A lot of time I write for Rogue Priest in the style of an essay. Today I have a much more personal post.
Having completed my 2.5 months in Mexico City, me and my mediocre Spanish hopped a plane back to the States. My destination: Albany, NY to break my sister out of a monastery.
My sister, Julie, is a Buddhist. In July 2008 she gave up her worldly life—job, boyfriend, apartment, car—and entered a “three year retreat” in a Tibetan monastery in the Catskills. (That’s in air quotes because it lasts closer to four years.)
Other than sending and receiving letters, she had no contact with us. No visits, phone calls, or emails. During one 6-month vow of silence even the letters weren’t allowed.
This morning, my parents and I walked up the steps of the monastery’s shrine room. We took our seat among about a hundred other people whose loved ones had been in the retreat. Silently the monks and nuns filed in: men sat in one long row, women in the other, facing them; and we saw my sister for the first time.
She saw me there, thinner, with short hair, a cleaner face, and my green ceremonial wrap and her eyes flew open in surprise. She grinned and suppressed a happy scream at me. I grinned back.
She, too, has lost weight. Her head is shaved, and she moves carefully and gracefully in her crimson and saffron robes.
For three hours she and the other lamas led rounds of chanting for our benefit and the goodness of all beings. Only when it was over and the final horn had blown could we rush up and hug her.
I held her. For the first time I knew my sister’s pain at the long separation. Three (four) years without family is a long time to last.
We chatted over lunch. Julie was tired. They’d gotten up at 4 a.m. to start their preparation. Not unusual for them, but hard all the same. Often, talking of casual things, her voice seemed choked up.
But she had successfully completed the retreat, as I knew she would. An older monk, Lama Karma, gushed to us how above-and-beyond she was in her practice. I watched her face: would she bashfully look away? No, just a happy smile. Meditation does have its benefits.
Me in my priestly green and my sister Juju in her Buddhist robes.
Sometimes I wondered if the retreat would change her. Of course it did, but not in a way that anyone could object to. Chanting and playing the horn she’s very serious, focused and deliberate. But when she speaks she has the same joyful easy humor as always. It’s the same Juju I’ve always known, just burnished.
I think about the doubts she surely faced in her retreat. A retreat has different risks and benefits than a walk across the world. I won’t face the same things she did, but in a way I feel more united with her than ever.
When I stumble into Rio I wonder, will I shake in her arms?