Photo: The nuns of Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration
By Shevlin Sebastian
When my mother sees Sr. Mary Gertrude she could not help but widen her eyes in shock. The 85-year-old nun is lying immobile, on a bed, in a room at the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration monastry in Chelcombu, Kerala.
It is a serene setting: rubber trees and plants growing all around. The only sounds are the rustle of the leaves and the cawing of crows.
“Gertrude has been suffering from Parkinson’s disease and spondylitis for the past few years,” says Sr. Mary Tancy. “She is being fed by a tube. She is not able to speak. But she can hear very well and understand everything that we say.”
My mother leans forward and kisses Sr. Gertrude's face. There is a trace of recognition in the nun's eyes. “Do you remember how much fun we used to have during the summer vacations?” my mother says.
One of the fondest memories of my mother was the fun-filled times she had with her cousins at their grandmother's home in Varapuzha. Sr. Gertrude, my mother's cousin, was a few years older. “Gertrude had a lot of energy,” my mother later said. “She was always running about.”
In the ancestral home, there were a couple of ponds. The children would catch fish or go for a swim. Sometimes, the girls played hop-scotch, or chased each other. There were many guava, coconut and mango trees. But Sr. Gertrude's father had explicitly warned that no mango could be plucked before it was ripe.
One evening, Sr. Gertrude dared her cousins that she would pluck an unripe mango, and disobey her father. The cousins challenged her. A cool Sr. Gertrude plucked a mango. But it was a clever choice. “It was a diseased one, so nobody could scold her,” says my mum.
Sr. Gertrude's mother had died when she was a child. So, she was brought up by a widowed aunt, as well as her grandmother. When Gertrude reached school-going age, she was placed in a boarding which was run by nuns. “Maybe that was why she decided to become a nun,” my mother said.
But, unlike others, the nuns of the Poor Clares lead an unusual life. They have all taken a Vow of Enclosure. This means that a nun will never leave the convent, except for medical emergencies or for voting. She can never spend time with her family or visit new places. But they pray fervently to God throughout the day and the night. “We have dedicated our lives to God,” says Sr. Tancy. There have been many instances when, thanks to their prayers, good things have happened.
So, it is no surprise that the monastery is a magnet for the troubled. The faithful from all over Kerala come to meet the nuns. “Husbands and wives who don’t get along, parents and children who have trouble understanding each other, those with financial and physical setbacks, and siblings who are involved in property disputes,” says Sr. Tancy. The nuns also receive letters from the distressed in Europe and America. Some call up from West Asia and request for prayers.
But, for Sr. Gertrude, all these activities have come to an end. Instead, she lives in a deep silence. Neither my mother nor Sr. Gertrude could have imagined, when they ran around, having the time of their lives, during their childhood, that way off, into the future, there would come a day when Gertrude would become sick, immobile, and silent.
I stare at Sr. Gertrude. She has soft eyes and an unlined face. This is surely the last lap for Sr. Gertrude before the finishing tape comes in sight. For others, in a similar situation, but far less spiritual, it is a time of suffering, turmoil and unhappiness.
Who knows how our last stage is going to be like? Once the body breaks down, you have to depend on others to look after you. But will they treat you with kindness and sympathy? Or does helplessness provoke indifference or cruelty in people? Will one's children be around, offering solace and companionship? Or will we have to face the exit on our own?
All these questions filled my mind, as I watched my mother caress her cousin's face.
(Published as a middle in The New Indian Express, South India)