Dancing in rough seas

by Margaret Gonsalves


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When I visited the United States for the first time in July 2003, our sisters' community based in Washington, D.C., went on a retreat. Towards the end of the retreat, we went on a boat ride in the Atlantic Ocean.

The helmsman of the boat announced that he was going to shake the boat so that we could watch the dolphins dance. As soon as the boat started shaking, I could hear the high-pitched screeching of the children; some of them began leaning over the railing and throwing up. I began experiencing a sort of churning in my stomach; holding the chair tightly, I did not dare to open my eyes. 

"Behold the great dance of the dolphins." This announcement of the helmsman resulted in a dramatic shift of focus from ourselves to the outer display. I was wonderstruck by the spectacular dance of the dolphins. The more the helmsman shook the boat, the higher the dolphins leapt. As the waves grew rougher, the dolphins leapt higher and higher and kissed each other in the air. The helmsman exclaimed: "The rougher the sea, the better the dance."  Wow!

Until this day, waves of nostalgia sweep over me on recalling that dolphin dance. "Roller coasters" that shake us up from our comfort zones can be great spiritual teachers.  Life with its inevitable problems and difficulties, twists and turns, ins and outs, often gifts us with shaking experiences that can lead to profound awareness. The dance depicted the terribly rough patch in my life then and helped me to dance with the huge waves of despair.  It was an "Aha moment" that all is dance, led by the dancing helmsman.

After seven years of being the superior of our religious community in India, I was burnt out and had to be rushed to the Intensive Care Unit in the hospital. After I recovered, my request to go for a sabbatical was reluctantly granted. I soon realized that my thirst for deeper theological studies as well as a call I felt to start an ashram was not understood. They expected me to fit into the traditional model of religious life, which was stifling and suffocating me.

I dreamt of being freed to set others free. Should I follow the traditional model of religious life and be subservient to the authorities, or should I respond to the divine call to expand my horizons? Was the Lord calling me to go beyond the frontiers of my congregation in which I was relatively comfortable?  This shakeup of my conflicting views of religious life was giving me a rough time, but the dolphin dance totally altered perspectives.

Reliving the dolphin dance I found myself resurrected and on the cusp of a spiritual and personal inner reawakening. The free and fearless, joyous and playful dolphins triggered a personal reawakening or resurrection in the midst of my agony. In the ensuing conflict with my superiors, I took some creative stands that eventually lead me to new pastures.    

After a process of dialogue and discernment — in which divergent perspectives on obedience and religious life surfaced — I took a stand and left to pursue theological studies without official permission. I managed to complete my doctoral program in the U.S. in record time. 

Next, my dream to start a unique ANNNI was born. In ancient India an ashram was a Hindu hermitage where sages enjoyed an alternative lifestyle of simplicity, peace and harmony amidst nature. (ANNNI means "and," in Marathi, the regional language of Maharashtra. The acronym stands for Alliance of Nar-Nari-Nisarg-Ishwar, or the Alliance of Man-Woman-Nature-God). I wanted to provide a place of respite to awaken the feminine; a peaceful oasis for committed contemplatives-in-action working for systemic change; a creative "and" nurturing space to listen to the inner movements of the Spirit; a dwelling place to discover oneself as a blessing to the universe.

My hope was to start an alternative space wherein we could discover and dance to our own inner music. My congregation could fathom neither the height nor depth of this dance and preferred that I function within their framework. God, the divine helmsman, miraculously led me to embrace the Sisters For Christian Community (SFCC).

The memory of the rough waves awakened me to view the external chaos around us in a new way: the rape of women and Mother earth, violence in the name of religion, natural disasters, child abuse, rejection of migrants, mob lynching and a host of other burning issues. It became a challenge to recognize the dynamics of the dance amid the turbulence of the sociopolitical, economic, ecological context.

This awakening strengthened my need to collaborate with forces for change in the form of prophetic persons and countercultural movements that are striving for the birth of a new cosmic family. More than ever, we witness countless people all over the globe stepping up to make meaningful contributions to the planet and cosmos.

And for me the image of the dancing dolphins led to exploring new frontiers like creative writing, facilitating workshops and retreats, networking with NGOs, organizing women writers' workshops, teaching yoga and healing massage, and providing English speaking classes for indigenous people through music, art and dance.

But the struggle to find a suitable plot to fulfil the dream of ANNNI is still ongoing, while it seems easy for those involved in construction and land deals that plunder the poor and Mother Earth to go ahead with their plans!

We are in the midst of rough winds and seas raging all around us. What is desperately needed in this evolutionary era, where old ways are dying and a new story is beginning to be born, is to listen deeply to the Sacred Mystery within, among and around us — and to find our way forward by co-creating safe places for all to dance and be at home.

In India and all over the world women (lay and consecrated) are all profoundly aware of the perilous situation, in their own communities and in forging ahead as dreamers and visionaries of life in fullness for all. They have begun courageously voicing their creative views in ecclesiastical circles through their writings and storytelling.

They have started protecting women and children victimized by unjust civil and canonical laws. They are reclaiming their inner power, raising their voice and using their inner resources diligently. 

This will naturally upset the powers that be, thus creating confusion and chaos.  However, we should all remember that "the rougher the sea, the better the dance." 

[Margaret Gonsalves belongs to the Sisters For Christian Community, Washington D.C. She is active in church and theological fora. As founder of ANNNI Charitable Trust, she works to empower indigenous girls and women, offering residential programs in English and sustainable development skills in India.]