Sister Acts of Grace

Nicholas Kristof is a writer for the New York Times and, until recently, not a particular friend of faith.  Lately he’s been changing his tune because of Catholic nuns (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/29/opinion/sunday/kristof-we-are-all-nuns.html).   As he has traveled around the world, he says they simply do what Jesus expected all of us to be doing.

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I want to add my voice to his because of the sisters of I’ve come to know at the Carmel Convent School in Delhi.  (Note:  this is the self-descriptor they’ve attached to themselves, not mine for them).

My first exposure to the Sisters of the Historic Carmel Apostolic Congregation came at a desperate moment.  I had been scouring Delhi for a place for our international congregation to meet and had come up with “naught” as they say.  No one had even been kind enough to reply except for an sms text I got from an unknown Catholic sister in charge of a school no one knew anything about—except it was squarely in the middle of town where we wanted to be.  Her answer was terse, but hopeful:  “Could you come in and meet two days from now? Sr. Nirmalini.”

With that name, I pictured a smiling Italian version of Sister Dominique from the movie “The Singing Nun.”   The real thing looks nothing like Debbie Reynolds.  Sister Nirmalini is a tallish Indian woman with quick, sardonic sense of humor.  When I was received into her office, she was accompanied by a friendly elderly nun who sat next to the acre of spotless desk and was like a holy “straight nun” who smiled knowingly at each of the Sister’s clever comments.

This was fun.  She explained about how she and the other Sisters adopted an terribly impoverished village six years earlier where children had been eating grass to survive.  And about the 500 students she and her staff single-handedly coach on Saturdays at their own cost to help get English and Hindi skills high enough so deserving students can get into college.  And about the 2000 young ladies she and her staff teach Monday through Friday in a peaceful and well-kempt setting that insures its one of the top ten schools in Delhi.

Along the way she slyly grinned and then regaled us with how she regularly girds up for battle with politicians who try to force her to give precious classroom slots to children of wealthy Delhiwallha’s as part of their political bribes and pay-off’s.  She had recently won a highly profiled court case and as she explained it she said, “They didn’t know what sort of crazy nun they were dealing with.

Since that time, she and the other sisters in the order have proven those words lovingly true again and again.  Each Sunday they open their wonderful facility to a bunch of pampered Protestants at rates that are a fraction of rental costs outside the school.  Then they also opened up Saturday mornings so our music teams can practice.  When they saw how little we Westerners like to sweat they turned on the air conditioning units and installed ceiling fans over the stage! Lately, the nuns have invited…no begged our ladies to mentor the Christian girls in their school.  And most recently, they made me an honored guest at their Feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.

I’m new to Catholic soirées.  So when I got the invitation, I didn’t know what I was walking into.  But on a Wednesday night, the auditorium was decorated like a banquet for your last school reunion.  Large bouquets of pink/salmon oriental lilies, yellow roses and and white gerberas made the room smile.  Each of the round tables had finger bowls of potato chips and curry-flavored peanuts for munching.  The place was alive with nuns from other orders and Catholic brothers from all over Delhi.  This was a big deal.  Even the Archbishop was in attendance.  Oh yes…and me.  The lone Protestant boy in a sea of Catholics.

Sister after sister of the order made a special point of coming over and shaking my hand and telling me how glad they were that we were holding our services at the school on Sundays.  They talked about the life and joy they saw on our faces and how it blessed them to see the Lord honored each Sunday.  Before long it felt like I wasn’t at a school reunion, but a family reunion.   Like mischievous elderly aunts and grandmothers, octogenarian nuns made sure I wouldn’t get out of there hungry.   When I wasn’t looking,  they’d sneak in to fill my plate with seconds and thirds of foods I can’t neither pronounce or spell.  So I just ate.

Mr. G.B. Joy is the property manager for the school and we pray together for his family and the vangelical church he attends.  He is an honorable, very hard-working man who has become a friend.  Over tea a few weeks ago, he explained how he came from southern India where for quite a few years he had worked for Christian workers in well-known missionary ministries.

They were always all about the money.  And being known.  I’ve been here now for almost ten years and I love it here.  I’m not Catholic, but the Sisters here are doing what Jesus tells us to do.  I love working for them.

Just this morning, the man who sets up for us each week, Mr. Suresh, stepped right in between people wanting to pray with me at the end of the service.  I don’t think Mr. Suresh knows he doesn’t know English.  But I was able to understand his anxious,  “Come, come!” It was an order and he looked serious.  He led me to eighty-four year old Sister Maria Rosa who sat on a a floral patterned chair in the shade and watched our children and their parents eat cookies and say good-bye to each other.

This dear saint from the Portuguese-Indian city of Goa was waiting with a present.  Actually two.  She looked very intently into my eyes and said, “I don’t know if you remember me.”  Of course, I did.

“You told me that you enjoyed reading Theresa of Avila.  So I have two presents for you.  The first is about another Theresa.  This is about St.Theresa of Lisieux.”  I took the book finely wrapped by her well-worn fingers.

“God has used her story to bless my life again and again.  I know He will use it in your life, too.”  She actually said quite a few other things because Sister Maria Rosa actually likes to talk.

“I also have a second gift for you.  When St. Theresa was canonized, the hall was decorated with roses.  While the Pope was speaking, the wind came up and one of the roses fell at his feet.  He stooped, picked it up, and said, ‘God’s rose has fallen into our lives.  We have been blessed.'”

Sister Maria Rosa finished up by saying, “I picked one of our favorite roses to give you along with this book to remind you to be one of God’s roses that falls into the lives of others.”

As I circled back around to the people who were still waiting for me in the auditorium, two thoughts came to my mind.  First, I wanted to become a rose of God dropped into their lives as we picked up our conversations.  The second thought is that if the sisters of the Carmel Convent are crazy, then I hope its catching.

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