Divine Devotion

“Sister Sina, S I N A, not S I N N E R!” the catholic nun answered our question as to her name with a crackling laugh that highlighted yet another of her trademark jokes. “My niece in Australia call me the nasty nun”, she went on, “because I slapped her gently on the mouth. She was just being obnoxious!” “You could have ended up with a lawsuit on your neck!” I pitched in. We had just finished the second dance class with Sister Sina’s class in a sky blue painted room on the ground floor of a dark grey concrete building. Just in case you wondered what happened with our project of teaching at the Tongan government schools: a big burly nothing! Our song of cultural offering went unheard and drowned without echo in the bog of bureaucracy. Not so with the nuns, theirs is a totally different story, a story of devotion to the mission, for life!

Just for the heck of it we went to the Saint Joseph Catholic School here in Pangai. We had been told to approach Sister Malia, which sounds like Maria, Mary in Spanish, and it actually is. The Tongan alphabet does not know the letter R and any foreign word with an R in it is localized by replacing that odd sounding consonant with an L. We told Sister Malia about our cultural work, which we pursue with a good degree of devotion ourselves, and we offered to do a couple of dance classes for her students. Her hearty smile floated towards us through a row of perfect white teeth and her eyes lit up bright and white. A pair of ears attached to a round cheeky face under another white hood visibly raised their audio gain. Its bodily owner was sitting in front of a small note book at the table in the center of the simple staff room that was decorated with the usual colored posters where bullet lists of the school’s educational mission and an endless river of other behavioral impositions where outlined in broad strokes of marker pens. “Sister Sina”, Sister Malia addressed her, “would you like your class to receive some dance classes?” “How about this afternoon?” was her overtly enthusiastic response. We had to explain that in order to do that we would have to go back to our boat and get the boom box and the music, so it would be much better to start the following day. Arrangements were made and the next day at ten in the morning we were standing in that run down classroom with a floor of splotched black glazing, most of which had long been mopped away by the busy tidiness of doubt free faith.

Soon gentle rhythms and soothing melodies emerged from our little, white and iPod ready amplifier and Beatriz started her thing of mind body coordinating magic. The students were clearly curious, easily led and readily responsive, but the most enthused student of them all was Sister Sina herself. She picked up every step in perfect imitation and her spectacled face lit up as she was clearly dancing with her very master up in heaven. Every now and then her shrill voice called the students to attention, encouraging them to be aware, to listen and loosen up. Loosen up they did and by the end of the hour the thick, braided hair of the girls and the sky-blue loincloths of the boys were flying through the air with quite astonishing coordination to the infectious rhythm of the Mexican Machete Dance. Sister Sina wanted more. “Can you come again tomorrow?” she begged with a sparkling sheen in her eyes, still catching her breath.

The same begging question was put to us at the end of the following day’s instructions as well and we thought it an opportune moment to explain to her the more unfortunate side of reality of our less catechismally structured mission. “We have so far been unsuccessful in garnering sufficient support for our activities from wealthier nations, organizations or individuals to be able to bring our work to you totally for free”, I elaborated, working my way as carefully as I could through this moral minefield of what, where and when to give, “because work this is for us. This is what we do, our profession, our job, and we do need to somehow wretch a living for us from it. We are, of course, acutely aware of the extremely limited resources you have available to run your school and we would never dare to ask you for any kind of monetary compensation.” I then delved into the possibility of receiving provisions, fruits, vegetables etc. in exchange for our services. “And this is really just food for thought”, I added gingerly, “Maybe there is something else we do to make this work.” Sister Sina is a practical woman and she did not see any use in organizing a nutritional program for two starving artists visiting on their shiny yacht. Our dance classes at the Catholic School came to an abrupt, albeit quite happy ending.

There seemed to be the need and opportunity for an extended conversation about why we do things, with input from us and from the devoted sister, which naturally led to a discussion about the general state of human affairs in the modern world of material values. We were invited over to the nun’s residence and were served some juicy junks of deep red watermelon on a round table with a rotating central disk similar to the one we’re familiar with from the Chinese restaurants all over the world. “The little we have we share it”, Sister Sina explained after revealing the miserable 150 Tongan Pangas (just shy of $100 US) teachers receive as a monthly salary in this dusty corner of the world, “we don’t call it a salary. It’s really only a stipend.” Another chuckle answers my inquiry about any benefits granted to her through her job, like health care, retirement etc.: “I ask the Lord to keep me healthy! I’m sure he’ll provide.”

The generous sharing included the whole of Sister Sina’s live story, which came bubbling out now like an effervescent stream of the best of French Champagnes. “I was a very naughty girl!”, she started out the description of her youth spent almost entirely at the offensive side of life. Her grandfather was no less than the King of Tonga. His conversion to Catholicism left a sturdy groove in the family’s potent history and apparently his most fervent dream was that one of his descendants would be willing to sacrifice his or her entire life to the service of the Lord Supreme. Nobody in the royal clan was thirsty enough to pass up the riches and powers bestowed on the many descendents of the kingship and that dream went unheeded until his very naughty granddaughter had some sort of a revelation. Three inconclusive engagements to lovers of different denominations and creeds had their part in the equation but the tipping point is when her loud and pushy mouth got her into a splurge of serious trouble.

“My family was getting ready to emigrate to Australia,” the yarn started to unwind, “and I had fallen to me to bring the visa applications for everybody to the consulate.” A five Panga banknote returned as change for the application fee found its mysterious way into the application package handed to the clerk, and before she knew it, she stood accused by the supervisor of trying to bribe a consulate officer. All kinds of bad words escaped from Sina’s all too ready lips and when she received the stack of passports to take back home all the visas had been approved except hers. With all her family gone of to material wonderland she was left behind and some serious soul searching began.

Sister Sina describes it as a calling she could not resist. There was no clear point in time, but a gradual growth of clarity in regards to her mission. Once the decision to take up the divine profession was imminent, she went to be trained in Fiji. Physical hardship was a revelation. Things like working in the fields to plant and harvest she had never done before in her life within the protective cocoon of nobility but in spite of her family’s lack of comprehension for her choices Sister Sina never looked back. “After three years you can still get out, but once you take the final vow you’re in it for life”, she exclaims without a single shade of remorse, and she weighs the potential daily struggle with an earthly husband against the eternal guiding presence of the heavenly father she sees herself married to with a demonstratively obvious outcome.

The conversation came full circle now with her commitment to service that demands renouncing the wealth of property accumulated over eons by her family. So Sister Sina is, like us, at odds with the modern world, where pride and power is used to create shells of comfort, putting us at war with each other and at the very core of it, with ourselves. In spite of a potentially mortal philosophical argument with the implied innocence of her faith I cannot help but admire the gist of her integrity. The love for dancing of course makes her stern doctrine quite a bit more lovable and her dedicated service to the lord of trampled thought excusable.

Soon after some hugs and many more mutual assurances of admiration we are leaving the faith infused compound with two golden papayas in our bags. They had been plucked earlier in the day from the many trees around the residence and put on the veranda’s railings to come to their fully sweet maturity. A point is made by the hooded brides of god that this is not a reward for our generous artistic offerings, it’s simply “because we have very little, but the little we have, we like to share!”

2 Responses to “Divine Devotion”

  1. Thomas Says:

    I always get something good from your posts. Having faith that our needs will be met. It is the difficult times that make the good time seem so sweet.

    Aloha from Ka`u,

  2. allan aunapu Says:

    I too get this.

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