Amen: The Autobiography of a Nun
By Sister Jesme
Penguin Books, 2009, 178 pages
When I accepted Jesus Christ as my Savior back in 1983, my Catholic family thought I had joined a cult, but is there anything more cultish then a Catholic convent full of virginal “brides of Christ” replete with wedding rings?
In this book, Sister Jesme (her real name is Meamy Raphael), formerly of the Congregation of Mother of Carmel, tells of her journey into a convent in India in 1974 at the age of 17 and her departure in 2008. We learn of the rigorous disciplines of religious orders, lesbianism within the convent, sexual abuse by predatory female superiors and priests, and mostly, the difficulty of navigating the internecine political squabbles and factional warfare within the convent and religious order.
This was a difficult book to read for a couple of reasons. The translation is challenging at best. Also, Jesme’s accounts of her journey through Indian academia often focus on technicalities that will thoroughly bore the average reader. Negatives aside, those not acquainted with the routine and difficulties of convent life will find this book quite enlightening.
Jesme entered the convent with high hopes that her personal sacrifices would lead to a closer relationship with God. Instead, her rebelliousness and improprieties led to her being dismissed from her position as principal of a Catholic college and being pressured to receive treatment for mental illness. Jesme finally quit the order but remains a devoted Catholic.
Roman Catholics are taught by their church that salvation is through sacramental grace and merit. Catholics like Jesme struggle and struggle to please God and merit salvation through denial and trying to obey the Ten Commandments. There is absolutely no joy in Jesme’s story. It’s a heartbreaker. But God’s Word tells us of the Good News! of salvation by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone. Get off the religious treadmill. Accept Christ as your Savior.
Postscript: Protestant literature of the 19th and early 20th century included many accounts of former nuns who had left or escaped the convent. Some of the details in those books of life in the nunneries could be described as mildly lurid. Catholic spokespersons dismissed the accounts as “Puritan pornography” but there’s no doubt that unnatural inclinations and behaviors festered in an environment of forced celibacy. These days, with reports of pedophile priests constantly in the news, Catholics are not so apt to casually dismiss reports of scandal and mistreatment within religious communities. See my review of “The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio” here. Many nuns endured an unhappy, and for some, a nightmarish existence, but remained in the convent because they felt they had no other options.
When I was growing up in the 1960s, convents were a normal part of the Catholic landscape. That’s no longer the case. The overall decline in the commitment of American Catholics to their church included a major drop in religious vocations for women. In 1965 there were 180,000 nuns but that number dropped to 50,000 in 2014 – a 72% decline over those 50 years. And most of the remaining nuns are quite elderly. According to church statistics, there are currently more nuns over age 90 than under age 60. Convents are now few and far between here in Rochester and everywhere else.