Hannah Gyovai I Interfaith Minister I grace ceremonies
"I said it out loud - I’m supposed to be a minister - and suddenly it all clicked. It all made sense. It was like letting out a breath I’d been holding my whole life. It felt like I’d finally come home."
Where did you grow up?
Capon Bridge, West Virginia. Our house was off a rural country road, at the end of a dirt lane and down a long, winding driveway. I remember complete privacy; no dogs barking or cars driving by, no other houses or lights. Just trees, crickets and sky.
How would you describe that place and its people?
As far as the place goes, the state slogan's got it right. It was “wild, wonderful” and “almost heaven.” The rocks, the rivers, the forests, the flora and fauna feel like part of my DNA. Whenever I go to a beautiful place, my sweetest compliment is that it reminds me of home.
The people were mostly white, working class, and very Christian. A lot of families had lived there for generations. My family was always a little different. We moved to there when I was 3 months old and left the summer I turned 14, so it’s where I grew up but I didn't exactly feel “from” there in the same way.
My husband, who grew up in NYC, asked me if I’m glad we are raising our daughter in the country. Even though Northampton is waaaaay less country than Capon Bridge, I am glad. Having space to explore and play and be wild was awesome.
What are your parents like? What was your homelife like?
My parents could hardly have come from more different backgrounds. My dad grew up in southern West Virginia. They didn’t have indoor plumbing when he was a kid. His father was a coal miner; he literally broke his back in the mines and spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair. My dad enlisted in the military and went to Korea rather than become a miner.
My mom grew up near Baltimore and summered on Cape Cod. Her parents were New Englanders, intellectuals (they both had PhD’s) and Quakers. My mom sailed, studied abroad and played classical cello. I imagine their differences were a big part of their attraction to one another.
Growing up, like every other family we knew, my parents followed pretty stereotypical gender roles. My mom took care of the house and the children; she gave herself to us. She was loving, patient, creative, thoughtful and very nurturing. My dad worked a lot but he was home for dinner and on weekends. He built tree houses and rope swings, took us water skiing and fishing...you know, dad stuff.
I remember we always had a huge vegetable garden. My brother and I would sit out there with salt and pepper shakers, gorging ourselves on fresh-picked tomatoes and cucumbers. We rode horses and dirt bikes, built forts, roamed the woods, swam in ponds and rivers, caught salamanders and tadpoles…We were just kids, in the best sense.
Any fun traditions?
For some reason the one that stands out is hunting morels with my dad. He died when I was 10 so I really cherish the memories I have of him. Anyway, we always went to this secret spot in a grove of giant tulip poplars where the wild mushrooms grew every spring. I loved the satisfaction of spotting the morels hidden among the leaf litter, and of course I loved getting to spend an afternoon alone with my dad. We’d come home with plastic grocery bags full of mushrooms which my mom would batter and fry up for us, and then we would feast on them ‘til we thought we’d burst.
Describe yourself as a child:
I am the youngest of 7...My dad had 4 children before he married my mom; they had 3 more together, so I was always the baby of the family. That meant I would get tickled until I peed my pants, but I was forgiven a lot, too. I was a bit of a pleaser, wanting to be helpful at home and a good student at school, but I hated being told what to do - something my husband points out is still true.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I spent endless hours playing teacher when I was a kid. My mom bought me real lesson planners and textbooks from a teacher’s supply store and my dad made me a slate chalkboard with a chalk tray and everything. I used to draw these report cards, make 30 copies on our old Xerox machine and fill one out for each of my imaginary students.
I also wanted to be a writer. I wrote a lot of stories when I was a kid, and later a lot of poetry. I’ve always loved books and paper - just paper itself - and I love to read.
It’s kind of amazing that being a minister allows me to do those things I loved most when I was a kid - reading, teaching, writing - only in a way I never could’ve imagined back then.
When did you know you wanted to leave home?
I’ve always been independent. I quit high school after the 8th grade and got my GED. I started working at 14, so in a way I joined the “grown up world” four years earlier than my peers, or eight years if you count college. I moved to Burlington, Vermont at 16, planning to take some classes at Burlington College. My mom tried to support me even though in retrospect I was pretty unprepared to live on my own. My roommate situation combusted about 6 months later and she helped me move back home again.
Still, it was kind of a watershed. From then on my mom and I lived more like peers than parent and child. That’s probably why I didn’t feel compelled to leave home after that the way a lot of teenagers do. When I left for good, it was on the late side, when I was 22.
How did you end up where you are now? Why this place? Does it speak to you?
I was living in Brooklyn with my boyfriend of 7 years. We were going through a hard time and eventually broke up. Even though I initiated the split, it was devastating. I don’t know why but I felt like had to change my whole life - to leave not just him but my job, my work, my friends, even our cat. I rented a car and spent a week driving around the Hudson Valley, Catskills, the Berkshires and Western Mass, just looking for a place to land. Northampton was the last stop on my trip but from the moment I drove into town, I knew it was “it.” It was an intuition, a sense of rightness. It already felt like home.
I decided to move here without a job, a place to live or any friends. It was a true leap of faith. I just trusted it would work out, and it did! I met my closest friends, my husband, and discovered my calling here. I became me here. Now we own a home and are raising our daughter here. It’s still kind of amazing to me that this place will be her home, that she’ll have stories and memories and feelings about it the same way I do talking about West Virginia.
What do you do?
I am an Interfaith minister. The word “minister” means “to serve.” That’s how I see my work: to be of service, in whatever form that takes. I’ve been a Hospice volunteer for many years, I do Reiki healing, I’m trained in Psychosynthesis counseling, I create ceremony and ritual for life’s milestones and transitions, and I’m a mom.
There’s a wonderful book by Ram Dass (my favorite spiritual teacher) and Paul Gorman called “How Can I Help?” which shares stories and reflections on service from nurses, counselors, police officers, stay-at-home moms, ministers and many others. It helped me see that the path of service is really a spiritual path and an everyday spiritual practice.
How did you find this work, or how did it find you?
I heard a calling, literally.
After moving to Northampton I began doing therapy, yoga, women’s groups, meditation...anything I could to deepen my connection with myself and cultivate a more meaningful life. I also started going to church, which I hadn’t done since I was a kid. It was a very liberal community with a new age vibe, but I was still surprised by how much I loved it.
One Sunday after I’d been going regularly for 8 or 9 months, the minister gave a talk on our “soul’s purpose,” the work we’re put on this earth to do. I knew that managing small businesses (which I’d been doing for the past 10 years) probably wasn’t my soul’s highest purpose, but I wasn’t looking for something else, either.
I don’t remember the specifics of Reverend Carol’s lesson that morning except that as she spoke, I felt a tremendous yearning inside me. I can’t really describe it…but it seemed like my heart wanted to leap out of my chest! Then, when we went into meditation after the talk, I heard a voice whisper, straight into my heart, “Your purpose is to be a minister.”
So that was the moment you knew this was your path?
I guess in the same way I knew Northampton was my home, I knew the minute it happened. But it was so huge, so unexpected, so embarrassing, actually... I mean, who becomes a minister? And anyway, who was I? I definitely didn’t think of myself as “minister material.” So I knew, but I didn’t want to know.
It was a month or two before I told anyone. My mom was the first. I remember calling her on the phone while I was driving somewhere and then, without thinking, I started telling her about the talk at church and the meditation and the voice...and I couldn’t stop crying. Huge tears were streaming down my cheeks and I had to pull over because I couldn’t see the road. My mom was crying, too, and saying “Oh honey, I know, I know.” It still makes me tear up just thinking about it, it was that powerful.
I said it out loud - I’m supposed to be a minister - and suddenly it all clicked. It all made sense. It was like letting out a breath I’d been holding my whole life. It felt like I’d finally come home.
Can you describe a typical day? What's your process?
I started Grace Ceremonies in 2012, the year I was ordained. I work from home which I think takes a certain type of personality to do well. I’m very organized and methodical. I’ve learned to set goals for myself and steadily chip away at them.
I spend a lot of time on the computer...answering emails, maintaining my business presence on social media, doing research and writing ceremonies, and wasting too much time on Facebook, of course. One switch I made early on, though, was writing my notes and first drafts by hand. I’m able to be more creative and free than on the computer.
How has motherhood changed that?
What hasn’t motherhood changed? Well, to begin with, I do everything with one hand now! And there’s no “free” time anymore so I have to be even more disciplined in how I use the time I have. In the beginning that could mean doing work at 4am when I was up nursing. As our daughter has gotten a little older it means getting clear about my priorities and asking for more support when I need it.
Before I had Bhramari I was really concerned about how being a mom would affect my work. Since becoming a mother I have a really different sense of what work means. It almost seems too easy in comparison to being a parent! And, if anything, I’m even better at what I do. Creating a human being with my beloved, carrying her inside me, bringing her through me into the world, nurturing her with my body, loving her with every ounce of my being - that experience has forever changed me. Now I know how vast a vessel my heart is; how large my capacity for love...and pain...and wonder.
What is your favorite part of your job?
I absolutely love what I do. I feel so honored that people choose me to be part of marking important turning points through ritual and ceremony. To be entrusted with finding the words to represent a loved one’s life, to create a healing ritual for a breast cancer survivor, to bless a traveler before they embark on a pilgrimage, to help launch a couple into their married life together…sharing in such significant moments is a gift beyond reckoning.
It’s really hard to pick a favorite part of my job. I love the challenge and excitement of running a small business. I love getting to meet all sorts of people at all different places in their lives. I love listening deeply to understand the real meaning at the heart of an occasion. I love the craft of creating ceremony: researching, reflecting, writing, rehearsing. And I love being part of the ceremonies themselves. It’s quite extraordinary to hold sacred space for people, to open myself to grace and feel it moving through me and into the world. Goosebumps, all of it.
What lessons have you learned from your job?
Oh man, so many things! I’ve learned that love, kindness and compassion are the name of the game. That we have tremendous power to manifest reality. I’ve learned that most people are doing the best they can. That we share more in common than we have differences. I’ve learned that grace is everywhere you look. The awful grace is there, too. It’s the grace you’d never ask for, the learning gained through hardship and wisdom from pain.
I’ve learned to listen to my intuition. Intuition really is like a muscle - the more you use it, the stronger it gets. And I’ve learned to follow my heart. Not my emotional heart, but my spiritual heart. In Sanskrit it’s called the hridayam, which means “essence.” Quaker’s call it the still, small voice of God. More and I live from that “I Am” place which asks, What would I do if I wasn’t afraid? If I’m not as small as I think? If the final outcome is assured?
What does “spirituality” mean to you?
The beauty of spirituality is that it can mean so many different things. What resonates most for me is one word: connection. Connection is walking in the woods or on a city street and a fallen leaf or a graffiti tag cracks you open a little. It’s curled up on the bathroom floor or bowed down in public prayer and realizing you’re not alone. Connection happens in churches and on mountaintops, in movie theaters and hospital waiting rooms, in workshops and on subways. It’s that namaste moment when we recognize the essence within us is also in another.
For me, spirituality is being mindful of and orienting to the ways we’re connected, not just to other people but to everything that is. It’s the biggest version of “I Am,” the reality beyond ego, beyond story, beyond form…
One of my dear friends said to me just before I gave birth to our daughter, “Get ready to meet your greatest spiritual teacher.” And she was right. Every moment I show up for this little person with whom I am deeply, fundamentally connected, it’s easy to see the places I still feel closed, small or alone. If there was anything else that put me up against those edges the way parenting does, I wouldn’t do it. No one would! And so I think spirituality begins to look like going toward what’s challenging in order to have greater and greater access to your “I Am.”
What do you think are the most common obstacles we face on the path of spirituality?
It’s easy to get caught in seeing spirituality as something you do. Even the word “path” suggests it’s a verb. It might be more helpful to view spirituality - whatever that means to you - as something you are. It’s a subtle shift - they’re really two sides of the same coin - but it means you’re not so much a meditator or a seeker or a yogi or however you identify yourself, as that you have those spiritual practices because it feeds who you are.
Spiritual ego is a tricky one, too. I don’t mean pride, although there definitely is that, but rather attachment to form. An example would be feeling worthy because you meditated for an hour every day last week, or bad because you skipped church for a month. Okay, if meditating makes you more centered, calm and happy then sure, feel great about it! And if missing church makes you more disconnected and unfulfilled then yes, feel rotten. But to judge a thing as better or worse? As Ram Dass said, “The game isn’t to be high. The game is to be free.”
When things get tough, how do you continue on the path of love and compassion? Do you ever doubt the path?
No, I never doubt the path. I would say I’m very blessed, though, so maybe it’s easier for me. I’m humbled by people who have endured terrible suffering and are still able to live with compassion and love.
There’s a line from “Conversations With God” I’ve thought about a lot which reads, “All human actions are motivated at their deepest level by two emotions - fear or love.” I agree, although I don’t see fear and love only as emotions. I see them as reflecting our state of connection or disconnection. In any given moment either you have awareness of your “I Am” - eternal, unlimited, unbound - or you don’t. Of course it’s not always one or the other (and awareness is shifting all the time), but when I notice I’m struggling, I need to move back toward connection, toward love.
Can you talk a bit about rites of passage and healing rituals?
Absolutely, I’d love to! I think people understand the function of ritual and ceremony when it comes to things like marriages, funerals and baptisms or baby blessings. But what about all the other important moments we experience over a lifetime, particularly as our society moves away from religious institutions, the extended family, the communal table, the home town?
We are constantly passing through milestones, challenges and transitions that change and shape our identities. Who or what is left to help define and sanctify the chapters of our lives, or to express and appreciate the significance of these turning points? Sadly for many people today, the answer is not a lot.
And perhaps worse, we’ve trivialized many occasions that actually hold tremendous significance. I’m thinking of Sweet Sixteen and prom, or turning 21. What about bachelor parties, baby showers, or that gold watch you (used to) get when you retired? These occasions deserve our reflection, gratitude and celebration, but in a way that has personal meaning and contemporary relevance.
I would say that in my work, most everything that’s not a wedding, funeral or baptism falls under the category of a rite of passage or healing ritual! Life cycle ceremonies are a big one - they include things like alternative bar and bat mitzvahs or mid-life passage and croning ceremonies. There are many other rites of passage like moving away from home or starting a new career, becoming a parent, buying a home or leaving one, retiring, and even death and dying rituals.
Healing rituals address every level of recovery - physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual - from illness, trauma, miscarriage, the death of a parent, divorce, bankruptcy, spiritual crisis, etc. They can help people find meaning and perspective from these experiences while creating space for much-needed rest and renewal.
Ceremony and ritual provide an opportunity to nurture our connection to each other, our families, communities and ourselves, and strengthen our sense of the sacred. At its best, ritual and ceremony enrich our understanding of who we are and why we’re here.
Do you have any morning rituals to help you prepare for the day?
I wrote Morning Pages for many, many years. It’s an exercise from Julia Cameron’s book, “The Artist’s Way,” where you do three pages of longhand, stream of consciousness writing first thing in the morning. I would fill up a legal pad, turn it over and fill up the reverse sides, then throw it away and start another. I used to call it “flushing my mental toilet.” It was a wonderful tool for quieting the monkey mind.
These days I have a journal I’m keeping for our daughter. I wrote about my pregnancy and birth experience, my reflections on motherhood and the things she’s doing like learning to suck her thumb or starting to roll over. I write the words to the lullabies I sing and the special sayings I have for her, and sometimes I write poetry, too.
What or who inspires you? Do you have a mentor?
I think I’m most inspired by nature. I’m always picking up feathers and leaves, rocks, blossoms, shells, old nests and discarded snakeskins… When I’m outside I feel part of the way of things. Instead of the main act, I’m a tiny footnote. I like seeing my life in that context. I feel at peace in the isness of nature. It’s all just right now.
I’ve been incredibly blessed to have a mentor in my mother. She always encouraged me to be me, no matter what. She taught me how to be brave, to listen and love well, to be present with myself and others, how to be a good partner and parent, and so, so much more. My mom has the best aphorisms, too...my all-time favorite being “Attitude is everything.” And then there’s my current favorite: “If mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy.” :)
My mom and dad used to have a Christian film production company called Reflected Light. She has a story of narrating a video they were making together. After listening to the first take, my dad said it was perfect except for one thing. He asked if she could make her voice more loving. It’s amazing how often I think of those to two words: more loving. When I’m performing ceremony, when I’m in a counseling session or doing Reiki, when I’m talking to my daughter: more loving. And it’s so true - you can hear it in a person’s voice when they’re smiling the same way you can hear and feel and sense when they’re speaking with love.
What does the word “authentic” mean to you? How does your work allow you to live authentically?
To me, authenticity means alignment. It means who you know yourself to be and how you live in the world match. There’s a resonance to being authentic which you can feel and other people can see. It’s attractive!
As I was describing earlier, at first I didn’t want to be a minister but after the first time I said it out loud, I felt absolutely compelled and driven to pursue it. Once I felt the truth within me - I’m supposed to be a minister - I had no choice but to manifest that truth. Now that I am a minister and doing my work in the world, I know I’m in alignment and living authentically because everything about it just feels so right, so me, and so fulfilling.
Any advice to someone in search of their life’s purpose?
Eckhart Tolle says, “If you get the inside right, the outside will fall into place.” Even though I wasn’t searching for my life’s purpose, that’s how it happened for me. When I was living in Brooklyn I was very outwardly focused. It wasn't until I started looking inside and cultivating my relationship with myself as my highest priority that my life’s purpose became clear.
Beyond that, my advice is to do things that open your heart. Maybe for you it’s traveling or mountain biking or volunteering at a food pantry. Whatever it is, you’ll feel a softening and a sense of connection. That’s fertile ground for new realizations.
Another one of my mom’s sayings is, “You can’t get different output with the same input.” The idea is to create opportunities for insights to emerge. For instance, a lot of us are very dominant in our thinking function - we try to figure out our life’s purpose with our minds. If that’s the case, try sculpting or making a collage. If you’ve been praying or meditating, maybe dancing or skateboarding will bring new clarity! Remember: if nothing changes, nothing changes.
Also, look at what you loved to do and wanted to be as a kid. It may not be exactly the same but perhaps, like me, similar elements will be woven into your purpose. I would try asking other people, too. Obviously you want to be somewhat selective in who you ask but our friends and loved ones know us pretty well and may see things in us even we can’t see. I thought people would be so shocked when I told them I was going to seminary to become a minister. Instead a lot of them said, “Oh yeah, I can see that.”