Indian Women Theologians Forum- Easter Liturgy
Reflection by Sister Joel Urumpil
I thank whoever thought of asking me to share my Emmaus experience because this event is very dear to me just like the episode of Mary Magdalene at the tomb and her zeal to spread the LOVE she experienced.
Each of us some time or other in life goes through an Emmaus journey, a dark tunnel as it was and a soothing light in the dark. I will share glimpses of my experiences of a long life. I hopefully believe that my sharing might inspire others/ resonate in them similar experiences.
The whole episode (the Emmaus journey) as I see is intermingled with hope, disappointment and the possibility of acquiring power and position. Suddenly the unexpected – shattering of the expectations and hopes! But that is not the end, for Jesus is raised and has some very important lessons to give to his followers. He resumes his mission and walks with them.
Walking is a very important aspect of the lives of us Nuns. Our nature as women is movement; static is not in our nature. Jesus said to Mary don’t “cling” to me but GO and share life. The men of Emmaus left their village perhaps not to give life but to participate in the glorification of Jesus and he rewarded them with his presence. They turned back to their community.
I come from a small village in Pala, Kerala – the 9th child, (after a girl and 7 boys.) As of today’s norm, I could have been a disappointment but not those days! I left my village at the advice of my brother to join the school of nursing in Mokama, Bihar. I was excited because of the novelty of another step into an unknown world. But the Creator had other plans. Seeing the misery of the people of Mokama and my hidden desire to ‘save souls’ I became a Sister of Charity of Nazareth who was operating the nursing school.
In my long years of life – (I am 76 completed,) there are too many Emmaus experiences and I shall try to sift through and search for the pearls of God’s wisdom and tender care that lead me till today.
I followed a normal life of a Nun trying to be very pious and obedient but the streak to search for the hidden would come up periodically. For example, while managing the overcrowded Community Health Center in the early seventies, I heard of an underground group lead by Stan Lourdeswamy S.J, few priests, a nun, and some laypeople. They were opposing the National emergency of Indira Gandhi. While managing the health center I attended these meetings traveling an overnight journey. Mind you I was only 23 years old!
Another episode of my Emmaus experience was my pioneering work in Nepal. An alien land of beautiful people but suspicious of the Indians. We, three Sisters, had no blueprint, we had to begin and look for urgent needs and a shelter to function from. I decided to search on my own and find a place and work. It was a lonely path, no institutions or convent of our own to back us. We were foreigners trying to befriend the women and young girls; rejection by the locals and lack of understanding from some sisters at home were part of the deal. But like the men of Emmaus, there was the supporting presence of Jesus and the same local people.
Another event that changed me and my outlook on life and belief system was the course I attended in the Eighties on socio political analysis, conducted by Stan Swami S.J and team. I saw a new world – corrupt, evil but full of possibilities waiting to be transformed. We five from Bihar were a kind of ‘rebellious and reckless’ group lead by ‘Dhoti Father’. (George Monippally, a diocesan priest) Our open and challenging discussions were supported whole heartedly by Father Stan. For the first time I felt free to question the existence of G O D and the over use of it as an escapism from the community of people. I understood the meaning of death as a parting gift to the whole cosmos, to the enrichment of life.
After 3 months at the Indian Social Institute, Bangalore I decided I will not go back to the traditional convent life. I too came back like the men of Emmaus and with the blessings of Sister Shalini joined a lay group and Sister Asha Marie Tobin M.MS social activists in a place called Khutikewal Ashram Hunterganj, Jharkhand and tried to live a different way of religious life.. The life here was like living with fire and brim stone with oasis in between. After a year Asha Bahen left the group which left me, the only woman in the core team all Hindu men. My faith in the Christian religion and SCN life were tested umpteen times. But my trustful companion, the Bible kept me in balance. In my loneliness and frustration I found solace and companionship in this marvelous book. I kept a journal, wrote poems and analytical reflections especially in my trying times and got peace and renewed life..
Life at the ashram was rather tough for me as I was the only woman and Christian in the team; the members were still patriarchal in their thinking. At times as a woman, I felt side-lined and had to be doubly strong to demand the rights of women and set up strategies.
The church was 30 km away and I did not feel the need to attend Mass or visit our sisters there. This caused isolation and distance from the SCN community, though the leadership was supporting my life pattern and send companions for about 5 years. And novices for their experience.
The struggle against the landlords to get back illegally captured land was at its height when I joined this group. Though I had no experience of activism I became part of the movement and it was a refreshing experience when the landless got back 2500 acres of land.
The spiritual atmosphere and in-depth analysis in the Ashram enabled me to respond to my call better and to understand oppression and exploitation in their totality. I also understood all religions merging into one reality in the paschal struggle to recreate the kingdom of God..
The hopelessness of Emmaus turned into fearless zeal to respond at all times to the call of the Divine. Here I share one incident- One day the police came to our Ashram looking for our leader. When they failed to catch him, more (about 20) police force came back demanding to produce the man. I was just raw with regard to police intervention etc. but I drew strength from within and I told them that if they were convinced that the man was a lawbreaker they must do their duty. But I was following my dharma to protect innocent persons for which I left home and my people. But I told them If they thought I was breaking the law, they could arrest me. The officer looked at me for a while, turned around, and ordered the rest to retreat. I remembered the words in the Bible, “I shall put words into your mouth.”
My life journey like everyone else’s was a shade of cloud and bright sunshine. There was the temptation to go back to the familiar and an urge to press forward. When the going became hard, when co-workers were assassinated, when I was detained a whole night in a police lock-up when circumstances forced me to leave the place I helped build and start from the beginning, when COVID-19 almost took away my life, my companions in mission –the exploited, illiterate yet wise village women, the SCN community, friends, collaborators were all there, faithfully supporting me and my work. I could experience in them the risen Jesus walking by my side admonishing/ consoling/ at times caressing me.