Vocation story from a Carmelite sister
Why did I become a Carmelite nun?
One day, when I walked into the library of the Bukit Nanas Convent School, I saw a small paper cutting on one of the tables. The title caught my eye. It was a prayer to be said after receiving Holy Communion, and it was a prayer for union with Jesus. I asked Sister Canice, an Irish Sister in charge of the library, if I could have the prayer. She readily gave it to me. I was in Form Three at that time. From then on I used to say this prayer after I received Holy Communion. Following my parents’ good example, I had formed the habit of attending Holy Mass and receiving Holy Communion daily whenever I could. Hence I said this prayer very frequently. And I think that the desire for union with Jesus grew stronger and stronger in me.
The next year, I had a very good Scottish science teacher. Mrs. Sweeney was her name. One day she showed us in class a Geographical magazine which she opened at the central page. A section of the cosmos was depicted on the two central pages. I became aware of the immensity of the cosmos for the first time. She told us that what was depicted on those two pages, was only a very small section of the Cosmos. If I remember correctly, it was the Milky Way, the Galaxy of which our universe formed a part. To my surprise, our universe, our sun with its dependent planets, depicted at the right hand corner of the page, was very small. Compared to the huge spheres which covered the two pages, our sun was very tiny. It was the size of the head of a pin and around it were our planets. Our earth was so small that it could not be represented even by a dot. Only the word “earth” was written at the place where it was supposed to be.
Then a thought flashed through my mind! “How great and powerful God must be to have created this immense Cosmos!” This was followed by another thought: “How small the earth is, and yet there are millions of people on this earth. How puny man must be! Consequently, compared to God how tiny I am! And yet God comes into me at Holy Communion in the form of a tiny host! He makes Himself so small for my sake! How much God loves me!” It was mind-boggling!! For some time after that insight, this thought would surface in my mind whenever I received Holy Communion. And, today, I think it increased tremendously my love for this great God who out of love for me, humbles Himself and makes Himself so small in order to unite Himself with me every time I receive Him in
Hence when it came to deciding my future, I wanted to give myself to this Lover who loved me so much, and to be united to Him. Where could I reach union with God as quickly as possible?
Fortunately for me, when I was in Form Five, my sister sent me the Autobiography of St. Therese of the Child Jesus. Being a bookworm, I devoured the book in a day or two. St. Therese gave me the answer to my query. At 15 she had entered the Carmelite Monastery of Lisieux and she died a saint at 24. I came to the conclusion that Carmel is the short-cut to union with God! I resolved to enter the Carmel in Singapore as there was none in West Malaysia.
Were there any obstacles?
Mrs. Sweeney who liked me very much, told me that I should become a doctor. Towards the end of my year in Form Four, she offered to teach Biology as an extra subject to me and my class mates. At that time our exam papers were set and corrected in Cambridge, England, and our General Science Paper included Biology, Chemistry and Physics as one subject. She said that in addition to General Science, I could take Biology as another subject. So in Form Five, I very gladly gave up the Art subject in order to take Biology as an additional subject. Five other students in my class did the same. Mrs. Sweeney kept her word and gave us extra Biology lessons on Saturday mornings. She even brought us to visit the Institute of Medical Research in Kuala Lumpur. I think that for the last three months in Form Four I seriously played with the idea of becoming a doctor.
At the end of the year during our Oral English Exam, Sr. Canice asked me what I intended to be. I said that I thought of becoming a doctor. A few days later, I was called to the office of Reverend Mother Pauline who very kindly told me that nowadays it was easy to lose a vocation if one went to the university. She also told me that the Infant Jesus Sisters needed girls like me to carry on their work. My cousin, Sr. Stella, who is an I. J. Sister, also asked me to join her congregation. She even invited me to witness a profession ceremony in Penang in 1956, and I accepted her invitation.
In our school every year, the I. J. Sisters used to organize enclosed retreats for the students of Forms 3, 4, and 5 during the school holidays at end of the year. During the retreat in 1954, I noticed a little pamphlet on a table on which they had placed various pamphlets. In it I read that if one had a vocation, one should not delay to answer the call because the vocation could be lost. I therefore decided not to go for further studies after Form Five.
When I told my parents of my decision, they did not object as they left their children free to decide what they wanted to do with their future. My father said that our home is like a bird’s nest. When the little birds grow wings, they fly away. However, he said that I was still very young.
When I applied to Singapore Carmel, they said that I was too young and that I should wait for a while. I did not mind the waiting. All that my parents asked of me was to drive my younger brothers and sister to school and bring them home. So, for the first five months after my Form Five, after dropping them at their schools, I indulged my love for reading by spending the school hours reading in the Gurney Library. But after five months, I was fed up. So I asked Sr. Gerard, if I could spend my time in teaching. She speedily found me a job in the Convent school as a relief teacher until the Normal School for training teachers in K.G.V. began that year. I did not mind joining the Normal School as I knew that I could leave it whenever I wanted.
To my surprise, I found that I enjoyed teaching. So, when Singapore Carmel told me in June 1957 I could enter the Carmel, I was having my own class, Form I D, and I was having a very good rapport with my students. They were very sorry when I told them that I was going to stop teaching at the end of June. They bought gifts for me on the last day; and one day when I returned home after a shopping spree, I was told that my students had come to visit me and that they had brought some fruits for me. Towards the end of July, my family and I drove to Singapore.
Life in Carmel
I entered the enclosure of the Carmel on the 7th August1957. A few days after my entrance, I had an insight into the Indwelling Trinity. I learnt that God was really dwelling in my soul day and night! I was so happy that I wanted to jump with joy and to share it with the whole world. However, I did not tell anyone. What a joy to know that God was always living in my soul, and that I could contact Him at any time! This joy has accompanied me all my life in Carmel. A short while after this experience, during a lesson on the Ascent of Mount Carmel Book II Chapter 5 in which St. John of the Cross mentioned that Union with God was the goal of the Spiritual life, Mother Marguerite, the Prioress, said that Union with God was the goal of our Carmelite life. When I heard that, I said to myself, “I have come to the right place.” My motive for joining the Carmelites was precisely to reach union with God as soon as possible! Thus, I was convinced that I had made the right decision, and I have never regretted becoming a Carmelite!
Were there any trials?
As I was not yet in heaven, trials were inevitable as in any other walk of life. For example: as I was unaccustomed to physical labour, it made me very tired. I remember one Saturday when I was sweeping the stairs, I stopped short at the landing. I was so tired that I could not put one foot before the other! And there were other chores to be done! What was I to do? Silently I turned to Jesus and told Him, “Jesus, it is only for you that I do this!” Suddenly, to my great surprise my strength returned, and I could do my chores easily. Whenever I had any difficulty, I called on Jesus, and He always came to my help.
It was a very big trial to me to have been appointed novice mistress at the age of 29! However, now as I look back, I realize that it was a great grace. Jesus was helping me to grow up spiritually. He made me aware of His new commandment which he gave to his apostles on the night before He died. “I give you a new Commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” (John 13: 34) As novice mistress, there were many opportunities to practice the new commandment of Jesus. I tried to love and care for the spiritual and physical wellbeing of my postulants and novices as well as I could. I begged Jesus to help me to love them as he did.
Then in 1981, some Sisters and I were asked to start a new Carmelite Monastery in West Malaysia. As I was very happy in the Singapore Carmel, I was reluctant to leave it. However, since it was God’s will, I agreed to go. Again as I look back, this trial proved to be a source of many great graces for me. Now I am very happy to be in this beautiful Monastery in Seremban. It seems to me now, that trials are like the paper wrappings of the gifts inside.
My golden Jubilee
We date our Jubilees not from the date of our entrance into Carmel, but from the date when we pronounce our first vows. As the date of my Golden Jubilee drew near, I resolved to celebrate it very quietly within my community. However this plan evaporated when my nephews urged me to celebrate it because it would be a very good occasion for our relatives to meet. My sister added that it would be a good occasion to thank the many people who had helped us to build this beautiful Monastery. So, I agreed to have a public celebration. However, I resolved to use it as an occasion to give glory to God and to help people to love Him more. It was with this intention that I chose the texts and hymns for the Mass, and that I produced two booklets and some leaflets that would help people to realize how good God is and how much he loves us. I chose Pope John Paul II’s words: “Dear Jesus present in the Eucharist, we are consoled that You remain with us. May we never stray far from You but stay by Your side to hear Your heart beat with love for us” for my souvenir card in order to help people to realize how much Jesus loves us.
The sky was bright and clear on the 2nd May 2009. At 11 am our Seremban Church choir began the Entrance Hymn and the Servers led the solemn procession into the Chapel. Soon the seats in the sanctuary were filled. Archbishop Murphy Pakiam concelebrated the Mass with Emeritus Archbishop Soter Fernandez and thirteen Priests. Someone estimated that there were about 700 people in the congregation made up of Brothers, Sisters, Secular Members of Carmel, relatives, friends, and benefactors. Michael, my nephew, and Valerie, my grand niece, read the First and Second Readings, and Stephanie, Valerie’s older sister, was the Commentator for the Mass. Archbishop Murphy Pakiam gave a good homily, and after it, I renewed my Vows. Theresa, my sister, and Lucy, my sister-in-law brought up the Offerings at the Offertory while Mui Mui, who was celebrating her Silver Jubilee as our Extern Helper, brought up a basket of flowers. At the end of the Mass I thanked everybody for their presence and for all they had done for us. Then Archbishop Pakiam thanked the Religious Brothers and Sisters for coming to show their solidarity. He also praised Brother Augustine Julian for organizing yearly trips to our Carmel so that we can be updated on what they are doing. My Carmelite Sisters then sang my favourite Hymn: Life’s weaving, and the celebrants solemnly processed out of the Chapel.
Our friend, Mrs. Alice Lim, had made two three tier cakes, one with silver trimmings for Mui Mui and one trimmed with gold for me. After the Mass, Archbishop Murphy Pakiam blessed the cakes and we cut them. Alice had also made 1000 delicious muffins beautifully decorated for distribution to the guests who were treated to a sumptuous lunch. In the meanwhile the guests thronged the parlours to see the Sisters. I was delighted to meet some of my school friends whom I had not seen for over 50 years. Many were happy to take home the booklets and leaflets and souvenir. Thanks be to God and to Jesus, my Bridegroom, who brought the day to a happy ending.