... continued from Part II.
If Madalena had known that Jaya-Govinda had already tried to call her and left a message which she had missed, she might have reacted differently.
Especially if she had known that right now, he was going through exactly the same struggles as she was...
The ministerial course in Radhadesh, Belgium that he’d just attended had changed something in Jaya-Govinda. After the intensely healing and personally revealing experience, he found that he could no longer relate to the ways and views of the Prabhupadadesa temple management. Struggles, both internal and external, raged. And for the first time in years, he began to doubt his status as a celibate brahmacari monk.
Just then, however, Prabhupadadesa hosted a huge festival and Jaya-Govinda forgot his problems as he greeted the crowds of visiting devotees and organized accommodation for them. This was one task that he loved – he enjoyed interacting with all these Vaishnavas, and chatting to his many friends who had arrived for the festival.
As one such conversation turned to his past, he narrated the story of Maddalena, and realized with a start that it was her birthday. “Why don’t I give her a call – she’ll appreciate the thought,” he decided.
Disappointed to find that she wasn’t picking up, he left his birthday wishes on her voicemail instead.
It wasn’t until the next day that he noticed Maddalena’s miscall. Thinking she was calling to thank him for his message, he made a mental note to reply later when his schedule was less hectic.
But she called him first.
“I’m going to get married next year,” the voice on the other end of the line said, abruptly, and trembling a little. It wasn’t what Jaya-Govinda was expecting from their first conversation in two years.
“What kind of a friend are you, anyway? You don’t return any of my calls?”
“Maddalena, I didn’t know you called until just now. Are you okay? Are you really getting married?”
“Yeah, I’m…” There was a long sigh. “No, I don’t know what I was thinking. I was angry, I just said that to annoy you.” There was another pause. “I’m not doing so good these days, Jaya-Govinda.” And she told him all about how she wasn’t getting on with her superiors, and how she couldn’t focus on her work, and how she thought maybe being a nun wasn’t right for her anymore.
Suddenly, against his judgement, Jaya-Govinda felt a strange urge to open up to Maddalena, to tell her everything he’d been going through. As he did, he began to realize just how similar his problems were, and just how perfectly parallel their entire lives had been up to this point.
Nothing, however, could have prepared him for what Maddalena suggested next.
“Why don’t we marry each other?” she said.
A heavy silence descended over the conversation. It was a long time before Jaya-Govinda spoke again, but when he did, the words came tumbling out. “Maddalena, you know that’s impossible! It’s been twelve years since we broke up. We’ve barely been in touch all that time. How can you even say that? You’re a Christian, and I’m a Hare Krishna – we’ve been trained in completely different paths, we’re going in completely different directions with our lives. There’s no way it would ever w—”
He trailed off. Despite how insane this idea was, there was no doubt that the events leading up to it had been incredible coincidences in a life full of them. But what if they were more than that? What if they were messages from God? “Why should I hide?” Jaya-Govinda thought, hardly able to belive the words in his own head. “Why should I run from God’s plan?”
Still feeling as if he was in a dream, he agreed that they should meet in person, talk about the past and their personal feelings and situations, and see if Maddalena’s suggestion was at all feasible.
Maddalena arrived at Prabhupadadesa with a huge basketful of gifts for the temple’s Gaura-Nitai deities. She stayed for a week, and they talked about the past and about each other. She was certain that this was God’s plan; but Jaya-Govinda was still extremely hesitatant – how could this interfaith marriage work? Finally, Maddalena had to leave for a missionary engagement, but before she left they agreed to mull over their decision and meet again.
Dazed and confused, Jaya-Govinda couldn’t stay in Prabhupadadesa. So he packed his bags and left for the US to serve his ill guru, Satsvarupa Dasa Goswami, as a care provider. There, he began to confide in close friends, including GBC member Sesa Dasa, who advised him that he could trust his feelings, based on his sincerity of purpose. But Jaya-Govinda still couldn’t make a decision.
Finally one evening, as he was attending to his guru, Jaya-Govinda shared his fears and doubts with him. Immediately, Satsvarupa Maharaja’s face lit up. Jaya-Govinda watched in amazement as he jumped up, ran into his library, and began picking book after book from it, seemingly oblivious to his feeble health. He laid them out on the table and began flipping through them frantically, his voice bubbling over with enthusiasm as he showed Jaya-Govinda quote after quote where Srila Prabhupada fully endorsed this kind of marriage.
“Don’t make her wait any longer,” he said. “You have my blessings. Go back to Italy and marry her!”
On February 5th, 2005, Jaya-Govinda and Maddalena were married in a Catholic ceremony at a Sicilian church. They had spent only fifteen days preparing the wedding – the past twelve years had been quite enough preparation, as far as they were concerned.
As they stood at the altar, they gazed out over the audience of three hundred guests. Tears sprang forth as they met the eyes of their respective families, who had never given up hope, for all this time, that their Giacomo and Laura would be together again.
Beside them sat a representative for Maddalena’s bishop, who had authorized the mixed marriage on the grounds that Jaya-Govinda wouldn’t try to convert Maddalena to Vaishnavism, instead giving her the freedom to continue on her own path.
Impressed at the openess and support from the Catholic Church, Jaya-Govinda felt sure that he and Maddalena’s plan to also have a Vedic wedding at the Prabhupadadesa temple would meet with nothing but warmth. But his Christian/Hare Krishna stereotypes were shattered. Despite his long-term relationship with them, the temple authorities refused to allow the wedding to be perfomed before the presiding Deities on the grounds that Maddalena was not a “devotee.”
Jaya-Govinda was hurt and disappointed. Searching for someone who could sway the temple authorities in his favor, he contacted Kripamoya Dasa, who was famous for arranging and performing weddings at the Bhaktivedanta Manor in England. Kripamoya couldn’t make it to perform the wedding, but he offered his full support.
With his influence, as well as that of other close friends, Jaya-Govinda managed to change the temple authorities’ minds, and in March 2005, he and Maddalena were married in front of Prabhupadadesa’s beautiful Sri Sri Gaura-Nitai deities.
“It was as if we had been frozen for over a decade,” Jaya Govinda says now. “And we had come back with much more maturity, and a deeper, more spiritual relationship.”
“It was a sudden decision,” Maddalena admits. “But all the coincidences told us that our reunion was something beyond our will, beyond our planning, even beyond our dreams.”
She smiles, and her voice is wistful, yet certain. “It simply fell from the sky.”
Because of Love
Now living in Sicily with their baby boy, Giosue Maria Damodar, Jaya-Govinda and Maddalena are one of ISKCON’s few truly interfaith families. They’ve named their child after Jesus, his mother Mary, and the holy month of Damodar, during which he was born. And they’ve held both baptism and Vedic first grains ceremonies for him.
“We want to raise our children in a way that will share with them our experiences of God, despite our differences,” says Maddalena. “And ultimately, give them love of God.”
“I’ll give the child whatever I have, and Maddalena whatever she has,” says Jaya Govinda. “And then it will be up to God and the soul to decide his future.”
Not everyone agrees with this approach, just as not everyone agreed with the couple’s marriage. But Jaya-Govinda and Maddalena don’t feel that they’ve taken any decisions whimsically. They say that all was based on faith, scripture, spiritual guides, and well-wishing friends. Indeed, Jaya-Govinda discovered the very essence of their interfaith marriage in the words of Vaishnava saint Bhaktivinode Thakura, from his Sri Caitanya Siksamrita:
“Because of these five differences, it is only natural that various religions will appear quite different. However, it is improper and detrimental to argue over these differences. If you go to someone else’s place of worship, you should think: ‘These people are worshipping my Lord, but in a different way. Because of my different training, I cannot comprehend this system of worship. However, through this experience, I can deepen my appreciation for my own system of worship. The Lord is only one, not two. I offer respect to the form I see here, and pray to the Lord in this new form that He increase my love for the Lord in His accustomed form.’ Those who do not follow this procedure, but instead criticize other systems of worship and show envy, hatred, and violence are worthless and foolish. The more they indulge in useless quarrelling, the more they betray the very goal of their religion.”
When Jaya-Govinda and Maddalena read this quote, they knew that it was permission for them to maintain their own specific sentiment for God, while simultaneously being inspired by each other.
This was easier than you might imagine. As the couple tended to their spiritual practices, they noticed the incredible similarities. While Jaya-Govinda chanted the Hare Krishna mantra, Maddalena would chant on her rosary. As Jaya-Govinda said his gayatri mantra three times a day, he noticed that Maddalena would also say prayers in the morning, noon and evening. Sometimes they read the Bible together, and sometimes the Srimad-Bhagavatam. At mealtimes, Jaya-Govinda would offer their food to a deity of Krishna, and then Maddalena would either say Grace as her husband listened respectfully, or chant Sanskrit and Bengali prayers along with him.
“We even help each other with our worship,” Jaya-Govinda says. “When I’m busy and can’t focus on taking care of my altar, Maddalena will clean it and decorate it with beautiful flowers. And when she can’t take care of her altar – comprising of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph and the Bible, I help out, decorating it with some of the flowers I’ve picked for my deities.”
It’s not just private practices that they share. Maddalena sometimes accompanies Jaya Govinda to the temple, while he attends mass with her. “For a time after our wedding, we lived near Satsvarupa Maharaja in California,” he says. “It was a very isolated place, with no temple, few devotees, and only rare community programs. So mass became my main spiritual inspiration for quite some time. It was an eye-opening experience. I used Bhaktivinode Thakura’s quote as my point of reference, and found that despite the external differences, I felt quite at home. My appreciation of Catholicism and the deep meaning of its practices grew day by day. It was inspiring.”
Both Jaya-Govinda and Maddalena admit that there are certain philosophical and practical differences between Vaishnavism and Christianity. But even these often fall apart when held up to scrutiny.
For example, the Bible doesn’t explicitly recommend following the four regulative principles: no meat eating, no intoxication, no illicit sex, and no gambling. But Maddalena follows them, since she knows how important they are to Jaya-Govinda – and because they don’t go against Christianity.
“There are numerous hints, for instance, that God favors vegetarianism,” she says. “The new testament describes that Jesus only ate bread, figs and olives. And in the old testament, God gives detailed instructions on what to eat – all of it vegetarian. Only after repetitive petitions from man did God allow him to eat meat.”
She adds that if a Christian is vegetarian, it reinforces his love and respect for all creatures, citing the story of St. Francis of Assissi.
Deity worship is another example of a seemingly vast difference between Christianity and Vaishnavism that turns out to be not all that divisive. As Jaya-Govinda points out, although Vaishnavas conduct deity worship, this was the standard method of enlightenment for the previous age, while Lord Chaitanya recommends chanting the name of God as the method of enlightment for the current age of Kali. This, of course, is closer to Christian teachings.
And so, Jaya Govinda and Maddalena prefer to focus on the common features of their religions. And they look forward to living their life together, a life that was always meant to be, and a relationship made even stronger by their time apart, and the lessons they’ve learned. “Sometimes there may be confrontation and arguments, but they’re purifying and we are able to solve them, not with philosophy or theology, but with personal affection and respect,” says Jaya Govinda. “Simply put, we go beyond our differences because of love.”