'For most people, the religious world remains mysterious. My repeated question is: Why so much secrecy created around ordinary things? I believe that the Church should be transparent in its dealings'

To the society around me, I owe it to share my experiences in all their bareness and totality…Religious authorities teach, guide, interfere, provoke and console, touching practically every aspect of the lives of the people around them. Yet, for most people, the religious world remains mysterious. My repeated question is: Why so much secrecy created around ordinary things? I believe that the Church should be transparent in its dealings…Sister Jesme, in her book, ‘Amen, The Autobiography of a Nun’, published by Penguin Books, India

As reflected in her book, Sister Jesme has an air of simplicity coupled with a sharp intellect. This was apparent during the interaction with the author at Oxford Bookstore recently. She engaged the audience with her insights and her special brand of wit and humour. In the process, she seemed to win a lot of fans; many queued up for a personally autographed copy of her first book.

“When I joined the convent, I was like a docile lamb. Through my experiences within the enclosure, I evolved into a questioning person — one who preferred discussing, debating and arriving at informed choices, rather than following in blind obedience,” Sister Jesme explains. She resolved to follow the path of ‘responsible obedience’ which in her words “involves understanding the pulse from the context and then asking the sisters to obey”. She says she tried inculcating this among her students and peers at St. Maria’s, a college in Thrissur, where she served as Principal.

Sister Jesme introduced several new measures, which included a ‘sharing box’ where students were encouraged to drop suggestions for the better management of the college. They could do so anonymously. “Sometimes, these were criticisms against me. Of course it pinched a little, but nevertheless, it allowed for democracy,” she recalls. Her love for film as a medium to discuss reality was also encouraged, for she helped raise film festivals and a film club for the screening of good cinema. “Films should always be followed by discussion, so we can arrive at informed opinions. This must be done, instead of seeking its censorship, especially when it concerns violence or other sensitive issues,” she says.

She also voiced her dissent towards instances of corruption. These included misuse of money (like capitation fees), discrimination with relation to gender (privileges enjoyed by priests versus the nuns) and class (preferential treatment given to upper-class nuns versus the lesser-educated ‘cheduthies’). “My constant questioning finally led them to pronounce me as mentally insane. If it weren’t for this, and the subsequent threat of having to undergo medication to ‘cure’ me, I would never have left the convent,” says Sister Jesme.

She believes that the majority of the Church consists of good people, though the institution has fallen prey to the politics of power and money. Her book also carries instances of sexual molestation that she personally suffered within the convent. “These instances have been narrated in six pages of the 178 in the book. Yet, many have focussed only on these allegations and that too, by pulling it out of its larger context.” Sister Jesme urges the public to read her entire book before forming an opinion, be it good or bad. She adds that her reason for both leaving the Order, and writing her autobiography, has nothing to do with seeking publicity or defaming the Church. One of her primary aims is to contribute towards a sustained reformation of the institution. This stems from her unflinching commitment towards the Order — both when she was part of it for over 33 years, and now, when she stepped outside it in August, 2008.

In her defence

We learn of her other reasons for publishing her book. “There are two things that a woman finds most difficult to endure. To be declared insane and to be called a prostitute. In order to silence me, I was incriminated of both. My book is also a way to give my defence against these charges. And, it was a form of self-evaluation, since a complete phase in my life has drawn to a close. But mainly, I wrote to speak about the miracles of Jesus Christ, and to try and contribute towards the reformation of the Church, even if it’s from the periphery,” she says.

Her battle has isolated Sister Jesme from her own family, but she is far from giving up. “I believe that man is inherently good.” It is perhaps this belief, along with her faith in Christ that has given her the strength to fight on.