A Sexless Honeymoon?
It is one thing to enter into a friendly conversation with someone whose spiritual path is very different than your own. But it’s quite another thing to marry that person!
Yet Rev. Dana Trent and her spouse Fred, also known as Gauravani das, do exactly this: they marry each other despite coming from two entirely different religious traditions. Trent’s new book, Saffron Cross: The Unlikely Story of How A Christian Minister Married a Hindu Monk, gives the reader an intimate and honest account of the challenging journey that ensued.
The couple first meets online, as do more than one third of American married couples today.
Along with the exploding popularity of social media naturally comes a greater sense of a global community that builds bridges between those of different faiths. Dana and Fred are no exception.
Dana’s Indiana Southern Baptist background is making her feel like a spinster in her early thirties, and Fred, an American convert to a Hindu faith, is fresh out of a year and a half’s sojourn as an orthodox Hindu monk, a life for which he felt unsuited. The two warm up to entertaining a nuptial union with each other despite their religious differences.
There is instant chemistry, flowing conversation, hearts that echo some similar values and an unexpected and mutual nourishing of one another’s faith in God.
Despite earning a masters of divinity degree from Duke Divinity School, Dana writes that during their first few dates she finds Fred’s theological insights more intense and fascinating than anything she’d encountered before. She attributes his insights to the rigorous philosophical teachings of his guru, Swami B.V. Tripurari. However, she has a hard time adjusting to Fred’s intense, strict relationship with his guru:
“I felt pain in what I perceived as Swami occupying a role that should have only been reserved for me. I felt Swami had Fred’s ear, his attention, and his heart, and that Fred had exchanged a cloistered life for a marriage of tension.”
Ironically enough, as the book progresses, we learn that it is ultimately because of their religious differences, as well as the guidance from Fred’s guru, that Dana finds her exchanges with Fred spiritually meaningful. He challenges her to explore and articulate her beliefs in newer, deeper ways. These ways often bring her to admit that she had become rather apathetic to her own spiritual growth. But will seeking a more dynamic religious practice have a wearing effect on their union?
Dana Trent begins her memoir with an open and honest announcement: “I didn’t have sex on my honeymoon.” An audible subtext follows: “Can you believe that?” She goes on to describe the way she landed in a holy village in India for an austere, culture-shock of a honeymoon. (Christian holy land was missing, it seems, from their interfaith marriage travel itinerary.)
Clearly, entering into wedlock with a person from a different religion and culture is a tough assignment, particularly when it comes to practice and worship. The author, though, with her idealistic idea of marriage, sets out to turn that judgment upside down: to preserve and deepen each other’s individual faith through worshiping together.
Not to do so, in her husband’s words, would be “admitting to God, to each other, to our friends and family that this was all a hoax and that there is no such thing as interfaith marriage.” That’s when Dana and Fred make what they call their golden rule: to always worship together no matter what. That turns out to be complicated.
For Dana, preserving the ideal of an interfaith marriage translates into making many compromises, as her husband makes clear – sometimes in ways that cause her to feel inadequate – that she requires an entire spiritual makeover.
“Deep in my heart, I realized Jesus loved little sluggy me, and he loved me so much that he wouldn’t let me stay in this shape forever. He wanted me to grow, and that may have been the reason he introduced me to the Hindus.”
She attempts to give up watching television, eating meat, and any expectations of receiving romantic gifts from her husband. And although we read about Dana making sacrifice after sacrifice for her marriage – including her dream-honeymoon of daiquiris on the beach and lovemaking – the reader is never quite sure exactly what her husband has sacrificed for their marriage.
This is when one might begin to wonder if Dana has given in to playing the role of the obedient and submissive woman that stereotypically accompanies images of both Southern Baptist and Hindu wives. While the author refers to her husband’s painful habit of pointing out her shortcomings as his “one tragic flaw,” the reader hopes it doesn’t become the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Dana’s enamored and idealistic heart, however, shines with optimism: “Soulmates are the partners and friends who show us who we really are. They hold mirrors to our hearts, reflecting what makes us real and lovable, while also shedding light on the bruised and calloused spots that need work.”
Dana’s Hindu husband not only thinks that she needs work, but that her Christian congregation and their entire understanding of Jesus need work! “Fred loves the real Jesus” the author writes, “…he just can’t figure out why many Christians don’t act like him,” including his new, Christian minister wife.
Saffron Cross not only offers a peek into the struggles of an interfaith couple, but also those of a wife whose husband’s heart is trying to learn to let go of monkhood.
Should the couple decide to have children, one wonders if Fred would be tolerant of Dana if she sneaks their children to McDonalds, something an orthodox Hindu’s ethics on non-violence (ahimsa) would find entirely objectionable, not to mention her husband’s particular sect which revolves entirely around a vision of God himself as a cow-loving boy!
Such divergent views between Dana and Fred painfully highlight the very different religious cultures from which they come: cultures that also seem to have very different views of love. And while Dana writes: “For all this marriage’s frustration, it was teaching us both how to better fulfill the greatest commandment: loving God,” the reader is left with a picture of each of them loving God, side by side, independently of each other, in their own very unique ways.
The reader is given a little clue as to the ethos of the whole book in the book’s title itself: Saffron Cross. The author uses the word saffron, the color of a celibate and renounced monk’s robes, to color and describe the Cross. This is telling, since the author’s perception of her own tradition is heavily altered by her husband’s expectations of renunciation and strict practices. The title hardly symbolizes her husband’s half of their marital union, as the color saffron itself hardly represents the Hindu faith with which Fred identifies.
Struggles and all, saffron or not, Dana’s memoirs are an eventful, honest, endearing portrait of a young woman’s journey into her new marriage, her religious identity, and her relationship with herself.
But most of all, Saffron Cross invites us to reflect upon what it takes for love to thrive in an interfaith marriage, and one brave and devoted couple’s commitment to showing how the love between a husband and wife has an amazing potential to deepen love of God.
Will Fred find new models for his married life other than the lives of saffron-clad monks? Will Dana become the kind of ideal Christian Fred wants her to be? Will Dana’s dark nights fuel her love for Jesus without causing her to resent Fred’s strict Hindu standards and expectations? And, coming full circle, does Dana ever get the honeymoon of her dreams, sex and all? You’ll just have to buy the book to find out!
In her memoirs Dana is ever optimistic: “When we agree to clothe ourselves in love and meet in that common space where God is at the center, we know we will succeed.”
An earlier version of this article was published by Elephant Journal, December 20, 2013.