Under my byline

Mysterious moves

Posted in Books, Profiles by Rrishi on 24 April 2010


God moves in mysterious ways. If there is a God. It’s not the question for the individual conscience that I mean here, rather the shifting tide of publications that seek to lay out arguments one way or the other, to testify, cast into doubt or convince. If there is a God, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens — both of whom have written books saying that the universe neither requires nor shows signs of God, that God is a human delusion or tool of social control — will surely be condemned to Hell. (Hitchens has even been known to smoke and drink, at the same time.) Others have written to show that the application of logic to such a subject is self-limiting — how to evaluate something outside of logic with logic?

Much of the published argument happens between Christians or those nurtured in Christian societies. Christianity, after all, has been from birth uneasily tied to classical logic inherited from Greek civilisation — that awkward marriage of faith and logic, simplicity and hyper-systematisation, the free individual conscience and the rule of the community is what has given the world the really quite exciting and mesmerising wonders of theology.

But in the slow turning of these great ideas and systems, human individuals often get ground up. It’s not just the recent and ongoing disaster for the Roman Catholic Church that is the surfacing of sex scandals in every corner of the world; it’s not just the victims and the priests, nor the bishops who fail to act justly and in time, nor the believers who are buffetted with bad news — there are also those who have given their entire lives and minds and bodies over to the Church. Like nuns.

In Kerala, recent writings by and about nuns make clear that they are occasionally preyed upon by priests. One by Sister Jesme, Amen: The Autobiography of a Nun (Penguin), was translated into English and made waves last year; I’m told that in Malayalam there are more such writings, not to mention plenty of rumour. Without a doubt serious abuse occurs in every religious community. There’s no shortage of news about holy men with unholy appetites. But even if no abuse in the conventional sense occurs, the life of holy obedience can be full of danger.

Karen Armstrong is one of the most literate and authoritative voices against the great modern atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens. She wrote The Case for God (Knopf), published late last year. She has also written books on the Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity, Islam — and on Buddhism, as well as history, literature, myth, politics and mysticism, especially as they have to do with women and religion. This formidably learned woman, who writes of complicated things with clarity and subtlety, went straight from school to convent — she became a postulant, or trainee nun, at 18. Her mothers superior recognised that she had a particularly strong “vocation”. She just had to shed her mind.

Seven terrible years later she left her famously strict order. The years were terrible not because she was abused. Instead, it was the great rigidity of the “rule” by which the sisters all lived that turned her quest for God into a running battle with herself — especially with her mind, which despite all training and hardship proved too robust to govern. There was little support to be had from her fellow sisters or superiors, because the rule mandated seclusion and forbade all relationships except that of obedience. With growing force, the instruction to erase her “self” to make space for God clashed with sense and nature. Ultimately, faith and logic tore apart in her.

Armstrong wrote about her experience in a memoir called Through the Narrow Gate: A Nun’s Story, originally published in 1981. It has recently been reissued in India by HarperCollins. It is a moving and impressive book, in which she is both stern and forgiving towards her younger self. In the arid world of her order, which she describes closely, she found and writes about glowing personalities, and never trivialises the actual religious goal of union with God. There is no viciousness here. Yet despite her great suffering in pursuit of faith, and though she is no longer Roman Catholic, hers is one of the strongest and most honest public voices in support of God. If there is a God, his mysterious ways work.


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