By Madhava Smullen on Feb 14 2009
Because of Love
He was a Hare Krishna. She was a Christian. Could they overcome their differences to meet their destiny?
1. Catching the Butterfly
Eighteen-year-old Giacomo Soresi glanced surreptitiously over at the girl he’d sat next to in class for the past five years, his heart beating fast. Once he had been a little boy, flipping through the mysterious book full of strange script and beautiful pictures his father’s colleague had given him – a book called Bhagavad-Gita As It Is. And at exactly the same time, young Laura Pipitone had been singing her heart out to an LP her big brother bought from a Hare Krishna devotee on the street. But back then, Giacomo didn’t know about that “coincidence,” or the many others to come that meant his destiny was inextricably entwined with hers.
All he knew was that, shy as he was, he had to tell Laura how he felt about her before it was too late.
But how? He looked at her, and saw in Laura the same struggles, the same questions about God and life that he had. And he saw her tiny, almost oriental frame, and her delicate and tender personality, like a… like a butterfly! Suddenly he knew what to do. He’d write her poetry, like Jim Morrison from his favorite band the Doors. “I know that you have an intense inner struggle that you’re trying desperately to communicate to others,” he wrote. “And I know that they can’t hear the scream of the butterfly. But I can.” It was adolescent and angsty, but he thought it worked. He scribbled the rest of the poem, folded it up, and passed it to Laura.
She read it and thanked him coyly, but nothing much happened until a few days later, as they were leaving school. With great effort, Giacomo managed to overcome his shyness for the second time and simply took Laura’s hand in his. The moment he did, Laura could feel that he was completely different from other boys. There was goodness in him. They walked in silence towards the bus stop, not saying anything for ten long minutes. When they got there, Laura finally looked up at Giacomo. “I feel…. like a butterfly caught in a net,” she said.
They fell in love. It was obvious from the outset that their relationship was deeper and closer than those of others around them. There was an affinity in the way they reacted to situations, the way they faced obstacles. Five years after that day at the bus stop, they decided they would spend the rest of their lives together, and in the traditional Sicilian way, approached their respective families for permission. A friendship began to grow between the Soresis and the Pipitones. Marriage hovered just around the corner.
But destiny had a few lessons to teach them first, and it decided their plans wouldn’t go as smoothly as they’d hoped.
2. A Painful Choice
It all began with a coincidence strangely reminiscent of the one that had connected the couple in their childhood.
A Hare Krishna devotee intercepted Giacomo on the street, handing him a copy of Teachings of Queen Kunti. When Giacomo saw the author’s name on the cover, recognition welled up inside him. “A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada,” he murmured, remembering the Bhagavad-Gita he had treasured as a child. He looked up at the devotee. “I know Prabhupada,” he said.
“R-r-really?” the devotee spluttered, taken off guard. “Well… Why don’t you come to our feast this Sunday?”
That same week, on the other side of town, Laura answered a knock at the door and found a devotee on her doorstep cradling a stack of books. “I always used to dance and chant Hare Krishna when I was a kid,” Laura told him. “But I never knew what it meant. Could you explain it?” When the devotee had finished picking his jaw up off the doormat, he invited her to the Sunday Feast too. It was a busy week for Sicilian Hare Krishnas.
Laura and Giacomo began attending programs at the local ISKCON temple together. They devoured Bhagavad-Gita As It Is and other books, started chanting Hare Krishna and following the four regulative principles, and developed a relationship with a guru. Giacomo was thrilled. “I’ve finally found my way,” he thought. “This is the answer to all my questions! When I read the Bhagavad-Gita, I can feel the presence of God in a way I never have before.” And Laura was on the journey with him. It was exciting.
But when Giacomo and Laura suddenly became vegetarian, stopped all illicit activities and often went on mysterious trips with new friends, their families – staunch Catholics – realized they had found a new religion. And they weren’t happy.
“He’s being brainwashed,” Giacomo’s parents explained urgently, begging the help of everyone from friends to counselors and priests. But their son’s obsession with Krishna consciousness only grew. Anything that was in its way was thrown by the wayside. He began to slip away from them, and mere dissent escalated into all-out war. “I hate the devotees!” Giacomo’s sister screamed down the phone at him one day when she called the temple. Her voice was reeling and pitching in teary hysterics. “They stole you from us, and I hate them!”
Laura’s parents cut her off from Krishna consciousness completely. “You can change everything in your life,” they said. “But you can’t change your faith.” She argued and fought with them, but there was nothing she could do. She was a girl, and in Sicilian culture, that meant she couldn’t make her own decisions.
Meanwhile, Giacomo was drifting away from her, and it hurt. Whereas before they had gone to the temple together and practiced at home, now he was embracing the monastic way of life more and more. When she visited him at the temple, the devotees there thought she was trying to take him away, and treated her coldly.
An ultimatum was inevitable. One day, Laura’s father invited Giacomo to go for a drive with him. “You have a choice to make,” he said, breaking the heavy, uncomfortable silence. “Either Laura, or Krishna.”
Giacomo knew that if he said Laura, who wasn’t allowed to practice Krishna consciousness, his new love would be in jeopardy. His heart felt heavy, but there was no way out. “I choose Krishna,” he said.
One year went by. Giacomo, now Jaya Govinda Dasa, was distributing books in the town of Palermo, and as was his habit, decided to visit his parents who lived in the area. As he entered their living room, he stopped abruptly. His parents, his sister, the family’s counselor, Laura’s parents, and Laura herself were all there, their arms folded, eyeing him purposefully. He was about to be judged by the court.
It was a formidable one. They accused him of betraying his family and biting the hand that fed him. They made a last stand, a final attempt to convince Jaya Govinda to give up Krishna consciousness, come back home, and continue his relationship with Laura.
But Jaya Govinda wouldn’t be swayed. He was a celibate monk now. Dedication to God and higher principles stopped him from going back to his old life. Disappointed, his family nodded their assent. In time, they would come to terms with his decision.
As Jaya Govinda rose to leave, Laura approached him. She was as small and delicate as ever, but as she looked up at him, her eyes full of anger and bruised love, she seemed powerful. “Go and be a monk. Dedicate your life to God,” she said, her voice strong and unwavering. “But if I ever hear that you’ve married someone else, I will put a bomb in the temple.”
Jaya Govinda didn’t smile. He knew that her sentiment was a serious one, even if her threat wasn’t. So he just nodded, and they looked at each other for a long time, and then he left.
It was the last time they’d see each other for ten years.
Laura was exhausted. By the drama, by the tension, by the pain of heartbreak. She wanted to be free, and she knew that God was the only one who could help her do that. She searched for Him, both in the temple – where devotees, thinking she was looking for their celibate monk Jaya Govinda, still gave her the cold shoulder – and in the church. “I need you now,” she beseeched Jesus angrily one day. “I need to know if you are God or not.”
Gradually, as she attended mass, accepted the holy eucharist, and prayed, Laura felt Jesus connecting with her. And when she received an unexpected invitation to attend a Christian pilgrimage soon after, she knew she had her answer. Christ was her way.
Abandoning her job, her family, everything she knew, Laura joined a missionary community called Figlie Adoratrici del Sague Preziosissimo: The Daughters Who Adore the Most Precious Blood. She became a new woman, with a new name: Maddalena.
Throwing herself into her new celibate life with all the enthusiasm and devotion in her heart, Maddalena became an active missionary, preaching the gospel across Italy, Bosnia, Africa, Austria, and Mexico. She gained high levels of responsibility in a very short time, soon becoming Mother Superior of her community. She was busy and happy.
But thoughts of Jaya Govinda still came to her, and the feeling that she had been betrayed by him and the devotees still lingered. Attempting to heal herself, she wrote him a letter expressing her feelings, and then called him. But with the past still lurking close by, and her bitterness still vivid, she spoke harshly about devotees and Krishna, emphasizing that Jesus was the only way, and driving Jaya Govinda further away. Neither of them realized that they were actually living parallel lives, and that only their paths were different. For as co-ordinator for a large group of book distributors, Jaya Govinda was traveling around the country and spreading the word of God, just like Maddalena. And as vice president for the Prabhupadadesa temple, he took care of the spiritual and material needs of many devotees, just as she did.
Years passed. Jaya Govinda and Maddalena exchanged the odd birthday or Christmas card, but nothing more.
Until Jaya Govinda’s sister got married. The Soresis and the Pipitones had remained good friends, and Maddalena arrived to sing at the wedding. Her voice was beautiful, backed by the two other nuns who accompanied her, and afterwards, Maddalena and Jaya Govinda sat at the same table for the first time in ten years. As they shared updates about their lives, each found the other far more mature and spiritually developed than before.
But they didn’t wonder what it might have been like if they hadn’t gone their separate ways. They were at peace now – but their interaction was purely one of affable, fraternal goodwill. The old relationship was dead and gone.
“Your time in this community is over.”
The voice came from within her heart, but to Maddalena it seemed as clear and loud as it would have if the person speaking was right there in the room with her. She sat bolt upright in bed, breathing fast.
It was two years after her encounter with Jaya-Govinda, and things should have been going well – she was working as secretary for a bishop in Rome – but they weren’t. She wasn’t getting on with her superiors, and she had been praying constantly, trying to find a way out of the gray curtain that enveloped her.
Shaking a little, she climbed out of bed to prepare for her day. But she couldn’t get that voice out of her head. Was she going crazy? Or was it a message from God? The thoughts plagued her mercilessly, making it impossible for her to focus on her duties.
“Maddalena,” said the bishop finally, noticing that she wasn’t herself. “There’s something wrong. What is it?”
“I think I need some time away from the community,” she said slowly, not quite believing her own words. “I need to pray, to find myself. Maybe I need to change my life. Maybe… Maybe I need to marry.”
It was a difficult time for Maddalena, and her father didn’t make it any easier when he suggested that she call Giacomo.
“Dad! You, of all people, should know he’s in my past!”
“That’s not what I mean,” her father said patiently. “I mean you should talk to him about what’s happening in your life. He’s a monk – he may be able to relate.”
Maddalena refused, but her father was more stubborn than her, and at last she relented. She got only Jaya-Govinda’s voicemail and left a message, but when a day went by and there was still no reply, the anger rose thickly in her. “What kind of a friend is he?” she thought.
If she 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.”