When I was 24 years old, the fabric of my life began to unravel. It was the year the Berlin wall came down, a fitting metaphor for my own collapse. I had fallen in love with a young man from Germany who was working temporarily in New York City. After a short whirlwind romance, and mutual declarations of true love, I made the impulsive decision to move with him to his home in Hamburg. I quit my hard-earned job in the fashion industry, said goodbye to my concerned friends and family, and left behind the comfortable life I had created for myself.
I began to settle into my new life abroad. I was learning to speak German, and had found a job. I made new friends and bonded with my boyfriend’s family. Just as I was starting to feel comfortable and secure in my new surroundings, I was rejected in the most cruel manner. Without warning or explanation, the man that I thought I would marry told me to pack my bags; it was time for me to go home.
Humiliated and betrayed
I was dumbfounded and distraught, and he wouldn’t tell me why he was forcing me to leave. I had just finished wrapping gifts for his family and was preparing to cook for the Christmas Eve celebration we were to attend. He had secretly purchased a one-way ticket to New York in my name, and proceeded to drop me off curbside at the airport in Hamburg the day before Christmas. Some weeks after returning to New York, I learned that his behavior had been motivated by his relationship with a new girlfriend. It was my first major experience of romantic love and rejection. I felt humiliated and betrayed and could hardly eat or sleep.
My father was a devout Catholic and I left New York knowing that he was disappointed with my decision to live with someone outside of marriage. This had put strain on our relationship and when, after nine months in Germany, I returned home to my parent’s house on Christmas Day, it was with equal parts of grief and embarrassment.
I started the slow process of rebuilding my life in New York and began to heal my relationship with my father. We were just beginning to relate to each other as adults when he was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer, with only a few months to live. I became filled with regret over the stress I had caused him and the time we had lost while I was living in Germany. If I had only known that this was to be the last year of my father’s life, I would have made a different choice.
How could this be happening to us?
My dad was loving and kind, a family man, and took pride in creating a secure and happy home for my mother, brother and me — something he never had as a child. We were a “good Catholic family.” We went to church every Sunday and always followed the rules. How could this be happening to us? I thought of my father’s life-long devotion to Jesus and couldn’t help wondering: where was Jesus now? All of the prayers, confessions, and other rituals suddenly seemed ridiculous. I was scared and heartbroken. I knew that I would eventually get over losing my boyfriend, but I didn’t think I would ever get over losing my dad.
In order to help my mother with my father’s care, I began a weekly commute to my parent’s home four hours away. My mother and I became physically and emotionally exhausted by cycles of round-the-clock bedside vigils followed by days of false hope. We watched helplessly as my father, a commercial fisherman, strong and suntanned year-round, turned white and withered away. I couldn’t bear to have it end like this. After the rough period he and I had been through in our relationship, I wanted more time to prove to him that I was responsible and mature.
My brother and I had been lucky. We had two parents who loved us and who, after 27 years of marriage, still deeply loved each other. My father loved children and looked forward to being a grandparent. Life seemed so unfair, a feeling that was confirmed when he died six weeks after the birth of my brother’s son.
I didn’t know where to turn
The stress, grief, and fear that I was feeling manifested physically: I developed asthma and severe eczema. There were days when I felt so heartbroken, I could barely breathe. Trips to the emergency room in the middle of the night for full-blown asthma attacks became routine. My skin looked awful, I had lost quite a bit of weight, and I was embarrassed and self-conscious about the deterioration of my appearance. Waking up in the morning, I would feel overcome with waves of sadness — I was depressed and having a difficult time getting out of bed.
The foundation of my life seemed to be crumbling all around me, and I didn’t know where to turn. I wanted to pray to God, but I was angry and couldn’t think of anything to say: the words seemed so silly and meaningless. I knew that I had to stop the negative thoughts and feelings but I was having a tough time doing so. I felt cynical. My heart had turned to stone.
On one exceptionally difficult morning, as the idea of prayer was replaced with yet another negative thought, I suddenly heard, as clear as day, a quiet voice within whisper, “Just say I love you.” I silently started to repeat, “I love you, God,” and found that it helped me get out of bed. During my 20-minute subway ride to work, I repeated, “I love you, I love you, I love you,” until I arrived at my desk. Once I got to work, my mind became filled with the details of my job, a welcome relief from my usual mental storm. When it was time to leave at the end of the day, I started to repeat, “I love you, God,” and continued all the way home and until I went to bed that evening.
A practice that became my life raft
“I love you, God” became my commute mantra. In the beginning, I wasn’t feeling any love, but this practice became my life raft. It occupied the space in my mind which otherwise would have been filled with pessimism and toxicity.
After two weeks of this practice, I began to look forward to my daily commute. I noticed that I didn’t feel as sad or lonely, and that it was much easier to get up in the morning. I felt as though someone had opened the curtain in a dark room, just enough to let in a little sliver of sunlight. By the third week, I started to have glimpses of hope, the sense that no matter what happened, I was going to be all right. My skin was beginning to clear up and I wasn’t using my inhaler as much. I felt optimistic and more in control of my emotions.
A profound experience
Sometime after the fourth week, as I climbed the stairs out of the subway station and repeated “I love you, God,” as I had been doing every morning for over a month, I felt God love me back. It’s hard to put it into words:I felt joy pierce my heart and permeate my consciousness, the joy of God’s love for me. It was a love and joy so great that my body couldn’t contain it. I realized that I was crying and shaking, and there were tears streaming down my face. But for the first time in months I wasn’t crying tears of grief; I was crying tears of joy. The heavy curtain of my delusions had been shredded and torn wide open.
If I had been anywhere but on a sidewalk in New York City, anonymous among the thronged masses, onlookers would have thought I had lost my mind and called for help. But there I was just another speck of humanity, unnoticed and left alone on the corner of 39th street and 6th Avenue, having a divine experience that profoundly changed my life.
In that moment I knew how to pray again, I knew what to ask of God. I knew that the only prayer that mattered was that God teach me to love Him more perfectly. From that moment on, calmness descended upon me, and I knew that every minute of my life had unfolded perfectly; there was no reason to feel sorrow, guilt or regret. A great weight lifted and a new and a beautiful relationship with God was formed. The formal, distant God of my childhood was replaced by a loving Friend — formless, genderless, alive and beating in my very own heart, waiting for me to turn my attention inwards to receive unconditional love.
A prayer for a spiritual guide
It was that prayer, the request that God show me the way to love him more perfectly, which led me to ask for a teacher or spiritual guide who could help me. The answer came about two years later when I moved from New York City to San Francisco, and a health practitioner gave me his old tattered copy of Autobiography of a Yogi, by Paramhansa Yogananda.
Some years later, when I began to go deeper into Yogananda’s teachings, I read about the practice of japa, the devotional repetition of God’s name. I immediately recalled a moment from my childhood when a chance encounter with a Hare Krishna group travelling through our town moved me to tears. I was only 6 or 7 years old and I didn’t understand why I was so touched by their singing. Now I realized that their practice of chanting Krishna’s name and my own experience of repeating, “I love you God” in New York City were one and the same.
I was reminded of this again recently when I came across this quote from Yogananda: “No matter what you may be doing, you are always free to whisper your love to God, until you consciously receive his response. This is the surest way to contact him in the mad rush of present day life.”
I received this sage advice and the mantra, “I love you, God,” through divine inspiration during the most difficult time of my life. “I love you God” has remained my mantra all these years. It is pure, simple and sweet, and as Yogananda said, it is the surest way to contact God in the mad rush of present day life!