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Home truths from the Church

Home truths from the Church

Author: Sucheta Dasgupta
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: November 1, 2009
URL: http://www.dailypioneer.com/212601/Home-truths-from-the-Church.html

This autobiography of a nun, writes Sucheta Dasgupta, is a no-holds-barred indictment of the clergy for its malpractices and hypocrisy

Amen: The Autobiography of a Nun
Author: Sister Jesme
Price: Rs 225

Whoever the Son of God sets free is free indeed!

- John 8:38

It was following a personal revelation to her by Jesus Christ - as she claims in her controversial but first-of-its-kind autobiography - that 53-year-old Sister Jesme, principal of St Maria's College, Thrissur, decided to leave the Congregation of Mother Carmel (CMC) in Kerala in August 2008, after 33 years of service as a nun.

These years had been mostly spent in teaching, study and prayer; with special sanction, the sister had been permitted to continue higher studies for MPhil and a PhD on a merit scholarship by the Government of India, and taught in two colleges for six years, as vice-principal in one and principal in the other, and received a district award for her ground-level work as an educationist.

Though she does not mention in her memoirs when and why she chooses to pen it - the CMC's denial of charity, one of the integral values of the church, in the form of a stipend as part of her voluntary retirement plan might have firmed the idea and her resolve - Sr Jesme delivers a no-holds-barred indictment of the clergy for its malpractices and its fraud by way of donations for college seats, acceptance of capitation fee, class discrimination against poorer nuns (raising the issue of Dalit Christians), alleged mendacity on the part of the Mother General and physical relationships between nuns and those between priests and nuns in her book.

The last of these, which she was allegedly victim to, disturbed her the most and affects the objectivity of her narrative inasmuch as she neglects to dwell on the drama of how she stopped the acceptance of capitation fee in her college and, as principal, stemmed the money-minting tendencies of her staff and superiors as well as how she successfully stood up for poorer but meritorious students who deserved the chance to further their education. But that might only be proof of her sincerity and innocence, virtues that garnered for her the suspicion of her seniors, false propaganda of people with prurient motives, and conspiracies to brand her insane and lock her up in a mental institution unexamined. Her humility in her heroics impresses and despite every hardship, she never gives up the fight.

Deeply conservative but never conformist (so she never loses her ability to actively discern the better from the good and right from wrong), Sr Jesme's own revelations of the order are shocking to many but not so surprising to others. As early as in 1051, St Peter Damian's Book of Gomorrah speaks of the homosexual network in Europe's Catholic priesthood, culminating in an appeal to the Pope for reform, then denied. In July 2008, Pope Benedict XVI issued a public apology to sex abuse victims after a wave of articles and accounts documenting men's homosexuality and paedophilia (Altar Boy: A Story of Life After Abuse by Andrew Madden, Strong at the Heart by Carolyn Lehman, films The Magdalene Sisters, 2002, and Deliver Us From Evil, 2006) worked up outrage in the public and the media.

This book, as the author herself mentions, comes on the heels of various scandals surrounding the exploitation of women rocking the Kerala Christian Church - viz, the Sister Abhaya murder case (1992-2008), Sister Paulsey's suicide following rape (2000), the John Thattunkal adoption controversy (October, 2008) and, the most recent of them all, Sister Anupa Mary's suicide - and could not have been written at a more apposite hour. It is the first account by a male or female of corruption inside the Indian church.

According to the findings of Father Joy Kalliath of CMI, 25 per cent of the nuns in Kerala are discontented with their consecrated lives. Most of them are given to the clerical order at a very young age by their families who are under pressure of poverty which discourages them from raising their children and disallows them from otherwise equipping them with the skills and means of earning a livelihood.

By no means a creative masterpiece, Sr Jesme's distressing story can be criticised on two counts if one were to be rigorous: her passion for classic cinema (she exposed her wards to modern as well as landmark films in the belief that aesthetics enhances spirituality, which constituted one of her numerous trespasses against the management which, in turn, believed that monasticism did not go with viewing cinema) and her principle of advocating "freedom with responsibility" and "responsible obedience" as opposed to "blind obedience", which included her non-acceptance of some of the apostles' "anti-woman attitude" (which made for more dispute).

In 1893, Matilda Joslyn Gage took time out from her participation in the Revising Committee that compiled The Woman's Bible to write Woman, Church and State, a book which challenged traditional Judeo-Christian teaching that women were the source of sin, and that sex was sinful. Gage wrote that the double standard for morality hurt both the sexes. Gage differed from most of the women on the Revising Committee in that she did not feel that the Bible - once it was interpreted in a more true, original form - would support women's rights. Especially troubling to Gage was the story of Adam and Eve.

The church's vows of celibacy and renouncement of sensation and worldly pleasures abjures cinema. Though blessed with a strong conscience and the gift of revelation, the spirited Sr Jesme (her name is a union of the words "Jesus" and "Me"), therefore, departs from the norm in these significant matters. Her account, nevertheless, is a powerful testimonial for the cause of Christian and Indian women's rights that earns her the status - if not of a litterateur - the more important one of a social reformer.

Feted at Frankfurt earlier this month, the nun is now looking to publish a new book on her life as a woman who is 'different' from the average while fighting a new battle: that against a hypothyroid malfunction.

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