The nuns who forsook the world
NOV 16 — “I think you will make a good Catholic. I hope by God’s Grace, you will convert, Miss.”
Her name was Sister A, and she came to the church as a nun when she was 17-years old. She was Malaysian, and she was proud to be one. She was 24 when the Order opened a convent in the area in 1985. The original convent had become too crowded for all of them. Some opted to move to the new place.
“It was God’s will.” At that time, it was a small house, a dark cottage, she said.
“Before, I was like you. I went to school too. But from young, I felt repugnant; I did not like the world. It was too noisy, too harsh. Too wanton. I never finished school. Luckily for me, my family is very traditional and religious.”
How does one just leave her home and all to enter a world that is devoid of almost all types of lives, I asked.
“I told you. From young, I was very religious. All I wanted to do was get closer to God, Mary and Jesus. I wanted to serve God. And the world I saw when I was young did not allow me to do that,” she said.
“The feeling?” she laughed. “It’s something I always knew. I didn’t get up one morning and feel I had to join a convent. I wanted to serve God.”
She asked, “Are you Hindu, Dina?”
“I think you are Eurasian, yes?”
I kept quiet. What would she say if she knew I’m not?
“Hindu people are good.” She paused. “Islam… it is a religion. We do not touch each other’s world.”
I kept quiet.
“Though,” and her voice dropped, “there have been a few who become Catholics, and have left the country.”
I smiled at the wooden wall that shielded Sister A from the outside world. Only a small opening let in some light. We had been talking for three days like this. Like many who come to visit the nuns, to confess, to complain or “…have a chat…” I, too, sat on a broken plastic chair, and rang a bell so a nun could come to attend to me.
A door opened, and the visitor would face a wooden revolving door, with many dividers, so no one would ever see the face of the woman speaking to them.
I will not tell you where the church is, for fear that neo-fundamentalists will attack the nuns. All I will tell you is that, like so many of my trips with so-called “KPIs”, I end up veering off track, and meeting others who make up the religious landscape of this country.
I had come here to meet with the first few Chinese families who had settled in this seafaring town and built a huge temple, and instead, I spent the next few days spending my mornings at the convent.
The locale reminds me of old-time Kuala Terengganu, a Terengganu I grew up with, and heard about from my older relatives. There is a strong smell of fish, and it is breezy. It sets its own pace: cars move slowly, and people are languid in their movements.
Like many of the towns in this state, there are many vegetarian and organic cafes. It’s paradise for nature lovers, and those wanting to get away from suburban life.
My fascination with Catholicism began from a young age. I had gone to mission schools as well as international ones, and the few Muslims among us were either frightened by or astounded by the seeming violence of the Catholic faith, as told by our Catholic friends.
What, your prophet had thorns on his head, and he was nailed to a wooden cross, alive?
This was my sister’s and my life for a while when we were young and living in Russia with a history-mad mother who had a thing for Rasputin and Anna-Karenina, and a relative married to an Italian with a penchant for collecting Catholic figurines and life size statues of The Virgin Mary. I also grew up with friends who are staunch Catholics in their adult lives.
Was it coincidence that I ended up here?
The convent is beside a mission school. I had borrowed a friend’s car, and parked beneath a huge banyan tree. Despite the fact that there was a main road a few metres away, it was rather quiet. I looked at my journal to make sure I had come to the right place.
“Drive straight left at traffic light, there’s a big bridge, go past it!”
“School on left, tiny turning on left; take that one.”
What looked like a school greeted visitors in the car park. On the left was where the nuns lived, judging by the closed windows and high wooden walls built to shut the world out.
I walked straight to the school, and saw a couple of people in a classroom reading with their heads close to their books. An office was left unattended, with its door ajar, exposing files, a used mug and a thick pile of newspapers on the floor. The bathroom, which harked back to the 50s, with terrazzo tiles and a bathtub, didn’t offer the visitor any toilet rolls but old newspapers to be used.
“Yes?” A young man asked.
“I’m looking for nuns…”
He nodded and motioned me to follow him.
I had been expecting architecture reminiscent of my former school, Convent Bukit Nanas, and instead, a rather basic building that must have been built in the 1980s, stood. There were already a few visitors waiting to speak to the nuns. I heard a bell ring, and saw one of them pulling at it.
The pews had seen better times, but, nonetheless, were still functional. I sat in one, and thought that this had to be the first outdoor church I have ever seen. A well-worn Bible was tucked into the sleeve of the pew in front of me.
I read, “Make my heart Your dwelling place/A temple just for You/A consecrated resting place, a vessel ever true/Make my heart a fire, with the brightness of Your Son/Make my heart a dwelling place, for the Holy One.”
I looked up to see that the visitors had left.
A waiting room with a broken plastic chair awaited me. This was where sadness, joy, anger, greed were vented out, to the ever appeasing nuns on duty.
I rang the bell, opened the door, and saw within it a revolving door. I reached into it, and found that I could not push it to the left or right. How was I going to talk to the nuns?
No one came. I rang the bell again. And within seconds I heard footsteps, and a light girlish voice said, “Coming!”
Talking to a revolving door that allowed for no face-to-face interaction is unnerving. And that was what I had to do.
“Yes?” It was a girlish voice which greeted me. She must be in her teens, I guessed.
“Hello?” I squinted into the dark, trying to find an eye, colour, anything.
“How can I help you, child?”
I was stumped. I should have thought this all out prior to the meeting. Talking to a revolving door required a lot of practice and confidence.
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.