How I Learned to Kneel: Adventures at a Costa Rican Monastery, Part I


Madhuvan Hindu Monastery in Costa Rica.
Madhuvan Hindu Monastery in Costa Rica.

“They’re leaf cutter ants. They won’t go in.”

It was 9:00 or or 10:00 p.m., somewhere in the central time zone in a remote jungle of Costa Rica, and I thought I was hallucinating from motion sickness and fatigue.

The stone entrance to the guest cabin at Madhuvan Hindu Monastery was covered in insects hardly big enough to see, who stoically toted large leaf scraps with their microscopic jaws.

We’d been driving nearly two hours in the dark since landing at the Libera airport, a task that always disorients me. The gracious monk who’d picked us up brought fresh bananas and homemade tortilla chips. He navigated carefully down  narrow roads curving the western Costa Rican landscape and tried to orient us.

We entered the gate of the monastery, which is located somewhere on this western peninsula in a direction I can only describe as “up.” He gestured gently from behind the wheel: “your cabin is down here,” he said, as he pointed to the left fork in the road. “The temple is down there,” he said, and pointed to the right.

Like most nauseous travelers, I’d closed my eyes and lost track of where my body as soon as he’d said, “Time for the four wheel drive,” after a long steady mountain climb in which I was certain we’d die.

I just wanted a shower and a bed, both of which were located in the simple Japanese-style cabin just beyond the thick wall of leaf cutter ants.

The monk bid us adieu, I stripped and went straight for the water.

Hours earlier, I’d had a fear on the plane from Miami to Liberia: what if nothing happens in Costa Rica? What if it’s a completely boring monastic trip to a remote jungle where nothing even vaguely interesting will ever happen? I’ll be ashamed to be known as the writer who jots normally down the fiascoes of her interfaith Christian-Hindu marriage, but came up empty-handed this time.

But, Jesus never lets me down.

“Fred, the water’s not getting warmer,” I’d said from the bathroom connected to the cabin bedroom, which is considered a luxury in monastic terms.

And then, a thought: there is no hot water.

Even India, with its zero-infrastructure and chaos, had flash hot water heaters. They had no toilet paper, but they had hot water.

I’d consulted with a friend the night before we flew: “Is there toilet paper?” I’d asked.

“Bring some just in case,” she’d advised.

I had two rolls of Charmin, but no hot water.

Fred is conditioned for these kinds of things. He lived in an austere monastery in Northern California, where he awoke at 4:00 a.m. every day, took a cold shower, and presided over early morning deity worship. His body is sculpted, his metabolism is swift and steady. His hair is short and his discipline unending. He’s made for these sorts of things.

I am long-haired and round and slow, the kind of woman who doesn’t go for cold showers.

“Please, Jesus,” I begged.  “Can you not turn cold water into hot?”

But Jesus would have none of it.

“You can do it,” Fred encouraged. “I know you can.”

“OK, let’s get it over with,” I conceded.

The cold water shot out of the showerhead at what I can only assume was 33 degrees, the temperature at which ice is nearly possible, but just misses the mark.

It knocked the wind out of me and I screamed. Loudly.

“Fred! I cannot do this!”

I imagined the other guests at the monastery, good people who went to bed two hours ago so that they could rise at 4:00 a.m. for worship, sighing graciously at the scared little sissy screaming in the shower next door.

Fred turned off the water.

I was disgusting from travel, and was determined not to get in the bed the monks had so nicely prepared for us, dirty.

“Let’s try this again,” I said, wanting to be brave.

This time, I controlled the lever, and I kept the water at its lower spicket, the kind you’d use for a bath.

And then, I got down on my knees on the cold slate shower in a dark jungle of Costa Rica. I shivered and shook and wretched and complained, but I heard Jesus loud and clear: you won’t get what you need unless you learn how to kneel.

We must humble ourselves if we want to grow.

“For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Luke 18:14, NRSV

Fred stood there outside the shower, ready with a dry towel.

Ten minutes later, when my drama queen self return to 98.6 degrees and we crawled into bed, I saw Fred smile when he thought I wasn’t looking. It was a peaceful, proud smile. Like our time in India and at Audarya Monastery, he was proud of me for leaning into simplicity and surviving. He was grateful that I joined him for these adventures, where he is most in his element, and I am learning how to kneel.

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