Interview with Rev. Ann Emerson
- If you go to the master teacher—whether it’s Jesus or it’s Buddha or any other master—then these paths are absolutely harmonious. They talk about peace, justice, compassion, responsibility. But as the masters’ teachings are handed on to the next generation, it isn’t about the spiritual consciousness anymore. And then we get into the ritual and the politics, and we get into power, and those things obscure the harmony that exists between religions.
- I think one of the most important things about community is to be able to dance and sing, and laugh and eat together, and to have time just to hang out and talk. Spiritual community doesn’t have to exist just around spiritual disciplines; it should be built around the whole person. All of my work is about the whole person—mind, body, spirit. They’re all gifts from the divine, and they need care and nurturing.
- “God does not have hands, we do. Our hands are God’s. It is up to us what God will do.” This theme runs through all interviews I have done-humankind is responsible for what happens.
- Within everybody there is a template, a blueprint, a schematic of what their life should be, and how they should live it, and they just need to take time to listen, study, work, be with community, be willing to learn, be willing to let go. How wonderful-that’s the journey and that’s the mystery.
Ann Marie: Now we’re going to sort of flip-flop everything—Ann Emerson is so used to doing the interview, and now she is on the receiving end of the questions. And the first question I’d like to ask you is, In what spiritual traditional were you raised?
Ann:I was raised a Christian in the Congregational Church in Scarsdale, New York. We lived in a little town next to Scarsdale called Eastchester. Eastchester is a more working class town, whereas Scarsdale is a very wealthy, elegant town. I remember feeling the difference, and even as a little girl thinking that we didn’t quite belong. My parents were exceptionally good, hard working people, and they saw Christianity as a code of ethics, but they didn’t understand anything about the mystical aspect of religion. I was born in 1934, and I grew up in the 1940s, and although my parents said very nice things about goodness, compassion and justice, it was not a time of justice. It was a time of racism, sexism, classism. As a little girl, I saw that, and it really confused me. I didn’t understand; it was like the things my parents said were lies. But I loved my parents, and they loved me, so I kind of went along with the program, but the question of what was true was there.
Ann Marie: So how many years did you follow that tradition?
Ann: It’s interesting, my parents wanted my brother and me to go to Sunday school. So they took us to Sunday School, but they dropped us off. They were not involved in the church, and so by the time I was eight, I said I didn’t want to go, and they said fine. So from the time I was eight all the way until I was in my forties, I really was not connected with a church or God or religion in any way. Just a good code of ethics.
Ann Marie: Would you say you lost faith in that tradition when you stopped wanting to go to Sunday school?
Ann: As a little girl, I must have had something really terrible happen to me, and somebody gave me a Bible, and I used to sleep with it under my pillow, and it calmed me. So on some level, I must have understood the bigger picture. It wasn’t that I lost faith—I kind of stepped away from it. But my social consciousness was awakened. I remember when I was a teenager, in tenth grade, there was a sorority in the Eastchester High School, and I did not like the way girls who were pledging were being treated. Who got in was very much tied to class and religion, and I convinced my whole class not to join the sorority. I started my own group called SYMRA, and the whole class joined. I was only fifteen when I started that group, and the meaning of the word SYMRA is long gone, but I’m sure it had to do with goodness. All the girls in the class were allowed to join. If you wanted to join, you could join, that was my premise. It had nothing to do with passing this test or that test. So all the girls joined. At the end of the year, I was doing badly in school, and my parents sent me to a private school. So I left, and everybody went back and joined the sororities. But even if they did, there was a change in consciousness, which was nice.
Ann Marie: So you were sort of a crusader for justice and equality way before it was even popular?
Ann: I didn’t understand that I was a crusader—I just saw something that needed changing. When I said that we should form SYMRA, everybody said yes. And I was surprised that I moved into a position of leadership. So really, it was from that time on that my social consciousness was there, deep in my heart. And the actions of my class taught me a big lesson—it wasn’t hard to get them to see the value of change.
Ann Marie: Well, in the Northern Westchester area you’ve been the forerunner in spirituality, and any time you hear the word spirituality here, the name Ann Emerson is heard with it. But you were way ahead of your time, even as a child. You just never knew it, and that’s pretty cool.
Ann: My son Peter invited me to go to an interfaith gathering the other day, and I knew everybody there. You don’t see your own work directly, you just keep working, and then it’s only in mirrors that you can see that you’ve touched people.
Ann Marie: Have you studied any other spiritual paths along the way?
Ann: Yes, I have. My quest for truth is just a big part of my life. I was in the Human Potential movement for a very long time—about ten years. That’s a spiritual path, but it’s really about looking at the self—do you really have a self? I think it’s a stepping-stone to deeper questions of spirit. So I did that, and my husband and I were part of the Christian Charismatic movement. We studied with both the Catholic and Protestant parts of the movement.
Then after that I studied quite a lot about Buddhism—which is such a huge tradition to study, my work was such a drop in the bucket. It made me think in a different way than I had to do as a Christian, and it forced me to think about how the two traditions related to one another.
And for five years now I’ve been working on the Harmony Project, so I’ve been doing a lot of reading and studying. I’ve studied a lot, but I’m sixty-eight, and in truth, it feels like I haven’t done anything. I still have a lot of studying to do.
Ann Marie: Now it may seem silly to ask you this question, because it’s your vision behind the Harmony Project, but do you see different spiritual paths, or different religions as harmonious in any way?
Ann: Well, I think if you go to the master teacher—whether it’s Jesus or it’s Buddha or any other master—then these paths are absolutely harmonious. They talk about peace, justice, compassion, responsibility. But as the masters’ teachings are handed on to the next generation, it isn’t about the spiritual consciousness anymore. And then we get into the ritual and the politics, and we get into power, and those things obscure the harmony that exists between religions. It’s an exciting time now, because there are so many books that the common person can read about the original teachings. So I see the original teachings of each tradition as very harmonious. As each tradition begins to break apart from its original teachings, as it tries to become organized in some way, without the profound force of spirit, then the differences begin to appear.
Ann Marie: Do have any spiritual heroes in your background, figures who have strongly influenced your beliefs?
Ann: Probably hundreds. One major person is Ethel Waters, a very famous African-American singer. I learned about her when I was maybe fourteen years old. Her autobiography is called His Eye is on The Sparrow, and reading that book was a real wake-up call for me about how African Americans were oppressed by whites. I had absolutely no idea, because we had no African American people around us, but I was horrified. So she was a major teacher for me; her story really increased my level of consciousness.
I also read a lot of writings from Asia about how families should work, and how powerful women were in Asia when it came to taking care of the family and the children. That gave me a sense of women’s lives that was different from the lives of the white American women I knew. The Women’s Movement was incredibly important to me. And that is a spiritual path, I believe, because it’s about getting past oppression and judgment.
Gandhi is another of my spiritual heroes. I’m reading his books The Way of God and Book of Prayers right now. There’s a quote I really like from Book of Prayers,
“Our attitude is conditioned by whether we believe that we possess the truth or we believe that we pursue the truth.” If we accept the premise that we pursue the truth, then it becomes easier to accept and respect different truths. The alternative is too grim to even contemplate—a terrible holocaust perpetuated in the name of religion.
As you know, The Sanctuary is a peace, justice and healing center. There’s a quote I like from James Twyman about peace,
“Lasting peace will never come to a world that thinks it has a choice between peace and war. The only choice you ever really make is between truth and illusion. When you choose truth you discover that peace is always present, regardless of your awareness of its presence. When you choose illusion it is like closing your eyes to what is right in front of you. And this is what it means to wake up from the dream of separation. It's like opening your eyes. Reality was never compromised by your dream. It remained whole and unchanged while you made up your own world where hatred and fear seemed to have meaning.”
Ann Marie: Ann, have you had any profound spiritual experiences?
Ann: I was thinking about a couple of things that would be interesting to talk about. I’ve had many, many spiritual experiences, although I really didn’t have any mystical experiences until I was in my forties and I became a part of the Christian Charismatic Movement. Then I began to feel light coming through me, and I began to see things like people being healed, and I realized that somehow I could be an access point for that healing energy. And now I teach hands-on healing. My gifts started back then.
I want to tell a very funny story that happened just a year ago; it really was such a wake-up call. I have a friend whose name is Einiyah ben-Elyon. She had just traveled around the world for a year, and she had e-mailed me from every wild little place that she had been. So she called me as she came through the New York area and asked me if we could get together. She said, “I’ll borrow a friend’s car and come over in the morning.”
So I got up in the morning, and I was working in the kitchen. I made a salad, and I wanted everything to be spectacular. And I put some rice on the stove, and all of a sudden the phone rang, and it was Einiyah. And she said, “Ann, this person has a big Lincoln and I’m terrified to drive it in Westchester after not driving for a year.”
I said, “No problem, I’ll jump in the car and come get you.” It was probably a fifteen-minute drive.
So we get in the car and she says “Oh Ann, instead of going back to your house I have to change my airplane tickets, can we go to White Plains?” That’s a half-hour ride away from where she was staying.
I say, “No problem, I’ve got the whole day to spend with you.” So I got half way to White Plains—another fifteen minutes, so it had been forty-five minutes that I’d been away from my house—and I realize I left the rice cooking on the stove. Now I live in an apartment house with one hundred families, and we have very heavy metal doors on the apartments, so no one would be able to get in without a key. And I hadn’t given the super a key.
So I thought, “I’m going to burn down my whole apartment house.” And I turned around, and by this time it’s been about an hour, and the rice had maybe ten minutes left to cook when I’d left my apartment.
So I thought, “I’ll drive carefully, but I’ll drive as quickly as I can,” and I drive up to this big apartment house, and it’s absolutely still. There’s no fire engines here, there’s no smoke, there are people laughing in the front yard, having a good time with their children. I ran up the stairs, I opened my door, I checked the stove—and the rice was perfect. It was just like I had watched over it. And I took it off the stove, and you know how rice gets a little light brown just before it’s done?
Ann Marie: Right. So somebody was watching over it for you.
Ann: Someone took care of it, right? Well, I was so shaken. Then we had a cup of tea, and spent the rest of the day together. Now the following week—and this is a very small apartment—I burned the rice twice. I went in to get on the computer; the rice had fifteen minutes to go, and I forgot about it. I came in and it was charred, and the following week I did the same thing. So on my desk I now have a little bowl of white rice, as a reminder that the spirit is with me, but I still have the responsibility. There’s an old cowboy saying, “Trust in God, but tie up your horse.” They have the same saying in Arab countries, but it’s “Trust in God but tie up your camel.”
So that’s one mystical experience that I absolutely love. And I’ve also felt protected many times when I was in trouble, but I still had to be responsible for day-to-day life.
Ann Marie: Have you had any experiences that have taken you to the edge of despair?
Ann: Absolutely, I’ve had many. Here’s another story that absolutely knocks me out looking back on it.
My husband and I are divorced because he became a fundamentalist Christian lay minister, and it was the very best thing for him. He met Jesus, and it opened his heart and it was a profound thing. But fundamentalist Christianity was a very narrow path for me, and it was heartbreaking to me when people said Jesus is the only way. Now, I have given my life to Jesus Christ, and I pray to Christ daily, and I pray to Mary Mother of Jesus daily. But I believe that there is one God, and there are many paths to the same God. So I believe that I’m a Christian, and I believe that I’m trying my best to understand and to be aligned with Jesus’ teachings. But our marriage became extremely difficult. We wanted the same thing—to serve life and to serve God—but our spiritual paths were totally different.
I went to a spiritual center with my husband to try to find some way to connect with one another again and save our marriage, and we went into a chapel. I found myself standing in this magnificent chapel wanting unity with my husband of twenty years, and praying to the Holy Spirit for unity. But I felt black, heavy, metal chains come around me from my feet to the very top of my head. I became absolutely immobilized in terror. My husband was a foot away from me, and I could not speak. I prayed, and I was able to move away from him and out of the building. As I got outside in the sunshine, I prayed to Jesus for understanding, and the fear and the vision of the chains disappeared. But I felt that although we were very far from home, I had to hitchhike home. I felt that I couldn’t in any way get back in the car with him—I had to get away. But I did eventually drive home with him.
It took me years to figure this out, but I think I was being told that in that relationship, I was bound in black chains, and I had to have the courage to move out. I had to break all the religious codes that I had aligned myself with about marriage, my belief that marriage should be forever. I had a spiritual teacher who said the marriage had died, and it was time—for my health and his health—that I left. My husband, George, thanked me several years later, after we were divorced, for having the courage to go, but needless to say, it was an extremely painful decision. It was the death of a piece of myself that was bound to a philosophy that was too limiting for me. I was shown that spiritually, but as I say, it took me a long time to integrate that message. But that experience gives me courage even today to find my own way.
Ann Marie: That’s very powerful. Now what spiritual practices help you to follow your path?
Ann: Well, I was involved in the Human Potential Movement, and that was about finding the self. The self is an important part of one’s spiritual journey. I needed that, because I came from a family where there were alcoholism problems and other hard things for a child to grow up with. I moved into spiritual practice after five years in the Human Potential Movement, and I started to meditate, pray, study. I was probably forty-five, and those practices have been a constant for me, but they’ve changed in form over the years. But I pray daily, I use meditation tapes daily, and I study constantly. Another thing that is incredibly important, maybe the most important, is I believe you have to do spiritual service. I don’t think you can really pray or meditate or study if you aren’t committed to some sort of spiritual service. That can be taking care of your family, it can be teaching. It can be in any form, but if you’re giving of your life, then you are open to spirit, you are the vessel for spirit. So all of those spiritual practices change form for me through the years, but I do all of those things, all of the time.
Ann Marie: Do you practice regular meditation?
Ann: Yes, but it’s always different. I interviewed a man for the Harmony Project named Dr. John Lawry (his interview is under Christianity). He has a meditation practice that’s been exactly the same for twenty-five years. And I said to him, “Isn’t that profound!” But I meditate sometimes with music, sometimes with tapes, sometimes just using a mantra, sometimes using a candle, sometimes during walking. I just try to be in a listening position, and that changes day by day.
Ann Marie: So you really don’t use any particular techniques to enhance it. Whatever calls to you that day is what you do?
Ann: Whatever calls to me at that moment in time. But I know that I must make time for meditation, because I get off center if I don’t.
Ann Marie: Do you think God can hear us when we talk to Him or Her, or the Divine? However you wish to label it.
Ann: Oh absolutely, and sometimes God makes me laugh! My God has a great sense of humor. God puts me in the hardest places to learn, and then I know He or She says, “You go girl!”
Ann Marie: My God has a great sense of humor too, believe me!
Ann: If we pray an egocentric prayer, “I want, I need, I have to, why don’t you…” I think that God just doesn’t pay any attention. But if you’re really sincerely seeking, then I think the connection is made and you have the opportunity to feel it.
Another interesting story, I taught a course called New Directions in two maximum-security prisons for seven years, and I was in the basement of a prison with a woman whose legs were bruised completely black from having shot up different kinds of drugs. She was probably thirty, and her arms and her legs were black and pitted with needle marks. And she had been in prison a long time.
I didn’t know what people’s crimes were, but one day she came to me and she said, “Ann, I have to tell you what my crime was.”
I said, “Well it’s not important to me. It’s important to me that from here on you use your life for your good and the good of others.”
And she said to me, “I want to tell you.”
And I got a little scared because she was a little frantic, and she said, “I murdered my children. I actually dismembered them, and I brought another child in to see what I had done.”
Well I was just shaken. I have five children, and the idea of even spanking a child was horrendous to me. And all I could remember from my own teachers was, “Well, let’s pray.”
So I said to her, “Well let’s pray about it. Let’s ask God what we should do about that.” Do you know, the Holy Spirit came in power, and she had a sense that she had been forgiven, and I had a sense that she had been forgiven. We were both trembling in the light. God sent His love, sent His understanding—but the act had been done, and she was in prison the rest of her life. God is not going to save us from anything we do, but the presence of the Holy Spirit can certainly carry you, and I’m sure it carries her in some way—although she may lose it, because she may not be doing any kind of practices to keep that line of energy open. But she was heard and honored and blessed. I was heard, honored, blessed, so I know. I was also a spiritual channel in that situation. When people ask real questions, deep questions, profound answers come. If they ask superficial, egocentric questions, there is no answer. I think it’s the depth of honesty and the structure of a person’s mind that enables them to make that connection. That’s where spiritual practices come in, meditation and study and things like that. There’s a saying that if you take one step toward God, God will take two steps toward you. You have to make your body a vessel that’s able to receive an answer. But the answers are available.
Ann Marie: So you would say that we can hear God’s answers to us when we pray?
Ann: Yes, and sometimes the answer is no. This is something you have to go through. I spent twelve years in my marriage praying. I was married twenty-four years, and the second twelve years I prayed daily that our love would be re-awakened, and that we could serve God together. And for twelve years, the answer was no. For twelve years, I did everything I could, and then I left. And while it was very hard, that trial deeply enriched my life and my understanding.
Ann Marie: Is a spiritual community important to you?
Ann: Well yes. I just keep creating communities. From the time I was in Eastchester High School all the way to today. I’ve started five spiritual centers, and at the moment I have just a very small center. I’m trying to make it bigger. In fact, I think this Harmony Project is a center—and it can be global. Somebody told me this project is a portal for God to come through, so it may be my spiritual community. At the moment, I have lots and lots of friends and lots of spiritual teachers, but I don’t have one place where I go or one spiritual community. But I think community is incredibly important.
Ann Marie: One thing I’d like to mention is that currently you are the director of The Sanctuary of Sophia, which is located in Mt. Kisco, New York. And it’s a place many people come to in order to pray, to be healed and to seek camaraderie.
Ann: Yes, that’s true. I keep asking God for a little bit bigger place. The space feels very confined to me. The center is in an apartment, and the parking is hard. So one of my prayers is for a house, so more people can come to the center, and more people can have pleasure together. I think one of the most important things about community is to be able to dance and sing, and laugh and eat together, and to have time just to hang out and talk. Spiritual community doesn’t have to exist just around spiritual disciplines; it should be built around the whole person. All of my work is about the whole person—mind, body, spirit. They’re all gifts from the divine, and they need care and nurturing.
Ann Marie: Okay the next question is, Why do you feel bad things happen to good people?
Ann: I think bad things happen to everybody, just as good things do. I think a spiritual practice will get you through the bad things—with community, with systems that can help you through it. Life is bloody, messy—it’s about movement and change, it’s about death, it’s about rebirth, it’s about fear, it’s about judgments, it’s about financial things. I believe all of those things are in everybody’s life. Some people do get more difficult challenges than others, but the ones who survive are the ones who know how to grow from their challenges and how to get what they need in the way of support. But I’ve never met anybody who didn’t experience bad things. With spiritual knowledge, great good can come out of those challenges.
Ann Marie: What do you feel is our place in the world?
Ann: You know I ask that question all the time. I think our place in the world is service and love. In her book For the Time Being, Annie Dillard quotes the nineteenth century Frenchman Edmund Fleg, “For the Jew, the world is not complete. People must complete it.” And more recently Lawrence Kushner stated the same idea, “God does not have hands, we do. Our hands are God’s. It is up to us what God will do.” This theme runs through all interviews I have done—humankind is responsible for what happens
I think we really have evolved as a people. I can see it from 1930–2003, through all the big cultural shifts that have happened. People are better educated, more compassionate. A perfect example—look at Oprah on television. She would not have made it on television in the 1930s, the 1940s, the 1950s, the 1960s, the 1970s. And she’s a major spiritual teacher who is doing absolutely profound things. People—women, particularly—in our country are changed by who she is, what she does, and so I celebrate that.
I also think that since 9/11 there has been such an incredible awakening to what is really important. We were all spiritually awakened by that tragedy.
Ann Marie: Absolutely, priorities have shifted.
Ann: Let’s hope they continue to do that.
Ann Marie: Here’s a question I think everybody has probably thought about. What do you think happens when we die?
Ann: I know there is a spiritual realm, and I know that I can contact my ancestors, my guides, angels. Sometimes I feel like that realm is the divine essence or God. So I have no idea what that’s going to look like. I have had mystical experiences where I felt I went to the edge of that realm, and I heard heavenly music, and it was so delicious and so profound, I didn’t want to come back. So I don’t know, but I know that we are being helped, and I know that there’s a reason for being alive. I also know that we have many, many lives. I have had many past life experiences. Many times in my life I have wanted to die. It’s been so hard, I said, “Just take me away,” and I was willing to go, even if it was to hell. Which was pretty stupid, but that’s how you feel when you really want to check out. But I have no idea what really happens when we die.
I loved interviewing Jewish people and people from the Baha’i Faith for the Harmony Project. They basically said, “Don’t waste your time with that question. Nobody knows what happens, and we won’t know until we get there, so just live a good life.” Isn’t that nice? That’s what I try to do, live a good life—a life of service to my family and my community.
Ann Marie: That’s the bottom line.
Ann: Just live a good life. I studied with a spiritual teacher named Ram Dass, and someone asked him what he would do if the world were at war and everything were chaotic. And he said, “Continue to live a good life. Serve in every way you can.” I mean, that’s all we can really do. Everything else is out of our hands.
Ann Marie: Very true. In closing, what would you like to share with people who are seeking spirit?
Ann: They already have it. Within everybody there is a template, a blueprint, a schematic of what their life should be, and how they should live it, and they just need to take time to listen, study, work, be with community, be willing to learn, be willing to let go. How wonderful—that’s the journey and that’s the mystery. You never know until after you do something what the consequences are, and sometimes its not for five years, or ten years, or even thirty years, but you’ll start to see patterns. As a young person you can’t see patterns, but when you get into your sixties you can see very specific crossroads and patterns and opportunities that you took or you didn’t take. I would say just listen to your heart; know that you’re divine; know that whatever you’re doing is incredibly important. You are a cell in the body of God; you are an aspect of God. Never ever let anybody take that away from you. Your life is important-use it well.
A Few Quotations:
“All being itself is derived from God, and the presence of the creator is in each created thing.”
“According to David Tracy, theologian at The University of Chicago, Pan-Entheism is the private view of most Christian intellectuals. Not only is God immanent in everything, as plain Pantheists hold, but more profoundly, everything is simultaneously in God, within the transcendent. There is a divine, not just bushes.”
“Frithjof Schuon condensed the thoughts of Gnostic Marco Pallis thus, ‘It is always man that is absent not grace.’ The Divine is always with us.”
“People may follow the will of the Creator in guiding the world in its evolution towards the ultimate reality.”
“God—his name is holy. But it is up to us to sanctify it. His reign is universal, but it is up to us to make him reign. His will be done, but it is up to us to accomplish it.”
“In our hands, the hands of all of us, the world and life—our world, our life—are placed like a Host ready to be charged with divine influence…The mystery will be accomplished. Little by little the work is being done”