An hour away from Kochi is the small town of Aluva, situated by the river Periyar. Walking down the narrow serpentine lanes, you can’t help but notice the very many churches and seminaries. One lane leads into another until you find yourself standing before the Monastery of the Poor Clares Colletines. It is here that Sister Mary Patricia arrived in 1990 and where she will remain, she said, until her end.
“A Poor Clare is a nun,” she explained. “We’re the Contemplative Order of the Roman Catholic Church, which means we spend our lives in prayer and contemplation. The silence is real, the rules are followed strictly. Apart from the vows of obedience, poverty and celibacy, we also take a fourth vow of enclosure.”
Sister Patricia is the Mother Abbess or Mother Superior of the monastery, which houses 14 nuns. Enclosure means once a nun is part of the order, she cannot leave unless the Pope agrees.
Being a Poor Clare also means that the nuns of this order live in silence. In Malayalam, this convent is called “minda matham” or the silent convent. The time for conversation with one another is limited: “We can talk for an hour and a half every day, from 12 noon to 1.30 pm,” Sister Patricia said. “The rest of our time is spent in silence – praying or doing domestic chores such as cooking and cleaning.”
On the Vatican’s orders
Poor Clares, a contemplative religious order for women, was formed in 1212 in Assissi by St Clare, the sister of Saint Francis of Assissi. In the early 1400,s however, a French nun named Colette reformed the order. She prescribed extreme poverty, going barefoot and observing silence and strict abstinence.
Across the world, there are 20,000 Poor Clares in more than 75 countries. Monasteries of the Poor Clares in India are present in Tamil Nadu, Jharkhand, Hyderabad, West Bengal and in Aluva. Each monastery works independently, taking directions only from the Vatican.
The nuns at the Monastery of the Poor Clares Colletines bake a sacramental bread called Lamb, used in the ritual of Holy Communion. All the parishes in Aluva take this bread, exchanging it for a donation of food or help – if for example, the monastery building requires repair work.
Cecily is desperate for help – any help. One of the hundreds of people who come to the convent every week looking for solace, she is at the monastery to ask Sister Patricia to pray for her father. “He is sick and in a very bad way,” she said. “The doctors can’t operate on him.”
But the rules of how one communicates with the sisters are strict. A bell is rung, after which the Mother Abbess appears and sits behind a purdah or a grill and listens to the person’s plea. She then shares this with the other nuns, and collectively, they pray for those who need healing and help.
“The nuns here spend their lives praying, we believe they’re not touched by sin,” Cecily said. “And so their prayers are highly effective.”
The call of devotion
Sister Patricia, once an architecture student, knew this was her calling early in life. “I used to watch people pray in church.” She came to the convent at a point when the building needed repairs and her architecture training came handy.
The monastery in Aluva was built in 1937. It was once a place where trainee priests came to study philosophy and theology. But in 1942, when WWII reached Burma (now Myanmar), the Burmese Poor Clares needed a safe place. The Bishop of Verapoly donated the building to the Poor Clares. Since then it’s been their home here in Aluva.
Sister Patricia believes one must be spiritually evolved to live the life of a Poor Clare. “Each of our prayer sessions last an hour,” she said. “We have seven prayer sessions a day. Then there’s mass and meditation.”
Do the nuns ever suffer a crisis of faith? “The question doesn’t arise. It can take a minimum of seven and a half years to become a Poor Clare. There’s enough time to be sure that you want this.”
Contemplation in silence has its own challenges, but the Vatican has relaxed some rules. For example, the Mother Abbess can now read newspapers to filter what is happening in the world, to explain to other nuns should they want to know.
The Poor Clares can only visit their families twice in a lifetime – once when their fathers die, the other time when their mothers pass on. Similarly, parents are also allowed to visit a nun if she is on her deathbed. Other than parents, the only people who can see the nuns of this order are their biological siblings. Like most priests and nuns, Poor Clares also renounce the right to property.
Monetary donations are not accepted because of the vow of poverty, but local parishioners donate food like rice, bread, vegetables and fruits to the monastery but this food is also shared with the poor, who come to the monastery every day and ring the bell so one of the sisters leaves food for them by the revolving door.