Thursday, July 30, 2009

Structure and Critique: Thoughts on Reading ‘Amen: The Autobiography of a Nun’

A few months ago, a visiting friend recommended that I read Amen: The Autobiography of a Nun. “It will shock you” he assured me. It was this assurance of a spicy read that made me lunge at the book when I did find it in one of the Panjim bookstores. The book however didn’t exactly live up to reviews on the jacket, and given that, subsequent to my reading, I didn’t find any reasonable review, I thought that I might as well get this column to reflect on the book.

Amen, has been written by Sr. Jesme, a Malayali nun who was formerly a member of the CMC congregation. As she reveals it, the intention of her book, was to highlight the various corruptions that are rampant within the high walls of the convent in particular, and the Church in general, with a view to initiating a wider debate on these corruptions. In particular she reveals the problems of religious who are spiritually uninspired; members of religious congregations who use the funds of the congregation to feather the nests of their natal families; and use their position within the Church to further familial fortunes. She speaks of religious congregations who while engaged in imparting education engage in practices that while not necessarily illegal, are definitely unethical. Finally, she also speaks of the sexual transgressions engaged in by those who have taken vows of celibacy.

Though Sr. Jesme has raised a number of issues that need to be addressed, what is remarkable is that most of the perfunctory reviews of the book (including those from persons within the Church) have focused only on the sexual episodes in her narrative. What could the possible reason be for the singular focus of these reviews?

I believe that we could address this question on three levels, the reason for the clerical response, the reason for the secular response, and a reason that lays responsibility for this focus on the structure of Sr. Jesme's narrative itself. The first reason; that of the clerical response, is relatively easy to address. Sr. Jesme already informs us in her narrative, that her book and her departure from the congregation was a result of a failure of the higher authorities within the institutional church to deal with the issue. Rather than address the issue, on multiple occasions she was informed that she lacked the virtues of the religious, and on other occasions was compelled to turn a blind eye to the corruptions that upset her. This scenario will not be alien to a Goan audience especially those who have attempted debates or dialogues and have been shut out by the ‘head in the sand' approach that is often (though truly not always) the preferred route employed by the Church hierarchy.

The response of the secular reviewers too falls into a rather predictable mode. The Catholic Church is seen as the font of all evil. No good can emanate from it, and it is to be understood primarily through the more popular lens that operates today, that of sexual impropriety. This mode can perhaps be traced to the history of the Western European experience with the Church, a historical experience was then converted into the ideology of secularism. Initially a battle of the temporal powers of Western Europe with the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, this 'secularism' is in fact the continued attempt of temporal powers to deal with differences that they cannot or will not tolerate, especially if these differences allow for a split in the loyalties of persons within their jurisdiction. Thus on the one hand in Europe when secularism is quoted as the reason to prevent Muslim women from veiling themselves, the motive is in fact not secularism, since other religious motifs are permitted to be displayed. In India, secularism is reverted to when religious minorities demand that their differences be respected. Furthermore, when religious values challenge the temporal temptations of consumerism, an all-out war is launched against these 'irrational' religious beliefs. This occurs even though consumerism, as a belief that one's desires will be satisfied through consumption, is a certain kind of religious value, and in fact not particularly rational! In this battle of consumerism and secularism against other ideologies, it is very often tracts like that of Sr. Jesme that very often are used by the temporal powers to advance their agenda of effectively domesticating these theologies to their own temporal (state or market) agendas.

It was possible however that Sr. Jesme could have avoided falling into the trap of the ‘secularists’. She could have done this by providing a structure to her narrative. As of now, Sr. Jesme's text reads as a breathless babble, jerking, most often without providing an appropriate context, from one episode to another. Without providing a structure for her narrative, without framing her arguments, it is little wonder that her text, that has the potential to raise serious issues, was either dismissed as being about sex, or co-opted to pillory the Church as a nest of sexual deviants. Indeed the lack of a structure prevents even Sr. Jesme for developing a broader critique of the situation based on her personal experience. As such, the book remains the personal story of just one nun, who is unable to justify why her experience is in fact representative of many such experiences.

Even worse, the failure to provide a structure to the narrative prevents us from understanding the richness of the Catholic spiritual tradition that has clearly nurtured and continues to sustain Sr. Jesme, even when she has opted to remain a nun outside of the organizational location of the convent and congregation. Once more, providing such a context would have allowed the non-Catholic reader of this text (and given the context of its publication, this type will no doubt preponderate) a holistic understanding of the Catholic tradition. It is not as if Sr. Jesme is not aware that she was addressing this audience, but perhaps because of the fact that the majority of her life was spent within the confines of Central Kerala (that has a strong Christian presence) she forgets that not all non-Catholics in India have the same front-row experience of the Malayali non-Catholic.

What is odd however, is that this unstructured text should come from the pen of one who has been awarded a PhD in no less a field than English Literature! Rather than fault the Indian educational system, I would like instead to point to the lack of intellectual rigour that seems to mark a good amount of the work that comes out from constituents of the institutional Catholic Church. Even congregations that were formerly marked for their intellectual rigour, today display a good number of persons who produce work that displays a certain lack of rigour. There is not the space here to ponder the reason for this drop in standards, but it is a matter that needs to be systematically probed.

The reason that we need to probe this lack of rigour is displayed once more in Sr. Jesme’s narrative. Throughout the text Sr.Jesme jerks between patriarchal notions and the desire for liberation, frustrating in the process her own ability to produce a critique that would be useful for the debate she seeks to initiate within the Church. Just like Sr. Jesme, the frequent lack of intellectual rigour, prevents constituents of the institutional Church from articulating rigorous and careful responses to critiques of the Church. Failing this intellectual background, they are reduced to the ‘head in the sand’ approach, engage in limp-wristed defence, or worse still ad hominem attacks against the levelers of this critique.

For many of the faults of the book (and there are many) the blame should be placed squarely at the feet of the publishers, Penguin India. This is one book that can still do with a few rounds of rigorous editing, both grammatical and structural. The book as it stands now should be seen as an embarrassment to the publisher and the author. Also, within the sensitive context of the Indian republic, it has the potential to do great and unjustifiable harm to the Catholic Church. While pillorying the Catholic Church in the Christian west may be a popular pass-time, we should not forget that the Church(es) in India are not merely institutions, but are cultural organizations that frame and support the lives (and livelihoods) of many Indian Christians. A blind attack on the institutional Church) no matter how justified, could often result in an attack on innocents.

Despite all these faults however, Sr. Jesme’s narrative is one that deserves reading and further reflection on. From my own reading of the book I believe that it is clear that the problem lies not only with the institutional Church and the hierarchy, but with Catholic society as well. Sr. Jesme documents Malayali society, but the features she highlights is one that is not so dissimilar to what our own was a few years ago and continues to be so today. She speaks of small communities that suffocate individuals who may attempt to be different, where gossip operates as a mode to discipline people. Communities that mistake patriarchy for Christian values, and stress a blind dogmatic obedience while losing sight of its mystical value. None of these situations are unique to Malayali society, and it is incumbent on us therefore to begin a contemplation on the issues that Amen seeks to raise, but so woefully fails to carry to fruition.

(A shorter version of this review, was published in the Gomantak Times on 29 July 2009)

(It needs to be said that the finest review of the book so far is that penned by Bobby Kunhu, available via this link)

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