The truth according to Sister Jaguar

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• 'Sister Jaguar's Journey' takes a healing odyssey into the Amazon rainforest

Dominican Sr. Judy Bisignano goes to a village during her trip to the Amazon rainforest. (Sophia Lyn Sims)

Surely your mother, like mine, yelled, "Don't you dare lie to me! Tell me the truth!" Jesus was a bit more politically correct when he exclaimed, "The truth will set you free" (John 8:32).

Sandra Morse, my friend, mentor and therapist-of-sorts suggested I rethink and retell my truth — my story — as a way of healing from a brutal childhood of verbal and physical abuse in the 1940s and 1950s. The chaos continued into my early days of convent life in the 1960s and 1970s. I then carried my broken self and story forward for another 50 years!

In an attempt to claim my new life by drastically changing my old story, Sandra Morse and I co-authored a book and made a 20-minute documentary , both titled Sister Jaguar's Journey. (To see the film for free, click on this link.)

On my first of five trips to the jungle, I saw a black jaguar prowling the river's edge. Since I'm the only person from the North to ever see a black jaguar in the Achuar Territory, my new friends began calling me Hermana Otorongo — Sister Jaguar. The name was a perfect fit.

My ongoing dilemma with telling my story comes from the possibility of hurting my family and my Adrian Dominican Sisters while speaking my truth, healing my heart and fulfilling my destiny.

I hesitated a long time before deciding to stand on my soapbox and tell my story in public. I worried about hurting those I was beginning to love again. I wondered if I demonstrated fake peace to gain support and sympathy. I hoped my need to describe my pain would not be perceived as retaliation, to make others pay my price. I muddled in my mind. I simply couldn't trust my truth.

All those years of screaming anger were about looking BIG. I thought bigness would mean — or at least look like — I was somebody. I was wrong. I was very much alone in my bigness.

Today, I don't need the anger that once defined me. I have no interest in displaying an inflated persona. I know who I am, what I am and what I am not. But, unfortunately, I'm now very much alone. That was my early choice. When I rejected being part of my family and the Adrian Dominican community, I chose to go it alone. And now I am. I got what I wanted. Now I must simply accept it.

I was concerned about repudiation for revealing one particular event of my story. What would readers and viewers think when I admitted my community committed me to a mental hospital for six weeks as a novice in the 1960s? Surely, people would think one of us was crazy! What possible behavior did I exhibit that warranted this outrageous decision? I had double vision, which was perhaps related to thyroid cancer detected a few months later.

The worst of that "insane" experience occurred when I decided to check on an elderly patient. I realized she had tried to swallow her fist in an attempt to commit suicide. I tried feverishly to pull her hand from her mouth. She died in my arms.

I was forced into that mental institution as a bewildered, terrified 18-year-old. I exited that hellhole as an enraged young woman determined never again to be abused by another person or institution. Never! Even today, after all my healing, I stand guard against that possibility. I simply have not been able to erase this experience tattooed on my soul.

Some people are outraged by my candor while others value and support identifying and releasing old memories that ravage the soul. Some see it as self-indulging. Others are elated that an old nun was able to swap 68 years of looking for God in all the wrong places for a moment of ecstasy in the Amazon jungle.

At the perfect time in my perfect storm, Sandra Morse had the wisdom and grace to invite me to a shamanic soul-retrieval ceremony in the Amazon jungle. In a single, transformational experience, the anger and depression of my past collided with the worry and anxiety over my future. There I was, suspended in the ecstasy of peace in the present moment.

While resting on sacred ground under the canopy of a star-filled universe, Pachamama (Mother Earth) invited me to take my place within her web of life that began with the first crack of the Big Bang. I knew I was called to blend my story of forgiveness into a new creation story. I knew I had to live and tell my truth.

I am well-aware that my healing process might be a source of pain for others. One of my three brothers has not spoken to me since I sent him an early rough manuscript of Sister Jaguar's Journey several years ago. He will reinsert me into his life when I admit that my mom never hit me and my dad never drank. Sorry. I simply cannot live my life in that lie, even though I finally accept it as my brother's truth.

My other two brothers read the book and saw the film from their hearts rather than their heads. They accepted their prodigal sister back into the family. If Joe and John were the only two to respond to my story with understanding, forgiveness and love, it would be enough. Thank you, guys.

There are several Adrian Dominicans who refuse to speak to me. Some returned my book unopened and unread. Many think I am mean and egotistical, seeking attention at the cost of throwing my sisters under the bus. Not so. I was too busy crawling out from the spot I'd reserved for myself under that bus. I had no desire to appoint replacements.

The Adrian Dominicans give me what I cherish most in life: a community of women who stand on a platform of eco-justice as we give common voice to those who are economically poor yet culturally rich. The Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary have also been very supportive of me, in many ways.

Many sisters encourage me to tell my story in opposition to perpetuated abuses by people, organizations and entire systems. These women see no need for privacy. They are not embarrassed by humanness. They create their own unorthodox, off-the-canonical-grid daily spiritual practices that give meaning to their lives. They are supportive of Sandra Morse and her creative alternatives that interrupt people's self-destruction.

The most often-asked question is, "If you were so miserable, why didn't you simply leave the convent?" The convent wasn't my problem. My family wasn't my problem. I was my problem. I couldn't escape myself. Wherever I went, I carried my misplaced grief in my self-righteous backpack, all the while wondering why I couldn't escape my own dark shadow.

The final paragraph to my story is simple. I did the best I could with what I had and I believe my mother did the same. My three brothers and the Adrian Dominican Sisters continue to do their best as well.

Seven years ago, I fell and broke my right femur. I never took another free step. Today, this three-legged, crippled jaguar continues to fall forward with a profound limp. When this leg pain finally ends and my real life begins, I want to leave you with one simple truth and final request: "All I ask of you is forever to remember me as loving you. I'm sorry. Please forgive me. Thank you." 

[Judy Bisignano is an Adrian Dominican Sister who has spent her adult life directing private and charter public schools in Tucson, Arizona. She has authored and co-authored 35 activity books for children in the areas of values education, environmental education, aerospace and astronomy.]