Jesus in Our Wombs: Embodying Modernity in a Mexican Convent / Edition 1 available in Paperback
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Jesus in Our WombsEmbodying Modernity in a Mexican Convent
By Rebecca J. Lester
The University of California PressCopyright © 2004 Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.
IntroductionDoes a theory of the self require a theory of the body? If so, why? How might the systematic theorizing of an embodied self alter our understanding of subjectivity and social processes? This book is an account of how eighteen young women in a Mexican convent engaged in certain bodily practices with the explicit aim of reshaping their subjective experiences along a particular line of development. As such, it is a grounded engagement with current debates regarding embodiment and experience. But it is also an exploration of the ways in which gendered subjectivities may become politically and socially charged as a means of articulating cultural conflicts about modernity and how these larger meanings take on significance for people on the most intimately personal levels. Fundamentally, then, this book addresses the question of how we create meaning in our lives through embodied practice. I approach these issues within the context of a Roman Catholic convent in Puebla de los Angeles, Mexico, a highly elaborated domain for the production of embodied self-knowledge.
Puebla de los Angeles, September 3, 1994
At 4:45 the Grand Silence is compromised aseighteen sleepy young nuns tumble from their beds to recite the rising prayer in the cold darkness of the convent dormitory: "I pray, Lord, that you accept all my works, my thoughts, my emotions, and my desires as reparation for the many sins that will be committed today in this world...." In the echoing silence following the prayer, thirty-six bare feet pad across the cold stone floor toward the showers. Arms and legs are scrubbed, faces washed, and teeth brushed in preparation for morning prayers. Hospital-like curtains are pulled around the small beds, and shadows play behind them as the young women slip on the various layers of the blue postulant uniform over white cotton undergarments and arrange delicate black veils carefully over their still-damp hair. In the cool, predawn blackness the young women file out of the dormitory, down two flights of stairs, across the patio, through a hallway, and into the chapel, where they will remain in concentrated meditation for the next two hours.
Another day has begun for the postulants of "the Siervas," a shorthand for the congregation's official name. Unlike cloistered orders, which are devoted to prayer and contemplation, active-life orders like the Siervas view it as their mission to labor tirelessly and selflessly in the service of others, particularly those on the margins of society: the poor, the forgotten, the fallen souls. Every moment of every day the nuns mortify their bodies and their souls, their sacrifice a powerful force in the salvation of the world. They strive to become living testimonies of Christ's immeasurable love, and they hope that as His brides, each will serve as a humble exemplar of how to be a woman in a world gone mad.
For many in Mexico today the world seems, indeed, to have gone mad. It is a world where politicians funnel eighty-four million dollars from the national coffers into Swiss bank accounts, where protesters sew their mouths closed with black nylon string in politically motivated hunger strikes, where students take to the streets in angry riots, and where policemen slaughter dozens of campesinos and hide their bodies in shallow graves. Divorces and homicides are up, literacy rates and education are down, and many young people seem more engaged with what's happening on Friends than in their own backyards.
But something curious is happening at the margins of the political turmoil and social upheaval. Each year scores of young women-more and more each year-are leaving the warmth and protection of their homes, leaving their friends, their families, their high schools and universities, to march through the convent doors, where they will surrender themselves body and soul to Christ for eternity. The estimates are staggering. But despite a general increase, one congregation-the Siervas-stands out, boasting a tripling of new entrants over the last fifteen years.
What might motivate a young Mexican woman to become a nun at a time when a modernizing Mexico offers her so many new and exciting opportunities not open to women only a generation ago? What might a young woman's feeling of religious vocation tell us about changing constructions of womanhood and femininity in the wake of these social transformations? And what might account for the startling revival of interest in this particular congregation?
I spent eighteen months with the entering class of new Siervas during 1994-95. When I first went to the field I was concerned with trying to understand young women's motivations for entering a nunnery. I wanted to get a feel for what goes on emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually with these women as they try to decide if they should pledge themselves eternally to Christ and the church. I soon found, however, that the question I should be asking was not so much what brought the women to the convent. Most of these young women decided to enter the nunnery, I discovered, with only a vague understanding of what the religious life was or what to expect once they got there. The more interesting question, I realized, was what kept these women there, day after day. The year of the postulancy is a kind of trial period. The door is open. The postulants have taken no vows and, as they are continually reminded, are free to leave at any time. So what keeps them there, waking up at 4:45 in the morning to bathe with cold water and sit in silent prayer for two hours before breakfast? What keeps them there, working and studying, unable to make even small purchases, write a letter, or make a phone call without permission from a superior? What keeps a woman there, knowing she will never again lead an independent life, will never have a home and a family of her own, but must instead remain poor, chaste, and obedient in the service of Christ or risk the eternal damnation of her immortal soul? Clearly, something more is going on for these women than a superficial infatuation with the idea of the religious life or a desire to take advantage of the economic resources the convent might offer to a poor girl from a Mexican pueblo. Something is going on in the convent that claims these women-something that makes the force of "the call" so irresistible that they willingly, and even joyfully, give up everything to follow it. I became interested in how, over the course of their first year in the convent, these new nuns moved from initially feeling unsure about their own motivations for entering the nunnery to experiencing this decision as reflecting an intimate, personal calling from God that they were compelled to answer.
I want to be clear that I am not interested in psychoanalyzing these women or discovering what deep-seated conflicts might have prompted them to give up sex and comfort for a life of bleak austerity and sacrifice. Rather, I propose an answer in terms of a transformation of subjectivity. In line with the arguments of Bordo (1993), Probyn (1993), and Luhrmann (1989), I saw that, through the engagement of the specific daily practices of convent life, new entrants to this congregation underwent a shift in sensibilities, perceptions, interpretations, dispositions, and memory-a transformation of subjectivity that the sisters understood as the progressively acute discernment of their true vocation according to God's plan.
My argument is that joining this particular congregation seemed to help these young postulants deal with tensions about being a woman in contemporary Mexico by offering them an alternative to two conflicting cultural models of femininity: the modern, upwardly mobile, techno-savvy, independent woman and the traditional, domestic, morally solid homemaker. The sisters understood the process of religious formation as reclaiming a submerged authentic femininity and then mobilizing that femininity to heal a world ravaged by violence and injustice. Through their religious training the postulants learned to experience religious vocation not only as a personal calling but as an urgent social and political obligation. It was this aspect of the program that seemed to be the most compelling for the women involved.
The transformation to a more authentic, politically engaged femininity in the convent centered on the new nun's coming to experience her body as a site of interaction among different existential domains. She had to learn to understand her experience of who she was when she entered the convent as illusory, grounded in the persuasions of the mundane world. She had to question all the things she thought she knew about herself and the world and to come to see them as partial and often contorted reflections of the truth. At the same time, she had to recognize that she had been called to play an important role in God's larger plan of salvation: that is, she had to understand herself as existing not only in the here and now but as an eternal soul that could be saved or damned and could lead others to salvation or perdition. Each postulant was schooled in how to experience her body as the medium through which these different aspects of self-the embodied, temporal self and the nonbodied, eternal soul-interacted and were made manifest. As she progressed in her training, she learned how to read her body-its sensations, inclinations, energies, temptations, frustrations-as indicators of how successfully she was managing this relationship between worldly and spiritual demands. She learned to view her body as the domain of negotiation between these two existential frames, a negotiation that became manifest in the very inclinations of her flesh.
As the initiates became progressively more adept at experiencing their bodies as mediating worldly and spiritual aspects of self, they were guided to understand this process as one of inhabiting a new and authentic femininity. In a May retreat on the Virgin Mary, for example, one month before they were to enter the novitiate, the mistress of postulants observed to the group that the ten months of the postulancy were like the months of pregnancy-that the postulants were, in a spiritual sense, gestating Jesus in their own wombs. They had become, in other words, simultaneously the daughters, brides, and mothers of Christ, orienting toward a spiritual rather than a physical model of femininity and reproduction. Learning to construct a meaningful new experience of body/self/soul that embraced-rather than denied-such paradoxes as they developed and changed over time was at the heart of the transformation these women underwent in their first year.
I do not, however, want to suggest that the postulants' motivations for entering this congregation were purely intrapsychic. Rather, it became clear to me from spending time with them that this intimate, personal process of regendering in the convent proceeded in direct dialogue with concerns about modernization, political power, and cultural change that were highlighted in the Mexican cultural arena. Specifically, the postulants learned to understand their conflicts about femininity as emblematic of a larger discomfort with modernity. Their engagements with gender, then, entailed engagements with political and social discourses as well. In this way, the postulants' experiences in the convent interarticulated with religious commitments on the one hand and with broader secular cultural issues on the other. These issues became personally meaningful for the postulants as they were guided toward an altered understanding of gendered subjectivity and its relationship to the lived experience of the body. Gradually, initiates came to understand their experiences of the call, and their choices as women in answering it, as politically relevant declarations of self.
In sum, my argument rests on five fundamental propositions:
1. The convent philosophy overlaps with broader cultural concerns in Mexico about modernity, social change, and cultural identity.
2. Gender is one of the principal tropes through which these concerns are articulated, both within the convent and outside it.
3. Selves are always embodied. Embodied selves are always gendered.
4. Gender, then, operates on several different levels simultaneously-from the psychological to the political-though not necessarily in a systematic or coherent way. Indeed, gendered articulations at different levels can and frequently do come into conflict. The congregation's ethos "gets inside" the postulants-shapes their subjectivities-by engaging them as gendered beings, persuading them to feel personally committed to the congregation's philosophy.
5. The mechanism for this transformation is the performance of bodily practices that reconfigure the relationships among body, self, and soul.
The core language for articulating the compelling relationships among personal, spiritual, and political concerns in the convent was that of religious vocation. One morning, as we were scrubbing the breakfast dishes, I asked Marta, one of the postulants, if she ever wished she could just stay in bed until noon. She laughed at first but then became quite serious. "People think we have such a hard life," she said. "And it can be difficult sometimes. It's not easy, that's true. But they don't see the other side of it. The religious life is the most beautiful thing in the world! It's so amazing-it's hard to explain. But we're all here because we want to be here. We're here because we're in love with Christ and want to be with Him. We're following our vocation-it's that simple."
But while it may seem simple when phrased this way, the process of discovering one's vocation is, in fact, intensely emotional and complicated. The sisters (in line with the teachings of the Catholic Church) believe that all humans have been given a vocation by God. This does not mean that our lives are predestined or that we will necessarily follow a preordained life path. Rather, it means that since before we were born-indeed, since the creation of the world-God conceived of us in His mind and chose for us a path that is most propitious, both for us as individuals and for the bringing about of the Kingdom of God on earth and the salvation of all humankind. A vocation, then, is somewhat like a potentiality-the kind of life we could lead, the service to God and humankind we could give, if we were to conquer our selfish ambitions and humbly surrender ourselves to God's plan for us. But God, the sisters say, does not force us to obey. He has given us free will. We can elect, then, to follow God's calling, or we can ignore this calling and, by implication, work against the realization of God's plan. The first step, however, is to discern what that calling is.
Excerpted from Jesus in Our Wombs by Rebecca J. Lester Copyright © 2004 by Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
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