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.

When to be practical

When to be Practical – A somewhat revised version of a Sufi Story by Mohammed Gwath Shattari 

 The good Sisters of Mary Magdalene were grieving the loss of Sister Visentia. Some of the sisters found themselves holding Sister Septimus culpable – for leaving Sister Visentia on her own with the bear chasing her, for not marshalling a search party of the other sisters sooner, and just because they just really liked Sister Visentia better (although none of the good sisters would admit this last reason). To help them deal with their grief and to heal their relationships, Sisters Bryda, Ludwika and Septimus decided to set off on a retreat together. For their retreat, they elected to hike the Appalachian Trail.  As they hiked the trail, the good Sisters discussed the importance of putting into practice everything they had learned in the cloister, and they committed themselves to helping each other sink their roots more deeply into a spiritual life of social justice.

Together the good sisters discussed the nuances of love and compassion, they talked about the golden rule, the platinum rule, about the importance of self love as a foundation for loving others well. They found themselves talking about Sister Visentia, her embodiment of all they cherished in the rule of Mary Magdalene. They found themselves chuckling at some of Sister Visentia’s odd little habits – the way she would poke out her lower lip when she was thinking and when she was pouting or sulking a bit. And the laugher helped to ease their loss. They walked and talked, and soon they we so engrossed in their thoughts and conversation that it was quite late at night when they realized that all they had with them was one piece of somewhat stale, hard bread.  And they concurrently realized that they were well along the most remote portion of the Appalachian Trail where they were not likely to encounter others and they would not come to a town for a few days more journey.

But, all in all the day had been a sweet one, and so the Sisters decided not to discuss who most should/would eat the bread; since they were pious women, they decided to leave the decision in the hands of the Mary Magdalene to patron saint of their order. They prayed that during the night their patron would inspire them with the wisdom to know who should eat the bread.

The following morning, the three women rose together at sunrise.

“This is my dream,” said the Sister Ludwika. “I was taken to places I had never visited before, and enjoyed the sort of peace and harmony I have sought in vain during my entire life on earth. In the midst of this paradise, our mother, Mary Magdalene said to me: “you are my chosen servant, you never sought pleasure, always renounced all things of this world. This hard, dry bread holds with the path you have chosen, and I choose you to partake of its sustenance.”

“That’s very strange,” said the Sister Bryda. “For in my dream, I saw my past of service and devotion to the sisters, to our order and to our patron Mary Magdalene. Our Patron spoke to me and affirmed my future role within our cloister. As I gazed at that which is to come, I heard our mother Mary Magdalene, saying: “You are in great need of food for I have called you to works of service that will require strength and energy.”

Then Sister Septimus said:”In my dream I saw nothing, went nowhere, and found no wise women. However, at a certain hour during the night, I suddenly woke up and was overcome with hunger. So I ate the bread.”

The other two were furious:”And why didn’t you wake us up and consult with us before making such a vital decision that effects us all!?”

“How could I?” Said Sister Septimus, “You were both so far away, talking with our mother, Mary Magdalene, and having such holy visions! Yesterday we discussed the importance of putting into practice all that we learn in the cloister. In my case, God acted quickly, and had me awake dying of hunger!”

 This story illustrates the need to nurture ourselves, and the importance and place of self care, as well as the dilemma of balancing self care and caring for others, and the ability to laugh at ourselves and with others.