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Life of contemplation

Today, in an age when consumerism is lionised, few might consider the nun or monk as a role model. RONITA TORCATO looks at the lives of the Carmelite nuns in Mumbai.

Baking communion hosts.

IN the seclusion of a monastery, a small group of Carmelite nuns tailor their own multi-layered habits — chocolate brown in colour, their wimples are pristine white, and the overlying veil is black. The fabric is lightweight cotton, but in the early years, wool was the preferred choice in emulation of their Western counterparts. Bearing the heat then was just one of the joys of asceticism.

"Our lives are enriched with love of God, we don't miss anything," says the Prioress Maria Xavierina, who leads the small band of 13 nuns including two novices at the Carmel Monastery adjoining the Holy Spirit Hospital in Andheri, a Mumbai suburb. There are as many as 32 cloistered communities for Catholic women alone in India. The one in Mumbai is set in sylvan surroundings and has been in existence since 1965.

Few comforts

Happily, renunciation today does not exclude objects like fans, which were installed only two years ago. A donor trundled in an antiquated TV set barely a month ago into the tiny waiting room where visitors may speak to the nuns from behind a grill. They do not watch soaps, movies, and staple channels. For the record, they do not have a cable connection. What they do watch are movies like Franco Zeffirelli's "Jesus of Nazareth" or a biopic of the Chilean Carmelite, Teresa de los Andes who was canonised by Pope John Paul the Second last year.

Teresa's decision to leave her wealthy family had caused a rift in the household. But she had been firm about her choice of vocation. Today, in an age when crass consumerism is lionised, few might consider the nun or monk as a role model. A few nuns in the Andheri cloister met with similar resistance from their relatives unable to come to terms with their choice.

The little chapel for instance, a ceiling high wall-to-wall iron grill separates the nuns from the section open to lay visitors. "Bars and veils are only external signs to show we belong to God," says Sr Maria Xavierina.

"Inside, we feel very free. I joined the cloister for the love of God" says Sr Maria de Jesus, who will be 86 next month and is the oldest of the group. Sr Maria and Sr Agnes Mary (80) had professed their vows in the Congregation in Goa, but moved to the cloister in suburban Mumbai. Such relocations are permissible as and when the need arises. Three years ago, seven sisters proceeded to Tanzania, while eight went to Raipur and eight to Baroda to set up a new community.

To withdraw from the world does not mean total isolation. Computer networks the sisters. Besides, family and friends may visit once a month and the telephone used when required.

But few even in the Catholic community are aware of the monastery's existence. In Mumbai, two nuns Sr. Mary Theresa and Sr. Cecilia serve as "externs" that is, those entrusted with the responsibility of outdoor work. Of the two, Sr. Cecilia worked as an administrative assistant for 22 years before entering the convent

Produce their needs

The nuns are pure vegetarians and maintain a large fruit and vegetable garden, which yields enough for their needs. The surplus produce is shared with surrounding communities. They also bake some bread but their main occupation is making communion hosts, 45,000 each day, which are sold to numerous churches all over Mumbai. The residual cuttings are given to poor children in the vicinity.

They might have a few problems among themselves ("after all, we are human"), but boredom, they say, is not one of them. "God gives us the strength to carry on," says Sr. Elizabeth, a Science graduate who came to study or pray in the chapel before she got "the call". Her parents had wanted her to become a doctor. "But God had other plans." Sr. Mary Stella worked as a nurse in the best hospitals and found her vocation two years ago. "Interior sacrifice is more important than the exterior," smiles the Prioress.


They conduct two retreats a year, including a 10-day Community private Retreat and an eight-day session conducted by a priest. From time to time, visiting priests give them talks from the diocese or other Congregations. The current designated lecturers are Fr. Philip Terrassa sj, Fr. Aloysius Fernandes svd and Fr. Gilbert de Lima, a professor from the St Pius X Seminary at Goregaon, at whose suggestion the monastery organised its first full-day recollection for the laity a week before the annual feast of Our Lady of Carmel.

Most of the girls who attended the recollection were young collegians. "I'm glad I came," exclaimed Leanne Dennis from the parish of St Pius, Mulund. "It's been a great experience," said Salome de Mello, a student of St Xavier's College.

"It was a good and relaxing day," summed up Jennifer D' Cruz, a student from the Ambedkar College. Natasha de Silva, a student of St Andrew's showed up with two friends at the urgings of an aunt who frequently visits the monastery.

The Feast-day Mass was packed with friends and well wishers. Brown scapulars were distributed as mementoes to each and every one present. As the British Cavalier and metaphysical poet Richard Lovelace would say, Stone walls do not a prison make nor iron bars a cage. Minds innocent and quiet take that for a hermitage.

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