When Sister Elaine MacInnes says, “I have a story to tell,” she means it.
Filled to the brim with stories of adventure, bravery and kindness, Sister Elaine has lived quite the life. A Catholic Nun and Zen Master, she’s lived in England, Japan and the Philippines. She brought meditation to inmates in many prisons throughout the world, and she founded the non-profit charity “Free the Human Spirit” which provides inmates with meditation and yoga.
She humbly adds, “I was a little famous at one point.” The fame resurfaced with the 2005 documentary made about her life and work, “The Fires That Burn.”
Sister Elaine’s beautifully bright eyes make it hard to believe she’s 90 years old. When presented with a handshake prior to the interview, she opened her arms to offer a hug. Her presence was as comforting as the tea and cookies that sat between us. Although her many experiences were hard to distill, we have captured five amazing points of wisdom from this woman who may be as close to enlightenment as we can imagine.
Difficult Things are Worth Doing. From playing the violin to learning Japanese, Sister Elaine has taken on challenges that many would feel are insurmountable. When asked if she was afraid stepping into prisons, Sister Elaine remarked, “I can honestly say I never have been.” She recommended that everyone visit a prison at some point: “People are discarded and they need you.” Just because it isn’t easy doesn’t mean it isn’t worth your time.
As You Get Older, Adapt. Sister Elaine expected that she would be reading more when she got older, but writing became more tempting as it allowed her to “travel all over the world” in memory and imagination. She played the violin when she was younger, but switched to going to the symphony as her body became less able to cope with the vigorous demands of holding an instrument. She used to meditate cross-legged but changed to meditate sitting in a chair with a straight back. Every passion can follow us throughout our lives, but possibly in a different manner than we anticipated.
After 80, Go Home. As a voracious traveller and ex-pat in different countries for close to 40 years, Sister Elaine felt called back to Canada as she became older. After many years being a foreigner, she said that returning home has been “part of the contentment.” One of the things that surprised her most about getting older was “how lasting some friendships can be.” She has dear friends of 50 years, and every Christmas she is flooded by cards from the inmates whose life she affected. If you have a big, full life, you will be filled with the wonderful relationships that you have developed when you come home.
You Can’t Start Too Early. Sister Elaine used this phrase to relate to meditation, but it can be used for many things in life. If you’re forcing yourself in your spare time to attend to a hobby, it may be the wrong time. She says that most people under 25 are not ready for meditation because “they are filled with gumption and red blood and beefsteak. That’s marvelous. I went through that myself.” If a Zen master wasn’t ready for Zen at one point of her life, there is hope for all of us to continue to learn and grow at any age.
When People are Learning, Be Patient. When teaching meditation, Sister Elaine presented students with koans, which are stories, dialogues or questions that are meant to test progress. A famous one is the sound of one hand clapping. Many students try to get around it by snapping and Sister Elaine has “a good laugh together” with her students as they get on their way to insight or enlightenment. She also never asked a prisoner why they were in prison. She figured if “they wanted to tell me, they would.” Patience goes a long way to knowing both your inner and outer world.
Although Sister Elaine has a magnetic personality, we eventually had to tear ourselves away from our tea together to let her continue to change the world for the better.
Thank you for your time, Sister. We can only hope that our own time will result in similar human impact.