An Old Woman Trains to Be a Monk: Her Journey
I am an old woman and have lived most of my life as a catholic nun. My core is Jesus Christ and close to him stands his elder brother, the Buddha. I am training to be a spiritual monk and one of the tasks given is to write my spiritual biography. A glimpse is what I can give.
It amazes me to say that my parents were born over one hundred years ago. My father came to America from Sweden at age four. His father was absent and his mother was emotionally distant. His rock was his grandmother, a wise and practical woman who taught him well. He loved her dearly. My father had a quiet sense of humor that showed in the twinkle of his eyes. He was musically gifted and played the trumpet. There was a deep anger in him that he tried to control but didn’t always succeed. At forty two he had a heart attack and stroke which cost him his job, his independence and his ability to play his trumpet. He died when he was fifty eight years old.
My mother was of French descent, a farmer’s daughter and the oldest of eleven living children. She was educated through grade eight, danced ballet and became a nurse. She was musical and played the piano, often at night when we children were in bed. She could get lost reading a book. When she was thirty four she discovered she had cancer. She birthed a son. She died of cancer when she was forty one. My two sisters were eleven and ten. I was seven and my brother was four.
After mother died her youngest sister stepped in to care for us four children and when I was in fifth grade she and my father married. She gave birth to a daughter. I was delighted with the marriage. She had always been in our lives so we kept the same aunts, uncles and cousins we always had and didn’t have to get to know another family. She gave every thing she was capable of giving. It was a long time before I began to really appreciate how much she gave of herself. I loved my ‘other/mother’ but my intense loyalty to my own mother kept me from letting get too close. I think that if we had spoken openly of our mother it might have been different but we didn’t speak of her. I sensed this new mother would be hurt if we seemed to put our mother first.
I learned early on to keep my thoughts and feelings to myself. To hide. I was not as successful as I thought and to my chagrin my stepmother knew me better than I realized. She told me one day that there was to be a surprise party for my grandmother’s birthday. “Now don’t say anything. It’s a surprise”, she told me. With pride I declared that I could keep a secret! “I know you can,’ she quietly replied. “Too well.” I think also that a part of my staying quiet may have been that I simply did not know how to speak of myself or my feelings.
Because my father was partially paralyzed from a stroke our stepmother had to become the bread winner and it was tough making it financially. Living on the edge made for stress and anxiety and I carried it in my body and spirit. I had tension stomachaches that doubled me up in pain but I said nothing. It didn’t occur to me to complain.
I had a temper. One time when I was six my parents were away for a short time in the evening and my older sisters were in charge. I wouldn’t come in when they called me so they locked the door on me. I got mad and banged on the front window and smashed it with my fist. To avoid the consequence an elaborate story was made up to tell our parents about a boy who threw a rock through the window. Years later the real story came out. I’ve been angry more times than I care to admit, often because of stuffed emotions. Sometimes a burning anger, sometime cold. A hell realm of anger. I’ve hurt those I loved most with my anger. I cannot recall anyone who has turned away from me.
I knew when I was young that I wanted to be a nun. Whether it was because I loved and admired my two nun aunts or liked my teachers, I don’t know. But I loved Jesus. I believed he was with me and I wanted to be with him. I grew up with this conviction.
In September of my eighteenth year I entered a religious community. My family drove me to the novitiate and I exchanged my blue and white flowered dress for a black skirt and blouse and little veil. I stood behind the window drapes and watched my family drive away without me. I would see them once a month on visiting Sunday and not go home to visit for five years. I didn’t cry until Christmas.
Novitiate life was full; up at five, meditate at five thirty, mass at six, breakfast and then the rest of the day. Studies and work and play. We studied logic, scripture, art, calligraphy, theology, learned to sing Gregorian chant, played foot ball and basket ball, cleaned toilets, scrubbed floors, worked in the kitchen and yard, learned to serve table properly, ate enormous amounts of food (speaking for myself) put on plays and some snuck behind the garages to smoke. I took everything seriously and once when I was reprimanded for something or other I worried for two weeks that I would be sent home. I carried a lot of anxiety. I kept hidden the itchy rash it caused on the palms of my hands. Another girl had the same kind of rash and left. I feared the same would happen to me. Eventually the spots cleared up.
After novitiate my first ministry was teaching in our schools for twenty years. Needs kept changing and we went where we were needed.
The frequent changes were unsettling to me and I longed to be in one place permanently. I didn’t know that impermanence is the name of the game. I was a creative teacher, worked hard and loved my students but I wasn’t really getting much interior nourishment although we had our daily rituals and prayer. I felt a yearning for something. Once I told one of my teachers that I had ‘this kind of yearning inside’. She said that that was prayer. It was comforting to believe that prayer was going on inside me even without words.
One thing that did nourish me was art making. I would clear out a space in an attic or basement or bedroom to paint and draw. It was through art that I could say what was inside me and work things out. I was not an activist although I tried to be. It simply did not fit. My way of addressing the world’s suffering was through visual art. An example is when the Twin Towers came down. I was horror struck. The world seemed totally dark until one sister quietly spoke the words ‘a great migration of souls’ referring to all those who were plunged to their death. She saw them as spirits rising. Her words had a deep effect on me. I collected pictures of the burning towers and with those pictures and a figure I had drawn, made a collage showing the spirits of the dead ascending back into the womb of a Divine Mother. I had to believe that there was something more than hate and destruction.
The sixties saw great changes in the church and in community. Pope John XXlll threw open the windows to let in fresh air and at the same time much went out the window. There was a new sense of freedom and many of my sister friends left. It was like a river flowing away. Many changes occurred in community. One visual change was trading our seventeenth century robes for modern day dress. I looked forward to this for I wished to be a woman among women, not someone stuck on the hierarchical ladder, a step below clergy and a step above lay people. Without robes we would be as other woman and not receive preferential treatment.
A lot of stress came with all the changes in church and community as we struggled to find a new footing. The old dropped away and the new had not yet taken hold. At that same time I accepted a position in community that simply did not fit. I did not have the talent for it and it did not use the talents I had. I said yes to it without discerning well, proud that I was thought to have something to offer. Working in the core of the community I became aware of the tensions and disagreements I saw and wondered (I don’t know who I thought I was!) how I could remain with such a messed up group of women religious. I was depressed and totally disillusioned and began to look at other options. But nothing seemed to fit. I learned of a day of retreat that was being held somewhere and I went, thinking that I might hear one word that spoke to me. Just one word was all I asked. There was a healing ceremony that day and though healthy in body I was sick at heart and asked to receive the sacrament of the sick. After I was anointed and felt the hands of others pressing deep upon my shoulders in prayer, I took my seat. Something happened; the great depressive weight I carried traveled up through my feet, my legs, my whole body and passed out the top of my head. It was gone. The weight and depression did not return. My vision cleared and I began to see that I am a wounded woman living in a community of wounded women. I was in the right place.
There have been other moments of consolation when the Divine shown through the thin veil of separation. One such moment was when my father died when I was twenty five. I felt an urgent need to pray for him and sat up into the night repeating a psalm we prayed for the dead, ‘Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Hear my voice. ‘ (Psalm 130) The prayer prayed itself in me for a long time. Then abruptly I could no longer utter a word on his behalf. A deep peace filled me and I knew my father’s wandering had ceased and he had entered into his Rest.
My stepmother lived into her nineties. She wanted to stay in her own home and with help was able to do so until the last short while of her life. One of my sisters and I were closest in distance so we were the ones to care for her needs. During the last twelve years we made sure that at least one of us was near to respond to any need or crises. We became familiar with the inside of hospitals. We cared well for her but sometimes I also resented the frequent demands made on me. Again and again the memory of my selfishness nudges me toward generosity.
During that time I had a heart episode. The ER doctor asked me if I wanted to be resuscitated. That caused me to pause. Death is real. Even though I had written in my living will that I do not wish to be resuscitated I decided I wanted to live. The doctor also thought that I should. I felt that I have work to do. They finally got things working right and I stay quite healthy. As I lay in the hospital bed I recalled a seventeenth century teaching by Man-An that I had memorized. One phrase of it is, ‘Do not say …that the poor and sick do not have the power to work on the Way.’ Those words were my constant companion. My illness was my practice.
About sixteen years ago a spiritual companion introduced me to Zen. I read Zen Mind Beginners Mind, my first book of Buddhist teachings. I couldn’t stop reading and while I didn’t understand very much I was nourished. I made a Zen retreat in New York and heard a Buddhist priest give a teaching. She touched something in me. Even though I lived many miles away I asked her if she would be my teacher. The answer was yes. She is my still my teacher. I became a member of the sangha and traveled there when I could but distance made it infrequent and irregular. I missed not being consistently present for the teachings and rituals. My connection with my teacher was uplifting and encouraging and challenging and painful. I have felt disappointed and angry. It’s been a rocky road I have wanted to quit but I trust her. Too often I take things personally. My pride is challenged. My poisons are held up to me again and again. When I write something and send it by email it might come back chopped liver. But then there might come a Yes! when I finally get something! It’s like the sun coming out.
Now I am in the last phase of my life and am training to be a Spiritual Monk. I wasn’t sure about becoming a monk even though I said yes quite quickly. Nothing in particular happened to convince me that this is the way for me to go. I had to just wait until it took root and it has quietly grown and feels right. I want to know more deeply the One for whom I have always yearned even when I didn’t know it. May this journey I am on bring me closer to that desire.
Author: Ho Getsu Sen Gen
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