They came to the Goucher College campus with deceptively simple answers to profound questions, these three men and one woman "who represent every spiritual life, every nation," in the words of radio broadcaster Marc Steiner.
The WJHU-FM talk show host was the moderator for Saturday's seven-hour seminar, "Joy and Suffering: Learning from Our Shared Histories," co-sponsored by Goucher and Baltimore's Emmanuel Episcopal Church.
The four panelists were all movers and shakers of their varied religious traditions: a Jewish rabbi; a Buddhist monk; a Roman Catholic sister; an American Indian who had tried Catholic and Lutheran spirituality before returning to the primitive self-sufficiency on the land practiced by his Native American ancestors.
Despite the diversity of their notions of God and the efficacy of faith, their solutions to the challenging co-existence of happiness and misery in this world were fundamentally the same. They agreed that joy and suffering are two parts of what Rabbi Arthur Waskow called "the great rhythm" of life.
The rabbi, a native of Baltimore who heads the Shalom Center of the Alliance for Jewish Renewal in Philadelphia, drew on the metaphor of the seven days of creation in the Bible's Book of Genesis.
"The seventh day of rest is bound together with the work days, the days of the fullness of the harvest, days that include mourning, despair and grief," he said. "There are different responses to suffering. One is to say, 'I'll take power and control.' Another is to identify with the suffering process."
Sister Rosemary Dougherty of the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Guidance in Washington agreed with the rabbi that "suffering and joy are inseparably bound together" and that playing God is futile.
While Christianity is not "the masochistic view of life" as it is sometimes pictured, she said, "suffering that comes from love carries joy with it" because it is part of the "process of transformation." For Sister Rosemary, the most satisfying happiness was "a deep knowing that God is faithful."
The panelists all favored efforts to live as simply as possible in harmony with nature, but they were not united in their definitions of God.
"In Christianity, Christ is described as God become man," said Maharagama Dhammasiri, a native of Sri Lanka who is president of the Northern Virginia-based Buddhist Vihara Society. "In Buddhism, man becomes God."
The ideal of selfless love can be found only "in a state of calm, in tranquillity," the monk said. "Happiness can be found here and now, not after death. The Buddhist way is to transcend the human state and become God. God is a state of human perfection."
David Ed Benedict, who was reared in the Mohawk Nation Territory of Akwesasne in northern New York State, held an eagle feather as he described his rediscovery of the satisfying simplicity of nature after a 20-year Navy career that included "the alcohol stage."
"Everything that God created is part of our religion," he said. Fingering the feather, he displayed "its suffering side and its joyful side."
About 70 people participated in the day of discussions. The Rev. Thomas L. Culbertson, the rector at Emmanuel, said the interfaith program was supported by the church's education committee, Goucher's Center for Continuing Studies and the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland.