Sister Marilyn: To Come And See
Syndicated from, Jun 24, 2024

9 minute read


Many, many years ago, when I was 18 years old and first entered the convent, I had my heart set on being a teacher and being a mathematician and all of that. Our life was very structured from 5am to 10pm, every single day, except Sunday we had the afternoon off.

Early on in that first year, one of the other novice nuns invited me to go to San Francisco with her to visit her uncle. I looked up from the book I was reading and said, "No, I don't really wanna do that." I didn't know her uncle and I barely knew her. So I went back to reading my book. 

The next day, the novice director who was in charge of training and mentoring us called me into her office and recounted this incident. 

She said, "Is it true that you refused an invitation to go with another sister to visit someone?" 

I said, "Yeah. Right." 

She said a few things, which I won't repeat here :), about how I had to learn to be more open and blah, My response in all my naiveté and (I would say now) stupidity, I looked straight at her and said, "But sister, human relations is not really my field."

The shock on her face! It's a wonder that she did not dismiss me from the convent and send me home. :)

But that's how I lived. I lived in my head. I loved reading. I was competent, I was confident, I felt I was in control (and, pretty much, I was) as I got into teaching. And I had always felt the closeness of God. But, somehow, it never translated into other people -- into that connectedness that I now know is so incredibly central.

That connectedness began to dawn on me through my contact with refugees. 

One day, I met a bishop who was from South Sudan. [He was] a black African, a very beautiful humble man. I call him the Mother Teresa of Africa. He died last year.

He was telling me about the war in South Sudan and how he had refugees living in his house and bomb craters in his yard, because the north of Sudan was bombing him for being a peacemaker and all of that.

My immediate response was (I didn't know his name), "Bishop," I said. "I wish I knew more about the suffering of your people." 

He looked at me and he said, "Come and see." 

Come and see. 

And so I did.

We had learned scripture -- Christian scriptures and Hebrew scriptures -- when I was training in the convent, and that is the first word, the first sentence, that Jesus speaks in John's Gospel. Two men come up to him and say, "Teacher, where do you live?"

And he says, "Come and see."

So when the Bishop said that to me, I was like, 'Oh, I can't say no to that.'

You know, come and see. And I wasn't thinking about when I was eighteen and said, "No, I don't wanna go see your uncle."

By that time, I had an openness, because of working with refugees, that I did want to come and see. And so I went and saw.

That incident of me as a young novice, and then that turning point with that Bishop many years later, came back to me through ServiceSpace. When [the founder] Nipun laid out for us the difference between transactional and transformational or relational ways of being, I realized with something of shock how transactional my life had been. And how indebted I was to the refugees for helping me see it as more relational.

To go back to that line in John's Gospel, think about your own life. How many times has somebody come up to you, whether at a meeting or elsewhere, and said, "Hey, so where do you live?"

I always give the answer, "I live in San Francisco Bay Area."

What if I answered more like Jesus and said, "Well, come and see," inviting more people into my life rather than just trading information? 

"I live in San Francisco, where do you live?" "I live in India." That's just transactional. And it's so much more comfortable that way, because there's no risk. Right? There's no risk.

If we could -- if I could -- move more toward invitations instead of information, how much broader and more enriching my life would be? Because there would be more people in it -- anyone who accepted the invitation to come and see, which really means: "Come be with me. See where I live. See how I live."

That was what Jesus was inviting those first two disciples to do. 

He could have said, "Oh I live in Nazareth. I'm from a family of carpenters." 

He didn't.

He said, "Come and see. Come be with me. Live as I live." And that is really transforming.

So for my own life, it meant moving from the 10 Commandments to the 8 Beatitudes, which are ways of living, not laws.

And moving from a belief system to a way, a practice, of living. Actually, Nipun, it was your sister-in-law, Pavi, who first said to me (when I first stepped into their beautiful home for a discussion with Hindus and Buddhists and athiests) -- her first question to me was "Well, what do you believe?" It was not, "What do you believe, Sister Marilyn?" It was, "What is your practice?"

You know, after 50 years of being in the convent, nobody had ever asked me that. But that is the question -- What is our practice, as followers of the beloved?

So, from there, I began to realize the interconnectedness of everyone, whether you invite them in or not. So why not invite them in? Why not be enriched? Which of course is what this whole ServiceSpace platform is about. It's a web of connectedness. So beautiful. 

It made me think about -- you know, when little kids first start to draw? You notice they draw their house and a flower and maybe their mother and father in stick figures. And then they always put in the sky. But where is the sky? It's this little blue band in the top half-inch of the page, right? The sky is up there. It's not until they're older that they realize the sky comes all the way down to the ground, and the blue is everywhere all the way.

I think many of us who call ourselves Christians, we still think of the sky as up there. That God is somewhere up there. And we're reaching for that, and missing the people that we're living with, that we're interacting with. So to bring that sense of connectedness into our lives is such a great gift. 

In the life of Monet, the beautiful painter, he at one point in his seventies was losing his vision. The doctor told him he had to have cataract surgery. He responded right away. 

He said, "I don't want surgery." 

The doctor said, "Well, it's not bad. It's over very quickly."

Monet said, "No, no, no, I'm not afraid of it. I have waited all my life to see the world the way I see it now. Where everything is connected. Where the lilies blend into the pond and the horizon blends into the wheat field. And all of that." 

And I thought that is such a magnificent image, right? For what we all know in our heart -- that there is no separation.

When I went on the retreat, the Gandhi 3.0 Retreat a year and a half ago, I spent a day with one of the wonderful volunteers, Kishan, touring the Old City of Ahmedabad with a couple of other retreatans. And if you know Kishan, you know how remarkable he is. He's utterly humble and present and joyful. So it's very attractive to be with this. I didn't know what tour he was leading, but I just said, "I want to go with you. You're a tour leader -- wherever you're going, I'm going with you."

There are many beautiful things in the Old City -- the temples, the architecture -- but he was focused on the people. He brought us to a cafe run by prisoners, so we could talk to the prisoners. And then he talked to every vendor we met, whether they were selling grass for the cows -- he even talked to the cows. I was so impressed by that, and when we came out from one temple, there was a woman sitting cross-legged on the sidewalk in front of the temple. She was begging. With the three of us white Westerners walking by with Kishan, this woman immediately pivoted toward us and put her hands up. I had a bunch of rupees in my purse, so I'm digging in my purse to get them.

Kishan turned to me and he said, "Don't do that."

So I thought, "Okay, when in Rome, Kishan knows better than I do."

So I took a hand out of my purse and just approach the woman. And Kishan squatted down next to her, put his arm around her shoulder -- she was quite elderly -- and explained to this woman, "There are three visitors from the other half of the world. What can you give it to them today? Surely have a gift to share."

The three of us were like, "What? This woman is begging from us. Now he wants her to give something to us?"

Then he said to her, very quietly, "Certainly you can offer a blessing to them."

And the woman, no doubt, spoke a beautiful blessing to us.

I was riveted. And at this moment, a man walked by carrying a bakery bag with a pink box in it from the bakery. And he heard this conversation, turned around, came back to us, and offered her the cake.

It took about one minute. And it encapsulated how interactions should be relational not transactional. And how everybody has gifts to share and to give. And that moment, I think, will remain with me until the day I die. That Kishan saw everyone's ability to bless everyone else. 

And it reminds me of the Sufi poem from the Muslim tradition by Rumi. I know I've quoted in here before but it's my favorite prayer: 

Be the one who when you walk into the room. Blessing shifts to the one who needs it most. Even if you've not been filled. Be bread.

Thank you. I think that should be my story -- that I try to be bread, for those I meet. And I try to answer the question of "where do you live" with an invitation to invite the other person in to see where I live and how I live and become part of my life.

I am very much an introvert, so this is not easy for me, but it's so enriching. I know we need to keep doing it. If I could give any advice to all of you younger ones :), it would be to take the risk of inviting other people in. And when somebody asks you where you live, consider giving a relational answer rather than a transactional one. 

There are two other little quotes I'd love to hear and then I'm stopping. 

There is a book -- I can't remember the author right now -- but she walked across West Africa with a tribe that were very nomadic and moving their cattle along. Now and then, the tribe would have to go into a town to get essentials like soap. And, inevitably, the clerk in the shop would say, "Oh, where are you people from?"

And the Fulani (the tribe), they would always answer, "We are here now."

So instead of looking to the past where you came from, or even the future ("we're on our way to such and such"), they sank into the present moment. It doesn't matter where I'm from, where our past is, or what our future might be. We are here now. So let's relate with one another. 

And then, from the fifth century monk, Saint Columba, who traveled a lot to the various churches in (I think it was) England or Ireland.

He said (this is one of his prayers):" May I arrive at every place I enter."

Again, a call to be where you are, which stretches all of us. 

So thank you for this chance to share my growth into someone who realizes that human relations just might be our field.

Thank you.


Sister Marilyn Lacey is the founder of Mercy Beyond Borders. Learn more about her journey through her 2019 Awakin Call.

5 Past Reflections