Sister Christine shared this essay with a friend, who was told to keep it to herself. It was shown to her brother Bienvenido Tan for the first time four days after Sister Christine died at the age of 72 last October 2003
I was a little girl, six years old, when I noticed my mother kneeling by our small altar on the second floor. She had tears on her cheeks. I approached her, asking, “Mama, why are you crying?” She whispered into my ear, “Papa lost all our money in the stock market.” After a while, Papa came home from his law office. There was the usual pulling off his shoes and handing him slippers, the usual meal, prepared with such care and love, the lively conversation among a family with seven siblings, all of school age. There was no sign of tears, no reproach, no snub.
I was a little girl, 11 years old. It was World War II. As weeks turned to months to years, we noticed how our family possessions were dwindling. We sold our lands and jewelry, one by one.
Every meal was skimpy. We never had rice, only rice that looked like soup, extended with corn. Sometimes we had slivers of sausage so thin, I thought it was a special kind of transparent sausage. I noticed that Mama, always the last to eat, was anxious that each child would have her fill. She never said she was hungry.
I observed how Mama would unearth her elaborate sayas, long kept in trunks, and one by one rip out their seams and sew them into dresses for her six daughters. I also marveled at how my sister could bake cakes over charcoal in an old kerosene can, selling these cakes at nearby cafes to help purchase our basic needs. Overnight, Papa’s hair became snowy white.
It was in this family where I experienced silent suffering, steeled determination, love poured out. It did not take long to wonder why such gifts poured into my frail hands. It was Feb. 6, 1954.
I remember the evening I left home to become a nun. Then, we had to take the plane to Los Angeles, California. Then, we just walked to the plane as there were few passengers. My mother was sobbing. The guards kept glancing at her. My siblings were crying, my students were weeping with their heads down, while Papa was smoking his cigar. As I was undergoing this trauma, I lost all strength to walk those steps to the plane. I felt I would die. I said I would just stay home, it was all a mistake. But angels carried me, and I reached the plane without ever looking back. That was the saddest day of my life.
The first 16 years of religious life were placid. I cannot recall a single sorrow or problem or even joy that made any dent to the core of my being. It was only when my convent-formed consciousness expanded to national consciousness, when the arena of my vows gave way to the battlefield of injustice and poverty, of oppression and torture, that I had to take a stand, and with this, incurred the ire of those who held power. I therefore think of my religious life as a blaze of colors, shades of suffering and misunderstanding, hues of joy and ecstasy, deep tones of struggle and search. There was perennial search in all waves of my life—the search to find God, the search to be authentic, the search for justice within and outside the Church, the search for true freedom, the search of my people for a taste of a life that is human.
This search led to pathways totally unknown and to acts of daring which only God could have planned. It was therefore logical that I would be comfortable in a spirituality that was not Western, in a milieu that was not clean, but dirty and phlegm-pocked, in an apostolate where confrontations were made with heads of state and armed military, in ashrams and Buddhist zendos instead of marble churches, where, when reaching that point of stillness, the whole world would evaporate and all become green.
On the other hand, I would feel ill at ease in my own Church where our words seemingly control and coerce, where we are often told what we cannot do. I would feel ill at ease in the company of hooded nuns in our tropical climate, in meetings where rhetoric multiplied ad infinitum, in conversations that dealt with the health of our inner organs, instead of trying to reach for the stars, so that our lives make a difference in the misery of the poor.
It was with the poor that I felt comfortable. In the dirt and foul language, with drunken men, in shattering noise where no one seemed to sleep, it was here that God was at ease. It was here that I found Jesus.
I remember the day we decided to leave the grounds of our provincialate, to share our lives with the majority of Filipinos, the unwashed. There were five of us, and the only reason we had to changing our mode of life was to find Jesus. We found two rooms with no floor, and no toilet, in the armpits of Manila, the fifth district.
While this change of address brought about a change in my priorities, it was my introduction to Asian spirituality that toppled me over, and caught me gasping for God. It was in Saigon, Vietnam, when grace knocked me down. I had a Vietnamese friend who had a doctorate from Paris, and who was steeped in Eastern spirituality. We were close friends, sharing the same thirst for political and spiritual liberation. I visited her often on my way to some other destination. In her home, she had a garden with a hammock beside a small pool. One evening we sat there together, when words long smoldering in my heart, tumbled out as I uttered, “Anh, teach me to pray.” She responded, “Christine, sit on this hammock. Gaze at the stars and keep your mouth closed.”
That was the beginning of a paradise within me, a world so scintillating that it pierced through my senses into the outer world, transforming my thoughts, plans, deeds, dreams, into a flaming passion for justice and peace.
But life was not all justice and peace. How I loved my community, my congregation. With nostalgia, I remember a nun, one who shaped my values by what she did. She was our superior during those days when one kissed the superior’s hand every time she handed you anything. Superiors then stood on pedestals. But this one tasked herself to clean our washrooms every morning until they glistened and smelled good. She was one who noticed when sisters were lonesome and tried to make days bright by adding raisins to our breakfast bread. She was one who sang to the mountains and trees, the nipping air, the endless sky, when no one talked about ecology. She would also give a bath to Igorot children, caked with dirt and lice, in our spotless convent bathroom, when strict cloister was an imperative from Rome. How I loved this nun.
There is another nun, living until now, whose heart shines pure, who can think no malice of anyone, who walks the slums during the heat of noon as her varicose veins pop out, who never complains about food, even when hot soup is served cold and cold salad is served hot, whose addiction is the poor, who does not mind lugging boxes—sometimes as many as 57Ñfull of used clothes, food, soap, noodles without packs, as long as they reached the poor. She is one of whom the Benedictine, Sr. Joan, says: “What is more disturbing to the status quo than an experienced religious elderly, who cannot be controlled, cannot be threatened, cannot be punished, who is obscenely alive.”
Now, 71 years old, 48 of which have been spent in religion, 22 of which are spent until now, living in the filth of the urban poor, several years spent atop the pinnacle of power, as provincial, chairperson of the major superiors, founder of several religious and human rights organizations but with more years not understood by the majority of religious, I hear nothing but a song in my heart.
How healthy it was to be misunderstood, especially by those who mattered, how faith-filled it was to be the enemy of the dictator, the target of rightists. How liberating it was not to be swept by the tide. There has been no criticism or censure that has not melted into nothingness in the stillness of Asian meditation. There has been no fear that has not vanished while merged with God, partner and lover.
As for adulation, positions, praises poured on me—they are just bubbles that disappear with a sneeze. As to the institutional church, that monolithic fort of mitered men, how I suffered from their arrogance. Once during martial law, when we major superiors dared oppose the dictatorship, I was summoned to Rome. I remember the 14 doors that I passed through, only to be told by a cardinal that if I did not cooperate with our regime, I would be excommunicated. I sighed, not because of the senseless threat, but because of the thousands of pesos spent on fare, when this could easily have been done with a single stamp. But these too are bubbles that make no dent.
Thus is my story where “I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately, to live deeply and suck all the marrow of life, to put to the rout all that is not of life, and not when I shall die, to discover that I have not lived at all.”
They say that we are all drops of water in an ocean, totally lost in its expanse and depths. But some drops sparkle.