Saturday, August 01, 2009
Thy will be done
Sr. Jesme is in the centre of a storm with her autobiography, ‘Amen’. For the first time ever, a nun talks about sexual happenings and mental harassment inside a convent
By Shevlin Sebastian
When Sr. Jesme’s autobiography, ‘Amen’ came out a few months ago, her colleagues in the Congregation of Mother of Carmel were busy trying to figure out the real nuns behind the pseudonyms.
“More than the content they wanted to find out who was who,” says Jesme. “They would call me and ask, ‘Did you mean this sister or that?’ To some, I told the correct names.”
Jesme says one of the nuns has written a letter to the editor of a weekly Catholic Church newspaper in which she said, “Don’t insult Sr. Jesme through your publication. There is a minority inside the convents who believe that every word she has written is true.”
Jesme says the nuns are afraid to speak out. “Those who speak out and question decisions are sidelined,” she says. “Only people who please the authorities get the high posts.”
But in her book Jesme talks about a disturbing trend to suppress rebellious priests and nuns. They are labeled as insane, taken to the mental asylum and given psychiatric drugs. “Soon, because of the powerful drugs, the person becomes docile, and loses the independent streak,” she says.
Jesme had also been called insane, and her Mother General wanted her to take the drugs. She realised the only way out was to escape from the convent. When she left, the church announced that she was mentally unstable.
“I wanted to tell the people I was not mad,” she says. “I wanted to show by logical argument what really happened.” So she wrote ‘Amen’ in a total of five weeks, spread over three months. But she was stunned that such a large number of people have read the book and responded positively.
“These are all miracles by Jesus,” she says. Incidentally, the word, ‘Jesme’, has been formed from two words: ‘Jesus’ and ‘Me’.
What has caused a storm and rocked the church was her description in a few pages of a 180 page book of the sexual happenings among the religious people. Nuns sleep with other nuns, while priests enjoy sex with nuns.
“The Church authorities deny that such things are not taking place, but I was a victim,” she says. Jesme was molested by a priest in Bangalore, as well as a nun.
She remembers the case of a nun who told her Superior that in the convent where she stays, no nun sleeps in her own bed at night. Everyone is going to different rooms, the nun had said.
“When two nuns spend all the time together, including hours behind closed doors there is a suspicion that they are lesbians, but there is no proof,” says Jesme.
Recently, Jesme met a priest in Kottayam who told her she had just touched the periphery. “Graver things are happening in the sexual field,” the priest said. “Nobody observes the vow of chastity. We cannot live without sex.”
Even though Jesme has received plenty of support from civil society and the media, some Catholics have been deeply offended. One man called her up and said, “You have spoiled the name of the church. We know evil things are happening inside, but what is the need to speak out? The church should be regarded as a powerful institution. Let things be.”
At her rented apartment in Kozhikode, just opposite the door, there is a large picture of Jesus Christ embossed on a bamboo mat hanging on a wall. It is a small apartment, with a living room, two bedrooms, a bathroom and a kitchen. And in person Jesme is charming and smiles all the time.
“You can’t imagine the sense of freedom I am experiencing,” says Jesme, who had been a nun for 27 years. She left in August, 2008. “When I want to sleep I sleep. If I want to go out I can do so, without asking anybody’s permission. I can do whatever I want to do. I never look at the clock at all.”
She bustles around in the kitchen making tea. And when she finds that she does not have a large cup, she brings the tea in two small cups for the visitor. Of course, she no longer wears a habit. Instead, she wears a salwar kameez. “I find it difficult to wear a saree,” she says. However, she is yet to get used to being a former nun.
When she steps out she frequently touches her head to see whether she has worn the veil and realises she does not need to wear it any more. “What a strange feeling it is,” she says.
Thanks to her pension from the state government as a retired teacher, and her book royalties, Jesme is able to pay her bills. She had plans to be a guest lecturer, but has not received any suitable offers. So, she is taking the year off. But Jesme is invited all the time to attend seminars and functions.
“People are curious to see how I look like,” she says, with a smile. “They praise me for my bravery.” But her family does not show the same degree of appreciation.
“They did not want me to write the book,” she says. “They had wanted me to wear a white saree, remain at one corner, read the Bible, recite the Rosary and remain silent. If I did this they were willing to welcome me home.”
Recently, her 72-year-old mother wrote a letter asking Jesme not to give interviews about her life in the convent. “My youngest brother called me up and shouted at me for spoiling the family name,” she says.
But Jesme carries on resolutely, irrespective of what people say or don’t say. “It is Jesus who wanted me to join the convent and it is Jesus who told me to leave,” she says. “I have to obey Him at all times.”
The Church responds
By Fr Paul Thelakat
With sympathy and understanding to Sr. Jesme I feel that what she says is a romantic infatuation of a stagnated girl with Jesus. Let her think whether the Jesus she talks about is her own alter ego.
She says that she has been made insane by the church authorities. If any nun or priest has been compelled to take psychiatric drugs they must complain to the police. If a psychiatrist has prescribed such medicines Sr. Jesme should rethink about her mental sanity.
Sr. Jesme quotes an anonymous Kottayam-based priest with approval: “Nobody observes the vow of chastity. We cannot live without sex.” What a sweeping generalisation! How late you are to find the truth!
I remember a passage in her book, ‘Amen’ where she describes a sexual encounter with a priest at Bangalore. The narrative talks about their consensual fall. But she comes out accusing the priest. Both of them defaced the face of Christ and the church. She is part of the sin of the church. I would have much appreciated her if she gave a slap to the priest and told it to the world. I cannot laud Sr. Jesme for her bravery.
She remained in the prison for 27 years enjoying the pleasures and power of the convent and of a college lecturer as a slave. Perhaps she would have been a slave also in her own family. That is what she confirms by her statements about her mother and brothers.
(Thelakat is the spokesperson of the Syro-Malabar Church)
Sr. Jesme replies:
My quoting of the Kottayam priest is not a generalisation. There are other priests who have derided me for my 'mild' narration of sex in the book, because they say even worse things have happened. There are some nuns who told me that even though they have taken the vow of chastity, they violate it often.
If I have partaken in the 'sin of the Church', the priest and nun who were my partners are still inside and in high positions. But Fr. Paul Thelakat is protecting them. After slapping the priest in Bangalore where should I run to? To be raped by many more? I was new to the city and in a state of panic.
My Mother General tried to force me to take medicines for insanity. The Archbishop also wanted me to obey the Mother General. We do not have the provision to approach the police in such cases. The vow of obedience that we take when we become nuns bans all such rights.
As for my mother and brothers, they are scared of the church. And I accept their stance, understanding their fears.
(The New Indian Express, Chennai)