Celebrating the Goddess Lada at the Cloister of the Sisters of Mary Magdalene

Spring is in the air in New Jersey – finally, after the winter that would not end, after the endless snows of February, spring is in the air. And with the coming of Spring the good sisters of the cloister of Mary Magdalene were eager to sweep out the staleness of winter, to throw open the windows and doors of the cloister and of their hearts. They were ready, willing and able for the ablutions of spring cleaning. But this year they wanted more. They were feeling, well, they were feeling downright festive, and a festival just seemed right to them. But a spring festival? In honor of what? In honor of whom?

As the sisters were wont to do in times of gleeful quandary, they turned to Sister Honora and sought out her wisdom on the matter.  Sister Honora being who she is thought for a very brief moment, and she told Mother Magdalene that this was a very serious matter, one that required mugs of mead all around so that the good sisters would all be in the proper spirit for the considerations. Mother Magdalene shook her head, rolled her eyes, and asked Sister Beatrix, the young postulant, to go down to the cloister cellars and to tap the keg of mead and bring a mug for each of the sisters.

When Sister Beatrix returned with the mugs, and after Sister Honora had drained a full half of her mug, Sister Honora smiled contentedly and said, “Well, Sisters, it is lovely of you all to come and visit with me today. What is the news about the cloister these days?”

Clearly her 90 years were beginning to take their toll. Either the years or the mead. Undaunted, Sister Bryda, took Sister Honora’s hand and said, “Sister, we were talking with you about organizing a spring festival. We were wondering if you had any thoughts about Saints to whom we might dedicate the festival. And you thought that some mead might inspire your thoughts.”

Sister Honora sipped on her mead, more thoughtfully this time and said, “Indeed. Mead is the beverage of scholars and poets. Mead festivals are always in the spring. It is the right and proper source of inspiration for all things spring. Why I remember when I was young we would celebrate spring as the turning of the wheel of the year, the time of green shoots, the beginning of blossoms, the promise of fertility and the hope of a bountiful harvest. Spring was always the time to honor and celebrate the Goddesses of flowering and fertility.

Ah, my dear Sisters, for the ancient Greeks, Spring is the season of Persephone, the Goddess of the underworld, of spring and of rebirth.  You may remember that Hades kidnapped Persephone and she became his Queen of the underworld. There she was responsible to escort the souls of the dead to their places in that world. But, because she had eaten only four seeds of the pomegranate, she was compelled to this task for only four months of the year. The other eight months she could live with her mother Demeter.  When Persephone left the underworld each year, her return to our world marks the beginning of spring. When Demeter saw her daughter’s return, Demeter would lavish growth and abundance on the land – the beginning of spring’s thaw and fertility. And when Persephone has to return to the underworld, Demeter covers the world in cold, leaving it barren looking.”

Sister Beatrix then chimed in, “So that is why Persephone is the Goddess of death and rebirth?”

Sister Honora nods and continues, “Yes Dear, and she is also regarded as the Maiden aspect of the triple Goddess of the Maiden, Mother and Crone.  As the Maiden Goddess she stands for purity and innocence, and for the power of the soul’s dreams. We would often turn to her when we were in need of girding our ability to compromise and become more adaptable. But, Persephone can also become self-centered and overly focused on achieving her own dreams and goals, so caution is in order when you revere her. Yet, she is a wonderful reminder to each of us to cherish and nurture the child within each of our hearts and souls.”

Sister Beatrix looks a bit perplexed as Sister Honora goes on about Persephone. Finally Beatrix burst out, “Oh, Sister, I was just hoping for a Saint or Goddess we could honor with an open hearted Spring Festival. Persephone is so, well so serious!”

By then Sister Honora had finished her mug of mead, and so she burst out laughing, and said, “Well then, it’s Lada that you want! Dear, wonderful Lada, the Goddess of Spring and love. Back home in Poland, and I believe throughout much of Eastern Europe, at the first hints of Spring, every town and village would hold its most jubilant festival in honor of Lada, the Goddess of peace, harmony, joy, youth, love and beauty. She is the Goddess of spring, love and jubilation for your festival!

Lada is the Goddess of spring and love as I said. She was the one we would turn to in the old country when we were in need of protection, energy and joy.  Lada is the Goddess who would sweep away the ice and snow and cold of winter. As Lada moves through the land, her skirts sweep away the cold and sickness and call forth earth’s bounty and beauty. She carries with her branches from the birch tree and flowers to honor fertility and to invite planting the soil. So plan your festival with birch and bells.  Ring in the beginning and the end of the festival with bells and chimes. Sweep all of the floors and door lintels with birch brooms. Drink birch beer ice cream floats at the festival, so that the cold of the ice cream melts in the warmth of your mouth, symbolizing the transformative power of Lada, and bringing that transformative power into your own being.  Take a cake of ice, and place a seed on it, watch it melt throughout the festival, and then plant the seed in an honored place in our garden, watering it with ‘winter’s water’ to welcome Lada back to the earth and into our hearts and homes.

And there my dear sisters is your spring festival. A festival of joy, celebration and transformation. Shared with you in the joyful spirit of mead.”

And yet again, Sister Honora left Mother Magdalene in awe of her insight and wisdom. Sister Beatrix was positively giddy with plans for the festival. She and the other set off singing quietly, “Lada, Lada, Lada, Lada.” Sister Visentia was quietly planning how she might get birch beer to ferment. And all was well with the Sisters in the Cloister.

Beatrix walks on water

Sister Beatrix, the postulant, at the cloister of Mary Magdalene, came upon Mother Magdalene as she was seated in the refectory chatting with some of the other sisters during the recreation time just after lunch. Sister Beatrix sat down next to Mother Magdalene and during a lull in the conversation, she whispered into Mother Magdalene’s ear, “Mother, now that I have the ability to walk on water, how about if you and I go over to the pond and stroll around on it and carry on a spiritual discussion about the role of justice in the sacred teachings.”

Mother Magdalene smiled and said, “Oh Beatrix, if what you are trying to do is to get away from these other sisters, why don’t you come with me and fly into the air. We can drift along on the air currents in the quiet open sky and we can talk there in peace.

“Mother Dearest, I am afraid I can’t do that because I don’t yet have the power to fly.”

Mother Magdalene gave Sister Beatrix a sideways hug around the shoulders, and said “Just so, little grasshopper. Your ability to remain on top of the water is common among fish. And they can even do that when the pond is not frozen as it is today. My ability to glide through the air can be done by even the most annoying mosquito. But, these abilities have nothing to do with the real truth, with the ability to live a life of dignity and justice. Indeed, abilities that feel extra ordinary may all too readily become the grounds for arrogance and hubris and competition rather than markers of spiritual growth. If we are going to talk of spirituality and justice, we should really be talking here.  If we are going to live lives dedicated to dignity, compassion, caring and service, we can only live those lives here and now in this present moment. Yesterday is history . . .”

“Ah, yes, Mother,” Beatrix continued, “yesterday is history, tomorrow is mystery, today is a gift, which is why we call it the present. It is an opportunity to present ourselves for service.”

Accepting Others and Opening Your Heart

Back at the Cloister of the Good Sisters of Mary Magdalene, Sister Septimus and Sister Beatrix were strolling the cloister grounds during the after supper recreation hour. Sister Septimus was sharing some of her struggles in spiritual growth with young Sister Beatrix.

As you might remember from some of the earlier posts about the cloister, dear Sister Septimus has not always been the most empathic or compassionate member of the cloister. But the death of Sister Ludwicka in Hurricane Sandy was an epiphany for her and since then she has become evermore open to accepting the foibles that frolic within human beings.

As they walk, Sister Septimus says to Sister Beatrix, “you know Sister, I think that I have finally learned to be more fully accepting of people just as they are, whatever their eccentricities. However they choose to be in the world, loving or lascivious, optimist or pessimist, thief or philanthropist, I have come to recognize the common core of humanity within them all, they are all the same to me. But, Sister, I must confess to you, that on our special open days here at the cloister, I see a stranger walking down the path to the chapel, and I find myself murmuring, ‘Oh, Jesus Christ, is it you again?’ Dear Sister Beatrix, this is a long road we are walking!”


I read a version of this story in Jan Phillips book, “No Ordinary Time” and once I stopped laughing, I found myself thinking about how much the story resonated with my efforts to human rights and to recognizing the basic dignity in everyone. And then I remembered the words of one of my most favorite professors in college, Father Jim Finegan, who would oft opine, “Everyone is redeemable, but some folks are more redeemable than others.” And indeed, I think everyone is loveable, some are more easily loveable than others. And of course it is those who are more challenging to love who are most in need of loving. So, today, for ten minutes, go out there into the world with your heart wide open and accepting, and give it a try!


Stories and the Three Socratic Filters

Late in the autumn it was the annual visiting day at the Cloister of the Sisters of Mary Magdalene. Sister Beatrix was delighted to see that several of her sorority sisters from college had made the trek and were there to see her. They all gathered together in one of the gardens, settled in with some lemonade, and were ready to catch up on the events in each other’s lives.

Some time passed, and they filled Beatrix in on the births, deaths, dating and mating moments each of them had lived through since they had seen each other. They were ready to fill her in on some tidbits that they had heard about some of their other sorority mates when Beatrix remembered the postulants’ lesson from that very morning. She blushed a bit, but bravely held up her hand and said, “Hold on just a moment girls. I hate to be a wet dishrag in our re-bonding moment, but I’ve got to run this by you. Just this morning here in the cloister we were studying the Socratic Filters and”

“Wait Beatrix,” said one of the sorority sisters, “remember, I was a philosophy major! Don’t you mean the Socratic method?”

“Well, actually, I do mean the Socratic Filters. Here at the cloister, we pledge not to speak unless our words can pass through the three Socratic Filters. So, the first filter is truthfulness. Are you sure that what you are going to tell us is actually true?”

And the Georgina allowed as how she could not be certain because she heard the story from someone who had heard it from someone else.

Beatrix then continued, “Well, if you are not certain of the truthfulness, then is the story generous, good or kind?”

Georgina smiled, and said, “well, I don’t think I would say it is so kind, but it is juicy!”

Beatrix laughed shaking her head and said, “Well if you don’t know for sure if the story is true and it isn’t generous, good or kind, then there is still one more filter: is it useful or necessary for us to know?”

Georgina managed to scowl, smile and smirk all at the same time as she allowed as how there was not actually any utility in the story, other than giving them all a laugh, but at someone else’s expense.

And, Beatrix replied, “if the story is neither true; nor generous, good or kind; nor useful or necessary, let’s move on to something else that will cheer our minds, hearts and souls?”

Georgina thought about this for a minute, and managed to get out a bit of a laugh and said, well, I can see your point. I sure as shootin wouldn’t want someone saying that kind of stuff about me – even if it was true! Which of course it would not be, because I am a perfect little angel.

And they all had a good laugh at the thought of Georgina being an angel. To which she replied, “ah, but my friends, that statement passes the second Socratic filter, it is generous and kind!” And they all laughed even more deeply.

It’s not always easy to work out the meaning of work

Back at the Cloister of the good Sisters of Mary Magdalene, the glow of postulantcy is beginning to tarnish for our bright eyed Sister Beatrix. She has just completed a novena to her patron saint, the beloved Beatrix Potter, but alas, Sister Beatrix continues to suffer the frustration of feeling put upon to do too much work.

Indeed, each day the good Sister Beatrix sets out to weed the extensive beds of vegetables and flowers that feed the bodies and spirits of the cloistered nuns as well as the homeless families in a nearby shelter. Each day Mother Magdalene watches the elegant poetry of Sister Beatrix’s movements as she moves along the rows of plants pulling and gathering the weeds, and then carrying them off to the mulch plies. And, Mother Magdalene also notices the frustration growing on Sister Beatrix’s face each day. To watch the young sister’s action is to see poetry in motion. To observe her countenance is to feel the growing length of the hard rows she must hoe.

One day, Mother Magdalene calls Sister Beatrix into her office. Mother Magdalene proposes to Sister Beatrix that instead of sweating and toiling in the gardens, each day she will come to the cloister infirmary where Sister Honora is recuperating. Sister Honora who is 90 some years old is essentially blind and quite deaf, but she remains devout in her spiritual practices when her health allows. As she is the only sister in the infirmary at the moment, she is also a bit lonely. Mother Magdalene proposes to Sister Beatrix that she spend a few hours in the infirmary each day, demonstrating to Sister Honora the movements of pulling, gathering and mulching the weeds. The infirmary is air conditioned, so Sister Beatrix enthusiastically jumps at the offer.

The very next day, during the cloister work period, Sister Beatrix goes to the infirmary, and begins her now ritualized movements of pulling weeds, gathering them, and then hauling the imaginary weeds off to an area she envisions as a mulch pile. The relief that she feels is immense! The infirmary is air conditioned. Imaginary weeds weigh nothing. The rows are as short as she chooses. It is an easy row to hoe, a sweet deal indeed!

Sister Bridget’s euphoria continues for a week or so. And then a sense of listlessness begins to creep up on her, overshadowing her new found joy with a feeling of being becalmed in shallow waters. What is she doing? Sister Honora sleeps through her visits. And even when she is awake, Sister Honora hardly notices her. What is the point of this, really? At least when she was outside in the heat, she was accomplishing something, she was engaged in the muddy substance of reality, making a difference in her world, helping to feed the Sisters in some small way. And then Sister Beatrix started to laugh. She got it! When she was in the gardens, she was doing something, something that mattered, something she could put her heart and soul into. When she was walking through the motions in the infirmary, she was merely walking through the motions. . . and so, Sister Beatrix requested an interview with Mother Magdalene, and requested her old job back, and she returned to weeding the gardens having found the heart in her path.

May the rows that we hoe be just challenging enough to keep us focused and engaged. May we all find work with meaning and purpose. May we all find and follow a path with heart!

Getting to the Other Shore

Spring is coming to New Jersey and to the good sisters of the Cloister of Mother Magdalene. Well, at least the promise of spring seems to be on the horizon. The snow, the snow that perpetually blanketed the ground from December until April, has melted. The crocuses and snow drops are beginning to grace the landscape, and robins are once again dancing in the grass as they search out worms, berries and larvae. Life is re-emerging once again. Good is alive, hope is afoot. And so too is Sister Visentia afoot. She has been feeling a bit cramped in the cloister these long months, and the rolling hills of Hunterdon now beckon her to exploration.

So on a lovely spring day in early May, Sister Visentia set out for a bit of a walk and she found herself along the banks of the south branch of the Raritan River. Now, it’s true the Raritan is not a thundering water course. It is not so wide as to be un-fordable, but after the winter snow melt and the heavy spring rains, it can be formidable. As she strolled along the river, lost in the details of flora and fauna, the smells of spring, the softness of the earth covered in composing leaves, Sister Visentia looked up newly aware that she was unaware of quite where she was. To the right and the left, she saw no way across the river as it roiled past her. As she stared at the Raritan, it became an insurmountable obstacle in front of her. She could not fathom how she was going to get across it. Good Sister Visentia was just about to give up on the idea of fording the river, when she saw someone walking on the other side of the river. Sister Visentia called out to her, “hello there, can you tell me please how to get to the other side of the river?”

The stranger looked up, smiled, and said, “My daughter, you are already on the other shore.”

Sister Visentia heard this and started to smile, then she began to laugh, and soon the two strangers were laughing together so hard that they were weeping and their sides were aching.

As their laughter subsided, the stranger began to chant, “Gate (gah-tay) gate para gate parasamgate bodhi swaha!”

Sister Visentia looked across the water to the stranger, who began to laugh again, and said, “it is a Buddhist chant from the Heart Sutra, which can be translated ‘Gone, gone, gone to the Other Shore, attained the Other Shore having never left.’ Good Sister, you have gone out in search of spring and have stumbled upon enlightenment. Please accept my invitation to pause for a few moments and re-collect yourself. Now is a lovely moment to pause and ponder. Take care to wonder at the world through which you wander!”

At that moment Visentia realized that there was nowhere else to go but inside herself. There she would find comfort, insight, and the wealth of wisdom hard earned and gently nurtured. Visentia gave thanks for this moment of equanimity, for the time she had taken to wander the occasional detour and side road, for the time she had wasted on the roses in her life.

And as she sighed deeply, the stranger waved to her once more and said, “if you meet the Buddha on the road . . .” and the stranger disappeared, and Visentia laughed once more. Indeed, she had always already crossed to the other shore.

Blaming an Empty Boat

During the rumspringa that marked the transition moment after entering as a postulant and before being accepted as a novice, Sister Bridget was in a rowboat on Round Valley Reservoir.  It was a lovely late spring afternoon. The sky was emerald blue, with a few billowy clouds floating by, just enough to invite a bit of day dreaming to envision the clouds as castles and a dragon drifting above her.  Bridget was lost in her thoughts, contemplating the decisions that were just ahead of her in her progress towards becoming a full member of the cloister. The day was calm, water in the reservoir was crystal clear and smooth as a mirror. Bridget inhaled deeply basking in the peacefulness of the moment, of the day.

But then she looked up, and to her surprise saw another boat on the reservoir heading right toward her. She waved her arms and shouted, “Look out! Hey watch where you are going! Hey, hey, I’m here! Watch out!”  But the people in the other boat just ignored her. Her frustration growing, Bridget tried desperately to paddle out of the way. But the boat just kept coming at her. She kept shouting and paddling, but the boat just kept coming.  The other boat rammed right into her little row boat, and knocked Bridget into the water.

Now Bridget is cold and wet. Her borrowed row boat looked a bit damaged. The peace and serenity of her day is in ruins. As she flails in the water trying to drag herself back into the row boat without capsizing it, she continues to shout at the people in the other boat, “what’s the matter with you! What were you thinking!! Why don’t you watch were you are going?!? I just don’t understand how some people can be so inconsiderate.”

Finally Bridget gets herself back into her row boat, and is able to see that the other boat is empty. The person she has been so incensed with is no one at all.  And Bridget’s anger and frustration instantly turn to concern for the owner of the boat.  With a shift in her thoughts, anger dissolves into concern and compassion and Bridget begins to scan the waters for a body without a boat.  Off a short distance, Bridget sees someone splashing in the water waving an oar.  And she manages to stop the motor on the other boat, tie it to the stern of her row boat and to paddle over to collect the woman who is overboard.  Together they restore the other woman to her boat, and each of them finds her way back to her own maritime meanderings.

And Bridget is left thinking about how easy it was to feel personally affronted and to cast blame, insult and injury on an empty boat. And she found herself wondering how often when she thought she was on terra firma finding fault she was actually a bit loose from her moorings casting blame where there was none to be had.

If we are going to be fair and just, before we shower blame on another, it might indeed be better to first be sure there is someone in the other boat, and even then to walk a mile or so in their shoes.

Just Standing on the Crest of the Hill

On a lovely day in a merry month, several of the Sisters of Mary Magdalene were out walking in the woods surrounding the cloister. As they perused the plants along the path, one of them looked up and noticed Mother Magdalene standing on the rise of the hill just ahead of them. Sister Beatrix turned to the other sisters and asked, “Why do you think Mother Magdalene is standing up there on the top of that hill?”

Sister Septimus said, “She must be up there because it is cooler and she is enjoying the breeze.”

Sister Beatrix looked to Sister Bryda and asked her, “Why do you think Mother Magdalene is up there on the top of the hill?” And Sister           replied, “That hill is the highest point on the cloister grounds, she must be looking to see what can be seen off to the distance.”

Sister Beatrix then asked Sister Visentia who said, “It has been a long and trying year for Mother Magdalene, for us all certainly, but particularly for Mother Magdalene. I believe she is standing there re-collecting the events of the year, perhaps thinking of Sister Ludwika who died in Hurricane Sandy.”

After some time of walking, the good Sisters achieved the rise of the hill and came up to Mother Magdalene. She was still standing there. They asked her to say which one was correct concerning her reason for standing where she was.

Mother Magdalene asked them, “What reasons do you have for my standing her?”

“We have three,” they replied. “First, you are here because it is a bit cooler and to enjoy the breeze; second since the hill is the highest point within the cloister, you are searching out the distance to see what can be seen; third because the year has been a trying one, you are here to re-collect the year and to remember Sister Ludwika. We do not mean to intrude on your practice and your thoughts, but since we found you here, we are hoping you will share your intentions with us.”

Mother Magdalene smiled at the sisters and said, “Dear ones, I was just standing, standing in the presence, in the presents of all that is. That is enough. I am; we are. That is enough. That is everything.”

Compassion saying ‘no’ and saying ‘yes’

Sister Beatrix’s days as a postulant are unfolding, and each day Mother Magdalene observes her growth and is pleased with what she sees, all but for one thing. Sister Beatrix just is not able to discern when to say ‘no.’ Even in the cloister, with its schedule and practices of discipline and silence, Sister Beatrix is becoming increasingly frenetic with projects she has committed to taking up and to finishing.

Mother Magdalene sits with Sister Beatrix and shares this observation with her. Sister Beatrix replies, “But Mother, I thought that I should be of service to the other Sisters. Isn’t commitment to the life and projects of the community an important part of life in the cloister?”

Mother Magdalene smiled, and agreed that indeed that is so. Then she settled back into her chair and shared this story with Sister Beatrix.

A long, long time ago, when the Sisters of Mary Magdalene were a small cloister in the far off memories of those who live today, three elder women, one of whom had a bad reputation, came one day to Mother Achilles, the head of the cloister in those days.. The first woman asked her, “mother would you weave me a basket?” “I will not,” she replied.

The second woman asked, “Of your charity, weave a basket for me, so that we have a souvenir of you in the monastery.” But she said, “I do not have time.”

Then the third woman, the one with the bad reputation, asked, “Mother, will you weave me a basket, so that I may have something from your hands, Mother.” And Mother Achilles answered her at once, “For you, I will make one.”

The other two women asked her privately, “Why did you not want to do what we asked, but you promised to do what she asked?”

The Wise Woman, Mother Achilles, said to them, “I told you I would  not weave you a basket, and you were not disappointed, since you thought that I had not time. But, if I had not woven one for her, she would have thought, “The old woman has heard about my sin, and that is why she does not want to make me anything. And our relationship would have broken down. But now I have cheered her soul, so that she will not be overcome with sadness, self recrimination, and grief.”


“Dear Sister Beatrix,” Mother Magdalene continued, “Just as we must attend to authentic commitment and engagement within our community, there are also dangers of over involvement and over engagement that we must be aware of and guard against. Be cautious of anger, greed, a desire to be relevant, spectacular, and powerful. Be attentive to fining the middle path. Do your best each day, learn each day, and learn from your moments of frustration, learn new skills, learn when to say yes, and when to say no. Each in its own time. From each according to their ability, to each according to their need. That is the heart of compassion, compassion that finds its roots in the knowledge that nothing human is alien to us.”



On Solitude and Forgiveness: imagine a world of compassion

Back at the cloister of the Sisters of Mary Magdalene, they tell a story of one of the Mothers of the Dessert (yes, I mean to have 2 ‘s’ in the word) who was living a life of prayer and solitude.  The Sisters of the Dessert committed their lives to celebrating the sweetness of all creation. In those days, the Sisters saw their cloister as a place of solitude, and as a milieu for learning and deepening respect for justice and for the dignity of all sentient beings and for the ecology which nourished and nurtures us. The good sisters also believed in teaching through their example.

According to this story, one of the Sisters had committed a fault, and a council was convened to determine what should be done. The Mother was invited to participate in the council, but she declined to go.  Eventually one of the younger Sisters came to her and said, “Mother everyone is waiting for you.”

So, the Mother got up and found a leaky water skin. She filled it to its capacity with water, and carried it to the place where the council was meeting, with the leaky spot over her left shoulder. When she got to the council, the sisters there said to her, “Mother, why are you carrying that old water skin?”

And the Mother said to them, “My sins run out behind me, and I do not see them. And yet, today I am coming to judge the error of another.”

When the sisters heard this, they said no more of the fault of the young Sister, but forgave her.  The example of the Wise Mother was all the lesson they needed to be reminded that each of us is in need of forgiveness. In their solitude they learned to see themselves as they truly are, unvarnished, unadorned. In their solitude they took the time to look to their center, into their hearts and find the core of love that nurtures the soul of each of our beings.

For the Sisters of the Dessert, solitude helps them to find the place where they were balanced, gentle and caring. In their solitude they became compassionate through their realization that nothing human is alien to us. They stopped judging others, stooped evaluating themselves and became free to be compassionate.

And so the Sisters of the Cloister of Mary Magdalene practice solitude. We too might take up the practice, each of us in our own small way. Ten to twenty minutes in the morning is not an impossible pathway to solitude. Solitude can help to mould each of us into gentle, caring, forgiving people as we acknowledge our own faults and become aware of the mercy and compassion that have graced our lives. Imagine the world of peace, justice and respect for dignity we might envision and build from a place of solitude. Meditation is not just for navel gazing. It is for healing the wounds of oppression and discrimination. It is for clearing our vision and opening our hearts to the more that is possible. Imagine!