Long Way Around

from Cate Taylor

The first time I looked into Paramhansa Yogananda’s eyes, I was nine years old. It was “only” a photograph, but I felt as if he were standing in front of me, arms raised in blessing.

My parents had brought me for the first time to the Ananda temple in Palo Alto, which is not far from where we lived. Before that we had gone to a Catholic church, which I never enjoyed. I had a natural connection with God. When I was a small child, my mother says, I used to sit out in the backyard with our pets and sing little prayers I made up myself. I felt God’s love and joy out in Nature, not sitting in a pew in the middle of an enormous building. Nothing about that church made me feel close to Him.

The Ananda temple at that time was still a “storefront church,” operating out of rented rooms in an office building. I found this a little strange. Both my parents worked in offices, so I thought of them as places of business, not a place for God. But I was open to letting things unfold. For the first part of the service I wasn’t with my parents in the sanctuary, but in a nearby children’s room. The family across the street had introduced us to Ananda, and both those children were there. So I was welcomed by friends.

The adult in charge settled us in front of the altar and began to tell us about the pictures of the Masters there. I was attracted to all of them, but Yogananda mesmerized me. Looking into his eyes, I felt I was in the presence of God.

When it was time to go into the sanctuary to receive an individual blessing as part of the Festival of Light, I followed the other children without any idea where we were going or why. When I stepped into the sanctuary, I felt bathed in warmth and joy. The lights were dim. There were music and candles everywhere; and on the altar, the same picture of Master.

As I walked down the aisle I remember feeling happier than I had ever felt in my life. I folded my hands together as I had been taught to do for my first Catholic Communion. Then I noticed that others had their palms up and their arms extended. When I was blessed, I assumed that pose and felt for the first time that I had a way to channel my devotion and receive God.

It is interesting that, many years later when I told this story to Asha, she said, “I remember.” For as long as my family has attended the Palo Alto Temple, Asha has been a Lightbearer there. “I don’t know if it was that day, or soon after, but I remember you at that age and the look in your eyes when you would come up for the blessing. The soul is ageless, of course, but most children don’t connect as deeply as you did. I’ve kept my eye on you ever since, praying that you could fulfill in your adult life the spiritual promise I saw when you were nine.”

My mother had given me a book called Sixty Saints for Girls. I especially liked St. Catherine of Siena because we share the same name. She had her first vision of Jesus when she was just five or six years old. I read and reread that book. I loved the heroism of the saints, and the way so many had to fight for their beliefs and the right to live as they felt guided by God.

I knew Master was my Guru and Ananda was my home. But when I entered my teen years, and was able go out on my own and exert my own will, I became stubbornly determined to go in exactly the opposite direction from those saints I admired. To this day, I don’t know why. Apparently there was some karma that had to be worked out.

I always kept Master’s picture with me, even as I partied, had boyfriends, and worked hard to be a success in the world. I went to college, but when there was some mix-up with my credits and I wasn’t able to finish on time, I quit one class short of graduation.

Still, I was able to land a series of pretty good jobs, and to excel at all of them. My bosses liked me and rewarded me with responsibility and opportunity. Nonetheless, happiness eluded me. Nothing brought the satisfaction I hoped for.

When the contradiction between my inner longing and my outer life was more than I could bear, I abused both food and alcohol. By the grace of God I never did anything terrible or got addicted to anything unwholesome. I played the game of worldly success as well as I could, but it became increasingly more difficult to hide my unhappiness.

Finally, I was so depressed that I couldn’t get out of bed for three days. Over and over I prayed to Master, “You have to help me.” Lying in bed for those three days, I finally and fully surrendered.

My coworkers, alarmed when I didn’t show up, called my parents, and they came immediately to where I was living.

In the past I had rejected all attempts on their part to help me straighten out my life. This time I accepted and went home with them. I left behind pretty much everything, except my dog, my clothes, and my pictures of Master. Home also meant Ananda.

My parents are also committed to Master; and through these years, whenever I came to see them, we would go to Sunday service together. Asha always expressed warm interest in how my life was going—now I understand why. Sometimes she would mention Ananda Village. “I think you would like it,” she would say. But in all those years I could never see myself there.

So I moved in with my parents, and started doing yoga and taking classes at Ananda. Trying to find my way.

Shortly after I returned home, we were at the temple and I happened to see a flyer about a summer program at Ananda Village called Living with Spirit. It was for people “under thirty.” At that time I had no Ananda friends of my own. I just knew the people my parents knew, who were mostly their demographic, not mine. Living with Spirit started in two weeks, and when the day came I was there. I met young people like me who had felt the call of God—and responded. I had found my family.

My mother was determined that I should finish college. Even if I never used the degree, she insisted, it wasn’t good for me to quit, especially when I was so close to graduating.

When we brought Asha into the discussion, she was more interested in getting me back to Ananda Village. But she finally said, “You are only one class short. Your parents have been generous and supportive all your life. Even if you don’t feel like it, do it for them.” Then she added, “Perhaps you can both live at the Village and finish your degree.”

I was comfortable in my parents’ house, so I started looking into getting that final class done at some college nearby. As it turned out, the one class I needed to get my degree was only offered at one school in all of Northern California. That school was in Sacramento: too far from my parents’ house to commute to, but quite doable from Ananda Village.

So I moved to the Village, took the class, got my degree, and, twenty years after I met my Guru, came home to him.