Pope John Paul II has just died, and the Vietnamese are weeping.
Here in Phan Thiet, in the southeastern coast of Vietnam, thousands of people are flocking to Masses. The rickshaw driver who took me to the seafood and beer place last night picks me up from the Ocean Dunes Novotel Resort, where I am staying for downtime and golf, to take me to a Mass. The chapel is packed; I hover outside, not able to squeeze through the press of bodies.
I can hear from inside the priest beginning the Mass â€œNien zhang Cha, va Con, va Thanh Thanâ€¦.â€ I make the sign of the cross with everyone else. After the part where the priest greets the people and the people answer back â€œVa o cong Cha,â€ I am lost; my Vietnamese only goes so far. But I stay respectfully, trying to catch here a word, there a phrase, watching the faces of the people around me. I know the names of the saints in Vietnamese, so when the priest announces the Gospel for that day, I know we are listening to John tell the story of how Jesus asked Peter â€œDo you love me?â€ three times.
Toward the end of Mass, the crowdâ€™s emotion swells; I am guessing someone is eulogizing Pope John Paul II. Many of the worshippers here are wearing white, for mourning. Some
A nun's life: strong hands, Jesus, and simple possessions. Photo by Aloha Lavina.
men even have the traditional white headscarf for funerals, made of rough cotton, tied around their heads. Vietnamese Catholics are seriously committed to their religion. I watch a man pound his chest with his fist, his mouth making long, sorrowful notes.
The crying and grief take me back to my grandmotherâ€™s deathbed, four months earlier. In the icy private ICU room, a withered woman lay, her hair thin, tubes giving her oxygen, a soft blip on a screen telling of her heart. She had been the anchor of my childhood. Beside her bed as she lay dying, I read aloud from Moby Dick, my voice faltering over lines she had read to me long ago, when I was the child and she was the reader. Before she passed on, she woke up briefly and recognized me. She beckoned me weakly, and I bent my head down to her lips and heard, â€œFind God.â€
I could not cry when she died. I went back to work, to the smallness of days spent poring over negative contact sheets of bright umbrellas and golden pagodas. After hours of work, I worked again, this time on a golf swing, pounding ball after ball at a driving range near my house in Bangkok, until I was tired. Until my body craved sleep.
I awake from denial in Phan Thiet, in the heat of Vietnamese summer. The Pope is dead, and so is my grandmother. And it is time to look at grief and know its face.
The face that meets me as my taxi stops at Jamberoo Abbey is kind and fresh in the way that religious â€”nuns and priestsâ€”faces are: a freshness shaped by a life of simplicity. Sister Therese knows just when I arrive. I have taken the train from Sydney Central Station to Jamberoo, and a taxi from the pub near the train station. Driving in the cab through the hills of Jamberoo, it is so lush and green that I can see why in 1834 Governor Richard Bourke nicknamed the region the â€œGarden of New South Wales.â€ Sheep grazing dot the fields beside the winding Jamberoo Mountain Road flanked by ferns and eucalyptus trees leading to the Benedictine Abbey, an enclosed community in a wooded area.
Sr. Therese leads me into the front office, asks me to sit. The cloistered Benedictines lead a life of prayer, so Sr. Therese goes straight to the point. â€œWhy have you come to us?â€
A million things swarm into my head, but I reply, â€œI have a question, and I need to listen to an answer.â€ In my research, I learned of the Benedictine Abbeyâ€™s openness to host people from time to time, people who need to contemplate, whether through the guidance of a sister or alone, on their own. The Abbey has four timber cottages and two hermitages open to those who seek some peace away from the world for a while.
The day I flew in from Vietnam to Sydney, I called to ask for a weekâ€™s stay at one of the cottages. Sister called me yesterday, telling me to arrive at noon, the hour when the sisters can speak; the rest of the day they spend in their vow of silence.
Sr. Therese smiles at me. â€œYou have come to the right place. That is what we do here. We listen to God.â€ She opens a drawer and takes out a medallion on a leather string, hands it to me, saying, â€œYou can wear this to indicate that you want to avoid speaking for the time you are here. We have two other people who have come for personal retreats as well. If they are wearing the medallion, please do not speak to them.â€
I nod understanding. She leads me from the office to Cottage 4, the one farthest from the library and the communal kitchen. The cottage is simple, with a sitting area, a dining table and kitchenette on the first floor and two sleeping cells and a toilet-bath combination on the second floor. My cell is six feet by four feet, with a desk and chair, a narrow closet, and a cot. Wide windows face the Jamberoo Mountains, misting with cloud cover in the Australian autumn.
â€œYou can use any of the food that is in the common fridge outside Cottage 1,â€ Sr. Therese explains.
I nod and thank her, then ask, â€œIs there a timetable the sisters follow?â€
Sr. Therese smiles, â€œYes, we pray seven times a day. A bell will be rung to signal those times.â€Â She turns to leave my cell, then turns back and adds, â€œI have to go back to my silence in a few minutes, but if you have any emergency, please come to the main office and a sister will help you.â€
I thank her one last time, and begin my silence.
I unpack the small sling bag I have brought. A change of clothing, a pair of pajamas, a toothbrush and toothpaste, a notebook, a camera, and two pens. I put these away in the closet and walk downstairs to the small kitchen area. There is an electric stove and a toaster. In the cupboards there are a soup pot, frying pan, cooking oil, salt, pepper, teacups, plates and saucers. A peeling knife, spoons and forks, no chopsticks, bags of tea and sachets of coffee, and stacks and stacks of Maggi chicken noodle soup packets. Noodle bowls.
A path winds outside the cottages. I follow the path, passing each cottage toward Cottage 1. Each cottage has a porch facing a field. Somewhere a cow lows.
A nun holds a rosary with the crucifix chosen by Pope John Paul II as his personal crucifix. Photo by Aloha Lavina.
Outside Cottage 1 is the communal fridge Sr. Therese mentioned. Inside the industrial size fridge are oranges, cheese, butter, jam, eggs, gallon jugs of milk and orange juice. On a cupboard beside it are loaves of bread.
Facing Cottage 1 a few paces away is the Library. It is empty when I enter, my footsteps sounding hollow on the timber floor. The library consists of several shelves of books important to Australian religious history, Catholic literature, and some reference titles. A couple of couches and an armchair invite readers below the shelves. Across the square room from the books is a bigger kitchen with sink, counter, stove and microwave. There is a fridge here too, and when I open it, there are packets of microwaveable food. These have been labeled â€œChristopherâ€ with permanent marker on masking tape strips. I close the fridge.
On the back porch of the Library building is a bench facing the field. A pair of cows graze, and smack in the middle of the field is a lonely timber cottage, much smaller than the others. A low fence separates the cottage from the rest of the buildings, but the gate, though unlatched, is closed. I check my curiosity and lope off toward the rest of the grounds.
Itâ€™s 64 degrees Fahrenheit, and my toes know it. Foolishly, I have brought only the long sleeved cotton shirts I had brought to Vietnam and a pair of open sandals. At least I have long trousers on. I rub my hands while following the stone path around the cottages until I come to a rose garden. Here and there are rows of roses, Tea Roses with their unruly bushes, Hybrid Perpetuals, Hybrid Tea Roses and the Floribunda with multiple flowers on each stem. In the chill of autumn, Australian roses insist on blooming.
I walk slower through the garden, following a stone path to a corridor under an awning. A sign indicates this is the way to Chapel. I follow the corridor to a large wooden door with an old fashioned metal knocker. The simple plaque on the door says Chapel. I do not knock, but I push the door ajar and peek inside.
The chapel is circular in the main area with several pews, an organ, a lectern with a heavy leather-bound book on it. A small wing near the entrance flanking the altar area also has several pews. Here a couple of people wearing normal clothes and medallions smile at me as I enter.
The altar fronts wall-to-wall and ceiling-high glass windows, revealing the wild growth of the forest and the mountains in the distance. The altar is a slab of polished wood on thick legs. A simple crucifix carved from reddish wood watches from a place over the altar.
I genuflect and bow my head, then take a seat in a pew. From here I see a door on the opposite side of the entrance. It is this door through which the sisters come into Chapel, a few minutes later, for midday prayer.
Thomas Merton once wrote, â€œThe gift of prayer is inseparable from another grace: that of humility, which makes us realize that the very depths of our being and life are meaningful and real insofar as they are oriented toward God as their source and their end.â€
It is perhaps this humility I witness that makes the Abbey seem irresistible. I find the prayer time so gentle, its waves of song and liturgy like an ocean smoothing the jagged rocky edges of life. The nunsâ€™ faces seem to me to glow in the chapelâ€™s window light. They had no position to defend, no feelings of loss of face to avenge, no prejudice, no judgment, no malice. They are beautiful.
I go back to Chapel every time for scheduled prayer that dayâ€”5.00 pm and 7.00 pm. The next morning, I wake at 4.00, dressing quickly in the chilly air, walking briskly to Chapel, to make it for the 4.30 am Vigils prayer. The Chapel floor is cold when we kneel. In the faint light the voice of the sister reading the liturgy seems to echo.
A nun kneels in prayer. Photo by Aloha Lavina.
Breakfast is an orange, coffee and a bowl of Maggi chicken noodle. After Vigils, I wash by hand the clothes I had used yesterday, so I can use them tomorrow. When I go to Cottage 1 to make a meal, in the dim bluish light of early morning, I spy the bearded monk from the lonely cottage in the field, tiptoeing in shorts and tee shirt to the communal fridge. He leaves minutes later with a jug of milk, half-jogging back to his cottage.
I spend the morning raking leaves around the cottages. I find the rake in a tool shed beyond the Library, and a wheelbarrow to cart the leaves to a pile near the shed, a pile that looks like it is a compost heap in progress. All morning I go back and forth between raking and piling leaves, the repetitive motion comforting. I break for the 8.00 am midmorning prayer and Mass, then go back to work until lunch: another bowl of Maggi, an orange. Prayer at 1.00 pm. Back to raking the leaves. Prayer at 5 pm. Then it is too dark to rake, and not that many leaves have fallen while we were in prayer. I make a dinner of the usual, wash and put away the dishes, and go to the library to try to read.
My days become a pattern. Wake at 4, wash clothes, attend Vigil at 4.30, breakfast. Then workâ€”raking, candle making, scrubbing cottage kitchens and floorsâ€”anything that needed doing, I do. The hours pass, marked by the times in Chapel.
The silence has claimed me. I find it thick, like a protective blanket wrapping me in its safety.
On the fourth night, I sit up in the cot fully awake. It is just past midnight, but it feels like 4.00 am. I half expect the bell to ring, to signal Vigil.
I make my way to the Library building. Familiar by now with the path, my movement triggers the motion sensor lamps lining the path, and spots of light lead me to the porch bench by the Library. I make a cup of tea and pick a book, reading portions of it, but I canâ€™t concentrate. I put down the book and listen to the sounds masked by the dark. Maybe a bird native to Australia with an unfamiliar call. Maybe the cows in the field shifting in their sleep.
Above me the stars for which Australia was named wink in the thousands. Below my feet the timber creaks slightly. Inside me a memory finally breaks free and streams down my cheeks.
My grandmother stands in her yard, that patch of dirt behind her house, sloped and irregular, where she grows tropical plants. Her hand dips into a bowl of steamed rice, and then flings the rice grains out, so they fly like wedding wishes into the air before landing in scattered patterns on the ground.
Birds come, house swallows. They swarm, chirping, around her feet. They do not fight over the grains. There is enough for everyone.
She feeds them the extra rice from her own evening meal. She talks to them. I cannot hear her words in the memory, but I remember her voice, and I stay still, and listen.
Walking home after night prayer. Photo by Aloha Lavina.