I saw not her head upon her shoulders, but Meher Baba’s, as a man around thirty-five, at the prime of his physical beauty and power.
For a time I lived in a cooperative house with several other members, over the objections of one resident who wanted everyone to be “pure Christian.” The others felt I would fit in just fine because I recognized God as One. I also had in common with them the recognition of God’s Avatars in human history. Although my companions at the house did not necessarily recognize Meher Baba as an Avatar, they honoured him as a holy man.
On another memorable occasion, a local a capella Gospel group came to the Sister House and gave an impromptu concert. That was the day I truly learned what the phrase “raise the roof” means!
There is one more “experience” with Jesus, that is so intimate I have never shared it publicly before. Once, during a very difficult period of my life, I was astounded to see a light projected from my own eyes onto the wall in front of where I was resting in bed, like a projection beam at a movie theatre. And I watched the “movie” which then appeared on the wall from deep, deep within:
A young man and a young lady, living in the desert and wearing the robes of ancient times, are in love and betrothed. They are walking to the well one day, the young woman balancing a large earthen vessel upon her head as she walks. Suddenly, over the hill comes a man in a white robe and some kind of red scarf. He beckons silently to both of them, “Follow Me.”
The young woman immediately runs to follow Him, wherever He may lead. The young man, however, takes a step, and then hesitates and goes back…takes the step again, then hesitates again…and does this several more times, unable to free himself from his indecisiveness, until the “movie” fades away completely.
What can I say about this? Madness? I didn’t, and don’t, feel that it was. I thought I was the young man in a previous lifetime in the time of Jesus, unable to “leave all and follow Him.” I believe God showed me that in order to help me this time.
Of course I can’t prove this. It is simply intuition. Meher Baba says that the “doctrine of reincarnation” is true, and some of the Christian Fathers believed in it too, until it was officially removed from Christianity at the fifth Ecumenical Council in 553 A.D.
In the thirty or so years since, this experience has often come to mind and, although I can’t say it has completely remedied my characteristic vacillation, I believe it has indeed helped. The experience carried an enormous authority. I even believe I know who my old sweetheart is, this time around.
My parents are both gone now, and so is the Holy Order of MANS. I learned several years ago that it was eventually absorbed into, of all things, the Greek Orthodox Church.
But there is one more experience that I’d like to share, one which attests to the tenacity of the historical abrasiveness of the Jewish-Christian karma.
During my Holy Order of MANS period, I could not refrain from sometimes quoting the powerful words of Jesus (as I would quote Meher Baba or Sri Ramakrishna or Richard Alpert/Ram Dass) even to my family, when I felt them to be relevant to a situation. Mother finally asked me one day, “Why do you talk about Jesus so much?” I said, “Mom, his life and words are the matchless embodiment of universal truth!”
It was then that I saw something profound. My mother turned white with rage and resistance. Her skin became a shade of white I’ve never seen on a human being before or since. “How can you?” she demanded. I felt I was seeing her own past lifetimes showing through, lifetimes so traumatized by centuries of persecution that to continue a rational conversation on this subject was impossible. As her life progressed, mother slowly came to be well-disposed toward Meher Baba, even to feel a part of the worldwide Baba family, because her son was. But she was not able to stretch as much as it would take to get beyond the emotional charge of her conditioned response to Avatar Jesus.
I, however, have been able, by the grace of God, to transcend the frightened reaction of that little boy in St. Louis who lip-synched the word “Christ” in school Christmas carols. I’m able, I hope, to honour God in all the spiritual roads to Him. And I continue to work on myself, to some day be able to see Him in everyone and everything, period.