Sunday, April 11, 2010

Columnist-turned-cloistered nun continues ‘life as prayer and prayer as life’

Columnist, UP prof, cloistered nun, turns 90: The writing continues

SHE TALKS a mile a minute. She is abreast with the goings-on in the world, perhaps more than most. With fire and frenzy she continues to write as if deadlines were still part of her life.

Her erudition and sparkling intellect shine through in conversations. She laughs, she listens, she remembers. She talks about the Philippines with great passion. Through her body of written works, she communicates to the world.

All that, but for more than three decades now, prayer and total commitment to God have been the essence of her life, the defining mark of her vocation.

Josefina D. Constantino, JD or Jo to her countless friends, former colleagues and students, is contemplative nun Sister Teresa Joseph Patrick of Jesus and Mary of the Order of Discalced Carmelites (OCD). On March 28, she turned 90.

Leaving all
A former professor of literature at the University of the Philippines (UP), and later, a daily columnist of The Manila Chronicle while working at the Development Bank of the Philippines (DBP), JD answered the call to the religious life in 1974 at the age of 54 and joined the contemplative, cloistered Carmelite order. This meant leaving all—family, friends, freedom, a flourishing career—in order to live a life of prayer, silence and sacrifice while observing the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

Today, one could say that the world that Sr. Teresa had left behind has not totally left her alone. It is right at her door at the Monastery of St. Therese on Gilmore Ave. in Quezon City.

They continue to come—friends, former colleagues, ideologues, intellectuals, religious, writers, seekers. The learned and the simple of mind, the rich and the poor, the distraught and the joyful, the needy and the thankful, the confused and the enlightened. Many ask for prayers, others just want to commune with her. This is not to say that her life of contemplation has been compromised.

Except for a slight limp, Sr. Teresa is relatively well for her age. And although she no longer belongs to the rat-race world that is our lot, she, the contemplative, remains in the heart of it. For isn’t contemplation “a long loving gaze at the world”?

World War II
Josefina D. Constantino was born on March 28, 1920 in Tondo, Manila when Philippines was under American rule. It was during the decade of the ‘20s that the works of Filipino women writers began to flourish.

JD was the fourth of five children. Her parents, Jose and Susana, were not persons of great means but they were persons of great faith. JD attended Torres High School and the University of the UP where she took up B.S. in Education and graduated cum laude and class valedictorian in 1940. Soon after, her father died.

JD was teaching at the Mapa and Torres High Schools when World War II broke out. “I refused to teach the Japanese Co-Prosperity Sphere program,” she recalled, and instead took a job as a social worker at the Department of Social Welfare.

“The war literally blasted me out into an ‘unreal city’,” she said, borrowing words from T.S. Eliot. “We ministered to all types of emergency needs and to the returning prisoners of war from Capas, and survivors of the Death March.” Daily she walked the streets of Manila beholding suffering, deprivation and death.

After the war, JD joined UP. In 1947 she was sent to Columbia University in the U.S. where she finished her M.A. in English and Comparative Literature. A favorite professor, Mark van Doren, introduced her to Trappist monk Thomas Merton’s writings and his book “The Seven Storey Mountain.”

‘Truly global’
Upon her return JD taught Contemporary British and American Literature and other period courses. “My postwar students were sharp and gifted,” she recounted. “My universe was more truly global. I had become cosmic in spirit and more deeply Christian. Literature was once again my life and love.” Inquirer columnist Belinda O. Cunanan and Press Secretary Cris Icban Jr. were among her students.

But UP was not a bed of roses. “And then the persecution of the Faith in UP began. I was the finest target, making the trio with Pres. Vidal Tan and Fr. John P. Delaney SJ. That fight made me a national figure overnight, for the alumni who rallied behind me were all over the country. That was my first crucible after the war.”

She was secretary to UP’s president until 1955 when she received a faculty fellowship in Humanities from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She was away for a year and upon her return found herself again besieged. In 1960, she resigned.

“It was over the issue of academic freedom and faculty integrity,” she explained. She wrote a searing five-part article about it in the Sunday Times Magazine. JD moved on but she remained involved in education. She was executive secretary of the Foundation for Private Education and special assistant to the chair of DBP. In 1966, the Ateneo de Manila University conferred on her the Ozanam Award to recognize her contribution to society as a lay Catholic educator, writer and civic-minded citizen.

‘Faith and Freedom’
JD’s name became familiar to newspaper readers because of her commentaries. When the Manila Chronicle asked her to write regularly she agreed and wrote the column “Faith and Freedom” five times a week for seven years until 1972 when martial law was imposed and newspapers were shut down.

But during all those years that JD’s career seemed to be taking a certain trajectory, there was something that she was nurturing secretly. She had a strong desire to offer her life completely to God. The story of her vocation is detailed in her semi-autobiographical book “Cry, Beloved Mother Church, Rejoice!” and “Priest of Fire and Flame”, a collection of essays about Fr. James Moran.

Moran was JD’s confessor for many years starting her UP days when she had to be instructed in the faith until the ripening of her vocation. “He sent me to the nuns in St. Theresa’s College for catechism lessons,” Sr. Teresa recalled. “He was horrified that at age 22 I had not read a single Catholic book.” Moran would soon learn that his precocious ward was questioning many articles of the faith.

Forlorn hope realized
While the war raged, Fr. Moran remained under house arrest at Carmel in Gilmore where JD would see him for spiritual direction. Soon she found herself drawn to the Carmelites and wanted to join them. But this was not going to happen until 30 years later. As Fr. Moran told her, “You will have to live in the forlorn hope of it.” For she had family duties to fulfill. During those waiting years JD belonged to the Third Order or Carmel. Marriage was never in her mind.
In 1973, JD knew it was time. “The definitive call to Carmel came. Leave all! With Fr. Moran I discerned for a year—the devil or the real call of God.” On March 25, 1974, JD entered Carmel. At about the hour of her entrance, Fr. Moran breathed his last. Her friends quipped:

“Magpapakulong din lang pala, bakit hindi pa sa Crame?” (She wanted to get confined, so why not in Crame?) Camp Crame was where many anti-Marcos activists were jailed.

“I took to Carmel as fish to water,” Sr. Teresa recounted. “I was finally home, never to leave it. I was enamored and awed interchangeably of what I thought was a medieval but fascinatingly modern habitat, shuttling between Trent and Vatican I and gingerly taking steps to Vatican II. I was interiorly rejoicing over the many hours of prayer and the silence and solitude I had forever so longed for. It was truer now—life as prayer and prayer as life.”

She however soon realized that she was useless in carrying out monastery tasks. She had to be taught everything—cleaning bathrooms, sewing, washing, cooking. “Once,” she recounted laughing, “I put popcorn in the pancit.” She thought she was being creative.

In 1979 Sr. Teresa Joseph Patrick of Jesus and Mary pronounced her final vows. Carmel would be forever.

But while immersed in oases of prayer in the monastery, in deserts and through storms that challenged the soul, the writer in her did not die. She wrote unceasingly, but always under obedience. Today, her written works as a Carmelite nun are relatively voluminous. Among the major ones are “Cry, Beloved Mother Church Rejoice!” and two volumes of “Personalizing Russia” which are reflections on her stay in Russia where she observed contemplative life and the life of the Church.

Her “Faith and Freedom” columns have been compiled in a book, her reflections, meditations, recollections, letters, prayers and essays have been printed in pamphlets and booklets and sometimes, even in newspapers, but with Susana Jose as byline. Computer illiterate, Sr. Teresa does everything in longhand that that can drive an encoder mad.

A voracious reader, she has a remarkable grasp of literature, philosophy, theology, spirituality and current events which is evident in her writings. She is conversant with the writings of Jewish scholar Edith Stein (Carmelite saint Teresa Benedicta, who was killed by the Nazis), Saints Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross as she is with Rizal, Dante and biggies of literature.

And now the Ateneo Library of Women’s Works is asking Sr. Teresa to please preserve all her written stuff, including drafts, notes and whatever else, for archiving.

Like a dam
And what is writing like in Carmel? What has 36 years in Carmel been like for someone turning 90?

“Whenever I have to write,” she mused, “I reflect on the subject and I pray double. I have no difficulty at all about ideas because I am easily filled literally, when I switch on the floodgates of God’s gifts and insights. It’s like a dam. I don’t even have to think. I only have to turn the key, or lift the beam and the ideas rush like a roaring tide until they settle as waves gently and constantly oscillating, all in my mind and heart, as praise to God.

“It is because, in nothingness, I find myself immersed in God’s being which is Truth, constant light. Only when I assert my will and intent does the light reveal flaps of luminosity which begin to globe and define themselves as thoughts, which then I am made to perceive.

“My difficulty then comes when I know I can develop any or all of these ideas further yet I don’t know which of them must be shared. Holding them all in my mind as God’s own, I wait for the light. I wait for the signal.”

Writing, she said, is her way of sharing the fruits of her contemplation. “I also want to honor the poor, they of pure faith.”

Union with God
Sr. Teresa’s spiritual journey would require a lengthy narration but she is also able to summarize it in concise words.

“Our contemplative life is an unending desert with surprises long and far between along the way, both ways—in community life and in one’s prayer life. Yet, all the time, one’s union with God is marked by advances towards the very center of our soul. For as our holy father St. John of the Cross tells us: ‘any degree of union brings one already to the center of (the) soul where the King reigns.’

“The cloister makes possible for us God’s gifts of pure joy, from pure wisdom, which basically comes from pure suffering, transformed by the Spirit specially through the crown jewels of Carmel which to me are the Mass, the Divine Office or the prayer of the church, and the hours of adoration or mental and personal prayer.

“These hours of prayer are gloriously free hours, free only for God and which is pure worship, because all else are naturally woven into the daily tapestry of unceasing prayer with vigils far into the night and long before dawn.” Without the contemplatives, she said paraphrasing Merton, this country would have broken apart.

“These pure hours of timeless, spaceless, wordless, imageless being in Being, this pregnant emptiness, Christ fills through the Spirit for the whole humankind and the cosmos.” In the words of St. Teresa of Avila: “Solo Dios basta.” (God alone suffices.)

All these have been purely God’s own work in her soul, Sr. Teresa said as she looked back. “This is what contemplative life has been to me—yielding peace that surpasseth understanding, the ultimate happiness possible on earth.”#