My father once asked me, “What is the most important thing in life?” Contemplating the chaos, greed, and violence in the world, foremost in my mind was love. I had only to look at the thick wrinkles around his smiling eyes to confirm what he most believed in and lived for was just that – love, and the kindness born of it.
This month, the sixth anniversary of his death, I remind myself how lucky I am to have had such a father. He was genuinely enthusiastic about and respected my religious choice and way of life though it took getting used to. Once he saw the teachings working through me, he became my advocate, deflecting hostility to – and outright rejection of – my lifestyle from immediate family or anyone else.
His life with my mother was a partnership of devotion greater than the war, hunger, homelessness, old age, and debilitating illness they endured together, especially her nearly twenty-year siege of Alzheimer’s disease. Those who have survived the ordeal of watching a loved one slowly and excruciatingly degenerate will recognize the scale of this endurance.
Well into his eighties, my father tenderly and selflessly cared for and nursed her at home through all the years of her dementia until she died. Heroically patient, he bore the unremitting spiral of sleepless nights, bedpans, regimes of medication, isolation, physical weakness, and despair – never giving up. Such was his love for her and legacy to me.
Unconditional love makes possible that kind of stamina and resilience. In that same spirit, I took the lifetime vows of a nun. Buoyed by an ancient tradition of moral and mental purification, I resolved to stay the course, training in the renunciant precepts, meditation, and monastic conventions that govern life in the cloister.
These practices have the power to erode what is false and deceptive in us for only truth can weather the force of their insistence. Surviving that wear and tear is testimony to their efficacy in maturing us. But secure in the monastic cocoon, with all our physical requisites provided, how will we gauge the strength of our resolve?
We are not called to live in jungles and walk from village to village through the habitats of tigers to receive alms. There may be times of fasting but they are not exigencies of our lifestyle. Apart from the physical rigors of prescribed times for meals and sleep, and constant sense-restraint, our renunciation focuses on surrender to our moral training and the needs of the community.
At the same time, pampered by a doting public, we enjoy a spiritual exclusivity, the luxury of silence, and conditions conducive to facing and tangling with our inner demons. But often, when privilege accrues to seniority in the robe, the mildew of self-importance steals in. Our ‘perfect’ detachment may be only formulaic posturing that inures us to the real struggles and pains not only of our own companions but also our enthusiastic supporters.
Without profound challenge or personal sacrifice, does our commitment fade into careerism? Do we cling to the robe from habit, lack of options, or the fear of returning to the insecurity of lay life? In the years of repetition and regulation, when inspiration runs aground, it is easy enough to grow complacent, critical, and self-concerned. Though we may bow uncountable bows on worn and tired knees, how do we face the monotony of days and weeks and months of life together?
To be true to our commitment, we must continuously renounce power and privilege and return to our original motivation for choosing this path. After ten years in the same community, my choice to live as a solitary – far-removed from the systems that had supported me so well – was a necessary risk, a second home-leaving, and a true test of faith.
Whether in community or alone, I benefit from feedback that reflects my blindspots and alerts me to my omissions. Still, I must continue to question the quality of my commitment and restore myself to the path and its core values. How do I make peace with inertia or depression in the humdrum of daily routine? Am I kind to others or impatient and averse? Conscientious or careless? Considerate or proud and stubborn? Pure of heart and joyful or divisive and fearful of loss?
I best serve that which I love most when I can practise waiting – not a waiting that bargains silently with the moment for life to be a certain way, nor that rationalizes with hope, impatience, interest, frustration, or excitement; not a waiting that reviews and analyses events and all their possible outcomes. My waiting must draw verve from the heart and catapult me towards Truth in every contour of my life. To know cold and contentment, restlessness and peace. To begin to understand change and set my life in order. There is nothing that does not pass without value.
Through the peaks and troughs of daily life, I must give voice to my intuitive knowing. When my heart contracts in fear that I will not be supported, I may feel nothing firm enough to stand on. But I know that sense of groundlessness forces me deeper, beneath the coral reefs to the immeasurable fathoms below. It is in those depths that I can move towards greater freedom.
There may be little visible effect. But to navigate the interior stillness, that’s enough. On the wide horizon of life, I always receive what I need. Today I feel fragile, tomorrow, stronger; sometimes exhilarated, sometimes spent – as long as I remember to trust, I can keep going.
For the sake of love, there has to be sacrifice. Living more attentively and consciously, we open to what we would instinctively avoid or fear. And sometimes, out of the very act of accepting what is hard and not giving up, we find an unexpected resting place, the peace of not-wanting that allows us to grow still.
Ever grateful, we endure – and prevail. And, for the sake of love, we keep bowing.
© Ayyā Medhānandī
This a post from Ayyā Medhānandī’s blog written while based in Penang. She draws on her experiences in a monastic community in England as a solitary nun in a coastal hamlet of New Zealand and as an urban nun perched in a ‘sky temple’ overlooking the Malacca Straits. Other posts from this blog can be found under “Penang’s Blog” topic category.