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WHEN STAUNCH CATHOLICS MET SATHYA SAI…
An interview with Dr. Christian Moevs, Part 1
By Mrs. Varsha Jonnalagadda
Beaumont, Texas


Dr. Christian Moevs teaches Italian Literature at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, USA. He obtained an undergraduate degree in Philosophy from Harvard and a Ph. D in Italian Literature from Columbia University. At 49, he is a devout Roman Catholic and an ardent devotee of Bhagavan Sri Sathya Sai Baba (Swami). When we met him in 1999, he not only read and served at Mass on Sunday but also taught the young adult Bal Vikas class in Granger, Indiana.

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Swami and Me Dr. Moevs
 
Dr. Christian Moevs

This seeming contradiction of faith has been the subject of curiosity for both the Catholics and Hindus known to him. Dr. Christian had such a profound influence on our children that I interviewed him to learn more about his experience with his religious beliefs in general, and Swami, in particular. Little did I realise that this journalism assignment that I had to complete for a college course would change the course of my husband’s life and mine – forever. I also learnt later that this was Swami’s way of executing His will.

With His strong emphasis (among other things) on both the universality of all religions and Educare through Human Values (EHV) teachings, Swami is considered the most fascinating and enigmatic spiritual teacher of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Christian is a soft spoken, unassuming and friendly person and has been recently recognised for his exemplary contribution to Italian literature. His book titled “The Metaphysics of Dante's Comedy” (Oxford, 2005) was awarded the 2006 Best Book Prize from the American Association for Italian Studies and the Marraro Prize from the Modern Language Association.

Here are some excerpts from my interview with Dr. Christian.

Question: Can you tell me a little about your family background?

Answer: I was born in Boston and grew up there till I was five years old. Then I spent a year in Italy and returned to the US. I grew up in a farmhouse near Princeton, New Jersey. I went to College at Harvard and majored in Philosophy. After graduation I lived in New York for quite a few years. I parked cars, and then worked for a music management company. I went to Italy for two years, and wrote poetry. Then I returned to the US with intentions to pursue Graduate studies in Philosophy or English literature. Somebody suggested Italian literature and that seemed to be obviously right. So I did a Ph. D in Italian literature at Columbia. Soon, I was hired by the University of Notre Dame.

Question: How did a Catholic Professor of Italian literature start teaching Hindu classes!

Swami and Me Dr. Moevs
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University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Indiana
 

Answer: I was a Catholic and Christian in my upbringing. I am Catholic in my own tradition and was rather intensely involved with that when I was younger - but more as a kind of cultural or aesthetic attraction because I never really believed in Christ as God. I realise now that I didn’t believe in miracles. I thought that all that was emblematic and not real.

I did not have any real relationship with anything one could call ‘God’. But I had a very intense attraction to beauty and would cry a lot at the experience of anything beautiful. I didn’t realise at that time that ‘God is Beauty’. Even as a child I had these strange fits. I remember one time when my sister plucked a flower and the tragedy of the suffering of this flower made me cry for three hours!

Question: Isn‘t that rather unusual?

Answer: (laughs) Yes, it was unusual. But things like that would happen a lot. I was going between desire, frustration and rebellion on the one hand, and the compassion and love I would experience every once in a while, on the other. Living in New York, I was looking for bliss everywhere in all the wrong places. That was essential at the time: to lead a wild secular life in order to see what that is, and what that does not bring. In the middle of all this, it was around 1985 that my sister invited me to dinner. She has always led an intensely spiritual life. At her house there was a picture of Sathya Sai Baba about whom I had never heard before and knew nothing. I asked my sister about Him and she told me that He is someone who has infinite power over the sky and the earth - someone who can create anything out of thin air. And I thought “Yeah, right”. I certainly did not believe it.

But I was curious, so my sister gave me a book about Baba to read. As I reached the third page of the book, I started crying because I realised that this was real. There was a kind of ineffable beauty, truth and sweetness in this book, which is a mark of the Divine. Right at that moment, I was hooked forever to the Divine. But it was a very long process to change my life.

Question: How did your life change?

 

My own way of life was against everything that Baba teaches (laughs). I was breaking every one of Baba’s rules. But that is how Baba works! It’s not so much from trying to suppress and change the ‘bad’ in you, it’s more falling so deeply in love with the ‘good’ that eventually the ‘bad’ disappears. And that is what the transformation is - the ‘good’, the ‘right’ takes over more and more of your life. Till all of a sudden you realise that ‘darkness’ has no more power on you.

Answer: My own way of life was against everything that Baba teaches (laughs). I was breaking every one of Baba’s rules. But that is how Baba works! It’s not so much from trying to suppress and change the ‘bad’ in you, it’s more falling so deeply in love with the ‘good’ that eventually the ‘bad’ disappears. And that is what the transformation is - the ‘good’, the ‘right’ takes over more and more of your life.

Till all of a sudden you realise that ‘darkness’ has no more power on you. So it was a gradual process. At the beginning, all I did was read about Baba and His talks, and this intense joy and peace would come over me - that became the anchor of my life. Then, very gradually, I began to meditate a little bit looking at a picture of Baba.

The changes began to happen really only in 1987. I was starting Columbia (for Ph. D) the same year, and at that time a friend and I tracked down a Baba Centre in New York, and we went to a meeting at this Centre. My friend was not turned on by it. I felt something there and started visiting there twice a week for doing bhajans (devotional singing). And that is what really transformed my life. I did not realise it at that time.

I was totally frazzled in all sorts of worldly concerns. I would go to bhajans and it would completely transform me. I would come out in a state of bliss. There was this place, in particular - it was an apartment on W.83 rd Street and Broadway in New York. As you walked in, by the time you got to the second floor, you could feel the divinity and the sacredness of this place. The lady, who lived there, had made Baba the centre of her life some years ago when her life had gone through a huge tragedy. She lived, breathed and thought Baba. There were pictures of Baba everywhere in her apartment. All the pictures in the house were covered with ‘Vibuthi’ (Sacred Ash). You cannot go into an environment like that once a week for five years and be the same human being afterwards.

Question: Did you ever meet Baba?

Answer: I had no intentions and no desire to go to India and meet Baba. Everyone would talk about going to ‘retreats’, I did not feel ‘called’ to do that. But I guess it was 1990 when I was sent to Italy on a fellowship and I lived in Rome. I got deeply involved in the Sai Baba Centre in Rome. It was a different cultural take on Baba. The intensity and purity of their devotion, the power of their bhajans, and the seriousness and sacredness of how they focused on Baba was a giant inspiration. They were organising a trip to go meet Baba and I realised that I would be going. It was not a decision. I simply realised that I would be going. It all unfolded in a very magical way.

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Swami and Me Dr. Moevs

In January 1991, two groups - one big and one small – left to Puttaparthi. Everybody wanted to go in the big group because the lady, who was leading the group, had had 50 or 60 interviews with Baba. I was in the small group. I was pulled out of the big group by the travel agent and put into the small group led by a wonderful lady who later became my spiritual godmother. That is how Baba works. Everyone in that group was picked by Baba to teach spiritual lessons to everybody else in the group.

At Puttaparthi, I was in a room with four other young men. One of them had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. There was another young man named Gianpaolo who was exactly my age and who never spoke. He had been to visit Baba three or four times earlier. He had this intense purity and stillness. I just followed him and did everything that he did; I was his shadow. Getting up at 3:00 a.m. for meditation, going to sit on the verandah where Baba walks - anything he did, I followed.

What happened during the course of this trip was the turning point of my life. On January 16, Baba called us for an interview - our group, not the big group (laughs). Baba called us right over the heads of the big group who were seated in the front because they were to leave before we were. There was never really any harmony in that group, and there again, are all these lessons. Baba always uses us that way. Baba just focused some intense energy on me and… [overcome by emotion] changed my life forever. It is amazing that in the space of 10 minutes on January 16 at 7:12 in the morning I came out a different human being. There is no explanation except for the overwhelming power of the transcendent, of divine love. Every single person in that group was permanently changed to an extraordinary degree.

Carmelo, who had just found out that his wife was dying of cancer, did not really ‘believe’ in Baba. The interview changed his life. Baba turned to him, did not ask him anything and with great gentleness told him: ”No, no operation - she is in My hands”. Carmelo started crying. Then Baba turned to the boy with multiple sclerosis. There was a doctor in our group who was dressed like everyone else. Baba asked the doctor, “What is wrong with the boy?” It was His way of letting the doctor know that He knew him. The doctor said, “He has multiple sclerosis, Baba”. “Yes, yes. He hasn’t walked in seven years,” Baba said. The boy had indeed suffered that condition for seven years. Baba then asked the boy to stand up, and He massaged his side and led him out of the room. The boy just walked out of the room! We all realised that the physical healing was an emblem of ‘inner healing’. Baba is the doctor and He works on our insides. The doctor became a very changed person when I met him the next year. He looked radiant and told me the secret: “Everyday do one thing only for Baba”. The doctor would go to the mountains once every day and give free medical aid to the poor.

Question: All these people you are talking about are not Hindus…?

Answer: Yes, they were all Italians. All of them were Catholics. There was not one Hindu in that whole group.

Question: What was the driving force for these people? Rome is considered the centre for Catholicism. Then, how did these people…?

Answer: Well, Italy has a very strong spiritual tradition, and so it has a kind of ‘openness’ to spirituality. Baba is very well known in Italy. Often in Puttaparthi one may find the second largest group of devotees after Indians to be the Italians.

Question: Did you find any opposition from the Catholics in Italy?

People who do not understand and who have not ‘grown’ in their own spiritual tradition will sometimes think that there is a tension or opposition between the two traditions. But that is just being young in your spiritual growth or ‘adolescence’. But as you ‘grow’ you begin to see things much more deeply. In so far as people in the Catholic Church are concerned, they might say that we have only one way to God and everyone else goes to hell - well, that is not actually Catholic at all. But it is the way things are sometimes interpreted. For, anyone who has had the direct experience of God, one who has tasted the ‘sugar’, he/she has no interest in what form it comes.

 

Answer: Absolutely not.

Question: Were/Are they confused by your actions?

Answer: People who do not understand and who have not ‘grown’ in their own spiritual tradition will sometimes think that there is a tension or opposition between the two traditions. But that is just being young in your spiritual growth or ‘adolescence’. But as you ‘grow’ you begin to see things much more deeply.

In so far as people in the Catholic Church are concerned, they might say that we have only one way to God and everyone else goes to hell - well, that is not actually Catholic at all. But it is the way things are sometimes interpreted. For, anyone who has had the direct experience of God, one who has tasted the ‘sugar’, he/she has no interest in what form it comes.

Question: Does Baba ask you about your own religious beliefs?

Answer: Oh, but there is only one religion - the religion of love. Baba teaches that everyone must follow their own religious path. They all lead to the same place. But do it with absolute intensity and follow it all the way. They will all merge in the same place. Baba says, “Let all the religions flourish as long as they do not extinguish the flame of unity.” Baba also gave a profound message on another occasion. He said, “It is an excellent thing to be born into a religion, but not so good to die in one”.

If you think you are dying a Jew or dying a Hindu and not dying in God, it means you have not reached the goal towards which all religions are leading. All those Italians going to Baba - almost all of them - went to Church too. And I did the same.

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Swami and Me Dr. Moevs
The Basilica of the Sacred Heart, Indiana
 
The Interior of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart

At Notre Dame, I am a Eucharistic minister, an acolyte, and a lector at the Basilica. And it is very powerful for me, now that I have some sense of devotion and the reality of Christ that I never had before. I can honestly say that I am a Christian because of Baba. I now believe everything the New Testament says about Christ, and I have seen with my own eyes Baba heal people. Baba teaches us to have a sense of reverence for every spiritual tradition.

After I came back from that visit I began telling everyone about Baba. I had never experienced such happiness. One of Baba’s teachings is that one of the direct paths to God is to “serve God” in others, that means service to humanity. In Rome, Baba’s devotees were going to Mother Teresa’s Sisters of Charity shelter near the Vatican. I did the same. The experience was so sublime. They would serve on white floors, white tables, white linen, shining crystal, silverware - everything polished by hand and set down perfectly as if Christ was coming to eat.

That is how they served every single person who came to them. Everything was served with discipline, joy and silence - just as they do near Baba. This was a huge turning point in my attitude towards Catholicism. I had to go all the way to India to get slapped personally in the face by Baba in order to come back and do what my fellow Catholics had been doing for years! It was such a turnaround! I felt a deep sense of gratitude and devotion to the Church.

Question: To a person not familiar with Sai Baba, how would you introduce or explain Baba?

Sai Baba is a mirror. He reflects us to ourselves. A thief will see a thief. A spiritual aspirant will see a holy teacher and a saint will see God. To most people, Rama is just another King; to those who can see what Rama is - Rama is the avatar. To know Christ is to completely sacrifice and surrender yourself to the Divine. Understanding comes when you shut your mouth and start serving, begin loving and growing in self-sacrifice. Mother Teresa is an example.

 

Answer: Sai Baba is a mirror. He reflects us to ourselves. A thief will see a thief. A spiritual aspirant will see a holy teacher and a saint will see God. To most people, Rama is just another King; to those who can see what Rama is - Rama is the avatar.

To know Christ is to completely sacrifice and surrender yourself to the Divine. Understanding comes when you shut your mouth and start serving, begin loving and growing in self-sacrifice. Mother Teresa is an example.

Question: Do you need to keep in touch with Baba?

Answer: Initially yes, but not anymore. When I began to really go inside myself, I realised what Baba said - that He is with me all the time.

Question: What was the reaction of your family?

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Swami and Me Dr. Moevs

Answer: My sister has had a very intense spiritual experience of Baba. At one time when she was anorexic and suicidal, she read a book about Baba. She began to have dreams about being at the ashram where Baba lives and being held and healed by Him. She realised the dreams were set in the ashram, when after being healed this way, she visited the ashram.

She recognised the various rooms, including the interview room, because she had already ’been’ there. It was a bit of a trauma for my mother who said “what is all this; I will never set foot in that country”. She is a strict Catholic and believes in ritual, but she had not had direct experience of the divine. But my parents were full of wisdom and love, so their resistance did not last very long.

Through my transformation they began to understand what Baba was. I was in New York, and one day I stood in front of Baba’s picture and said, “Baba please give my mother some taste of who you are”. Two weeks later, when I visited my parents, my mother told this story. She had been going through a mental trauma and could not sleep. While pacing around the house she reached my room and saw Baba’s picture.

She stood in front of it and said, “Baba, if You are who You are, You must help me”. And at that instant something happened. All her worries dissolved and she felt great peace. The next day, her problem was resolved, through an inexplicable miracle, with touches no ordinary being could have thought of. My mother said that only the Divine could have done that. She later visited Puttaparthi to “thank Baba”.

(to be continued....)


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Vol 6 Issue 10 - OCTOBER 2008
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