This article was published in the March 2020 issue
Tormented, and sometimes a little severe, like Sister Luke from The Nun’s Story, and played by a splendid Audrey Hepburn. On the other hand, naive, quite unprepared and oblivious to the “things of the world”. A mix, basically, between Sister Angela aka Deborah Kerr of Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison and the Mother Superior of The Trouble With Angels. Numerous films over the years have been set in the dark corridors of monasteries - populated by intrigue, quarrels and gullible women - and sewn an uncomfortable straitjacket for those who choose a religious life. Often with the best intentions.
Maria Valéria Rezende, the canoness for 54 years of the congregation of Our Lady of Saint Augustine, and who happens to be a popular educator and award-winning writer, among the most popular in Brazil, calls it the “nun’s dress”. “The tailored outfit of the conventional nun - made of convent, habit and secrets - was initially made up of young girls’ gossip about the nuns in the colleges where they studied. The cinema - and in part literature too, - with its passion for ecclesiastical scandals, refined this way of considering a religious life. Fortunately, this imagery has very little to do with flesh and blood nuns”, explains the “freia” (nun in Portuguese), born in Santos, the main port of the ‘southern Giant’, 77 years ago. A city she left at the age of 18 to undertake the missionary experience that led Valéria to teach in the most unexpected corners of the five continents. From Angola to East Timor to Cuba, where she lived just a few blocks away from Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Márquez, and with whom she used to meet for coffee. “The 20th century offered unthinkable possibilities to women. It is supposed, therefore, that the person who chooses a religious life does so because they are incapable of taking advantage elsewhere, for lack of intelligence or courage, or the desire to put herself on the line. These qualities, instead, are indispensable for undertaking missionary life. In past centuries, moreover, nuns were the women with the most culture: they read, wrote and knew Latin. Latin America has a long history of literate nuns, including the best poetess of the Hispanic Baroque: the Mexican Juana Inés de la Cruz”.
The name of Valéria Rezende is part of this tradition completely. She is the author of Carta à reinha louca, Quarenta dias, which won the Jabuti award, and Outros cantos, which received the prestigious Casa de las Américas award. “I had the privilege of being born into a family which was full of literary people. Writing, therefore, is a natural thing for me. I have always written, whether it is for personal pleasure or as a service for the popular education I have dedicated my life to”. However, as a street teacher the nun has lived in remote places, which are outside of literary circles. Often times, there was not even a bookstore where she could buy texts and Valéria was forced to create her own readings. The “freira”, therefore, became a professional writer only after she turned sixty. “Almost by chance, just when old age was starting to make my ‘field work’ more difficult for me. At that moment, I discovered a new form of ‘mission’, which was compatible with the tantrums of an advancing age, while my health was decreasing”. A commitment that Valéria carries out with the same charisma as always. “That of my congregation: to be leaven in the mass, respecting the faith of every one, striving to incarnate Gospel values in everyday human relationships. I do not write to convert or for converts: only to bear witness to what I have seen and see. For decades, I have been immersed in the lives of the ‘invisible’ people, who are the poorest and most excluded, the different, the marginalized. Now, in my novels, I write about them, without ‘sermons’ or judgements, so that they may be ‘visible’, even for those who do not want, or cannot see”.
For Sister Rezende, the relationship with the world is essential. “Being a nun implies a radical commitment to the Gospel, in its purest form, that is, service to ‘the least of my brethren’, as Jesus said. Our place is not inside the sacristies, to be the helpers of the clergy. For this reason, it is fundamental to experience reality, in all its aspects”.
In this sense, secular literature can be a good ally in the formation of the religious, while “Biblical and theological knowledge is fundamental, but not sufficient. Novels, short stories, and poetry help to better understand human beings. Thank God, my teachers understood this and always encouraged me to read”. After all, Sister Valéria concludes, writers and nuns are alike. “For both, the worst flaw is vanity. While the best quality - I would say the indispensable one - is being able to feel empathy and mercy towards the other”.
by LUCIA CAPUZZI
A Journalist for the “Avvenire”, an Italian national paper.