Do not let yourselves
This article was published in the February 2020 issue
A Dominican religious and penitentiary doctor, Anne Lécu is the author of numerous works including Hai coperto la mia vergogna [You Covered Up My Shame] (2017), and Il senso delle lacrime [The Meaning of Tears] (2018), published in Italy by Edizioni San Paolo.
How did you realize you had a religious vocation?
I do not know exactly what a “religious vocation” is. It is comparable to what Michel de Certeau writes about the poet. “The poet can do nothing but write poetry”. If he can do anything else, it is because he is not a poet. Even the religious man can do nothing but be religious. It is paradoxical because the choice of religious life is one of the many options of a possible path to happiness and at the same time, it is not possible to do otherwise. Therefore, when I met the Dominican family, I realized that I was at home. Moreover, I wanted to try to live this life.
How do you see your mission as a prison doctor?
I am sent by my community to announce the Gospel and I am paid by the public hospital to do my work as a prison doctor. My work in prison makes explicit proclamation out of the question, yet it permits me to read the Bible and experience my faith in a different way. It is from what I experience there that I can proclaim the Gospel outside, in a tone that has become mine thanks to the prison. Working in a place like this, one is obliged to take a stand and I have sided with the guilty. The figure that inspires me is that of Christ crucified between the two thieves. If you pass in front of Him, you do not know a priori that He is more innocent than the other two. Pierre Claverie, who was murdered a month before I professed my first vows, had written, shortly before he died, that the Church could only be the Church of Christ at the foot of the Cross, without which it would be a worldly illusion. People like us must be present in places emblematic of human despair, so as to make us feel that a life is possible. It is first a matter of announcing to people that they have the right to live. Announcing Christ is perhaps first announcing to people that they have the right to live.
Is it because they no longer believe?
It is often like that among the people I meet in jail. The greatest condemnation is to think that you have no right to exist, that you are redundant in this world and that it would have been better not to be here. However, this does not happen only in prison. People, who do not necessarily have a catastrophic life, as we do in religious life, can also experience it. How do we remind ourselves, among ourselves, that our life is not improper?
Are there specific diseases in prison?
I would rather say that there are reasons for special consultations, linked to imprisonment. I work essentially with women and, for example, many stop having their menstrual cycle. There are also many skin problems: erythema, itching. The skin is the largest organ. A woman who had a severe rash explained to me that her oozing body was nothing but her soul crying tears that she could not shed. Some women who had been reduced to looking like sacks, swallowing doses of cocaine to smuggle the drug, gain a lot of weight. Their body took the shape of what had happened to them.
What is the worst thing about prison?
The worst thing is being abandoned, not having answers to the questions you ask. A Latin American woman explained to me that for two months, she could not call her family because there was a problem with the form to fill out and that no one bothered to call a translator. She could not call her family for Christmas.
Has the prison given you a particular tone in the proclamation of the Gospel...?
I do not know, it is something I have been told. Life in prison strips you of the langue de bois, of deceitful language. Sometimes I can be brutal, in everyday life, which is not necessarily the best thing to do, but I go straight to the point. Confrontations between different environments produce interesting things. That is why I think religious life should respect differences, whether that is the rich or the poor, the innocent or the guilty. It is in this tension that something can emerge.
Does being religious have an impact on your mission?
Only those who have been imprisoned can know the vulnerability of prisoners.... Moreover, that’s not my case. Nevertheless, I know the vulnerability of living in an aging institution, who knows what will happen in ten years’ time and whether life in common will still be possible. This underlying insecurity allows me to understand a form of vulnerability that is not mine, that of the prisoners. It puts me in a position where it is not a question of providing answers, but of being able to listen to the complaints. Personally, I find it much more difficult to bear the complaint of my sisters than that of the prisoners, because that complaint is closer to me. It is mine, too.
How do you explain the drop in the number of female religious vocations?
There is a dispersion of living forces linked to the multiplicity of institutes, which does not confer the same dynamism nor the same attraction as male institutes, for example. The great religious families are undoubtedly destined to last, but I think that it is not so indispensable to have such a multiplicity of female congregations linked to these great families. How can we support consecrated life? If the living forces are dispersed they become exhausted, but if they are concentrated the crammed grain rots. From the beginning, St. Dominic sent his brothers two by two and it was this that allowed the Order to be founded. One always finds oneself between two risks.
What lessons can we draw from history for the future of consecrated life?
Religious life, from its origins, requires that we set ourselves aside. The emblematic figure for me is Saint Anthony entering the desert. Standing aside, he is at the center. How can we, with the numbers we have, be present in our Western communities? There are things we can be sure of, for example, actual competence on ageing and a common life between different generations, which our society needs. Nevertheless, there is also this putting aside that constitutes religious life, whose two foundations are solitude and the sharing of goods.
What would you say to a young woman who wants to embrace religious life?
Come and see... However, maintain your critical spirit. Be careful, because there are deviant communities, and it is not, for example, because of the presence of many young people that life in the Church is experienced. Sometimes, behind the flamboyant facade of certain communities, there are abuses of power. The decisive criterion is how institutes allow inner freedom to develop. We need to check that communities do not practice cloning, that there are differences of opinion, different ways of understanding faith and voting, and ideological conflicts because this is what allows us to know if there is freedom of thought within the community. In addition, if they nag you and send you text messages every day to find out how you are while you are on a retreat, run away.
by MARIE LUCILE KUBACKI