By Subhasis Chattopadhyay
Sr. Nirmala: The Guiding Light
6th Dec, 2017
By Subhasis Chattopadhyay

This blog is by courtesy of :

Sannyasa means effecting an ontological break with one’s past; sannyasis let the dead bury their dead. They are themselves dead to this passing world. Frs. Bede Griffiths (Swami Dayananda) and Henri Le Saux (Swami Abhishiktananda) were both Benedictines who became sannyasis without deviating from their Roman Catholic roots.

Syncretising Hinduism with Christianity, we have Mary who had a very anxious sister Martha as distinct from the Mother of God. When the Light shines in contemplation of the dazzling beauty of God, public apostolates and the vita activa become redundant. For anyone to make prayer and contemplation her only way of being is to affirm that prayer and God’s direct presence and intervention in human history is very real.

After all, what avails that a man rises early and sleeps late if God does not keep watch? My first encounter with Roman Catholic contemplatives happened in the graveyard for Christian Brothers and many Calcutta-Jesuits at the cemetery adjacent to Kolkata’s busy local-train hub, Sealdah Station. There is St. John’s Church here, adjacent to which is a Roman Catholic graveyard and these two are looked after by a group of cloistered women-religious. Sealdah was then as it is now a very chaotic station where the announcement for trains is often drowned by the collective hum of humanity in transit.

One day, I stumbled upon Sisters in white sarees with blue borders telling the Rosary inside the graveyard and I saw a very old nun using a broom to clean the cemetery’s narrow paths. She was Sr. Barbara M.C., one of Mother Teresa’s first followers and then I was asked that first day by a soft-spoken nun, whether I wanted to come in to their home adjacent to the cemetery. I was then 10/11 and had happily agreed. I entered their red-brick building and I remember a dark room where many other nuns were kneeling straight without pews while adoring the Blessed Sacrament. That time I did not know it was called the Blessed Sacrament.

This soft-spoken nun and Sr. Barbara gave me some sweets in that darkness and let me be. I soon tired of the silence, being a talkative person and for the next few months went to that monastery to play with the nuns and to hear of Heaven, Hell and Purgatory. That was the time that my understanding of the choirs of Holy Angels was drilled into me by that soft-spoken nun and Sr. Barbara. When today I meet Catholic scholars, who pooh pooh the existence of the Archangels and each of our own guardian angels; I know they are ashamed of the Mystery of their own Faith. They are ignorant of both their own Faith as well as branches of Hinduism. That soft-spoken nun who went on to become a global celebrity against her own wishes taught me on Fridays in that cemetery the need for invoking the Holy Angels.

It transpired that these two nuns went out to help the poor once a week during the morning and on six other days they stayed put within their premises and contemplated God. The idea was so strange to me that I could only make sense of their existence by comparing them with Hindu monks who live away from all human company and have nothing to do with the world. One the one hand they were in the line of Indian ashrama spirituality, on the other hand they were truly Catholic: their monastery is an oasis in the desert of metropolitan Calcutta.

The world turns, but the Nazarene still hangs from His Cross in their monastery for all people to know that there lived holy women who scorned this wretched earth and angels stayed with them. I am certain today that the Orders of Holy Angels lived with that soft-spoken bespectacled thin nun at Sealdah. I do not know this by reading any fat slickly written book. I know it intuitively. No matter who tells me otherwise, that thin bespectacled woman just could not have been wrong. She was polite and soft-spoken and humble, but not stupid by a long shot. I know she was holy since I saw the effects of sanctity all around her. Even chatter-boxes like this author know even now that the Nazarene had a purpose for this then unknown and relatively unimportant nun.

I do not know whether Sr. Barbara is dead or alive, but I certainly know where this soft-spoken Missionary of Charity is: she sees God as Juliana of Norwich sees YHWH.

Her greatest sacrifice to me appears now in hindsight her assent like unto the Virgin Mother of God to divine Obedience. This contemplative nun, was asked by her Master working through the fiat of her Congregation to become the head of one of the most active Religious Congregations in existence now. This nun who gave me traditional-Bengali sweets and instructed me in a playful manner every Friday for about 6/7 months had to meet the press 24/7 later and more importantly, was forced to talk incessantly through phones etc. to preserve the legacy of her Congregation’s Founder. Sr. Nirmala Joshi’s innocent words were often torn to shreds by a press which hounded her unjustly comparing her to Saint Teresa of Calcutta.

While the Saint had many admirers, Sister Nirmala was crucified by propaganda. I met her never again and only saw her on television and online but when I chatted with Sr. Nirmala, she taught me about the vulnerability of the poorest of the poor who cannot help me though I in my arrogance, deign to help them. The poor are those who cannot respond with quod pro quos and often their poverty makes them rough and angry at us who effect the give and take method in daily life.

Sr. Nirmala used to pray the Holy Rosary continuously and she made sure that every time I went to their monastery I learnt to value both the very poor and the very holy. I used to tag along with Sr. Barbara and her while they both stopped at each grave and prayed for the innumerable who were buried there.  I used to tell them about my school-scores and my ambition to be someone in this world. I talked without pause to these two women who loved quiet and while sometimes both nuns kept brooming the huge premises and hung on ropes umpteen number of sarees sometimes gently tapping me with their knuckles on the head for being too talkative; Sr. Nirmala often asked me to speak in more hushed tones and to only make certain that I never criticize others through my speech. Many Fridays she spoke at length but very softly about Purgatory and why everyone should share a part of their good-actions to the salvation of souls trapped there.

Despite my inner restlessness, I can only remember the silence which was that place of God and the rows of nuns in that dark-room kneeling and them going to the cemetery in their care and feeding me. The food was not anything fancy but sweet and sometimes Sr. Nirmala in their verandah just outside their monastery, gave me a ‘roti’ with some vegetable. I never gave anything to those nuns except my weird jet of disconnected self-aggrandizing talk and I remember asking Sr. Nirmala about the possibility of getting my hands on some books. She said that beyond that one room I was sometimes allowed to enter, I could not go further in and thus she could not give me any books. She was truly sad that she could not allow me to run to play inside that monastery. In fact, another nun one Friday hushed me for talking too loudly. Srs. Barbara and Nirmala told me that if I talked so loudly they would be thrown out by Mother Teresa herself! Not I, but they would have to be thrown out. I pretended silence for a few hours and was back to status quo the next week.

Sr. Barbara spoke a lot about Mother Teresa. How Mother Teresa was misunderstood by many; but Mother had to run a huge Congregation and the poor are not reducing and then there are those destroyed by loneliness. Mother’s health was broken by her continuous travel and how one day I should write about the truth of Hell and the greater truth of Heaven. And every Friday offer a bit off myself for those trapped in-between, those in Purgatory. When I pointed out that I was up to no good; Sr. Nirmala would say first: try to be a bit good then, and then try to share that goodness with those in purgatory. Sr. Nirmala was mostly silent except once when I tried to prove to Sr. Barbara the non-existence of God. She asked me to not argue for the sake of argument when I knew God IS. She had said no matter how great the sorrows of this world, good is sovereign and no matter whether I was Hindu or Christian; God is a reality. She had pointed that all my good luck was imputed to fortune and destiny while I chose to paint my own ‘poor-me’ life as being due to God. She had admonished me never ever to talk ill of God even in joke. Today I understand what she had meant. Why no one asks for Karl Marx or Sigmund Freud when dying, and how at their ends every single person seeks God! Further, through the life of the cloistered Sr. Nirmala I understand now why St. Benedict in his Holy Rule asks us to avoid frivolity. Much talk leads to a negative-witness of God and to sin. That is why St. James in the Holy Bible asks us to control our tongues.

I can also understand that many people misunderstood the charism of Saint Teresa herself since they mistake her as a Catholic social reformer. Like her three other namesakes, Saint Teresa of Calcutta, without herself having the privilege of being a 24*7 contemplative, made arrangements for contemplation for her nuns and other women who want(ed) to be like sannyasis in the tradition of Frs. Griffith and Le Saux. Saint Teresa was naturally drawn to the cloister and the vita contemplativa through the triad of the Little Flower, St. Teresa of Avila and nearer to our times, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. All the latter three Saints are cloistered Carmelites. That is the irony of Saint Teresa’s spirituality; that we forget that Mother Teresa yearned to be with God all her life and as is the case with all her namesakes’, she too was engulfed by the Dark Night of the Soul.

Sr. Nirmala one bright Friday noon pointed out to me that Mother would have been in their Monastery had her schedule permitted. Sr. Barbara said to me “Subhasis we have everything and everyone in our monastery. But not Mother.” Sr. Nirmala nodded.

I nearly forgot to mention that Fridays the nuns in that monastery at Sealdah did penance in remembrance of the Crucifixion. And I cannot exactly remember which; they either skipped lunches on Fridays or they did not have those sweets in plenty on Fridays. But they made it a point to observe asceticism themselves without imposing it on me. Then I gradually stopped going there: Sr. Nirmala knew that I was bunking school to be with them and slowly she made me return to school.

One day I saw on television Sr. Nirmala leading her Congregation. While St. Bruno fled this world where he was a high-ranking cleric; Sr. Nirmala like some ancient Egyptian eremite was taken from her silent world where I have seen her peacefully sweeping the cemetery and scrubbing the unending floors of the adjacent St. John’s Church for the sake of the Nazarene, to a world buzzing with the sorrow of humanity which can be heard not only in Kolkata but also at metropolises everywhere in the world. Her Congregation was guided by God in choosing her for leadership because only a person rooted in God and the Indian ethos can really understand the value of contemplation for an Indian Congregation which is active to the point that unless they are very cautious they will in time be mistaken for an NGO.

That was the time of no internet or mobiles. Therefore, I knew very little of Catholic contemplatives. Sr. Nirmala M.C., an unknown nun in a white saree with blue borders later lit the Light throughout the world because Mother Teresa had been guided by the Holy Spirit to open a cloistered branch of her Congregation.

I remember Sr. Nirmala clearly as if it were today, sweeping that cemetery.  Leadership in God’s Kingdom is reserved for dusting-women and porters and cobblers and those who help YHWH see in secret the sorrows of others.




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