Hurricane Sandy has passed, the east coast is recovering, and the Sisters of Mary Magdalene have decided that it is time to return to the cloister. They are concerned for Sister Ludwika’s wellbeing and they are also concerned about the condition of the cloister buildings. So, they convince their neighbors, the Sisters of the Loose Habit to drive them back to the cloister. As they arrived at the cloister grounds they immediately knew that Sister Ludwika was in trouble. The winds and rains of Sandy had utterly altered the landscape. Trees were tumbled like so many twigs. Buildings were off their foundations and some were tossed and tumbled like doll houses in the aftermath of a child’s temper tantrum. But, where was Ludwika? Surely even she would have had sought safety somewhere – but where in all of this devastation and chaos?
Then the sisters heard Sister Bryda gasp as she sobbed Sister Ludwika’s name. And the community knew that Ludwika had been found, and that she had left them to meet her maker. “Blessed Mary Magdalene protect her soul” as one, the prayer was on the lips of each of the sisters.
Mother Magdalene quickly found Sister Bryda cradling the remains of Sister Ludwika’s body. It had been a few days since the storm wrecked its havoc and claimed Ludwika. Time and their feral neighbors had not been kind to Ludwika’s remains. Taking it all in was too much for Bryda. Mother Magdalene quickly understood that Bryda was on the edge of hysteria and shock. Mother Magdalene gathered the young sister into her arms, separating her from Ludwika’s remains. Sister Bryda was inconsolable, “We should have insisted. We should have made her come with us to higher ground.”
“Ah, Bryda. You more than any of us know Ludwika. No one made her do anything. If we had bound her and dragged her with us, she would have found a way to return her to this place were she found and knew her peace. No one – not even I as Mother Superior of this Cloister – no one told Ludwika what to do if she did not already want to do it. By now, I expect she has met our patron, Mary Magdalene and her great love, the Carpenter. Now we must find our peace with her passing.”
“But, Mother, her faith was so great, why did her faith not protect her?”
“Bryda, we will all miss Ludwika. We will all grieve her passing. And, we will celebrate her life and her passage into the eternal. It is for all of us one day to die and to pass into the nextness of our creation. Bryda, in your heart you know these things.”
“But, Mother, Lazarus was brought back to life after many days in the tomb. Why not Ludwika? We could all pray? Why her? Why now? When her faith was so strong.”
“Bryda, let me tell you a story I once heard at the feet of Chogyam Trungpa Rimpoche. It is the story of a young mother, Kisa Gotami . . .
Kisa was happily married to a wonderful man, and together they had a young son who was just learning to walk. Her life was full, and she was happier than she had ever dreamt might be possible. Then one day her son was out playing and he was bitten by a poisonous insect. The infant died in his mother’s arms. And, as you can imagine her grief was without measure. She was completely and utterly inconsolable. Being a devout woman, she sought out the village wise man and asked who might heal her son. What prayers could be said?
The wise man told her there was only one who might effect a healing, it was the Buddha himself. Undaunted, Kisa sought out the Buddha, and invoked his aid. The Buddha took pity on the young woman and told her that she must bring him a mustard seed in order for his to heal her son. Kisa’s eyes lit up, and hope grew in her heart. A mustard seed! Certainly she could secure a simple mustard seed. Ah, but the Buddha said, this must be a special seed. You must receive the seed as a gift from the house where no one has lost a loved one to death.
Kisa went from house to house in her village. At each home she would ask for a mustard seed, and in each home it was given to her freely and generously with great kindness and compassion. When she asked if anyone they loved had died in that home, each family responded with sadness, saying ‘the living are few, but the dead are many. Our grief is as full as the river Ganges.’ There was no home in her village where someone had not died in it.
And Kisa was overcome with hopelessness and sat down and wept. And she thought about her experiences and the task that the Buddha had set for her. ‘He is man of compassion,’ she thought, ‘there is a lesson here for me.’ And she discovered and experienced the universality of grief and of death. ‘If we love, we will grieve. If we live, we will die,’ the realization came to her – as it must come to each of us. She touched the ground, looked up to the stars and released the isolation of her anguish into the common suffering of all those in her village who had shared their pain with her.”
Mother Magdalene sighed deeply, cradled Sister Bryda in her arms for a few minutes more as she softly said, “Bryda, pain is ubiquitous, but suffering is optional. Rilke once said that our greatest fears are like dragons guarding our most precious treasures. We have lost Ludwika. Now we are confronted with the dragon of our grief at her loss. It is up to us, alone and together to confront and engage that dragon to claim the treasures beyond that grief. Let’s walk that road together, in community.
And, as we walk, let us pray the great prayer from the heart sutra: Gate, Gate, Paragate, Para Sam gate y Bodhi swaha … gone, gone, they are all gone to the other shore.
It is good to remember now our evening meditation: Life and death are indeed grave matters. All things pass quickly away and so each of us must be completely alert: Never neglectful, never indulgent. We have borrowed this meditation from our Zen brothers and sisters for good reason. May we continue to honor it well, with deep thought and compassionate action even as we remember Sister Ludwika.”
And Sister Bryda shed a more peaceful tear as her she let go of Ludwika’s body and touched her memories of their days together. “Ah, Mother Magdalene,” Bryda said, “she is indeed gone to the other shore.” And they both wept even as they smiled at the aptness of the prayer.
In memory of my mother, Celia (January 1, 1925 – October 25, 2012), and all our mothers, families and friends who have gone before us. May they rest in peace. May we all find the treasure beyond the dragon of our grief.