The bus stopped just outside the building. Concrete, grey, and seemingly new, the monastery was more of a school than it was a religious institution.
I come from a totally different culture. Although secular, Turkey has quite a lot of Islamic influence and it is a part of everyday life. And when you talk to me about a Christian, especially Catholic church, or any religious complex, under the influence of Hollywood imagery, I dream of something that is relatively huge, gothic, fanciful and ancient. It needs to be a stone building, with walls covering it, Medieval statues, gargoyles and armored knights all over the place. Normally, I expected a kind of mysticism. I definitely didn’t have any idea what to expect, but that was not it.
As we entered the monastery, students in Tom Smith’s class, we were greeted by remarkable stained glass depicting the many saints of the Catholic Carmelite Order of Saint Teresa of Avila and of Catherine of Siena.
The Discalced Carmelite Nuns of Danvers got together about 55 years ago; however the Order goes way back before then. Saint Teresa of Avila founded it in 1562 in Spain, and soon after her canonisation, the first monastery was founded.
We continued and walked into a beautiful church. Just ahead of us, on the wall, stood the crucified Jesus Christ, and at the left side a statue of Virgin Mary, just behind the Eucharist. Around it were the silver letters of “O clemens, o pia, o dulcis Virgo Maria”, verses from the Marian Hymn “Salve Regina.”
We passed the church, and walked into a room where we would ask the nuns the questions we had. They greeted us very warmly, waving their hands and smiling candidly. A thing to notice was the bars between us, the students, and the nuns. Nuns sat on the other side of the iron bars, and it definitely seemed strange at first.
After a quick conversation we had with Mrs. Smith, they looked at us, wonderingly. First question was, of course, about the bars, about the barriers. Their answer was simple, that it was historically used for protection, and that it was a symbolic separation of the real world and their cloister. As we moved on, incredibly interesting topics took place. “Why?”, we asked. “Because the Truth,” they answered. “What is the Truth?” “Oh, darling, we are looking for that.” This wouldn’t be the last time hearing that this summer.
Another important takeaway would be when asked if they would choose Christianity and become nuns even if they were born somewhere else, they answered, very honestly, “I don’t know.”
A week later, we hopped on the bus again to travel to the Buddhist Retreat Centre in Newmarket, called “Aryaloka”. The building was a geodesic dome, and again, looked quite, quite new, and had a fairly curious neo-Gothic architecture. As we got in, a mid-sized Buddha was waving at us.
The interior of the building was wooden, and seemed slightly than an average home in New Hampshire. A fridge, comfy couches, fans at the lack of AC.
A man in his 40s greeted us and presented us his Buddhist name (all Buddhists are given names once they advance in the “Path”), and moved us upstairs. There we sat, he stood, and awaited curiously for the questions we had.
Up to this point, nothing seemed different from a normal house. Peaceful, tranquil, and placid. The questions were more inclined towards understanding Buddhism, rather than life as a Buddhist. After nearly an hour of exchange, he led us to a room at the very top of the dome, which they used for meditation. It was hard to focus on one thing. As we are beings in such a complex and busy world, simply cleaning your mind from the flow of life seems like one of the hardest things to do. You think to yourself- what am I doing here? Then, you think of the class, and all the ton of homework you have. Yet, if you really do succeed, there is nothing more relaxing than, well, being empty.
After the meditation, he guided us back to the room we were first in, and he requested us to ask the hardest we can — a “Bullet the Buddhist” session. One of the questions were simple enough to say, “What is the reason you are here, why are you bending in front of Buddha, why did you adopt the philosophy?”
He answered, as if it was the nuns talking, “Because I am searching for the reality, for the Truth.” We were experienced, “And you don’t know what Truth is yet?” “Correct, I don’t know it. Getting glimpses of it, now, that’s a different thing.”
The experiences at the Monastery and Aryaloka, were similar to each other as much as blue and red were. In the monastery, you would feel the divineness, the magic, the uncontrolled load of loyalty, whereas in the Aryaloka, you would understand that these people were respectful people, understanding, but different people. Different in a sense that would exclude them from the society.
Having seen all these, I can bravely say, religions of the world are not, in any sense, the same. They all seem to be looking for the same thing, the Truth, but are they, really? Truth seems more of an easy way out, a quick method to tell the goal, an excuse. When you get down to it, though, it seems that their diversity is what gives them their own meaning. That is what makes people search for it, in all the ways they ever can.