Finding Sister Visentia and the story of the empty stomach

When we last saw Sister Visentia she was dangling off the edge of a cliff near the South Branch of the Raritan River. She had been chased over the cliff by a mother bear. As she came to the edge of the cliff, she grabbed onto a vine thinking she would find a way to the bottom – only to see a snarling pack of coyotes below. It was about then that she looked more carefully at the vine that was her life line, and she noticed two things: a luscious strawberry, and some mice gnawing on the vine.  Out Sister Visentia being who she was, she plucked the strawberry with her free hand and deeply savored its sweetness. And the “Family of Bears” blog entry ended there.

 What transpired just as we left the scene is that a young man flying an ultra-light aircraft happened by just at that moment. He noticed Visentia dangling from the vine and took stock of her situation. Just as he flew by, Sister Visentia saw him and recognized the pilot as the young man she had saved from drowning earlier in the summer. She waved and called out to him, but he just flew by. Sister Visentia’s hopes rose and were dashed in the same quick instant. She knew that he saw her dangling there. How could he just fly off and leave her there. He must have recognized her; she certainly recognized and remembered him. How could he forget someone who had saved his life? How could he abandon someone who had saved his life!?!  But he was gone and that was all there was to it. Nothing had changed; she had to remember to focus on the sweetness of the strawberry. She wanted her last thoughts to be ones of joy and appreciation. She really did want that.

 And then she thought she heard the sound of the ultra-light getting louder. She looked out and didn’t see it. But, then she looked down and saw the ultra light flying ridiculously close to the ground. What was he doing? Then she realized he was buzzing the coyotes and chasing them off. And as she looked down she noticed that the ultra-light had only one seat. There he was herding the  pack of coyotes off away from the bottom of the cliff. One problem removed. But it was still a very tall cliff, and the vine was just about at breaking point.

 With the coast clear for a landing, Sister Visentia started to look around in more earnest for a pathway to the bottom. There were a few scrub bushes below her, maybe they would break her fall. Just as a plan began to take shape in her mind, the vine gave way, and the base of the cliff came rushing towards her.

 “Tuck and roll.” Visentia heard a man’s voice call out to her.

 Reflexively she tucked into a fetal position, protecting her face and front and she let herself roll down the face of the cliff. Eventually, after the longest couple of minutes of her life, Visentia felt her tumbling halted by strong, careful hands. She looked up from the ground into the eyes of the man she had saved from drowning only weeks before.

 “Good afternoon, Sister. Please allow me to introduce myself. I am Javier de Esperar. I believe that I owe you my thanks for saving my life? I apologize for not thanking you properly earlier, but I – well, I did not think that I was dressed properly for the occasion. But perhaps now our accounts are somewhat in balance?”

 Sister Visentia collected herself. She gathered her thoughts, straightened her limbs and robes, and struggled to stand up, even as she smiled, “Well, indeed. You are quite welcome, and I am most grateful, Javier. I am delighted to see you again. Twice in one summer it seems that I have tested my vows and both times with you.”

 Visentia winced and moaned as she tried to stand up. Javier looked crestfallen. “Sister, I trust these innocent transgressions of your vows should not cause you such grave pain?”

 “Ah, Javier, my new friend, it is not the condition of my vows that are the source of my pain. It is the condition of my arm. I am afraid that I have broken it.”

 Javier looked more carefully at Sister Visentia’s arm, asked her if he might touch it, and then very quickly before she could respond, he took her arm in both his hands and pulled and twisted it in one smooth, if painful, movement. Visentia started, yelped, and then looked relieved. “what?”

 “I am a chiropractor.” Javier responded before she could finish her question. “You dislocated your shoulder in the tumble. It should be fine now. But you may want to baby it a little for the next few days. Sister, may I ask you a question?” and without waiting for her response, Javier continued, “I must admit that I was flying over the area looking to see if I could find you. I indeed wanted to thank you properly for saving my life the other day. When I first saw you, you were not alone. What happened to the other sister who was walking with you? How could she have run off and left you alone with that mother bear chasing you? What is wrong with that woman? Has she no sense of care or community?”

 “Oh Javier, that was Sister Septimus, and I must admit she is her own kind of person. Indeed, she has gone off somewhere. But, Javier, let me tell you a bit of a story that helps me to understand and appreciate Sister Septimus. You are a medical man, so you may appreciate this story. My mother was a philosopher, and she use to tell me this tale often when I was frustrated with my sister when I was much younger.  Mom would remind me: ‘in the earliest days of the creation of humans, not all the body parts  worked together in harmony the way we find them to work in our own times. Each member of the body, each part had its own opinion and ideas of how to function and of how to relate to all the other parts.  Each body part thought it was the most important, that its way of working was the best method, and that its function was the most crucial in keeping the new humans alive and healthy.  A revolt was brewing among them.  The various body parts began to grumble and complain, and finally the focus settled on the stomach as a lazy bag that just sat in their midst and collected and enjoyed the fruits of their persistent, diligent work. They were angry and insulted that they all worked so hard, and the stomach just sat there taking it all in without effort or gratitude.   And so one day all of the other body parts colluded in a revolution. The hands would bring nothing to the mouth, the mouth would take in no food, the teeth refused to chew – they would reign in the stomach and give it nothing but hunger – the first hunger games you might say. But, soon enough, their dedication to punishing the stomach and teaching it the need for discipline and persistence brought starvation and weakness to each of the other body parts – they were wasting away.  Finally they realized that the work of the stomach was nothing insignificant, that indeed the stomach too gave back to the body. As a result, they realized that the work done by the stomach was no small matter, and that the food he consumed was no more than what he gave back to all the parts of the body in the through the digested food which nurtured them all through the blood, and which cleansed them through the intestines and so on.’  At that point in the story my Mom would smile, and remind me that we all have a part to play in the larger body of life. Sometimes that part is clear to see and sometimes it hidden from our view. But we must trust each other and help each other as best we can by living out the best that we can be, each of us being simply our selves, each of us playing our own part – because as Mom also used to say, all the other parts are already taken.”

Javier smiled at the story. “Your Mom was quite a woman.”

“She was indeed. Then, because she was a philosopher and didn’t quite know when to stop, Mom would remind us that tolerance is not enough. It was only when each of the body parts came to understand and celebrate each other in all of their differences and diversity that they call came to flourish.”

“Ah, indeed, she was a wise woman.” Javier concluded.

The Bengali Tea Boy & Be Grateful to Everyone, Change Yourself

Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi was a 13 century Muslim poet, theologian and Sufi mystic in Persia, today’s Iran. His thoughts and ideas continue to offer a wealth of wisdom and inspiration. The one that I find myself thinking about today says: “yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.” Well, not that I have any claim to wisdom, but if charity begins at home, then maybe social change begins at home as well.

 Pema Chodron is one of my favorite Buddhist teachers. In her book, “Start where you are: a guide to compassionate living” she tells a story about Atisha, a renown Buddhist teacher from northeast Bengal, today’s Bangladesh, who lived between 980 and 1050 CE. Atisha was preparing to travel to Tibet where he was going to share his knowledge of Buddhism with the people there. As he prepared for his journey, he heard reports that the Tibetan people were very good-natured. His scouts told him that the people of Tibet were earthy in their understanding of the world, flexible in their thinking, and open to new ideas. On one level this was very reassuring and gave Atisha great joy, as he hoped he would be welcomed and his teachings well received. On another level Atisha was afraid that his personal spiritual growth would be stunted. One of his beliefs was that our greatest teachers are those people we find most obnoxious, frustrating or contemptible because they mirror and reflect back to us those very aspects of our selves that are obnoxious, frustrating or contemptible – what we most dislike in others is that which we do not accept in ourselves.

As he developed his itinerary and roster of traveling cmpanions for the trip to Tibet, Atisha invited his tea boy to go along with him on the trip to Tibet. All of the other monks in the traveling party were quite surprised by the invitation, as the tea boy was known for his mean spirited irritability, but the young man was also from Bengal, and the monks thought that perhaps this was Atisha’s was of keeping his home culture close to him. When Atisha caught word of the monks’ presumption, he laughed, and corrected their misconception. Rather he told them he wanted the Bengali tea boy near him to ensure that his spiritual growth would not be stunted by the equanimity of the peoples of Tibet. The story has it that once Atisha arrived in Tibet he discovered much to his delight and chagrin that he need not have worried about his need for the Bengali tea boy, the Tibetans themselves were just as obnoxious, frustrating and contemptible as the rest of humanity. Challenges to foster Atisha’s spiritual growth were bountiful – the people there were not as pleasant as he had been told. 

And so it is, we are all, each of us obnoxious, frustrating or contemptible each in our own way. And so we can each work to change ourselves as a foundation for building virtues and a vision of a world where fairness and dignity are respected and honored. And, in the meantime, we can each be grateful to everyone who as they visit us with their obnoxious, frustrating or contemptible behavior stands as a mirror inviting us to witness those very characteristic in ourselves.

Now, I am a child of the 60’s – OK, really the 70’s, but it is still so much cooler to claim the 60’s – the point is, I remember pacificism, and “Be grateful to everyone” is not a naïve all accepting defenselessness. If you are in danger of getting mugged, defend yourself or run for safety. “Be grateful to everyone” gets to at a complete change of attitude. Pema Chodron reminds us that the  slogan actually gets at the guts of how we perfect ignorance through avoidance, not knowing we’re poisoning ourselves with our ways of being, not knowing that we’re putting another layer of protection over our heart, not seeing the whole picture. In our own lives, the Bengali tea boys are the people who, when you let them through the front door of your house, go right down to the basement where you store the things you’d rather not deal with, pick out one of them, bring it to you, and say “Is this yours?” “Be grateful to everyone” means that all situations teach you, and often it’s the tough ones that teach you the best.

So, be wise, change yourself. Be grateful to everyone, even – maybe especially your very own Bengali tea boy.