Lessons from a Cranky Nun [revised]
[The original version of this was posted on May 8, 2017. This is revised, expanded, and a lot better.]
Where am I? I pause where I am, look up, pierce through the ceiling, float through the roof and ascend high above. I look back down at where I’m still standing.
There is a small island in the shape of a dogwood leaf, floating off the coast of British Columbia. I can see rugged shorelines and wild beaches surrounding a patchwork of dense forest and open meadows. Nestled in the middle of all this, there is a refuge. Here sits a small, oddly shaped house, built with mismatched parts and full of mismatched objects and people. This is where I stand now, under this roof, in this kitchen, drying the last of the dishes, wiping the wooden counters, stained and scratched, but lovingly cleaned and etched with memories of nourishing meals and peaceful moments.
I am at a meditation retreat centre, where I come every year, for a week or longer to take refuge from winds of the world. The air is different here. On this island, in this house, time and space don’t follow the rules of the big city. The people don’t either. They come to meditate, they come to slow down, they come to hear what can only be heard in the silence of the mind.
It’s a few days into the retreat, and I have slowed right down. A sense of peace and contentment has settled in my bones. I have signed up for kitchen duty, as I typically do, and I take pleasure in the evening ritual of washing up in silence after the last meal of each day. I dry every dish carefully, many of them chipped and most of them a mismatched, eclectic mix of colours and styles. I place them back in the cupboard softly, soundlessly. I wipe the counters and listen as I drag the cloth from one end of the counter to the other. I feel the weight shift from one foot to the other as I move. I pay attention to my breath. I am home. This is why we come. This is the magic of this place.
Smack. A door slams in the distance. Well, this is why most of us come, I think. This is what happens to most of us after a few days away from our city rhythms. Not everyone moves so quietly, not everyone places dishes carefully. As I fold the cloth in a neat rectangle and hang it over the oven handle, I hear another door slam, closer this time, and clumsy footsteps get louder and louder. I know exactly who’s approaching and I feel a wave of irritation, hot and tight, rise in my chest.
I spot her trundling down the hallway heading toward the kitchen, toward me, the stiff fabric of her robes swishing as she moves. It’s the cranky nun. I had given her this name in my head, of course. She is a skinny pale woman in her mid-30’s, with a shaved head, the traditional maroon robes of a monastic, wire glasses, and a permanent scowl. She is ordained in the Buddhist tradition, originally from a small town in the Canadian prairies. She works at the centre for half the year, managing retreats, taking care of the tasks that happen behind the scenes — all of which seem to make her huff and puff and generally be in a sour mood. Despite her training, she demonstrates little mindfulness as she moves around the centre and is often heard letting doors slam, setting pots down with a bang, and generally annoying the retreatants, who, like me, are fiercely protective of the peace and quiet they find here.
My entire body is tense now and I am desperate to slip away. I refuse to let her burst my peaceful little bubble. I plan my exit through the door to the yard on the other side of the room. Before I can slip away, she’s made it into the kitchen and immediately starts: “They have no idea!”
Her words break the silence of the past few days and something about the shock keeps me frozen in place. Her arms are rigid by her sides and she’s pacing the tiny space between the counter and the island. I’m at the end of the island and my shoulders lean toward my exit door, but my feet are planted firm. I don’t want to get sucked in. I really don’t. But I feel stuck. She goes on. A couple of the retreatants have apparently complained about her — her noisiness, her curt attitude, her seemingly mindless demeanor.
“They have no idea.” She shakes her head and sighs. I can see her eyes welling up behind her glasses. “You know, people just look at you and judge the way you are, but they have no idea. They don’t know how I was before. They don’t know how far I’ve come.”
Years later now, I can’t remember much else from what she said. But I remember the feeling in my body as I listened. All the tension melted away, something opened and softened. I was disarmed. I didn’t want to escape the room anymore. All I could do was stay and hold the hurt with her. This cranky nun had obviously been doing her share of inner work. She was devoting her life to it. And she was here, managing a meditation retreat so we could attend and enjoy some moments of refuge from our own lives, so we could do our own work. She wasn’t perfect, but she was doing her best.
Even if we’re not nuns or monks, we all are doing our best. We are simply products of our nature and nurture, working with what resources we have. Yet, when someone’s behaviour isn’t up to our standards, we tend to judge them. I still catch myself judging others. When I do, I often remember the cranky nun and the lesson she taught me that evening in the kitchen, in that house, on that island.
I don’t know if this is why we come. But this is why we’re here.
Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle (that you know nothing about).