My story begins with my birth. I was born on August 11th, the day of the death of Saint Clare, to a woman bearing the name of Clare’s younger sister, Saint Agnes. Apparently, I was born to be a Franciscan!! According to my mother, I instinctively served others – clearing tables, helping fellow pupils at school, and so on. My father was in the Royal Air Force and I travelled between Scotland a Germany a few times before I was 10 years old.
In my early years, I was nominally a member of the Church of Scotland, but my parents were not church goers. I always knew I was different, but it was not really until my early teens that I had the word for it – gay. As I explore my internal world, I must have inadvertently released something, and the creeper of faith began to grow alongside my deepening understanding of who I was in my core. I began to explore my faith too and fell into a house church. My sexual explorations were put on hold and it wasn’t until I went to university in 1984 that I lost my virginity, and my spiritual explorations went on hold.
I dropped out of university in May 1985 and moved to London to be with my boyfriend. After two short, intense months, he dumped me to go back to his “ex”. I moved in with some other students I had met previously, and we squatted in Brixton with a couple of drug dealers.
I became involved with the anti-Apartheid movement and was part of the Non-Stop Picket of South Africa House in Trafalgar Square to seek the release from prison of Nelson Mandela. I was arrested on numerous occasions over three and a half months, and still carry scars inflicted by the Metropolitan police.
On a Sunday afternoon that August, my 19th birthday, a friend took me to a place where lunch was free and nutritious. We walked up from Trafalgar Square, through Leicester Square and along Greek Street to Soho Square. The sun was shining, and the streets of Soho were crammed with “alternative” types — punks, hippies, drag queens and leather men.
Across the square lay an insignificant street leading to one of the world’s busiest thoroughfares — Oxford Street. Strange to think just how important that little street was to become in my life! On the left-hand side of the street was a restaurant with the exotic name “Govinda’s,” but it was to the next door that my friend took me.
A smell of incense and the sound of singing, drumming and clapping drifted downstairs. Devotees in saris and orange-dyed dhotis stood outside and in the entranceway. They were all polite and friendly, but to me they looked weird — mud on their heads, shaven with silly little ponytails. Little did I know that within the week I would be one of them.
I was a little embarrassed to take my shoes off as my socks had holes but, seeing others had bare feet, I joined them.
We walked into the temple room, and the noise, smells and sights overwhelmed me. My friend bowed down to a murti (statue) of Srila Prabhupada (the Founding Guru) dressed in orange clothes, and then to a picture of a western man dressed the same. He then took me before the altar and bowed again before the Deities of Jagannatha Deva, Balarama Deva and Subhadra Devi, to whom I lost my heart immediately, strange and non-human though they seemed at first.
Finally he bowed to murtis of a young Radha and Krsna — otherwise known as Sri Sri Radha-Londonisvara — all dressed in glittering clothing with rhinestones. Leading me to one side, he introduced me to a friend of his, a young man named Valmiki. I was in a daze; it was almost too much to take in, yet strangely comfortable and homelike. We sat down and listened to the music and accompanying chanting.
“Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare; Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.”
Before long I was singing along with gusto; I felt so alive. Almost too soon it was over. A conch sounded and the curtains closed. Everyone bowed to the floor and took part in a responsive prayer. I followed suit and thanked God for bringing me there.
After we sat up, we sat in rows, and people began distributing paper plates and cups. Then came the food. It was hot and steaming, and totally vegetarian, of course. I had not eaten a proper vegetarian meal before this and was very impressed. As we ate, Valmiki prabhu explained all about His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, Srila Prabhupada, and how he had brought Krishna consciousness from India in the ‘sixties.
The western-looking guy in the picture I had seen turned out to be Srila Bhagavan, then a sannyasi-guru; many of his disciples resided in the United Kingdom. After the lunch (where I learned the food was called prasadam and was sacred, having been offered to God), we helped clear up and then it was time for another ceremony, which I learnt was called arati.
The conch, which I had first taken to be a horn of sorts, blew again and the curtains opened. I watched entranced as a woman devotee offered incense, lighted ghee wicks, flowers, a shell filled with water, a handkerchief, a peacock-feather fan, and a yak-tail whisk to the Deities.
So many questions flooded into my mind. Then the ghee-wick lamp was being offered to me! I didn’t know what to do, but Valmiki guided my hand over the flames briefly and then to my forehead. Next thing I knew, I was splashed with water and a flower was placed in my hand.
I danced and sang with a vigour I never thought possible on a full stomach; joy overwhelmed me, and I began to weep. When my friend said it was time to go, as we had a long way home, I agreed, though reluctantly. After our goodbyes, we bowed down again and left the temple room to get our shoes and go home.
All I could talk about on the bus was Krishna. I wanted to know more but, because my friend only went for the free food, he didn’t know more than I already had discovered. I don’t know how I got to sleep that night. I had never experienced a “high” like it. I was buzzing; I felt so alive. My eyes, ears and heart had opened to God as never before. I had to find out more!
Next afternoon, I again headed up to Soho Street and the temple, arriving around 5 p.m. I spoke to Sylvia, a woman at the reception desk, who remembered me from the previous day. As we were talking, Valmiki came in the door; his face lit up as he, too, recognized me. He invited me up to the temple room, and I went with him. To my surprise, the Deities were wearing different clothes. Valmiki explained about Krishna’s being a person; it made immediate sense that a person would like a change of clothes every day.
I asked him about the bag devotees wore around their necks. Valmiki explained the principle of Japa and, asking me to wait in the temple, returned with 2 sets of wooden beads and a cloth bag. He told me the smaller set of beads was to be attached to the bag and used to tally the number of “rounds” you did, and the larger set were for “doing the rounds.”
The wood was from Tulasi Devi, a sacred plant, and there were 108 beads on the large set. The Maha-Mantra should be chanted on each bead in turn, and 108 times was one round. As an initiated devotee, Valmiki had to chant at least 16 rounds daily. He proceeded to show me how to hold the beads and listened whilst I chanted.
We had to cut short our conversation, as a class was about to begin, so I listened to the talk on the Bhagavad-Gita. To this day, I still remember the verse under discussion: “Abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender unto Me. I shall deliver you from all sinful reactions. Do not fear.” (Bg. 18.66). It was as if Sri Krishna was speaking directly to me, and me alone. The answer I had been seeking presented itself unambiguously: “Just surrender unto Me. I shall deliver you; do not fear.”
I stayed until Sayana-arati that evening and chanted on my new beads as I walked the five miles home.
The next day, I slept in, still tired from the long walk home. I returned to the temple just before noon and again spoke with Sylvia and Valmiki. They explained the four regulative principles to me: No meat, fish, or eggs, no gambling, no intoxication, and no illicit sex. This all made sense to me. I felt as if I was being reminded of what I already knew. Valmiki introduced me to Ranchor, the temple president, and I expressed a desire to join ISKCON; Ranchor seemed pleased. I stayed until the Deities were put to bed and took the bus home.
Wednesday, I rose early and got to the temple at around 7 a.m., experiencing the Deity greeting, Guru-puja, Srimad Bhagavatam class and breakfast with my new friends. I felt so complete.
After breakfast, all the devotees disappeared about their duties and, apart from the Deities, I was alone in the temple room. Seeing flower petals from the Guru-puja and debris from breakfast scattered everywhere, my first thought was, “This is Krishna’s house. He will be receiving visitors soon. They mustn’t see the temple room in this state.”
From previous days, I remembered where the dustpan, broom, mop and bucket were kept, and proceeded to get them out. After sweeping the floor, I went upstairs to get water, but the only place I knew was in the lavatory room. As I got there, Lilashakti (head pujari and Ranchor’s wife) asked what I was doing. She explained that I should use water from the Pujari department tap, as it was “clean”. She then asked why I was washing the Temple room floor, as it was someone else’s service. I explained that no one else had yet begun and I knew it needed doing before guests arrived. At this moment, I believe my true nature was beginning to manifest: I am pujari in my heart. Lilashakti gave me water and eucalyptus essential oil to put in it. This was the beginning of my service to Sri Sri Radha-Londonisvara.
Next morning, I rose at 2 a.m. to be at the Temple in time for Mangala-arati at 4:30 a.m. I stayed for the morning programme again, and again I tidied the Temple room — not that I minded.
That afternoon, I was washing the stairs as Ranchor came in, and I plucked up the courage to ask if I could join the temple and move in. To my delight, he said yes. I asked him if that day would be too soon; he said if I desired that, it was okay. I finished the stairs, and rushed home. It took me only minutes to pack my belongings into a suitcase and, as I almost fell downstairs with it, one of my housemates came in — one of the drug dealers. I explained what I was doing, and he gave me a kiss and wished me luck. He asked how I planned to get to the Temple, as I could hardly get my case downstairs. He gave me £50, helped me out to the street and hailed a London Black Cab for me. I got in the taxicab and “left behind the material world” — or so I thought.
At the temple, Sylvia gave me a strange look, but when I explained that Ranchor had given his permission, she gave me a great big hug and immediately called for Valmiki on the intercom. He came downstairs and, learning I was moving in, became ecstatic. After squeezing me nearly to death in a bear hug, he helped me upstairs to the dormitory. That day I was “shaved up,” and learned to put on a dhoti and tilaka. So began my odyssey in Krishna consciousness which continued for the next 21 years.
In that time, I was initially a brahmacari (a single, celibate monk), and my primary duties were in the Pujari department. This was the department responsible for everything to do with the worship of the Deities – the incense, the flowers, the clothing, the jewellery, the foodstuffs, etc. I guess in Christian terms, it would be the “Sacristy Plus”. I then moved out of the Temple and became a grihastha (a householder) and went home to live with my parents who had moved to the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe – NATO’s military HQ – in Belgium. Once again, my spiritual life went on hold as did my sexual life. I made friends and one of them invited me to church with her. It was a Southern Baptist mission church and I ended up baptised by full emersion on 12th October 1986. The time as a Southern Baptist was a mixed blessing. I learned that good knowledge of Scripture was essential, but that it can also be misused and fashioned into an idol – think “its not in the bible so it is wrong”. I also saw the racism, misogyny and homophobia that is so prevalent in the USA today. I couldn’t marry that together with my understanding of God and so when I returned to London at the end of 1987, I didn’t bother trying to find a church home.
One day, whilst walking in central London, I bumped into one of the ladies I had known in the Krishna Temple and she invited me to the Lunch programme and so I began to follow that path again. This period occupied the greatest chunk of my time in Krishna Consciousness and it was a time of growing in love for God as well as being a hedonistic nonsense! I see it has a time where I was “broken” by God in the same way one would “break” a horse. I was given free-rein and then pulled in close. This cycle repeated over many years with the free-rein becoming shorter and shorter each time until my attraction to God outweighed my attraction to the material world and I stayed put! It was also the time where I became infected with HIV (2001) as my following of the regulative principles varied along with my level of devotion. One thing that didn’t waver in that time was my faith and relationship with God.
In 2002 I finally met my guru and in 2003, I received first initiation and was given the name “Pitambara dasa” which means “the servant of the One who wears golden clothes (Krishna)”. In 2005, I received second initiation and became a Brahmin. This was an ordination as I was now a priest in the Vaisnava tradition and able to finally go on the altar and serve the Deities directly.
In 2006 I was awarded vanaprastha which involved a higher level of renunciation and withdrawal from the world and a more intense focus on God. This stage of life is a preparation for either the sannyasa or babaji initiations which differ in a few things. On becoming sannyasa, one becomes a travelling preacher wearing saffron robes whereas on becoming a babaji, one becomes a hermit fixed in one place worshipping God, wearing white robes. Both require total renunciation and total dependence on God for one’s life, and both are accorded the same level of respect in the Hindu community. My path was towards the babaji initiation, but a situation occurred which caused me to leave the Vaisnava tradition, and so I needed to find a place where I would be safe whilst figuring things out. I found a welcoming church in the affirming sacramental stream of the Church of England and my Christian journey resumed. I was baptised, confirmed and received Holy Communion for the first time on April 18th, 2007.
The call of God to a more complete dedication of my life in Divine service remained strong and I felt drawn to Saint Francis and Franciscan spirituality. The unity of creation, the poverty and service of the brothers and sisters, the loving – almost conjugal – relationship with God. My parish priest advised me to explore that spirituality by becoming a Tertiary with the Society of Saint Francis which I did, but, for me, there was still something missing. I knew that it was the lack of community – walking the common path under the same vows – and so I approached the First Order SSF and entered as a postulant in November 2008. I made my vows as a Novice and was clothed on May 16th, 2009. After 3 years as a novice, the Chapter decided to extend my novitiate for a further period and following the Candlemas meeting in 2013, they finally decided that my vocation didn’t lie with them. They were clear to me when they assured me that they didn’t doubt my vocation, but they felt my path lay in a different direction. At the time, I was hurt, confused, sad and furious with both the Chapter and God. As time has gone on, I can see what they were saying – think back to my approaching babaji initiation!
I was confused as my Franciscan calling remained strong, but I didn’t know of any other Franciscan communities in the Anglican Communion. As I prayed and searched, I came across a new community in the Episcopal Church of the USA – dispersed Franciscan brotherhood. The Order of Saint Francis. I approached them and entered in 2014. From that time until I left in 2018, there was a conversation happening about the advisability/necessity of seeking canonical recognition from TEC and finally in June 2018 the Minister General ruled that OSF would not be seeking canonical recognition at all. I could not remain in a community outside of the structure of the Church and so in order to be true to my Franciscan vocation, I saw only one option – Rome! Not directly, but via the Ordinariate. I was received into the Roman Catholic Church on September 8th, 2018 and by Lent 2019, I was very aware that all my time living under vows meant absolutely nothing and being too old for the traditional Franciscan communities, my Franciscan vocation stalled.
In the meantime, a group of 12 brothers withdrew en-masse from OSF for the same reason as I did and began the formation of a new community which became official by the end of 2018 – the Community of Francis and Clare. The brothers are clear that they will be seeking recognition at the first opportunity and intend to be a fully mixed community – all genders, sexualities, colours, ages, along with the options of celibacy, Christian singleness, and Christian partnerships for all.
I had a few other issues with the Roman Church, so I made the decision to return to the Anglican Communion, which I did formally on Pentecost Sunday this year – June 9th, 2019. I have approached the Community of Francis and Clare and am in the process of joining as I write. I will be going in at the bottom as, although I know the brothers and they know me, I haven’t been part of the process that they all engaged in to form this new expression of Franciscan life, and I need to get to know the new ethos and charism under their guidance. A journey which, with God’s help, I willingly embrace and look forward to.
The last 40 years have been interesting and enlightening, but one thing that I can say with my hand on my heart is that once you say “Yes!” to God, there are no guarantees except one – you will never be alone. Holding onto our faith and trust in God, especially when things look bleak to our mortal eyes, may be difficult, but the rewards are immeasurable. I was never alone and even my time in ISKCON was by the hand of God in order to keep my faith alive following my experience with the Southern Baptists.