Monday, September 27, 2010

Serving the Lord eternally


The nuns of the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration have never left their convent in Kerala for decades. They spend their days praying to Jesus Christ on behalf of troubled people all over the world
By Shevlin Sebastian

Fr. Prakash Raj (name changed) had left the priesthood a couple of years after he was ordained. He fell in love with a widow, Martha, who had two small children. They married and lived for several years in Bangalore. The children grew up, and settled in the United States of America. Life was going along comfortably, when Martha died suddenly of a heart attack. Prakash felt lonely.

Throughout all these years, he had an intermittent longing to go back to the priesthood. Prakash sent a petition asking for permission to rejoin to the late Pope John Paul 11, but it was kept pending. Thereafter, he sent several letters, but there was no reply.

A dejected Prakash came to the Adoration Monastery at Nedumkunnam, in Kottayam district, 120 kms from Kochi. He requested the Catholic nuns, belonging to the Poor Clares of Perpertual Adoration (see box), to pray to God on his behalf.

The nuns did so fervently. And a few months later the miracle took place. The Pope gave his assent. Prakash became a priest once again. “This shows the grace and power of Jesus Christ,” says Mother Superior Maria Bertha, 54. In gratefulness, Fr. Prakash came and celebrated Holy Mass for the nuns.

The monastery is a magnet for the troubled. “People from all over Kerala come to meet us,” says Sr. Bertha. “Husbands and wives who don’t get along, parents and children who have trouble understanding each other, those with financial and physical hardships, and siblings who have fought fiercely with each other over property claims. Some shed tears and say, 'There is no peace in our family.'”

The nuns also receive letters from distressed people in Europe and America. Some call up from the Middle East and ask for prayers.

“There is no happiness in the world,” says Bertha. “Within the family, there is no humility. Husbands and wives have such big egos. Both don't want to submit to each other. This is disturbing.”

The nuns also feel pained when they read about wars, riots, random killings, and massacres in the newspaper. “We tell each other so many terrible incidents are taking place,” says Bertha. “I ask my sisters to pray harder. We have to be more ardent. We should offer more sacrifices.”

Bertha says that it is the lack of faith in God that is causing all this turmoil. “People have become very money-minded,” she says. “They have shifted their focus from God to materialism. And that can only lead to suffering.”

Bertha has a serene look on her face. Not many people know that, she, along with 23 other nuns, ranging in age from 30 to 88 have taken a Vow of Enclosure. When a nun takes this vow, it means that she will never leave the convent, except for medical emergencies. It stipulates that she can never spend time with her family. It implies that she can never visit new places. It is like a prison, but Bertha laughs when this allusion is made.

“Not at all,” she says. “I chose this life out of my free will. I felt that this was the only way I could get closer to Jesus Christ.” For 34 years, Bertha has been happily living in the Nedumkunnam convent.

Sitting next to her is Sr. Mary Tancy. “I had a longing to be a nun from my childhood,” she says. Initially, she joined a congregation, the Daughters of the Church, where the nuns were actively involved in public activities.

But a desire grew within her to lead a contemplative life. “So I joined the Poor Clares several years ago,” she says. “I have no regrets about my decision.” Tancy says that she does not miss her family, or a husband or children. “Jesus Christ is everything to me,” she says.

Tancy remembers her day of Profession, on June 23, 2001, when she officially joined the Adoration Monastery, as the happiest day of her life.

“At one moment during the Mass, I lay prostrate on the floor,” she says. Four nuns stepped forward holding a violet shroud. They covered Tancy with it.

“This meant that I was now dead to the world, and alive to God,” says Tancy. “It was a thrilling and joyful experience.”

However, Tancy is candid enough to admit that there are differences of opinion among the nuns. “We come from diverse family backgrounds,” she says. “There are minor disagreements. We might argue a bit, but it is never serious. Frankly speaking, there is no time. We are busy from morning to night.”

Indeed, the nuns have a hectic schedule. They begin their day at 4.30 a.m., with meditation and prayers at the chapel. This is followed by Mass at 6.30 a.m. Thereafter, a few go to the kitchen to cut the vegetables for the mid-day meal. After breakfast at 8.30 a.m., a couple of nuns are assigned to look after aged and sick nuns, while the others do the laundry, and the cleaning of the convent.

At 11 a.m., it is back to the chapel for the recitation of the rosary, singing of psalms, and the reading of the Bible. After lunch there is a rest period of 45 minutes. Some nuns read the newspapers, while others spend their time sewing or taking a nap. At 2.30 p.m., it is back to the chapel for more prayers.
And this pattern of devotion interspersed with various duties carries on till they go to sleep at 10.p.m.

But running parallel alongside all their activities is their adoration of the Blessed Sacrament – this is the host which has been consecrated in the sacrament of the Eucharist. It is placed on a high altar in the chapel. The nuns pray uninterruptedly to the Blessed Sacrament for 24 hours. During the day, a single nun is assigned to pray for an hour. Then another nun takes her place.

At night, the nuns do two-hour shifts in front of the Blessed Eucharist. This begins at 9 p.m., and finishes at 5 a.m. “If a particular nun's shift is at 3 a.m., she will sleep till then,” says Bertha. The one who is in the chapel will alert her, and the other nun will then take her place.

“We remember the many troubled people who have asked us to pray for them,” says Sr. Mary Victoria. “We pray to Jesus Christ for world peace, and for people to come closer to God.”

Among the nuns, there are three who have not taken the Vow of Enclosure: Sr. Mary Jacintha, 78, Sr. Dominica, 76, and Sr. Mary Marina, 54.

“Our duty is to deal with the outside world,” says Marina. So Marina, Jacintha, and Dominica will go to the local market to do the weekly shopping. They will take the sisters who are unwell to the hospital, and greet the visitors who drop in every day.

Incidentally, in the reception room, the nuns speak to the visitors through a large window which has a wire mesh. “The idea is to create a sense of separation,” says Bertha. In earlier times, there was a curtain. Both visitor and nun could not see each other. Now, it has been made more accessible.

Asked whether the nuns on the inside are missing out, Marina says, “They don’t like to go out. You must remember that unless you have a strong vocation, you cannot lead a life like this. This is something they have chosen. Nobody forced them to take this decision.”

And so, in sylvan surroundings, surrounded by tall, willowy, rubber trees and flowering plants, in silence so deep, the rustle of leaves is like a shout, a group of nuns have devoted their life to prayer.

Perpetual prayers

The Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration are a part of the Poor Clares. This is a contemplative group in the Franciscan tradition. It was founded in 1854, at Paris, by Marie Claire Bouilleayaux.

Their sole aim is to pray to the Blessed Sacrament. “We pray in a spirit of thanksgiving,” says Mother Superior Sr. Bertha. “Our life is dedicated to an uninterrupted day-and-night adoration of the most Blessed Sacrament.”

The Poor Clares have four monasteries in Kerala, and 12 all over India.

In earlier times, there were a few foreigners in the monasteries, but now there are none. In Nedunkunnam the Mother Superior for many years was a German, Mary Michaeline. She came to India in 1933 and never went back. She died in 1999 at the age of 92. “She was so loving and caring,” says Sr. Marina. “Just like a mother.”

(A shorter version was published in The New Indian Express, Chennai)

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