December 20, 2013

A Sexless Honeymoon? Saffron Cross: An Interfaith Marriage Story. {Book Review}

Spiritual growth happens when we challenge ourselves to sincere dialogue with someone for whom God looks very different.” 

Rev. J. Dana Trent

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 entirely to marry that person!

Yet Dana Trent and her spouse Fred, also known as Gauravani das, do exactly this: they marry each other despite the fact that they come 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 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.

With Dana’s Indiana Southern Baptist background making her feel like a spinster in her early thirties, and Fred, originally an American convert to his Hindu faith and coming fresh out of a one and a half year’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.

Of course, Dana and Fred are drawn to each other for more than that: 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 degree in Divinity 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. Later she attributes what she considers Fred’s advanced insights to the rigorous philosophical teachings Fred received from his guru, Swami B.V. Tripurari. However, Dana had a hard time adjusting to Fred’s intense and 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.”

Pictured is Dana with her husband

Ironically enough, as the book progresses, we learn that it is ultimately because of their religious differences, as well as the guidance Fred received from his guru, that the author finds her exchanges with Fred spiritually meaningful.

Fred pleasantly challenges Dana to explore and articulate her beliefs in newer, deeper ways.

These ways often bring Dana to admit to herself that she had become rather apathetic to her own spiritual growth. But as Fred tries to move Dana into a more dynamic religious practice, does it have a wearing effect on their union?

Dana Trent begins her memoirs with an open and honest announcement: “I didn’t have sex on my honeymoon”.

There is almost an audible subtext that reads: “Can you believe that?” as she then describes to the reader the way she landed in a holy village in India for a rather austere, culture shock of a honeymoon. It seems a Christian’s holy land was missing from their interfaith marriage travel itinerary.

Around 43% of all marriages in the U.S. are between people of different faiths, and statistics show that they are mostly rocky. For those that survive, studies show that inevitably one of the spouses converts to the religion of the other, or both spouses identify very little with their religious practice.

The author, with her idealistic idea of marriage, sets out to do just the opposite: to preserve and deepen each other’s individual faith through worshiping together.

To not worship together, in her husband’s words, would be like “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. But this turns out to be more complicated than they had anticipated.

Dana Trent Author of Saffron Cross

For the author, preserving the ideal of an interfaith marriage translates into Dana making many compromises, as her Hindu husband makes clear to her—sometimes in ways that cause Dana to feel very inadequate, especially while at his Guru’s—that her lifestyle 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 em stay in this shape forever. he wanted me to grow, and that may have been the reason he introduced me to the Hindus.”

That’s when Dana—somewhat resentfully at first—attempts to give up watching television, eating meat, and any expectations she previously had 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. And although 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 eventually become the one straw that breaks the camel’s back. Dana’s enamored and idealistic heart, however, shines forth 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.”

Well, 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.

Part of Fred’s attempts to make Dana more “Christlike” include inundating her with books on Christian saints and mystics in lieu of gifts of “jewelry, cashmere, perfume, flowers or chocolates for Christmas and birthdays.” However, the author says she finds all of Fred’s unique gifts “romantic” once she lets go of her initial experience of bitterness toward them.

A consistent theme in the book seems to be this: Dana setting aside resentment to meet her husband’s spiritual ideals and expectations. Here’s when one feels like insisting that Fred offer a little jewelry or flowers to his wife alongside the books on St. Frances, as it might create a sweeter balance between them.

Saffron Cross appears to not only offer a peek into the struggles between an interfaith couple, but also those of a wife whose husband’s heart is trying to learn to let go of monkhood.

It’s often in Dana’s honest and innocent sulkiness that she endears herself to her readers: “I don’t know any other wives who would vacation at a remote monastery when they could be lounging on the beach.”

Typical of this genre, the author leaves us with vulnerable vistas of her struggles, her self-doubts, and her disappointments in not getting all of her emotional needs met by her monk-like spouse.

Although Dana bites her bottom lip in earnest efforts to live up to her husband’s expectations, one can’t help but notice that her apparently sluggish ability to grasp the philosophical and theological reasons fueling Fred’s lifestyle exasperate him a tad. And understandably so, particularly when the author exposes her frivolous relationship to eating cheeseburgers with apparent insensitivity to Fred’s deep love of cows, which she herself observes: “…his favorite time was spent with the cows, lovingly scooping their excrement, feeding them alfalfa snacks and scratching their necks.”

Dana calls Fred “forgiving” every time she confesses to him that she slipped in another beef meal, as she did with her bridesmaids the day before their wedding!

Should the couple decide to have children, one wonders if Fred would be as 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, though side by side, independently of each other, in their own very unique ways.

The picture the author consistently paints is not so much one of an intimate partnership, but that of a lonely series of disappointments on both sides, which causes Dana to feel insecure about Fred’s fidelity to marriage itself, as she asks herself if returning to the life of a monk would be easier for Fred.

While visiting the intimidating Northern California spiritual community of her husband’s guru, Dana wonders: “if Fred would swap his wedding ring for a saffron robe at the first sight of the temple.”

Swami B.V Tripurari’s Spiritual Community

Perhaps the first time the reader is given a little clue as to the ethos of the whole book is found in the book’s title itself: Saffron Cross. The author uses the word saffron, the color of a celibate and renounced monk’s robes, which, in effect, colors or describes the Cross. This is telling, since the author’s perception of her own tradition is heavily altered by her husband’s expectations of renunciation or 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 tradition, 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! ( click here for book) But 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.”


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Editor: Bryonie Wise


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