By Ruth Broyde Sharone
MARIANNE WILLIAMSON – A PROFILE
The interfaith community faces the same challenges as any other group, first and foremost, to make sure that its own processes are as pure as possible. Organized religion can be very political, and the politics don’t stop when a bunch of groups get together. But if the interfaith community forges not just an alliance but a true union of souls, then it’s probably the most meaningful, hopeful, and exciting possibility for the planet.
– Marianne Williamson
The interfaith community of Los Angeles seems poised to adopt Marianne Williamson as a “living bridge” between the world of meditators, contemplatives, and social activists. An internationally recognized spiritual teacher of A Course in Miracles and a best-selling author, Marianne is a mystic and a social activist. She founded, for instance, the Angel Food Project in LA in 1989 to help feed the homeless and those suffering from AIDS, and the organization is still thriving today.
“My work is about the universal truths at the heart of all the great religious systems,” she explains. “It is not about religious belief but about spiritual experience. Do we walk in love, in compassion, in brotherhood, justice, forgiveness? Those are the issues that concern me.”
L.A.’s Whole Person Magazine recently dubbed Williamson “the mother of the new age movement.” Others suggest she is in line to follow Barbara Marx Hubbard as the new “mother” ofthe American spiritual community. In any case, author of Return to Love and nine other books on spiritual practice and mastery, Marianne Williamson occupies a prominent place in the pantheon of contemporary spiritual teachers.
Truth be told, though, there is nothing motherly about her. She does not coddle or protect her students. She eggs them on. She prods them, at times makes them uncomfortable, until they are willing to examine their self-limiting thoughts. She urges them to use their gifts for a larger purpose. She is definitely not their mother, but more like a big sister or comrade-in-arms. A small, petite, very attractive woman with angular features, most often in a fitted suit with spike heels, she moves about on the stage or into the audience with grace and power. Alternatively she is encouraging, understanding, wickedly funny, yet uncompromising in her assessments.
Neither is Marianne afraid to speak about her own weaknesses and challenges. She will stop her lecture at a moment’s notice to ask the audience to pray for someone facing a particularly dire situation. Seating 500 plus, her lecture hall in Los Angeles is full to capacity every Monday night. Unlike well-known speakers who disappear when their talk is over, Marianne stays behind to talk to people personally. She obviously cares about her students and cares deeply about the spiritual condition of the world.
Three years ago I had a chance to travel with Marianne to a micro-finance conference in Nairobi, Kenya. She invited a delegation of 15 women to join her. Every evening, after a full day of panel discussions, speeches, cultural presentations, and buffet meals in a huge circus tent, Marianne would invite us to return to the hotel for a late-night training. She encouraged us to articulate what we had experienced that day and be prepared to convey a vivid, passionate account in our reports back home. However late the hour or tired we were, she made it clear that the success of the trip would be measured in our growth and ability to communicate what we were learning.
She was invited to many private events in Kenya, including lunches and dinners with Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, Queen Sophia of Spain, Princess Maxima of the Netherlands, Mwai Kibaki, president of Kenya, and other notables. But she never offered easy lip service when they asked about social action or responsibility of government to its citizens. She is not afraid to rock the boat.
When Marianne agreed to be the keynote speaker for the second annual Seeds of Peace interfaith conference in Los Angeles, with the theme of “Meditation and the Engaged Life,” we knew what to expect: an eloquent, no-nonsense message. Organized by the Southern California Committee for a Parliament of the World’s Religions (SCCPWR), the conference was held at All Saints Church, Pasadena, California, last month.
Her address captured everyone’s complete attention. She described the “illusion” harbored by some meditators that it is OK to remain in a state of transcendence while letting the rest of the world take care of itself. She noted that many of the most intelligent, educated, and articulate social activists she has met – people passionate about resolving the challenges of climate, health care, gun control, immigration reform, economic disparities, and so much more – are angry and sometimes full of rage. As a result, they alienate people who could potentially become activists. They do not realize, she suggested, that the end product of all of their activism is actually the spiritual goal of achieving inner peace while working to care for the world and its people. She stressed the importance of joining inner and outer peace, as exemplified by her great personal teachers and heroes, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Politics, like everything else, she said, should be an “act of love.”
“The problem, of course, is that politics today is anything but that, which leaves us with a terrible conundrum. The rising impulse of enlightenment and compassion has saturated our culture in many ways, affecting business, education, media, the sciences, health and healing, even religion. But it has not influenced politics, because our politics today is a closed system. It is resistant to change, and it is saturated with the toxicity and negativity that makes the spiritual seeker run the other way."
“But I think the spiritual seeker should be the most, not the least, involved with the great challenges that face humanity. We are on this earth to be a light to the darkness, and how can you do that if you just avoid the darkness? Like everyone else I recognize that politics is toxic, but I also see how toxic it is to abdicate the responsibilities of citizenship and leave the field of public power to the very forces which foster so much fear.”
Asked about her experience of the Seeds of Peace conference after her keynote and leading a workshop on Spirituality and Politics, she was enthusiastic. “I loved the energy at Seeds of Peace. I viscerally got what was going on here. I felt a profound sense of home, a sense of peace, a sense that this is my community. The kind of people that would be drawn to an event like this represent, to me, the most forward thinking elements of our society.Anything we can do socially, politically, or spiritually to harness that consciousness is a gift to the world.”