Once, while riding the train, I sat next to a nun reading the Bible. She wore a religious habit, with her arms covered up to her wrists, legs pressed close, eyes focused downwards. Maybe she loved the man in the book. And maybe there was no real difference between her love and my love for poets, admiring their verses of quiet exaltation and reverie. We both loved the world, but hers was a different portrait, the way her body shrank and became still while reading.
For some of us who were brought up Catholic, we have often encountered nuns along hallways in our schools or maybe in the church after hearing mass. In my case, I grew up with the shining air of mysticism they gave off wherever they went, comparing my long, messy hair to the way the veils on their heads swayed with the wind.
It took me several years to realize that that child-like mysticism had given way to criticalness. Religious life, especially inside the convent, has its obvious limitations and strict everyday routines. There are rules and restrictions that our generation of women, whose lives are streaked with progressive ideas proposing how we should live, may look upon with disapproval or maybe even awe.
How should a woman be? I don’t remember when I started asking this question, and when society started providing an encyclopedic volume of their own answers. The way we choose to live as women, after all, is the way that we choose to live our lives. But while many of us vary and shift forms, nuns embody constant grace, simplicity, and self-effacement. They may not tell us all the answers we want to hear, but theirs is a simple kind of devotion that needs to be told, whether you consider yourself pious or not, only for the simple and essential truth that they are women.
My first encounter
I made calls and set about to visit two convents, the first being the Daughters of St. Paul convent. The Sunday morning I decided to visit, the community market in Libertad near the convent was filled with the noise of fish and fruit vendors but within the gates of the convent, it was silent. At the church steps, I saw a fairly young nun practicing the banjo, dressed in her blue habit. When I looked up, a wave of blue angelic heads bobbed back and forth in the church pews. They were all praying. I sat at the last row and listened to the church organ drown out their words.
After their morning prayer, I met Sister Ameline. She was fairly young, maybe in her 30s. She grew up in South Cotabato, where every Sunday, her mother would take her to church, walking a couple of miles just to get there. Upon leaving for Ilo-ilo to go to college, she found a source of strength in daily reading sessions with her theology teacher. When she graduated with a degree in Home Economics, she realized her desire to become a nun. “When my grandmother offered that I take my masters in Home Economics, sabi ko parang hindi ko na kaya.” She realized that the call of her vocation was more immediate than her desire to be a teacher confined in the classroom.
She found herself in the Daughters of St. Paul. She spent years inside the convent as a Novitiate, a stage of training in preparation for consecration and purification. Her life, since she made that choice, has been one of prayer and study. Among other things, Sister Ameline believes her work is a gift from God. The way she sat with her back straight and her voice clear could have been a consequence of this training, this transformation.
Before we could continue, we ate lunch. Novices from different countries like Thailand and China, clad in white, sat with us in the table as we ate. It was no surprise that upon sitting down, they told and laughed at one another’s jokes in energetic succession. Each one of them peeled an orange as they ate—one of the sisters was growing a garden at the back of one of the dormitories and was going to use the skin as nutrition for her plants. They were given only one day in a month to hold The Celebration of Life to celebrate the birthdays of all the sisters born that month—it just so happened that that Sunday I visited was the day the sisters would be blowing their imaginary candles.
On weekdays, they wake up at 4am for the Laudes, or morning prayer. During the day they produce radio programs with segments on Daily Gospel Reflection and Bible Study. They write scripts and edit videos in the recording studio across the street from them. They produce TV Mass. They were in large, part of the voice of the Catholic institution. They’ve reached as far as Ilocos, Cebu, and Bacolod. “Sometimes people who are listening to you [do not favour] it, or will resist what you are saying but since you believe it is something important, you will continue to do that, kahit ayaw nila. Because it’s the truth.”
Yet, the truth can be quite arbitrary. Some versions of the truth empty out, and sometimes surge through like geysers when faced by the circumstances of reality: the disillusionment of young girls discovering their body, the grief of old mothers left behind by their child—these are sometimes painful, but nonetheless, necessary truths.
It was their truth, at the end of the day, to dwell in momentary silence through the Vespers, their sunset evening prayer.
Living in consecration
On my way to the second convent, I got off the train station in Katipunan, at the bottom of the over-pass, and vendors selling eggs wrapped in colored cellophane. Different colors represented different prayers. These eggs you were supposed to offer to St. Clare of Assisi. I crossed the street and arrived at the St. Clare Church, where at the front was the fenced in statue of St. Clare of Assisi. Near the statue’s foot were papers of written prayers, some already turning yellow because of the weather.
The Poor Clare Sisters convent lied at the back of the church. I asked for Sister Guadalupe, and after a while, I was led to a small, dim-lit room at the other side where there were chairs along screened walls and curtains behind them. I sat in one of them and waited. One of the curtains opposite of me slid to the side and behind the screen, I saw a silhouette. And then came a voice. That’s when I knew that, unlike the nuns from the Daughters of St. Paul, these were the kinds of nuns that lived a reclusive life, a life of rigorous prayer and meditation inside the convent for all their days. Sister Guadalupe introduced herself and began her story.
It was in the year of 1963 in Easter Samar, when as a mere nine-year-old, she was struck with a strange sickness. She heard her mother crying. Her dad couldn’t even get close. It was there that she promised herself that if she were healed, she would become a nun. But most importantly, she remembered growing up to love playing the piano, to one day join an orchestra. She studied Zoology in college but felt restless. At some point, the nights studying had taken their toll, because after graduating, she realized that she was called to enter the Poor St. Clare convent.
Inside the convent, from 9pm to 7am, they observe what they called the Papal Silence, where they are taught to speak in whispers. The silence of prayer is music, another symphony, she says. “[The] Lord, after all, had wanted a different orchestra for me.” At twelve midnight, they wake up to pray the Matins. At 4:45am, they rise again for the Laudes. In between these times of prayer was time for rest and work. Most of the nuns inside begin their daily routine by watering the plants, sweeping the floor, preparing breakfast, and washing their clothes.
During the day, people come for comfort and advice. They speak to them through that very room, behind that screened wall. “We are very close to the people. We are not far. As a matter of fact, we are with the people,” she says. At 9am, they gather around in their quarters to pray again.
From going out to watch classic music concerts and Broadway shows, Sister Guadalupe sits now, after a few decades, dressed in her brown habit, her face obscured by the curtains. “That is the past,” she tells me. The veil she wears is a sign of consecration that she will be, “Used for God and for not any other motive.”
If Sister Ameline’s life afforded them days of feast and animated laughter, Sister Guadalupe, I would like to believe, takes her identity from the story of her namesake: Our Lady of Guadalupe, the miracle of winter roses. “I’ve never thought of leaving the convent,” she says. “I’m carrying my cross. We are carrying the cross of ourselves.” It is her devotion from now on to her God that makes her barren winter of solitude bloom red.
For some women, the way these nuns have embraced their truth could mean a kind of denial of the rest of the world. But at 5pm, during the Vespers, I witnessed the Poor Clare sisters dressed in their habits—I couldn’t tell because even then, there were screened walls—singing their repetitive choruses, in such angelic sopranos at the back of the church. There was a sudden grace that I, as a growing woman, had not yet inhabited. The sisters believed in a truth, a truth that many of us have not yet known, and maybe never will.
“….And then she undertook the most ordinary things with an arch, tense, tentative good will that made them seem difficult and remarkable…,” Marilynne Robinson writes in her novel, Housekeeping. The narrator, Ruth, describes her aunt Sylvie this way, after she decides to take care of Ruth and her younger sister in the wake of their mother’s untimely death. These nuns have decided to live a simple life, in spite of and because of, the drought of faith in the world. I remember what sister Guadalupe told me, that one time she managed to grow enormous orchids in the convent garden, and use them to decorate the St. Clare church altar, just at the edges of The Crucifix. This for her was what was beautiful.