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.

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.

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.

A Picnic with Ants and a Grasshopper

Summer lingered as a most welcome visitor among the good Sisters of Mary Magdalene. It is true that the convent is not air conditioned and peak summer humidity could render the inner rooms into steam baths some afternoons, but none the less, the bright sun and blue sky were a welcome invitation to celebration among the sisters. Even though October was edging its way onto the calendar, this day the sisters decided to evoke the memory summer as cause enough for a picnic. And so just after 6PM, they packed up salads and sandwiches and carried them out to the court yard where they gathered for supper and recreation.

 As they finished their food, Mother Magdalene smiled to herself as she said, “Having a picnic always makes me think about ants. Sisters, do any of you remember the story of the ants and the grasshopper?”

Sister Septimus, one of the older sisters, allowed that she could remember the story from her childhood. She said, “I believe that the ants worked hard all summer to store up enough food to carry them through the winter, while the grasshopper merrily hopped over the fields chirping and singing without a care in the world. Then when winter comes, the grasshopper finds herself without food and starving, even while the ants have plenty.”

“Yes, the very story” says Mother Magdalene. “The grasshopper begs the ants for some food. But the ants rebuke the grasshopper, ‘You sang all summer, why don’t you just dance your way through the  winter.’ So, Sisters, what do you think about the ants and the grasshopper? Who behaved wisely? Who acted well?”

Sister Beatrix, the new postulant at the cloister, thought for a moment before she replied, “My first thought is that the ants were correct. They were wise in storing food for the foreseeable time of need, and the grasshopper was foolish for not planning ahead. But, I’ve been here in the cloister long enough now to suspect that there is more to the story than this. What am I missing?”

Sister Septimus beamed. “You are a daughter after my own heart, dear Beatrix. Not so long ago, I would have whole heartedly agreed with your first analysis and declared that the end of the story. But recently I have come to more fully appreciate the importance and need for celebration in all of our lives. It is far too easy to dismiss the work and the contribution of the grasshopper. We need to joy of music for our lives to truly flourish. Without the grasshopper to remind us to pause and celebrate our lives would be dreary indeed. A touch of foolishness is the salt we need to flourish. Too much salt is not a good thing, but a touch brings out the fullness of flavor. Too much foolishness is not so good either, but a bit, well, laughter and song are the best medicine.”

Sister Visentia added, “I can’t believe that I am saying this, but  yet we do need to be aware of the virtues of hard work and the perils of improvidence, do we not? To work today is to eat tomorrow, yes? And, yet I can’t help but feel that the ants are just a bit greedy!”

“Indeed,” replied Mother Magdalene, “and don’t fail to notice that the industrious ant gathers the produce of others work in planting. We are all part of a larger community. Let us be a community of generosity From each according to her ability, to each according to her need. … I feel like someone else said that somewhere? Who might it have been.” Mother Magdalene mused.

And the Sisters enjoyed the waning light of the sun as it continued on its path behind the western hills.

24 hours to die, 24 hours to live

Back at the cloister a new postulant has just entered the cloister. Sister Beatrix was bubbling over with joy and enthusiasm to begin her life as a Sister of Mary Magdalene. Her enthusiasm was infectious, although it was becoming a bit taxing to some of the more sedate sisters. Mother Magdalene was aware of the emerging tension when Sister Beatrix came in to meet with her for her formative spiritual guidance. Sister Beatrix had barely taken her seat when she began, “Reverend Mother, why does my mind wander around to forbidden places? Why am I so inclined to gossip when none of the other sisters do? Why do I feel such frustration and resentment for others instead of a sense of compassion for all sentient beings like Sister Visentia?”

Mother Magdalene smiled to herself, recognizing that she needed to take the situation in hand and help Sister Beatrix to slow down and to find her pace within the flow of the cloister. Mother Magdalene took a slow breath and thought she might take a bit of a risk with Beatrix. “Sister Beatrix, your questions are thoughtful, but, it seems to me that in 24 hours from now you will die.”

Sister Beatrix looked startled. She stood up and started to walk out of Mother Magdalene’s office.

Mother Magdalene asked, “Sister Beatrix, where are you going? You entered my office with such vitality and enthusiasm, and now you look so down hearted.”

Sister Beatrix replied, “But Reverend Mother, you just told me that I have but 24 hours to live. I must go and say my goodbyes to the other sisters before I die.”

“Ah, but there are 24 hours,” said Mother Magdalene, “sit, and we will talk a bit more.”

“Please Mother,” Sister Beatrix asked, “I must go and gather myself and say my goodbyes.”

Beatrix quickly left Mother Magdalene’s office and returned to her own room. Sister Bryda saw her crying, and softly knocked on the door. Beatrix wept as she told her what Reverend Mother had said. Then Beatrix asked to be left alone, and she wept into her pillow. Time quickly flew by with Beatrix weeping, pacing and weeping. Before she realized it, there were only 3 hours left. Death had not yet arrived, but Beatrix was all but dead as she lay on her bed waiting.

When there was only one hour was left, Mother Magdalene came to Sister Beatrix’s room and knocked on the door. She said, “Sister Beatrix, why are you lying on your bed with your eyes closed, crying. Death is still a whole hour away! An hour is 60 minutes – 3600 seconds – long. That is a lot of time. Get up, wash your face. Let us talk a bit.” 

Sister Beatrix sat up and said, “Mother, why should we talk now? Please may I just die peacefully?”

“Oh, Beatrix my child, there is still time and our talk will be concluded before your final time arrives.”

So, Beatrix pulled herself together, washed her face, and sat waiting for Mother Magdalene to speak.

Mother Magdalene asked Beatrix, “Now, my daughter, in the past 24 hours, have you gossiped about anyone?” 

“How could I gossip? I was only thinking about death?!” replied Sister Beatrix.

“In the past 24 hours, did your mind wander?  

“How could it, I could only think of my imminent death” said Sister Beatrix.

 “In the past 24 hours, where you frustrated with others?” 

“Oh Reverend Mother, not at all, I was only thinking about death.” 

Finally Mother Magdalene said, “Dear Beatrix, I really don’t know when anyone will die. I do know that we all have to die some time. But understanding the ultimate truth – that every living creature must die – can be very liberating and enlightening. All the questions you posed to me have been answered by yourself because of the awareness of death that you experienced during the past 24 hours. The difference between you and the other sisters is that you were aware of death for hours; the other sisters here have been practicing that awareness for I have been aware for years. Be patient with yourself. Cherish the moments, spend your hours thoughtfully and with compassionate awareness.” 

“You know, Mother Magdalene,” Sister Beatrix murmured thoughtfully, “this reminds me of one of my mother’s favorite quotes, I think she said it was from someone named Gwen Brooks. Mom would often say to us when we complained that something was impossible, she would say, ‘You are alive until you are dead. Ten minutes before you are dead, you are alive. You could save the world in ten minutes.’ I guess mom and Gwen Brooks knew something!”

“Indeed.” Mother Magdalene thought outloud, “indeed.”

Why did god (the gods, the goddess) make you? As a servant? As a chip off the old block? Or to search for your better half?

Why did God make you? Every Roman Catholic of a certain age, who grew up with the Baltimore Catechism, knows the unquestionable answer to that question: “to know, love and serve him in this world, and to be happy with him in the next.” Of course that is the answer, the one, true, only possible answer. Or is it? I wonder what our good friends, the Sisters of Mary Magdalene might have to say as they contemplate why God (god, the goddess, the gods) made us.

It’s been a while since we visited the cloister, so come with me, and let’s have a peek at what the sisters are up to . . . 

Since Hurricane Sandy even as the sisters continue to clean and repair the grounds, life seemed to be settling back into a more normal convent routine, at least for the moment. Each morning the sisters rise at 5AM to greet the sun; at 6 they gather for prayers and liturgies; at 8 they break their fast in a silent communal meal together, followed by manual work, liturgical prayers, and dinner at noon. The afternoons are a combination of work, spiritual reading and prayer; followed by a light supper at 6PM. Evenings include quiet time, recreation, prayer, discussion and reflection on their readings, and meetings with spiritual mentors. Most of the good sisters find their way to sleep by about 10 PM. They are reclaiming stability and comfort in the routine and strength in the discipline. And life indeed goes on.

As we look in on the Sisters their Spiritual readings focus on creation stories across traditions. Beginning with the Hebrew scriptures that are the foundation of their own tradition, and they read the second chapter of Genesis: Adam was created by his Maker. The story notes that Adam was charged with keeping a garden. That was his job, in service to his maker. But, Adam soon became lonely. His Creator wanted Adam to be happy, and so he resumed creation and brought into being every bird of the air and every beast of the field, and brought them to Adam to see and to name.  Yet, none of these creatures gave Adam delight. The Creator then caused a deep sleep to come upon Adam. While Adam slept, the Creator took a rib from Adam’s side and created woman. When Adam beheld her, he said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” And he felt happiness and joy in the relatedness of human community. And things unfolded from there.

Because our sisters are committed to honoring the memory and spirit of Mary Magdalene their spiritual mother, they looked further to the creation story from the Upanishads of India. There they read that before the beginning of time, when the universe was nothing but the Self, the Self looked around, saw that there was nothing but the Self, and shouted, “It is I!” and the concept “I” arose. And when the Self became aware if itself as an ‘I’, ego arose, and it was afraid. But it reasoned, thinking, since there is no one here but myself, what is there to fear? And fear left.

But, the self still lacked delight, and wished for another. So, it swelled and split in two, becoming male and female. The male embraced the female, and from that embrace, the human race arose. But the female thought, how can he unite with me, who am of his own substance? And so she hid.  She became a cow, he became a bull and united with her, and from that union cattle arose. She then became a mare and he a stallion . . .  and so one, down to the ants.

Then the self realized, “I am creation; for I have poured forth all of this. And there arose the concept of ‘creation.’

Some of the sisters found this version of the creation story a bit disturbing, but they continued in their reading and reflection.

Next they looked a bit closer to home, and sought the wisdom of the Greeks, reading from Plato’s Symposium. There they examined a creation story that begins with the human race already in existence, but with three distinct human races: one entirely male, whose residence was the sun; one entirely female, who dwelt on the earth; and the third, half male and half female conjoined together, who dwelt on the moon. These beings were as large as two humans of today. They each had four hands and four feet, sides and backs forming a circle, one head with two faces.  The gods of those peoples and times became afraid of the strength of these humans, and so Zeus and Apollo cut them in two, “like apples halved for pickling.” But, those divided parts, each desiring the other, came together and embraced, and would have perished of hunger had the gods not set them far apart. 

The Greeks teach us that the lesson of this story is that human nature was originally one and we were a whole, and the desire and pursuit of the whole is called love – according to its three kinds. Oh, my! As you can imagine, this third version really caused some distress for some of the sisters with its implicit affirmation of same sex love as a normal aspect of human being. And, yet, even in their distress they are hardy, stalwart souls. And so they persisted in their reflections.

Mother Magdalene turned to Sister Visentia, and asked her for her thoughts. Visentia smiled a bit, and said, “Well, Mother, you know, I’ve also been reading Joseph Campbell recently. And, if I remember correctly, it seems that in our traditional reading from Hebrew Scriptures, Adam, as the being whose rib was used to create woman, is the created servant, and the goal then is to become engaged in a relationship with the other, even while serving the creator. While in the version from India, it is the creator who is split into parts. And so each creature should experience and realize in life their very identity with that Being, we are each made from, made of the creator – thou art that! In the Greek version, we are left to search for our other half, while at the same time being careful not to offend the gods. These are three very different ways to think about the meaning and purpose of our lives! What very different versions of truth!”

Then, Sister Bryda chimed in, “and what different paths to justice and respect for dignity! Are we servants of a divine creator? Are we in search of relationship and our better half? Or are we each a chip off the old block, the Creator’s very self?”

At that Mother Magdalene smiled and observed, “Well, Sister Bryda, you may not realize the depth of your own wisdom. The answer is actually all three. One dimension of social space is a path of awe, the path that leads to transcendence and divinity – where we explore the vastness of all that is as you put it, a chip off the old block. That is the most neglected dimension of social space in the world at large. In our world here in the cloister, it is the most revered dimension. Another dimension is relatedness and closeness, finding authentic connections with others, and yes, in the secular world, searching for you better half. That is a dimension we have chosen to redefine somewhat within this cloister as we set aside the search for a particular half in the search for a stronger common community. And indeed there is a third dimension to social space, the dimension of hierarchy, of servant and master, of above and below, and of justice and fairness, perhaps the dimension that is most contentious in the world around us. Each dimension is necessary for a full, whole and healthy well being. The challenge is keeping them all in balance.”

Through all of this Sister Septimus looked perplexed, then thoughtful. After a few moments of silence, she spoke, “So, three dimensions of social space: awe/divinity, closeness/relatedness and hierarchy/justice. So, God made us to know him or her or them in awe, to serve him, her or them; or perhaps to work for fairness and to build a world where dignity is indeed respected.”

“Or all of the above.” Observed Mother Magdalene as the left the refectory for the chapel and evensong.

Good By to Sister Ludwika & The story of the mustard seed

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.

Sister Ludwika Hurricane Sandy and faith versus action

Back at the cloister of the good Sisters of Mary Magdalene in Flemington, word went around that Hurricane Sandy was coming and the sisters should prepare to evacuate since the South Branch of the Raritan was expected to reach catastrophic flood levels. The sisters had never received such a challenge before, and some of them interpreted the warning as a test of their faith. As you might expect, there was a small group (a very small group, maybe two or three) of sisters who proclaimed their unwavering faith, and said they would weather the storm in the cloister, trusting in God and their faith to keep them well. The other sisters methodically brought inside anything that could be moved, pack up a bag each and relocated to higher and drier ground.

And the winds began, and the rain came.

As the wind and rain were beginning, a state police officer came by in a patrol car, and offered to drive them to safety. Our friend Sister Septimus, the pragmatist, thought for a moment, and got in the vehicle urging the others to join her. The two remaining sisters looked askance at her and the state trooper, and proclaimed their faith and trust in God, saying, “God will protect us. We will stay here. Firm in our faith we will be fine.”

And the wind and the rain increase in intensity and strength. The night wore on and just after midnight, driving through two feet of flood water, a volunteer fire fighter drove up in a humvee and offered to take the two sisters to safety at the shelter that had been opened near the public library. The sisters looked at each other, and Sister Bryda told Sister Ludwika that she was going to go to the shelter. Sister Ludwika laughed at Bryda, and told her that her trust in the Lord could not be shaken by a little water and some wind. Sister Ludwika said she would remain strong in her faith. She was staying even if she would stay alone.

And the wind and the rain howled through the night. Just after midnight Mother Magdalene herself, the sister superior of the cloister returned in a borrowed SUV and entreated Sister Ludwika to come with her to a safer location. Ludwika refused, again inveighing against the failure of faith of the other sisters, and proclaiming that her faith would shine like a beacon to them all. And so, Mother Magdalene left Ludwika to her own private vigil.

As the night wore on, Sister Ludwika became ever more resolute in her vigil, her faith growing ever stronger even as the winds howled, and the rain waters engorged the normally quiescent South Branch of the Raritan River. As the winds raged, the cottage that Sister Ludwika had chosen for her shelter was lifted off its foundation by the winds and tossed like so much flotsam into the raging waters of the Raritan. The cottage and its contents – including Sister Ludwika – were tossed by the raging waters and batter along the river banks. Early that morning before sunrise, Sister Ludwika met her maker.

Upon arriving at the Pearly Gates (which Ludwika thought to herself were not quite as pearlescent as she had expected), Sister Ludwika saw a ragged looking fellow wearing a contractors’ tool belt. Since no one else was around to greet her, she approached him, introduced herself, and asked who he was. He smiled, and said that he had been was waiting for her. “I am Jesus” he said simply.

“Oh, my God!” Ludwika said, and blushed.

He smiled and said, “Yes.”

Then Ludwika’s anger got the best of her, and she burst out, “but why did you fail me? Why did you not save me after all my years of prayers and my unwavering faith in you! How could you let me down when I needed you the most?”

Jesus looked at her with a mixture of compassion and frustration. “Ludwika, dear, I did reach out to protect and save you. I sent the state police, the fire department and Mother Magdalene. I sent you a car, a Humvee, and an SUV! What did you want a Chariot of Fire? Your prayers may propose, but up here we are the ones to dispose! Indeed, praise the Lord, and pass the ammunition. Not that I am advocating fighting (since you can be kind of literal, Ludwika) but it really is about developing your god given skills and abilities and building communities of love and interdependence. It is not faith versus action, it is faith and action.”

(the heart of this story is a bit of an old chestnut that often centers on a man of faith caught in a tree as flood waters swirl around him. I hope you enjoy my version.)