One of my favorite TED Talks is "The Danger of the Single Story." A Nigerian woman tells how as a child, she wanted to be a writer, but the only books available to her featured white children in places where there was snow and people who ate apples. Thus, she assumed that all writers had to follow this pattern of place and character. It was the "single story" she knew.
She laughingly goes on to tell of experiences she had when she encountered single stories of people she met in the United States. Her roommate was so surprised at how well she spoke English and astonished to learn that most Nigerians speak English from birth.
Single stories live in all of us until we meet something different and are awakened. I remember my surprise when I met my first Zambian Poor Clare nun in 1981. I had never thought about African women being called to an enclosed religious life. Catholicism was relatively new there, and God was not lagging in calling women to this life in active ministry. I never did figure out the single story that shaped my misconception! Since then, I have met many African sisters in enclosed communities.
Recently, Pope Francis asked contemplative women religious to review their lives to make sure they truly are witness to vibrant prayer, stability and common life, values so needed today in our global world of noise, dislocation and frayed relationships. I have been connected to a group of Carmelites in Buea, Cameroon, since 2012, so I decided to ask them how they are responding to the pope's request.
I was told that they are excited about the review because it challenges them to talk with one another about their life together and to make any changes that are needed to make their life more vital. They agreed that it is always easy to remain in the status quo and to take one another for granted.
This discalced Carmelite monastery was founded in 1994 by eight nuns from Mexico and follows the reform of Teresa of Avila of 1562. "Discalced" literally means "without shoes," but the understanding is to emphasize simplicity and austerity, not necessarily to go without shoes. (The sisters wear sandals.)
Since those beginning days, some sisters returned to Mexico, others from Italy joined and so did women from Cameroon. There has been a continuing stream of young women seeking to enter. Not all stay, but I was curious to know what attracts them.
Sister Rosemary of the Trinity, one of the newest Cameroonian sisters, was allowed to do a written interview with me. She is 32 and has been in Carmel for five years. Sister Rosemary is a highly educated young woman who has left all to join this community of prayer, austerity and silence nestled in the hills of Buea.
GSR: I understand that you were a university graduate when you entered Carmel. What made you leave that life to follow a vocation to religious life?
Sister Rosemary: Many people encouraged me in my vocation, but in my early adolescent years, I was not really attracted to it. I think people saw how active I was in the parish and that I liked to pray. I loved God and desired to be good, even to be a saint, but was not thinking about a religious vocation.
As I became more involved in parish activities, I became very pious, attracted to prayer and spirituality. At times, I would think about religious life, but marrying some ideal husband and the professional life also attracted me. Even when I began to think that being a nun could be my call if I really wanted to give my life to prayer, I tried hard to avoid such thoughts. I was not ready for the sacrifices it would mean. My spiritual director, on the other hand, kept encouraging me, as did other Christians and priests.
How did you come to know the Carmelite Sisters in the Buea area?
I had heard about the Carmelite Sisters since childhood as my family lived only a few miles from their monastery, in Regina Pacis Cathedral parish. I had never met them, only knew that they lived up the hill and that they dedicated their entire lives to prayer. Sometimes I saw them in their car when they passed by on the road. Because I was not thinking I had a vocation to consecrated life, I was not pushed to try to know more about them.
But in 2008, I did become interested in them when the relics of St. Therese of the Child Jesus came to the Buea diocese and there was much talk about her saintly life. I had the opportunity to read about her and fell deeply in love with her spirituality and the Carmelite way of life. And, by then, I had begun thinking about a vocation. I felt a desire to be a Carmelite like St. Therese and so started visiting the sisters in 2009.
What were some things that nurtured your move to Carmel?
I had a strong desire to love God intimately and to live a life of prayer. Reading the autobiography of Sister Therese made the desire stronger. I could feel I wanted to be like her and learn from her example. Secondly, I believed strongly in the power of prayer, where I could help an infinite number of people. I could not reach out physically to so many in an active apostolate.
Besides, I had already had experience working with the poor when I did field work for my master's of science research in biochemistry. I collected blood samples in a malaria-endemic area with many poor people who were uneducated, frequently sick and lived a miserable life. We researchers were passionate about our work to find a cure for malaria, so I knew the work was very important. But again, I saw that research was very limiting. It did not resolve the many issues of divided families, young pregnant girls or of children who never knew their fathers.
God was showing me another way: Prayer as an apostolate would be the best way for me to help, and it would 'reach the ends of the Earth.' Through prayer, I would be able to prepare people to get to know God and be saved.
What was your family's reaction to your choice to become a Carmelite?
It was a shock. I only mentioned it to them after I had obtained my first degree and begun my master's program. As was expected, my family was hoping I would marry, have children, get a good job and serve God as a holy person in society. They argued that if I entered an active order, they could at least see me and I could visit them on holidays and other occasions. Carmel seemed too much a sacrifice with all the detachment and austerity. It seemed a waste, especially because I was the most educated of the family and had a bright future ahead. But they later accepted my choice, supported me and gave me their blessings. Now, they are happy with my vocation and thank God for it. They say their faith has been increased and they now understand that I have chosen the better part.
I had already started my master's degree when I finally made up my mind to enter Carmel but also decided I needed to work for a time first. After I got my degree, I worked about 10 months in an agricultural research institute and two months after that in the medical research institute I mentioned before. Both of these were under the Ministry of Scientific Research and Innovation in Cameroon. Being a trained researcher, I was required to enroll in the doctoral program in biochemistry, but as soon as I finished the first semester, I stopped studies, resigned from work and entered Carmel. I felt so strongly that God wanted me in Carmel that I could no longer delay because I was already 27 years old.
What was your family life like growing up?
My family was simple and happy. We were six children from the same parents. I was the last born, with three sisters and two brothers. Three already have their own homes, and two sisters still live with my parents.
We are a very united family as we all worked together and supported each other. We were poor but not miserable. My father had been a domestic worker, and my mother had a petty business that she and my two sisters managed to sustain the family. It was because our income was small that I decided to work a short time before entering Carmel. My parents were aging, too, and I wanted to contribute to their care. My father was 68 and my mother was 64. We were a close family and had lots of fun together, so I really missed them when I entered, even though my sisters in community love me very much, and I feel very much at home here.
Even though my parents were not pious Catholics, they did send us to Catholic primary schools and made sure we were all baptized before we started secondary school. Some of us went to Mass every Sunday and sometimes during the week, but we all went on feast days. We sometimes prayed together at home. It was my elder brother who became a religious in 2011 who taught me when I was 7 how to pray and introduced me to the Divine Office.
What was it like to adjust to enclosed life in Carmel?
I found it quite difficult. Our schedule begins at 5:30 a.m. and ends at 9 p.m. Our time is spent in a rhythm of prayer, spiritual reading, work, recreation and meals. I found it especially hard to sleep at appointed times of siesta and early nights. My sleep was shallow for some time, and I found the work so different. I was used to intellectual and laboratory work, and now I was making altar breads and gardening, and instead of reading scientific articles, I focused on spiritual readings. I had been very selective in my eating, but in Carmel, I had to learn to eat whatever was put before me. It didn't take me a long time to adapt, and I quickly grew to love life in Carmel.
What do you like most about this life?
I love the silence, especially in the evenings, which is a reflective time for me to dialogue with God. I also enjoy our community life. The group is small, only nine, but there is a lot of love and affection among us. I have been here now for five years, and I encourage any young woman who is searching for joy and desires only to please God to enter Carmel.
Lastly, what do you like about Pope Francis?
I like his simplicity. He is not a man of much protocol in his way of being, speaking and writing. I feel anybody can approach him without fear.
[Joyce Meyer is a member of the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary and is GSR's liaison to women religious outside of the United States.]