Who would have thought that my first week in India the person I would be spending the most time with would be a Catholic nun from Kerala. Sister–I don’t know if she has another name, all the nuns seem to just go by “Sister”–comes by regularly to sit and chat, always apologizing for disturbing me. I’ve come to look forward to her visits. She’s vivacious and charming and totally devoted to her calling, spending several hours a day in prayer. Her smile is radiant. (I’ve noticed a commonality with the women I become attached to–they all have beautiful smiles. Coincidence?) At first, it was hard to understand her accented English, but listening closely to what she has to say is worth the effort. It’s forced me to look at my own intolerance. Whenever I complain about someone else’s bigotry, all I’m doing is showing my own. May all the rednecks and holy rollers of my past forgive me.
The relationship has also helped me to be more sure of my own identity. I’ve always been a bit chameleon-like, bending and adjusting to whatever situation I’m in. While there might be some value in that, it can easily cross over into no boundaries, with no idea of what I really think or feel. That’s changing.
A few days ago, she stopped by. The first question was if I was a Christian.
I told her no. I’m a Buddhist. We both laughed a bit at the incongruity of an Indian nun and an American Buddhist.
Then she asked about my family. “How are they doing without you? Don’t they miss you?”
“My sons are grown. Out on their own. I chat with them pretty regularly on Skype.”
“And your husband?”
Ah. The husband question. I’ve noticed in many of my travels throughout Asia, a woman alone is suspect and divorce practically unheard of. One friend counseled me to say I was widowed, but I balked at that, not only because of its untruth, but because it didn’t seem fair to my husband, who is a decent man, to relegate him to the afterlife before his time. So I took a deep breath and said, “I’m divorced.”
After a long pause, she asked, “Was yours’ a love marriage or an arranged marriage?”
“A love marriage.”
“Ah. Maybe if you had let your family arrange your marriage they would have chosen someone you could be compatible with into old age.”
“But people change. How can you know you’ll be the same person 20 years from now that you are today?”
“That’s true. People change. But what about children? They need their papas. They need their mamas. I would be so sad if I couldn’t go to my papa for advice.”
“Yes, they need both. But they can still have both.”
“But it’s more difficult if you’re not together.”
“What about love?” I asked.
“Love is important. But you learn to love. Falling in love is short-sighted.”
Good point. That also has been a lesson. My younger years were dominated by this obscure search for love, but I’m not sure I ever really understood what it meant. I confused romance with love, and one is short-sighted while the other isn’t. Probably my children are where I first began to understand real love, the kind that thinks of another rather than myself. But the other kind, the romance, still pursued me into middle age. For years, I was so passionately attached to my husband that I nearly lost myself. Ours’ was a fiery, volatile relationship, and it was a disservice to him as much as to me. Only by extracting myself from that role of a wife could either of us grow.
So now I find myself in a situation I never would have imagined–chatting with a nun about love. And I found myself opening up to her in a way I also wouldn’t have imagined. For once, I didn’t pretend to be someone I’m not, but shared the incredible sadness that comes with ending a long marriage, the hopes that died, the loneliness. Yet I don’t regret these choices, and I’m so glad I didn’t move from my marriage into another relationship which is the pattern of my youth. Falling love is short sighted, yet love is so multifaceted that once you start opening up to all its possibilities it’s breathtaking. The love of the universe, that’s simply part of being alive can be transformative.
Thank you, Sister.