When I was a doctoral student, I used to attend graduate residentials that were held at a wonderful place called Santa Sabina, in San Rafael, California. Although the first time I went there was for this very earthy academic event, I learned immediately, because of the wonderful, holy atmosphere of the place, that Santa Sabina was something very different than I’d thought it would be. At that time–and perhaps now, as well–it was a Catholic convent on the campus of Dominican College in San Rafael, a convent that was no longer a convent, but had been turned into a conference and retreat center. It hosted many different kinds of groups, from the one I first attended to contemplative retreats for numerous spiritual groups. Its atmosphere is beautifully universal: Mary shared space with Buddha in the Garden, and the entire place echoed with an atmosphere of peace and holiness. After that first visit, I always arranged to stay there for a few days when I was in that part of the world, and I came to know and love the women who ran the place. It was my “home away from home,” in the highest sense of the word. I haven’t been able to go there for many years now, but I carry it in my heart, always. It may well be the place I have felt most at home on this planet and in this world.
One morning when I was there many years ago, I found myself in conversation with an elderly nun, one of the last of those who still wore the habit, a very wonderful soul. She told me a story, and I have tried to remember that story for many years, until I just found it in a book called Soul Food, by Jack Kornfield and Christian Feldman, a collection of transformative stories from many different traditions. A wonderful book. Here is the story:
When the Bishop’s ship stopped at a remote island for a day, and he determined to use the time as profitably as possible. He strolled along the seashore and came across three fishermen mending their nets. In pidgin English they explained to him that centuries before they had been Christianized by missionaries. “We are Christians!” they said, proudly pointing to one another.
The bishop was impressed. Did they know the Lord’s Prayer? They had never heard of it. The bishop was shocked.
“What do you say, then, when you pray?”
“We lift eyes to heaven. We pray, ‘We are three, you are three, have mercy on us.’” The bishop was appalled at the primitive, the downright heretical nature of their prayer. So he spent the whole day teaching them the Lord’s Prayer. The fishermen were poor learners; but they gave it all they had, and before the bishop sailed away next day he had the satisfaction of hearing them go through the whole formula without a fault.
Months later the bishop’s ship happened to pass by those islands again and the bishop, as he paced the deck saying his evening prayers, recalled with pleasure the three men on that distant island who were now able to pray, thanks to his patient efforts. While he was lost in the thought he happened to look up and notice a spot of light in the east. The light kept approaching the ship and, as the bishop gazed in wonder, he saw three figures walking on the water. The captain stopped the boat and everyone leaned over the rails to see this sight.
When they were within speaking distance, the bishop recognized his three friends, the fishermen. “Bishop!” they exclaimed. “We hear your boat go past island and come hurry hurry to meet you.”
“What is it you want,” asked the awe-stricken bishop.
“Bishop,” they said, we so, so sorry. We forget lovely prayer. We say, ‘Our Father in heaven, holy be your name, your kingdom come. . .’ then we forget. Please tell us prayer again.”
The bishop felt humbled. “Go back to your homes, my friends, he said, “and each time you pray, say, ‘We are three, you are three, have mercy on us!’” –from Soul Food: Stories to Nourish the Spirit and the heart, by Jack Kornfield and Christian Feldman, Harper San Francisco, 1991
The sister who told me the story told it just a trifle differently. When the fishermen (which is how she referred to the three men, and told the story as if they said their prayer from their boat on the often dangerous and frightening high seas) came flying across the surface of the water and spoke to the Bishop, they confessed that they could not remember the Lord’s Prayer as he had taught them. They said that they could only remember their original prayer: “Three in a boat, Three in Heaven, have mercy on us.”
The old nun paused here, and her face twisted into an ironic grin. She winked at me as she told me what the Bishop said to them: “Keep it up.”
I will always remember this woman’s last words to me: “We all need more faith. That’s all we need. More faith.”