COMPARING COUSINS' SPIRITUAL JOURNEYS:
Interview with Danish Scholar and Activist
Nearly two years ago, I spent eight weeks in my country of choice, Denmark. Early in my stay, my friend Tina invited me to join her annual pre-birthday celebration with a group of women on the tiny island of Bjørnø, which lies off the larger island of Fyn. I planned to take a combination of train and bus to meet up with Tina in Vester Skerninge, where she lives. Tina, however, said she thought there would be someone driving from Copenhagen and that I could catch a ride. Sure enough, Charlotte Biil and I started making arrangements to meet. “I’m driving a blue Ford Mondeo,” she texted. I had to look up the Mondeo, because it’s a car that Ford marketed in Europe, a compact station wagon. We met in the parking lot of Copenhagen’s Central Station, and thus began a three-hour trip during which we never stopped talking for long.
There were the usual getting-acquainted questions, first establishing whether we’d speak Danish or English. I always leave that up to the other person, and though later whenever we were in a group, we’d speak Danish, Charlotte chose English. I learned that she was completing her PhD in Public Administration and had held some highly responsible positions in both government and non-profits. In fact, her area of expertise lay in the intersectionality of the two entities. She learned that I had written To Drink from the Silver Cup and was publishing it in serial form as a blog on my website at the time.
Charlotte wanted to know what the book was about, and my answer brought me a surprise from her. I told her about leaving my very fundamentalist upbringing, not without reservation, because it’s not common, especially on Copenhagen’s island of Sjælland to find someone who shares that background. “Oh, me, too,” Charlotte said. And we talked about paradigm shifts from fundamentalism to a more open spirituality, of what those close communities had meant to us, of loss, and much more. I knew that I wanted to interview Charlotte at some point before I returned to the States.
Somewhere along the way, I asked Charlotte how she knew Tina. “She’s my cousin,” she said matter-of-factly, another surprise for me. More details about family dynamics ensued. In the beginning I intended to publish my interview with Charlotte as a companion piece to Tina’s interview, and in fact, that is why I’ve chosen to republish Tina’s interview—so they can be read as companions. I find the similarities and differences between the cousins’ experiences of spirituality interesting. More about that later.
Charlotte and I had several conversations apart from the group during our weekend on the island, during lunch in the garden at Tina’s home, and on our drive back to Copenhagen. We met three more times for meals, and after the final one, on October 8, 2015, I interviewed Charlotte in her home on Amager.
My first question was, “How did you experience your spirituality as a child?”
“It was just there,” she said without hesitation. “It has always been natural for me to talk to God and for God to talk to me. God was my best friend. God can be such a friend with a child. I don’t know if God is a he or she; that doesn’t matter. God is God.
“One time, when I was ten years old, my sister and brother and I were on vacation with my grandparents in Jylland. We were going to be there for two months, and we brought a kitten with us. It was never allowed out of the house. At the end of the visit, my mother came to get us, and we had to catch the ferry at ten or eleven. I slept with my sister, and the morning we were supposed to leave, she woke me and said, ‘Oh! I dreamt that the kitten ran away and we couldn’t find it.’ Then my grandfather and grandmother came and told us that in fact it had run away. We looked and looked for it, but we couldn’t find it. We had to let go because we had to catch the ferry and be back in Copenhagen to start school, and our mother had to go to work.
“Then I felt God talking to me in my heart, saying that he would help me find the cat and we shouldn’t worry. I told the others, ‘Don’t worry. I’ll go and find the cat.’
“I stood by the stairs and said, ‘God where are we going? Over the hill, to the village or down to the forest?’ It was a huge, huge forest. And I felt God saying to me, ‘You should go to the forest.’ I stood at the entrance to the forest. It was very dark in there, but twenty meters in front of me I saw the kitten. I went and picked it up and brought it back.
“I had this experience on and off—that I felt this voice talking to me.”
I found myself nodding as Charlotte said that. From our earlier conversations it didn’t surprise me that her experience of early spirituality was mystical in nature. I asked, “What about in adolescence?”
“When I was eighteen,” she said, “I made a choice to become a Christian. I had been working at a cleaning job before I could start my university studies. I had to get up at four or five in the morning. At that time, I had a boyfriend who asked if I believed in God. I said I didn’t.
“But then right afterwards I said, ‘Ok, God if you’re real you have to show me.’ That was a Friday, and on my way home from my cleaning job, God told me, ‘You have to get some sleep, Charlotte, because tonight something will happen, and you need to be awake. for it.’ Normally when I got up that early, I also went to sleep for the night very early. This time, I went and slept for some hours. When evening came, I felt that I should go to the center of the city. So I did. I was walking on Købmagergade and Strøget in a strange mood, walking in a kind of cloud. I looked at people as I walked, and I wondered what was each person’s purpose in life. I met some people who asked if I wanted to be a volunteer in an NGO, and I wondered about my own purpose in life. I saw some young people standing and singing about Jesus, and I wondered about them as well. Then suddenly a Chinese lady walked up to me and asked how to get to a specific street. It was in my direction because I was going to meet some people in that same street. I started telling her that we were going in the same direction, but suddenly she asked me, ‘Do you believe in God?’
“’I don’t know,’ I told her. I thought it was a strange question for Chinese lady to ask, but we immediately got into a deep conversation. It turned out that she was a missionary in Taiwan. Normally she played violin in an orchestra, but she was part of a Chinese team that had come to Denmark to talk to Chinese people here about God. Oddly, they never managed to talk to any, even though we have a large Chinese population. I gave up where I was going and went with her to the Danish Pentecostal Church. I decided that night to be a Christian. I stayed in the Pentecostal Church and decided to be baptized. I invited my family to my baptism.”
What Charlotte said next gave me goose bumps. She said, “My parents told me that when they came to Copenhagen from Jylland, when they were both eighteen, they had become Christians and in fact, they were baptized in the same Pentecostal Church I was going to be baptized in. When they came to my baptism, they met a lot of people they knew before they divorced.”
Until we came to this part of Charlotte’s story, from our conversation on the way to Bjørnø, I had thought that she was raised in a fundamentalist church, but her conversion story put a different light on things, so I asked about it. “Oh,” she said, “my mother would bring us to church on and off, but I never understood at the time that it was Pentecostal. She went to different churches, so we never became part of a community. She had ideas from the Pentecostal tradition, which might have been why I came into it so easily. She also sometimes took us to the Salvation Army. There was no red line to it.” Red line used this way, is a transliteration from Danish, meaning that there was no thread of continuity to her childhood church experience.
Although her eighteen-year-old story of the serendipitous meeting with the Chinese woman and subsequent baptism could be thought of as a young-adult story, Charlotte had talked about it in the context of adolescence. So I asked about her spirituality in young adulthood.
“In the beginning of my twenties, I started to have dreams. The first big dream, a message, came when I was twenty. I had been traveling in Turkey with my brother for several months. Before that I was running a café for some years with my father.
“My parents had been divorced by that time for many years. I knew that my father had had a mistress for several years, a married woman. He had had many women. At the time of this dream, I was living in a cave in Turkey with my brother. In the dream God said to me, ‘Two things are going to happen. Your father has made an arrangement to sell the café, and this is good because you need to focus on your studies. So you need to give up having the café.’ Second, God said, ‘When you come home, you’ll find that the woman your father has had as a mistress for the last three years will have left her husband and moved in with your father. They’ll live together as a married couple, but it will be very problematic for all of you children.’ In the dream I saw these little demons. They couldn’t see me but I saw them, and they were laughing. It was very strange. I woke up at five o’clock and told my brother my dream. When we came back to Denmark three weeks later, our father picked us up at the airport. He said, ‘Two things have happened,’ and he proceeded to tell us the two things that God had told me in my dream. And it did end up being problematic for all of us.”
I asked, “And you see those dreams as part of your spirituality?”
“Oh yes,” Charlotte said. “Definitely. I see that my dreams provide guidance. But of course there’s also this inner voice. It’s been guiding me for many, many years, giving me direction in life.”
She paused for a moment and went on. “I also think spirituality is a kind of traveling. As a child you will experience one kind of contact with God, like helping you find your kitten when it has run away.” She smiled then got serious again. “The older you get the more complex the relationship becomes. The journey you have to take becomes more complex, too.”
This talk of journey made me ask, “Was there ever a time when you left or denied your spirituality?”
Charlotte considered, then said, “For a few months. I was conscious of my spirituality as a child, but it wasn’t institutionalized. I didn’t have a specific direction. I just knew the voice of God.”
I knew there was more there, and I prompted, “Just…?”
“What happened was that I doubted that I believed in God. It was really just part of becoming a teenager, growing up, making it difficult for me to find out what my spirituality was all about. I think because it was never institutionalized. When I became a Christian, what I experienced was a reconnection with the voice I knew from childhood. When I went to the Chinese church, it was like falling in love. When the priest started talking I would cry because I was so touched. I think my biggest love affair in life is my love affair with God.”
This was something I had seen in Charlotte every time we met and talked. It seemed the natural segue to the present, and I asked, “How would you describe your spirituality today?”
“Today? Well, I’m still listening to the voice of God. I’m in a process of purification because so many things have happened in my life the last years. I still seek the voice of God in whatever I do. It’s extremely important for me. And the traveling I’m doing right now, having lost my job, my home, my marriage—these things have created the greatest spiritual journey I’ve taken in my life. If I hadn’t had God in this period, I think I would have gone crazy.
“To embrace spirituality is like skiing. You have to learn how to do it. But there will be a path. First you take the easy level. But you can join other levels, and I guess that right now I have been forced to run at the black level.” I hadn’t heard of the black level, the expert level in skiing. “In a way I’m quite scared, but I’m also learning so much right now. Two years ago I went to visit my brother in Switzerland. Normally we go skiing. When I was a child I broke my leg in several places, and after that I wouldn’t go to the difficult levels. But two years ago I had an instructor that said I had good technique and should go to a more difficult level because if I didn’t, I would never get to the view from the top of the mountain. ‘I’ll go with you’ he told me. He was right, I could do it and the view was fantastic. After having this training, I know I am able to ski at more difficult levels. It didn’t take long, but something inside me had changed. And now the spiritual journey is similar. I have been placed at a more difficult level. I need God as a voice in my life but also as a guide that will take me to more difficult levels. I hope on the other side I will be wiser and more grown up in my spirituality and have a better view of life.”
I asked Charlotte if there was anything she wanted to add.
“MMM.” I could tell that she was thinking deeply. “Mmm,” she said again. Then, after a pregnant pause, she began, “Maybe that a part of the spiritual journey is a question about getting more humble about the different ways of believing. A great spiritual teacher, Gerard Hughes—a Jesuit—said that when you meet someone from a different spiritual tradition, you have to walk carefully because God has been there before you. Another teacher, the Norwegian Notto Telle, was raised in Hong Kong. Hong Kong consists of a lot of islands, and in the autumn they have hurricanes there. Telle said that if you are in a little boat in a storm, it’s better to let go and go into the sea, because if you stay in the harbor, you will definitely be crushed. And it’s the same with spirituality. Sometimes in life you have to leave your harbor and set sail into the sea, even if it’s scary, because that is how you will both survive and grow.”
“That reminds me of one of Nietzsche’s famous quotes,” I said. “‘That which does not kill me makes me stronger.’ That it’s adversity in life that strengthens us and causes us to grow.”
“Yes. In fact, Notto Telle would say that, although I would seem to be in my secure place in the harbor, I have to go to the sea, even though it is less secure. What would usually offer security becomes insecurity in a hurricane. And what is insecure becomes secure. Paradox.”
I said, “You’ve certainly been experiencing that,” referring to some very unsettling recent experiences Charlotte alluded to earlier.
From the time of our first conversation, I was struck by how devoted Charlotte is to her spiritual path, to growing in it. She now attends Helligåndskirken (The Church of the Holy Spirit, in the Danish State Church) in the Center of Copenhagen, a church that is communally active through its huge used bookstore and outdoor café. She also has a spiritual director, a Sister of St. Joseph of Lyon.
The similarities and differences between Charlotte and Tina’s spiritual journeys interested me. The cousins didn’t see much of each other until fairly recently, and their family situations were quite different. Yet both women have a strong commitment to nurturing their spiritual lives. Tina has deeply explored what many in the Western world might refer to as alternative spiritual practices through yoga, Eastern meditation and her art. Charlotte has found spiritual guidance through following a distinctly Christian path. In fact, as she said in the interview, she feels that the institutionalization of her faith was a critical step for her. Both cousins have been drawn to mystical practices, whether Christian or yogic. I count it a privilege to have both of them in my life.
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