Interview – Rev. Susanna Stefanachi Macomb
Rev. L: I am so blessed today to interview World AWAKE's very own Rev. Susanna Stefanachi Macomb. Rev. Susanna lives in New York and is a graduate of both the New Seminary and the All Faiths Seminary International.
Welcome, Rev. Susanna! To begin, could you share a bit about what drew you to ministry?
Rev. S: Thank you, Linda. I am blessed to be interviewed by you, dear Rev. Linda, and to be part of World AWAKE. I often say that I did not choose to be an interfaith minister. It chose me! I was a corporate fashion executive seeking peace. I worked 12-14 hours a day, and often more. There was a lot of stress involved, deadlines upon deadlines-- along with constant crisis management. I made a good salary, traveled the world in luxury. It all seemed very glamorous, and on a certain level it was. At the time, I did enjoy the work. There were creative aspects to it. I worked with talented designers from around the world. However, something was missing. I did not have peace.
I thought to myself: In the midst of this chaos and craziness of my everyday life, there has to be an access to peace---peace in the here and now---not just in on my day off or while on vacation. So, I began meditating. At first, I was not very adept at meditation, but it got to a point that I could not begin my day without it. I woke up early every morning, dressed and meditated before heading off to work. Meditation made my life better. It put me in the harmony of things. I was calmer. As Joseph Campbell said, if you sit alone an hour every day, at first nothing happens, but by God, something will eventually happen.
My inner experiences made me want to learn more. I took classes and workshops in Buddhism, Hinduism, Kabbalah, Sufism etc. My vacations became spiritual retreats, including silent retreats. I read countless spiritual books. There were wonderful teachers along the way. It was a process over many years. I went back to painting, something I had not done in 15 years. People, including colleagues, noticed. They would say, "You seem different. What are you doing?" I would share what I was doing and they wanted me to teach them. I also began doing energy healing sessions---individually and for groups. All this was done on referral. There was no internet or advertising of any sort. I did not even have an email address. (Now, I am dating myself.) Some of my meditation students and energy session clients were training to be interfaith ministers. In my retreats, I would meet mystics, swamis, clergy of different traditions---and they would say to me, "You are going to be doing this work."
I, shaking my head, I would answer, "NOOOOOOO."
I was doing the spiritual work to make my life better, not to heal the world. Nor did I want to change my life. The mystical experiences kicked in in a biblical way, the kind of experiences you read about from the mystics of all the great faith traditions. There so many signs, and yet, I resisted. I was thinking: "Lord, I am not worthy. Please pick someone else." I was afraid of the responsibility. I was afraid how it would change my life. I grew up Catholic. Clergy people were scary people.
I could no longer deal with the corporate environment, so I sold everything I had, including my apartment in the Greenwich Village and began a start-up company. It grew quickly. Once we had enough employees and things stabilized, I began taking one day a week off work to pursue my spiritual and artistic studies. Then, I began taking 2 days a week off work. The more my inner life became luminous, the less I cared about fashion.
So, I sold my company. That bought me time --- true luxury. I began creating art fulltime and exhibiting my work. At one point, I was visited by four archangels---though I did not know who Uriel was or that these angels were associated with the Kabbalah. With me, mystical experience always came first, and information followed. You could say that those visitations were "burning bush" moments --- truly transformation down to a cellular level.
I painted the experience of the four angels. I exhibited them at The New York Open in NYC in a show called Visitation. There was another artist who painted angels. She later came to my studio, gave me her card and it said, Interfaith Minister, on it. She encouraged me to join The New Seminary, where she had studied. Two clients who worked in high finance were coming to me for energy sessions, and they joined The New Seminary to become interfaith ministers. I remember laughing, telling them that I am suddenly meeting interfaith ministers EVERYWHERE. One said to me, "Susanna, Just go talk to the Rabbi!"
That was Rabbi Gelberman, the founder of the first interfaith seminary. He was a former Hasidic rabbi who lost most of his family in the holocaust. So, I met Rebbe. I told him that I had no idea why I was there except that I was following the signs. He asked me to meditate with him, thereby getting me to that place of inner space. Then he said, "Susanna, you need not know why. If it feels right, join. If not, don't. The why will be revealed to you."
That last sentence resonated with me. The semester for that year had already begun, so I told him that I had to wait until the following year. " Sensing my stalling, he said, "We will let you make up those classes."
I joined right there and then. He was right, the "why" would be revealed to me.
For our ordination, which took place at The Cathedral of St John the Divine, I discovered that Rabbi would be singing/invoking the four angels of the Kabbalah in Hebrew. I ran up to him, telling him that I painted them. He asked me to see them, and suggested I bring them to the ordination. There they flanked the great altar. Rabbi had a strong mystical connection to those angels, something we shared over the decades.
Rev. L: Why do you feel you were called to be an Interfaith/Interspiritual minister?
Rev. S: To be a bridge. I was to help people of different religious and cultural differences. As Rabbi would say, "Rejoice in your differences!" My books helped change how interfaith ceremony and ritual are done. In that way, you can say that I have been a pioneer. Over the decades, I have worked with the some of the most religiously conservative people. One Jewish mother of a son who was marrying a Palestinian Muslim woman said to me, "You know why you can do this, Rev. Susanna? You don't take sides. " I responded, "Sylvia, I don't see sides!"
Before I was ordained, people were referring me for ceremonies and services. I would in turn refer these people to my Deans. My classmates encouraged me to say YES! Two days after I was ordained and licensed, I performed my first interfaith, intercultural, international wedding ceremony. I came up with a questionnaire to know who they are, what they believed, what they felt about each other and their families. In this way, we could custom created a ceremony, navigating interfaith and family issues and tell their love story. Goodness, I was crazy nervous. Many said that it was the most beautiful ceremony they had ever attended…unlike anything they had ever seen.
Through word of mouth, one service led to another, weddings, baby blessings, house blessings and funerals. People called me for sick visits, as well. I became a Pastor without walls. One day, there was a magazine editor in the congregation who asked if she could interview me. After that, I was inundated with phones calls from interfaith couples. Other magazines and newspapers began calling me. I remember the NY Times asking me, "What is interfaith? Is it a religion?" Today, I find myself explaining the meaning of the word "interspiritual" to people.
Rev. L: As the Director of Outreach and InterWorship at World AWAKE, what are your goals for 2020? (Specifically, could you share about Interworship?)
Rev. S: My goal is aligned with World AWAKE's goal---that World AWAKE will have thousands of members, reciprocal partners and business affiliates from every religion, belief and background throughout the world working together to bring peace, healing and transformation. It is our hope, prayer and aim to support and promote individuals who work for peace and healing in the best ways know how. We are open. We are listening. We are continually learning and growing.
InterWorship came to me while in Divine Communion. The vision, the concept, the name all came intensely as cosmic fire. Not since the imperative to write my first book did I received such a heavenly mandate. InterWorship is an on-line gathering of the world's various prayer and worship services. As these services are available on-line, they may be viewed anywhere there is internet connection - in the comfort of people's homes, in offices, classrooms and in more remote areas where such services would otherwise not be seen. Equipped with a smart phone, tablet or laptop, a person who is ill or infirm may worship from their bedside. So much fear comes from lack of exposure or knowledge. It is my humble hope that the InterWorship forum will contribute to greater tolerance, respect and understanding in the world.
The InterWorship page is now live and will be officially announced this month!
We have only just begun! It is my goal to have all the world's religions represented as well as interfaith worship congregations. As of now ,we are honored to have two contributors. The Universal Worship that was the inspiration of Hazrat Inayat Khan, a mystic scholar and musician who brought Universal Sufism to the West from India, and The World Yoga Community, an NGO associated with the United Nations Department of Global Communications, founded Dileepkumar Thankappan. Though the term InterWorship is a new term, it seems everyone immediately understands it immediately---which is just marvelous.
I am so very grateful to Rev. Rhonda Schienle, our Board Chair, Mike Schienle, our Websmater and the entire Board of Directors for all their support and enthusiasm in making this vision a reality.
Rev. L: Over the last year, we have shared our experiences. We both have had experiences where the Divine has spoken to and through us. We have heard of "mystical" experiences in the writing of the past, but few people discuss this today. I was hoping you would explain to the readers here what a mystical experience is like.
Rev. S: This past autumn, I spoke publicly about intermysticism for the first time at Pebble Hill Community Church in Doylestown PA. I asked the congregation, "Has anyone here had a mystical experience?" A few raised their hands. I then said, "It changed your life. Didn't it?" They nodded their heads YES with a certain knowing in their eyes.
There are many types of mystical experiences. There is samadhi where one is completely absorbed in Cosmic Consciousness becoming one with all there is. There are visitations with/ by angelic beings, spirit guides and other light beings. There are near death experiences and out of body experiences. There is the "die before death" of which the Sufis speak. Once you have experienced any of these, you know there is more to this life than what you see with your physical eyes and touch with your physical hands. You KNOW this experientially. You have pierced the veil.
Here is how I begin my new book:
"I have been visited by angels, communicated with the dead, soared the heavens, visited planets, met with various light beings, seen my own self shattered into tiny cosmic pieces, sat at the seat of my soul and been one with the Universe, yet I am an ordinary person. Here is the caveat: In each one of our consciousness lies a connection to the cosmos--- no exception. In each and every one of us lies a cosmos waiting to be discovered. Seated at the seat of the soul, we awaken to our innate glory, the Divine, that which exists in each of us and in all creation. When we awaken to who we truly are, life changes. You see everything differently. You see the unseen behind the seen. You have experienced the transcendent. This experience is the oneness of all that is. The unity behind the diversity of being. It is the experience of mystics. Many call it God--- or god consciousness. "
Linda, you are right in that I have rarely spoken about my mystical experiences, not wanting to seem woo-woo or new age. My editor at Simon & Schuster used to say to me, "You know what I like about you, Susanna, you are not woo-woo." (Yet, I was major woo-woo!) I just kept it quiet.
Mysticism IS the origin of ALL the world religions. In the West, in the Abrahamic religions, it was meant for the elite, the sages, the saints, the monks, the holiest of men. More and more people on this planet are waking up to the fact that the deepest wisdom of all mystical paths is available to ANYONE---to anyone who has an open mind and heart and who is willing to do the inner work. The more you flex that spiritual muscle, the stronger it becomes --- through practice, dedication, awareness, kindness.
I wrote this for World AWAKE's website, "When one has a direct experience of the Divine, one's inner life awakens and a personal transformation occurs where love and peace flow out to the world in engaged service. In this holy state, there is a profound knowing that we are all connected, and God by whatever name (or no name) is One."
THIS is an extraordinary shift in consciousness that is growing. More and more people are seeking/wanting the direct experience of the Divine.
Rev. L: What is your favorite part of ministry – the one thing that truly makes your heart sing?
Rev. S: When someone tells me that my work or my books changed their life, that makes my heart sing.
Recently, a Muslim man who married a Catholic woman said to me, "You changed my life. I see everything differently now. " That made my heart sing!
When I help those who struggle with religious beliefs due to culture or upbringing have a more exclusive, expansive view, that makes my heart sing.
When a woman whose suddenly lost her husband of 31 years wrote to me that her grief felt so insurmountable, speaking of the days she thought she was going to spontaneously combust, and then writes that I was instrumental in helping her heal, that makes my heart sing.
When I parents who are on the brink of disowning their children for intermarrying someone of a different religion, culture or skin color come to me, and that situation heals, that makes my heart sing.
When I help families see the beauty of their children's same sex marriage, watching that healing and transformation, that makes my heart sing.
When people who come to me for meditation, experience new dimensions of consciousness that they have not before, witnessing their wonder and exhilaration makes my heart sing.
When people whom I have spiritually mentored and taught to meditate become healers for others, that makes my heart sing.
When I help people discover who they truly are, sit at the seat of their soul, helping them live a life that is more authentically them, that makes my heart sing.
Whenever I facilitate peace and healing, it makes my heart sing.
Rev. L: You have written and published several books. Could you tell us about them and what brought you to writing them?
Rev. S: When I first became a minister, I was doing ceremonies and services via word of mouth, but painting was my focus. One day, I heard a voice, "Stop painting. Write." I inwardly responded. "Write about what?" The voice said, "Write about what you do."
Suddenly, everywhere I went, at the supermarket, at my son's school, at the bus stop or at a party was a publisher or literary agent of some sort. Mind you, this never happened before! When I would tell these publishers or agents about my voice telling me to write a book about interfaith marriage, they all told me they were interested and gave me their business cards. One literary agent gave me a notebook and a book on how to write a book proposal. I wrote about 75 pages and thought to myself: This is hard. This is no fun. I stopped writing--- and continued painting along with ceremonies and services. At this time, my solo exhibition was cancelled.
In another group exhibition, my painting began to "cry". I had put too much clear varnish on it. Signs! I wanted to have a second baby, the voice said, "Book first."
I ignored the voice and got pregnant. It was a cornual pregnancy, rare and dangerous. At four months pregnant, I was rushed to surgery and I almost died. I stopped breathing twice. While in the hospital recovering on morphine, I called out to the Universe, "Okay, I'll write the book!"
I wrote it, and three major publishers bid on the book in a week. There was a great lesson and gift in that tragedy. In that moment, I submitted finally to Divine Will and have ever since. Not out of fear, but out of knowing that the Divine knows what is best for me and all involved.
When the book came out, my ministry took over my life. Bless this Child is a companion book, addressing interfaith and universal spiritual baby blessings and options in raising the children.
Now, I am writing memoir of a lifetime of intermystical experiences. It is my hope that it will inspire others to seek the direct experience of the Divine for themselves--- for both transcendent and practical reasons.
Rev. L: The world is so full of pain, how to you keep your wonderfully infectious, positive attitude day in and day out?
Rev. S: As an empath, I can feel the energy of a person, situation, work of art. So in the words of my Sufi teacher, I purify and revivify in order to better fulfill my mission in the world.
I pray often and meditate daily. Art and beauty bring me back to my soul. No matter how difficult things have gotten in my life, meditation brings me back to Source, to the part of me that is at peace. Decades of spiritual practice has taught me how to shift energy relatively quickly. There was peace, beauty and miracles even through my cancer treatment. Afterwards, when at a Sufi gathering here in NY, (I am also an ordained Sufi cheraga.) the Director of the NY Order said to me, "Susanna, you just had cancer? You are glowing! "
I touched my face and said, "That is because I have been in a meditative state for 4 and ½ months. "
In the midst of sorrow and pain, I choose joy! It is a choice.
Rev. L: Is there any words of advice that you want to share with those who may feel they are also being called to minister – to serve the world in some way?
Rev. S: I would tell them what Rabbi Gelberman said to me, "The path will be revealed to you." The Universe knows their unique gifts. They are being called for a reason. The why and how of their ministry will be revealed to them. The ministry will be revealed in just the way they are needed, all in Divine Accord. Be open. Listen within. I would tell them that my ministry has been the greatest gift to me and my family---and it will be for them as well.
Rev. L: Thank you so much for taking the time to share yourself with our readers. Any last words?
Rev. S: I want to thank you with all of my heart for conducting this interview, Linda, and sharing your gifts with the world. I want to thank our Board Chair, Rev. Rhonda, for asking me to join the Board. When she asked, I was reluctant, but the voice said, "Say Yes." It has been a gift and a blessing to be part of this community.
May God lead and bless us all!