The nuns who forsook the world 2
NOV 30 — Accompanying my trip and my visits to the convent was a book loaned by a good friend. Enduring Grace by Carol Lee Flinders is a fantastic introduction to Catholic women mystics.
The book may not be an exhaustive investigation of these women, and neither is it a definitive one, but it introduces the reader to what religious passion is about, and how what one may construe as pent-up sexual energies emerging into a form of spiritual dedication and love.
I am still reading it, and am piqued by the sacrifices, the passion these women have for God. I liken these women — Julian of Norwich, Saint Clare of Assisi, Methchild of Madeburg, to name a few — to Muslim women such as Rabae’ah al-’Adawiya, and Achi The Shawl Wearer. These Muslim women were not the Prophet Mohammad’s (PBUH) wives, but were revered as Sufi women personalities.
There are many similarities between these women. However, these women were atypical of religious icons who devoted their lives to just charity and prayer. These women devoted everything to God, but also left a literary legacy.
Julian of Norwich was known for “visionary writing”, which unsettled even some of her ardent admirers. She was the first woman to write a book in English, and that one book, A Book of Showings to the Anchoress Julian of Norwich, was a documentation of her mystical experiences, and visions.
Rabae’ah was also quite the poet, and her poems have contributed greatly to Sufi poetry. Below is I Have Two Ways of Loving You:
I have two ways of loving You:
A selfish one
And another way that is worthy of You.
In my selfish love, I remember You and You alone.
In that other love, You lift the veil
And let me feast my eyes on Your Living Face.
I am back at the monastery again. I have brought a chocolate muffin for Sister A. Today we talk about the life of a nun of her Order.
“There is a lot to do here. Clean the house. We have prayer sessions seven times a day; as soon as the bell rings, we drop everything and pray.”
“What do we pray for? We pray for everyone.”
I ask, “How do you forgive?”
“Yes. How do you find forgiveness?”
Well, she says, as the children of Adam and Eve, we are human. If we do not ask God to forgive us, how are we to forgive others? But try to meet the person who has hurt you, and break the ice. Also, how can you pray, if you cannot forgive? Your heart is blackened by anger. When you have the desire to forgive, God will help you.
“But I know it is difficult,” she says, “Because you live in the world.”
I also meet the most humorous healer in the oddest manner. The friend who hosted me is learning about traditional Chinese medicine and healing. One night, I knock on her door, to find a shirtless man perched on her bed, speaking in rat-a-tat Mandarin. He is wearing shorts and has a towel draped over his shoulders. He is now squatting on her bed, fixing his amulet with a pair of pliers. He waves to me and speaks to me in Mandarin.
“I’m not Chinese,” I say.
He peers at me over his spectacles. My friend is dashing about, looking for herbs and candles. There has been a disturbance in the house: Ghosts are everywhere!
He barks at me and my friend translates.
We must realise all spirits exist. If my religion didn’t accept their existence, I would not have become a follower! All religions accept ghosts. But, it is how we react to them.
You’re a writer? Ah, to be a good writer then, you must be open-minded. You must have faith, but question everything.
I nod. I have this feeling, this man fancies my friend. He gets up from the bed and hands her an acupuncture needle for protection. He gives me another, and blesses my head with burning herbs.
“Is the bed you sleep on the one you had since you were a child?”
I shake my head.
Aiya! He says. “If only you did. If you did, the bed would have its own guardian. That would be your bed brother and it will protect you when you sleep!”
He peers at me. My friend listens intently to translate.
“You have a small circle of good friends, but you have many people who pretend to be your friends. Do not trust those people.”
He blows at my hair and pats my head. I can now sleep, he says. He’s chased out the ghost in my room.
Sister A tells me about the rare times the nuns are allowed out of the monastery. It is when they are ill and have to visit the hospital.
“We meet many people in the hospital! And! We meet Malay people too. They are very friendly people. Even though they are Islam and we are Catholic nuns. And I like how they dress. So pretty and colourful and modest.”
Women, she thinks, must dress modestly, especially during these modern and unsafe times. “Aiyo, sometimes some of these women of my church, when they come to Mass, they are dressed so immodestly. Our priest once told them off, you know. This is a church, not a hotel!”
“What do nuns wear?” I ask.
It’s improved greatly now, she says. Nuns who first arrived in Malaysia wore thick, rough cotton habits, not unlike the material that sacks were made of. They also had to wear an inner smock beneath their habits. After many years of suffering in the tropical heat, they were allowed to use a thinner cotton material.
I jot down everything she says. It is a quiet afternoon. There have been no visitors except me, and Sister A has finished her chores. We do not say anything for awhile. After what seemed like minutes, she clears her throat.
She wants to make one thing clear: She isn’t here to pay penance.
“I am here because I want to serve God.”
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.