THE WINDOW SILL
A favourite childhood delight was watching Dad shave. Every morning he would take his place in front of a little mirror that hung at the mid-post between two large windows which gave on to the quiet street below. As a little girl, I would often perch on the window sill and watch him with fascination. In between strokes of the brush and razor, Dad would pause to comment on the movements across the street – from sweepers collecting the litter in piles to the garbage truck on their daily rounds and then the occasional sewage cleaning truck. Men would descend bare-bodied into the sewage canal bringing to the surface heaps of a foul smelling mixture of black grime and soil, making their appearance look ghostly. Each time the scene of the dirt and mire would surface, Dad would groan. “Too bad! Such a pity that they have to spend all their lives doing this. It’s because of the caste system! See child, they have no education. Education is important to change this situation.” Drawing me away from the window, he would then utter, “Come on, you’ve got to get ready for school!”
Driven by love
My school was run by Canossion nuns. In Grade 9, a Mission Experience Camp took us to Talasari, where, since the 1960s, the Canossian Sisters had been ministering to leprosy patients, ostracized and abandoned by society. It was not just camp, it was a life school. I saw things I never did in my modern city by-lanes. I saw our Sisters clothed with garments of compassion in ways I couldn’t during the ordinary daily routine of school and back. As I watched them attend to the needs of others, a deep sense of pride filled my heart.
A year later, my eyes beheld human misery of another kind. At an orphanage also run by our Canossian Sisters, I encountered the appalling emotional trauma of children abandoned by their own parents. In the dormitory I was assigned for voluntary service, there were about 40 children, ranging from newborns up to 10 years of age. The youngest was a 7 month old premature baby whose umbilical cord still needed healing. Enormous energy went into the care of these little ones. Yet, when it was time to rest, the Sister in charge of the dormitory would still be seen working far beyond hours attending to something or the other.
It seemed strange that one would go beyond one’s own capacity for another and yet I couldn’t deny the force and power of that compassion. It was life changing, hitting at my heart, moving me to a world beyond myself.
I pondered over the reality before me: What is it that drove people to leave home and country and devote oneself in such selfless, anonymous service to children whose parents had abandoned them? There was only one answer: Jesus Christ Crucified, the manifestation of supreme unconditional love. Intrigued, even driven by the new possibility tugging at my heart, I began reading and studying His life as never before, falling in love each time and being compelled in my heart to simply follow Him. I encaptured his fascinating trial before Pilate in a poem entitled SPINELESS. Dad even got it published in the local newspaper where he was employed. My quest for Truth and Love continued right through my college years.
Eventually, after graduation, I joined the Canossian Sisters. I remember mum quietly whispering to me, “You have made my dream come true.” Psalm 139 had never been more real from that day on.
My Life. His Will.
Entering the Convent was no easy sail. A life of silence, solitude, discipline, unisex environment and ethnic diversity, came as a shocker to me. But, like the queen of Sheba at Solomon’s court, I was able to appreciate the charm of Christ through community life, liturgical teachings, contemplative prayer and study, and much more. Understanding and learning to live the vows and then merging my will with the will of the community challenged me to stretch my heart, even as His “boundless love” propelled me forward to experience many personal ‘miracles’ reserved just for me.
An unforgettable moment is the incident of my second year in formation in the Novitiate, almost on the brink of my first profession of vows. I sat at an interview with my Novice Mistress, head bowed over my personal diary, and read: “There are times when I feel more of a woman than I do at other times.” Silence. I felt a lump in my throat and mists impede my vision. Pause. Then with great courage, I looked up and saw her piercing embracing compassionate gaze. To this day I realize that the pearl of great price I offered in that moment was received with the uttermost delicate reverence and promise of guardianship. My God had and still takes care of my heart drawing me ever unto Him. Often I have sung this song to Him: Impossible to live with You, but I know I could never live without You. So whatever you do, I never want to be in love with anyone but you.
Life as a Missionary
The call to the African Missions barely two years after my first profession of vows was a great opportunity for growth. In my first years at Aru, Zaire (Now DRC) I found myself teaching English at a Secondary School where the medium of education was French. The local people spoke Lingala. In community we generally spoke Italian. I used to call myself the ‘Walking Tower of Babel’ as I juggled languages to reach those I was sent unto. Moving from Babel to Pentecost was indeed a journey of Grace beyond compare!
Then came the thunder bolt. Political challenges from a dictatorship in peril, economic upheaval, social unrest, breakdown of education systems, civil strife causing residents to flee, ravaging health conditions due to Malaria….a few of the many anomalies I was given as part of the mission package which lasted for 13 years. Through it all I experienced the protection, guidance and solicitude of the Lord.
Yes, Jesus is Lord no matter where we are placed.
Back on home turf now, India, the Mission continues. Magdalene of Canossa urges: “Make God known and loved – God is not loved because he is not known. Jesus Crucified is the supreme expression of the unconditional love of the Father for us. And Mary, Mother at the foot of the cross, who embraces, us, sinners though we are, into her heart. Charity is a fire that embraces all. No form of charity is beyond us!” And Education is the main vehicle, because a person’s conduct for the whole of her life is dependent upon the education received in her childhood.”
How shall I conclude this piece? In the final days of his life, when my Dad became my baby, I had to do all things for him. Often in the midst of a shave, he would stop me and say, “The Caste System is terrible. We must stop it! They need education!” At his bedside, my educator par excellence was still educating his baby at the Window Sill.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sister Berlinda D’Cruz is a Canossian nun based in Mumbai, India. Having spent over two decades in formation and administration across Africa and India, she is passionate about helping people through education and mentoring, to wade out of oppressive systems in their lives. Sister Berlinda confesses her ordinariness albeit she encases an extraordinary secret: of course I’m in a muddle, but God still finds me delightful!