Matt of The Church of No People recently asked me some questions about my experience, and I thought I would share them here. The questions in bold are Matt’s.
I’d like to hear what the everyday experience is like being a Christian in India, which makes someone a small minority in that society.
I left India in 1984. While I was there, Catholics were respected: because they ran good schools, colleges, hospitals, orphanages, homes for the handicapped, open to people of all creeds. However, intolerance were becoming evident with “Anti-Conversion Bills” making proselytising illegal. There is more hostility towards Christians now, and making converts (leave alone disciples!) is illegal in several states.
If you can, briefly tell us about why you joined the convent.
I was rebellious as a teenager in Catholic boarding school. During a period of “curfew” after religious riots, I found myself reading the few books in our house which I had not read—Catherine Marshall’s Beyond Ourselves and The Cross and the Switchblade.
I was attracted by the idea of a living relationship with Christ, and committed my life to Him. I simplistically thought the only way to follow him was along the lines of Matthew 25, “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me.”
Who did that kind of work? Mother Teresa.
I wrote to her, was accepted, and was in the convent 4 months after my conversion!!
I have written about my conversion experience for Commonweal magazine, reprinted in Phil Zaleski’s Best Spiritual Writing.
Forgive my non-Catholic vocabulary, but what your “title” there – were you a nun?
I was a postulant. Nuns go through a 6 month aspirancy, a 6 month postulancy, and a 2 year novitiate, before they take their vows for 6 years. After 9 years, they take their final vows.
Anyway, I’d love to hear just a bit about life in a convent, particularly the convent of our time’s most famous nun.
It followed the ancient Benedictine model, a mixture of work and prayer.
Since I was still in training, we spent mornings in classes on theology, Scripture and their constitution, and in prayer. We worked in Mother Teresa’s homes in the evenings– in the home for dying destitute, orphans, and the mentally. (I’ve written about my work at Kalighat, the home for dying destitute in Zaleski’s Best Spiritual Writing series.
The recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours–laud, none, vespers and compline, a melange of psalms and traditional prayers–ring-fenced the day in prayer, In addition, there was Mass; an early morning half-hour of silent meditation on scripture; an hour of “adoration,” or contemplative prayer; and a half hour of spiritual reading. A total of 3.5 hours in various spiritual activities. I did gain much familiarity with Scripture, which has been a blessing to me.
When I was there, 1979-1980, it was a young religious order, and eccentric, shaped by a visionary, who was revered, and apparently unquestioningly obeyed.
One of her dearly-held ideas was that one needed to voluntarily share the hardships of the poorest of the poor to have empathy for them.
The deliberate quest for extreme poverty meant that we were put 25 to a room, and there was a constant time-consuming shifting and re-arranging as the room became a refectory, a classroom, and a dormitory.
There was no running water which meant we spent half an hour every day in a crocodile, drawing buckets of water from the wells and transporting it to the bathrooms and kitchen. We had just 2 sets of white sarees, which meant daily hand-washing…
The food was simple, and nutritious enough, but, another peculiarity, there were large fixed quantities one had to eat, which were quite extreme: 5 chapatis for breakfast, and five ladles of rich for lunch and dinner. After a couple of her sisters caught TB on her original diet of salt and rice, rice and salt, she imposed this as a safeguard against disease.
Everything, even the pettiest details–subjects to meditate on as one dressed, mending sarees from thread unravelled from scraps– was controlled by rules. It was high-control, almost like a cult, legalistic and judgmental. After a while, it becomes easier not to think for yourself, and instead do whatever would get you praised, or avoid what would get you judged.
What went into your decision to leave the convent and your faith? How does someone walk away from such a dedicated faith life?
I saw an image of myself in a train going ever further in the wrong direction, but afraid to get off for fear of looking foolish
We slept at 10, and woke at 4.40 a.m. for church, with a half hour mid-day nap. Since I was 17 when I joined, I was perpetually tired and felt constantly sleep-deprived. Sleep deprivation (used by cults, and authoritarian systems: labour camps, prisons) makes it easy to go along with authority and not question. My first thought on waking and predominant longing was for naps and bedtime. It wasn’t sustainable.
The first three years were a kind of boot-camp, deliberately harsh. The novice-mistresses had complete power over us (one of the vows was obedience) and I struggled with perceived injustice, and the authoritarianism with no recourse of complaint.
The nervous intensity of prayer, and scripture study and meditation can ironically heighten irritability, and the rub of community life 24/7 with 25 people sharing a medium sized room.
Two people had breakdowns when I was there. One just sat and giggled helplessly. Another was sent home and attempted to jump out from the bars of the train. Leaving the convent once you join was viewed as disgraceful in Indian Catholic society.
And, in fact, my health was shattered, though no one realised this while I was in the convent. I returned home, deeply exhausted, and within the month was diagnosed with both early stage TB and hepatitis!
I was thoroughly exhausted, and in retrospect, it clearly wasn’t my vocation!
What brought you to the faith you have today? Did you have the support of Christian friends or family members?
I was a passionate, absorbed student, so faith—in particular, the liturgy, the rituals, the dogma of Catholicism–gradually went limp and lifeless for me.
I earned an undergraduate degree in English at Oxford University, and then did a master’s in Creative Writing at Ohio State University, and some of a Ph.D in Creative Writing at SUNY-Binghamton. A couple of young students on a campus mission came up to me, and asked if I knew Jesus.
My dream then was to be a successful poet. Success had evaded me. It was all very uphill–and it struck me that I wasn’t doing too well, managing life on my own. It could only be better if Christ managed it.
But faith had by then sloughed away, and a friend suggested I just do what Jesus said and see if worked. Well I did, it did; I was surrounded by little miracles, and I recommitted myself to following Jesus.
My goal now is to live as a contemplative in the world
The Christian imperatives which Jesus with his Gordian-knot-slashing directness reduced to two–to wholly love God and to love your neighbor as yourself–remain the same. There is just more distraction. Without the traditional monastic disciplines- prayer, meditation, adoration, the liturgy of the hours, and “spiritual reading– it takes ingenuity to carve for myself a circle of silence to feed on Christ and Scripture and to live contemplatively, remembering Jesus not only amid the beauty and tranquillity of my garden, my writing, and my books, but in the crucible of marriage, motherhood, domesticity, and the busyness of everyday. The demands of unselfishness remain constant, without the convent’s periodic sanctioned escape into the sacred ivory spaces of psalmody and song. In fact, I now consider domesticity, marriage, and motherhood a smithy in which the soul can be forged as painfully, as beautifully, as amid the splendid virginal solitudes of the convent.