Forgiveness, when she knows herself completely, transcends herself. Forgiveness is a child of justice, but she herself is independent of right and wrong. She originates from fracture—good and bad, me and you—but she matures to wholeness. That's why forgiveness must be wholesale. She doesn’t include the divisions of complete and incomplete because those striations split her soul—and how can anyone split a soul?
Rather, by nature she enfolds all things—even herself—in her arms and nurses any partial, broken, and infantile parts at her breast until they’re full, as they always were meant to be. In the hour she is most herself, forgiveness loses herself in the knowledge that never has there been anything to forgive; all has been, is, and always will be well. Then she is initiated with a new name: then we call her mercy.
When I wrote this in my notebook, I was split: I had one bare, washed foot in the temple where light adorns itself with light, and one combat boot in my childhood home where I hadn’t cast a light in years. My flight home from the ashram, my monastic community, was leaving in a few dogged hours, and I was praying for a miracle: two planets united under one common sun.
Before I came to the ashram, I cherished a dangerous cliché: temples are the homes of saints. I imagined the devotees illuminating their own solitude with their hymns; I imagined a family entirely—entirely—different from my own.
But now I know: temples are the homes of saints—just not quite like I thought.
At the ashram, the incalculable internal movements of each day are grounded within a fixed external form: a structured spiritual practice. Each day this practice opens—like a daylily—in response to the light of the practitioner’s love, revealing the Deities embraced in its center. At dawn, we offer puja—prayers—to our Deities, poured into the ordinary vessels of fruits and flowers, milk and sweets, incense and candles, sandalwood and saffron, rosewater and jewels, silk and sacred basil.
We offer God our devotion in beautiful containers: good things. But who decides which things are good—pleasing to God—and which are not? If there’s nothing outside of God, then is a ripened fruit better than a frostbitten flower?
At the end of the puja, we offer a handful of flower petals, symbolizing our prayer to continuously serve God’s endless—and singular—desire for love. We envision the earthly vessels for that love—the sweet, joy-laden summer fruits; the bitter, sullen winter flowers—
I could go on eternally, but I’m avoiding that airplane I mentioned. Observing through the tiny window a broadened perspective afforded by the plane’s altitude, still I couldn’t stop winging toward narrow preoccupations as I tried to offer puja in my mind. Effortfully, I arrived at the final prayer, my last handful of worn-out petals.
Holding my Deities at my center, I unfolded like a daylily in their light: “Krishna (our loving name for God), what do you want?”
“But,” I protested, “I’m ugly.”
But I had asked, and so I had already offered. I opened my hand and, petal by too long-palmed petal, offered the unsightliness I’d hidden from their light.
Then, mercy: the miracle that makes ugliness more charming than apparent beauty. I understood: temples—our bodies, our minds—are the homes of saints: receptacles for grace. Temples are fractured so they can be made whole.
Daily we pilgrimage to their seemingly split facades: we interact—in families and communities, in cyberspace and private thoughts—and if we realize where we’re standing when we approach their unhinged thresholds, we take off our shoes, bow, and offer puja.
As I finally embraced my family, inwardly I offered each a handful of petals—a little broken—along with a true name:
I called them mercy.
Ananda-mayi dasi is a former nun in the Hindu tradition of Gaudiya Vaisnavism. She lives near Saragrahi, an ashram in the forested foothills of the Blueridge Mountains, where she spends her time tending her Deities and writing.
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