Moving from a cosmopolitan city in Canada to a rural town in Andalucía, our plan was always to simplify our life. We wanted a smaller home that we could lock and leave when going travelling. For the same reason, we didn’t want a big garden. And, we would under no circumstances get a pet! Not that we disliked them, we just liked our ability to globetrot more.
Even before coming to Spain, we had been warned by foreigners living here, who would assure us that we would adopt a dog within the first few months. Basically all foreigners did, they said. As there are tons of abandoned, homeless pets all over Andalucía, foreigner residents with their bleeding hearts tend to be the ones who end up taking in these unwanted animals. Alternately, they will walk around with pet food and dinner leftover in their handbags to feed perpetually pregnant alley cats. We, however, would do nothing of the kind. Not that we were completely heartless, I just can’t live in close proximity to cat hair and dog fur without scratching my eyes out.
We managed to stay to the program when it came to both the house and the garden. However, when it came to the pets, things started sliding. First we got ourselves a resident lizard. This was sort of a natural development, as the fixer-upper home we bought came with a tailless Podarcis vaucheri. As we discovered that cats love to torture these Andalusian mini-reptiles, we felt that somebody had to protect them. Next to move in with us were a family of geckos (Tarentola mauritanica); Umberto Major the Pater Familia, his wife Umberto Minor, as well as Umberto Mini, their prodigal son who likes to come into our bedroom at night to hunt for microscopic bugs. We thought for sure that this would be the end of our pet emporium, but then came Leopoldo…
We first noticed him on our upper terrace at the beginning of the summer. He was quite young and inexperienced at the time, not yet having found his preferred stomping ground. As the temperature rose by the day, he moved down to our lower terrace. There, he not only got more shade, but he fell in love with our jasmine bush. He settled in the upper branches and has lived there happily ever since. The jasmine is a perfect habitat for Leopoldo, seeing that his light brown bony body can easily resemble one of the plants curled up dead leaves or a spent blooms. He is safer from birds and bigger predators, while he can gorge himself on insects that live on the plant. It is indeed a win/win situation for him. As an added benefit, his home is also located right beside the Umbertos, who for the past couple of years have taken up residence behind a set of antique doors that we have mounted on our terrace wall. Therefore, Leopoldo also gets to munch on the rejected bugs that are not up to our reptiles’ standard or size requirement.
I forgot to say that Leopoldo is a praying mantis. Named because of its prayer like stand, mantis is the Greek word for prophet, and in an alien ET sort of way they look rather mystic. Usually green, yellow or brown, their coloration will not change with their natural environment. The mantis must therefore find a setting that matches their appearance, just like Leopoldo’s jasmine. The mantises are brilliant hunters and can sit there camouflaged immobile for hours waiting for a prey to show up. In fact, their ferocious appetite for bugs was what made the conquerors of the New World bring the European Mantis to North America in the 1600’s, so they would help them combat insect pests on crops. Using their antennae to smell the pray, their triangular heads with bulbous eyes will watch out for danger, with a field of vision of up to 20 meters. Not shabby for a bug that measures a few centimetres. And here I was thinking that I could sneak unnoticed up to our new family member…
In contrast to our other pets, Leopoldo is not shy. While I have to struggle to get even a blurry ‘action’ shot of the Umbertos, our mantis doesn’t mind being admired or photographed. He will cock his head and stare at me inquiringly. Sometimes, he gets a bit impatient and throws me a glance as if to say, “Oh, not you again…” Genealogically speaking, Leopoldo’s closest relative is a cockroach, but of course our lad is much better looking! I am calling him ‘he’, but we do not really know what ‘he’ is. The female mantis is said to be generally bigger and more butch than the male, sometimes devouring her offspring and uncooperative male partners. Or so I have read, as I am no scientist and only have my limited terrace observations to speak of.
Having studied Leopoldo up close and personal, he appears to be more of an African Mantis (Sphodromantis viridis) than a European one (Mantis Religiosa), which isn’t strange seeing our proximity to Northern Africa, but there are at least a dozen types of mantis in Spain. Whichever type he is, Leopoldo is decidedly more of a fighter than a lover. He is certainly not one for prayers, always with his frontal paws (or raptorial legs) up, ready to jab. Mantises will eat just about anything that moves, with the emphasis on the moving bit. Since they only consume living, and I imagine struggling, prey, I am fine not having witnessed this particular exploit of his.
The benefit of having a self-providing pet is evident – No worry about pet sitters and feeding when away. Yet, the backside of having these free-roaming critters as wild pets is their limited life span. We will only be able to enjoy the company of Leopoldo until some time this winter, as mantises live no longer than a year. Therefore, we can only hope that his offspring will continue the family lineage, so we can have a Leopoldo Jr with us next summer.
For the time being, this is our extended family. We are perfectly happy with our current pet repertoire and have no plans of expanding upon it. Though, if a family of disgruntled bats will descend upon our terrace, lets say on a late evening around Halloween, I have a feeling that we will adopt them, as well…
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There is nothing as exciting as an escapade – a spontaneous trip to a place of ones desire. Whether visiting the location for the first time, or wanting to see it again with fresh eyes, an escapade, like a good laugh, must surely prolong our life. Defined as an act involving excitement, daring or adventure, the concept in itself is so tempting, that I don’t understand why people don’t do it more often.
This summer, my husband and I decided to get ‘serious’ about our escapades. We agreed to put aside one day a week for unplanned adventures (not that we really need to get way from our life in Ronda). Friday is our chosen day to run away. We hit the road first thing, travelling by car, bus, train, or on foot, whatever we choose. Any location within a couple of hour range is on our radar, and might be added to our ever-growing list of potential run-away destinations. It feels a bit naughty or even illicit, taking off for the sole purpose of our own enjoyment. And I have to admit it. I look forward to our Friday outings like a child looks forward to a birthday. There are always unknown surprises when escaping, especially if one goes without to many set plans or preconceived expectations.
This Friday, we decided to explore some hidden alleys and forgotten corners of the old quarter of Málaga. Though we have been in the city plenty of times, it is still one of our favourite urban jaunts. Often ignored by tourists in favour of one of the smaller beach towns on Costa del Sol, Málaga is well worth a day of explorative free-style strolling. Being the museum capital of the Spanish south, there are always fabulous art exhibits with a wide selection of works and styles.
For us who live in a quintessential big mountain village, an occasional city spree is a healthy diversion. Málaga isn’t the metropolitan centre of the universe, but with near 600 000 people, it offers us a much-needed urban fix. The city is just the right size to get lost and to find one’s way again. It has pretty much the right amount of pollution, city dust, shopping variety, ethnic diversity and population density to tempt us by its urban splendour, while reminding us how lucky we are not to partake its daily traffic jams.
Málaga lays only 1.5 hours drive from Ronda, but we decide to leave the car and take a bus instead. Using public transport adds an additional dimension of freedom to our escape, allowing us to enjoy the journey without thoughts of speed traps or parking maids. Getting chauffeured to our destination, and for a modest fee at that, we can be as reckless as we want to, neither of us being the designated driver. Should we loiter about the streets too long, we can always grab a later bus, jump on a train, or find a place to spend the night. Or maybe we just travel on? One doesn’t want to limit ones options too much, does one, or it would not be a true escapade?
After having breakfast in a place that boasts about serving eight types of café con leche, all in the same type of glass with varying degrees of milk and espresso, we are ready to roll. Our first stop is a completely unassuming park, which meanders along one of the main traffic arteries leading into the downtown area. One is guaranteed never to meet tourists here, as who, other than I, will insist on walking blocks on end just to see trees. But, it is worth taking you on this quick detour, as these particular trees are a sight to behold. While they have trunks covered in cone-shaped lethal spikes, their crown is a delicate filigree of pink blooms.
Málaga’s flora is something that always impresses me, being so very different from what one will find merely an hour inland. Wherever you go, there are planters with crimson hibiscus flowers. Even the smallest balconies seem to manage to squeeze in half a dozen pots of geraniums or a trailing bougainvillea, and the city’s avenues are lined with rows of tall, slender palms.
One of my favourite squares here is Plaza de la Merced. You might have passed it on your way to visit the house where Picasso was born, another of the town’s many museums. The neighbourhood is admittedly getting a bit worn around the edges. The garbage is not emptied as often as it could and the spray paint artists work faster than the town’s anti-graffiti squad. However, this raunchiness cannot outweigh the almost childlike joy I get standing in the middle of the square when the jacaranda trees are in bloom and the plaza becomes awash with purple flowers.
Popsicle coloured walls
Speaking as a designer, the colours of Malaga are one of the city’s true inspirations. Whereas Ronda is one of Andalucía’s Pueblos Blancos or White Villages and therefore stays within a safe all-white colour-theme, Malaga’s architecture is a lively contrast. The beautiful low-rise apartments in the old town can have the most surprising colour combinations. While most remain within the family of warm earth tones, other edifices may combine bold egg yolk yellow with emerald green or bright pink.
I stop and admire one of these 19-century classics with semi-curved walls. This one is facing a smaller plaza. It has 6 stories of flats, each with a French balcony embellished by art nouveau ironwork. The walls are sand dune coloured, with cool khaki green detailing and cream bisque shutters. It is a combination I would have never thought up. Seen apart, they could almost appear clashing, yet when combined, they look nothing short of spectacular, particularly when augmented by the soft rays of a late afternoon sun.
I walk on in awe, admiring the playful palettes of aubergine, champagne and over-ripe nectarine. It is almost enough to make you hungry…
There is never a wrong time to stop for a tentenpíe, which is the Spanish slang for an appetizer or titbit to hold one off until the next real meal. Often, we stop in Málaga’s lovely old public market for this purpose, but this time we want to escape the line-ups.
Possibly the best place to enjoy a drink and a couple of appies is in one of the city’s historical almacenes (warehouses). Nowadays, these traditional food vendors are more like a bar combined with a classic deli. Their escaparates or shop windows, like the shelves inside, are filled with a tempting array of local wines, cheeses, meats, canned seafood, and other malageño specialties.
A perfect place to fraternize with locals while getting a taste of real Málaga, we decide to plump ourselves down outside one, enjoying a break, while sipping a frosty glass of local Fino and some wedges of to die for oveja (sheep milk) cheese. Hoards of tourists will come home from their Spanish holiday with an abanico (fan) that hardly opens, castanets that will never be used, or a imitation flamenco apron Made in PRC, but how many will drop by one of these delightfully authentic delis and buy some smoked, ground Spanish red pepper to bring home instead?
Ribbons, bowlers and chokers
In between the dime a dozen chain stores selling cheap shoes and cell phone covers, Málaga still has a few of its traditional family run shops. Some are hidden away in secret alleys, while others can be found squeezed between Italian lingerie emporiums and international frozen yoghurt outlets. Most have discretely faded signs and a dusty window display. But this is where you really can do some authentic shopping. Forget about the Chinese dollar-stores that have everything – all poorly made. These stores are the mom and pop kind with over-the-counter service, specializing in one type of item. Their goods are descent quality and might even be Hecho en España (Made in Spain), though possibly not in the last decade.
One of my favourite examples of these is the traditional Spanish Merecería or Haberdashery. Here, the local housewives will line up to buy 20 cm of three different kinds of ribbon. The process of purchase is painstakingly slow since everything has to be brought out from the back room, but it is ever so interesting to observe from a socio-anthropological point of view.
Next are the traditional ferreterías of hardware stores. To be sure that your chosen location is an authentic one, the wall behind the counter needs to be lined with small drawers. These might contain everything from doorknobs and powdered chemicals, to curious looking rodent-traps and poisons outlawed in 1965.
Equally interesting are the old stores that sell church supplies and religious paraphernalia. This is where you can go if you, like me, are tempted to buy one of those silver incense burners suspended from chains that they whiff about during Catholic mass.
As for my husband, he loves the small shops that remind him of visiting his family in Bilbao as a boy. We are talking decades back. First, there are the little-old-lady owned perfume shops that sell weird brands of splash-on colognes that nobody uses anymore. Then, there are the traditional linen stores, looking as far from Zara Home as you can imagine. These will usually have a crowded window display with piles of hideous synthetic blankets, practical poly-something tablecloths and a selection of could be handmade doilies and baby bibs. Though we have never bought anything in the latter type of store, they are always cool to peak into.
Like most large Spanish cities, Málaga also has a couple of the traditional hat stores, where they still will measure your head and display hats on wooden cranium-shaped domes. The owners of these businesses tend to be far beyond retirement age, so it is wise to not wait too long to visit the premises, or they might be closed down. Here is where you will find a Fedora, a genuine Panama hat, or (not by the storeowner’s intention) brand new, yet now vintage hats for any festive occasion.
As it is the high season for Andalucian férias, I also enjoy visiting a Flamenco store. I am not speaking about the souvenir shops that sell poor ruffled imitation dresses. This is the real thing, where they design and sew the colourful flamenco gowns from scratch and where you can find a genuine Manton or Manila shawl for several hundred euros. I love their ever so stylish Flamenco leather shoes, though I cannot for the life of me dance the Sevillana. But their outrageously huge loped Flamenco earrings are another matter…
Being quite shopped out, though we hardly have bought anything, it is time for some grub, of which Málaga has got aplenty. The old town is usually crawling with tourists, but you can still find decent restaurants with mostly local clientele, merely a couple of blocks off the main drag. Wherever you go, it is advisable to avoid places that hand you a voucher as you pass by, as well as those who offer a 10€ daily plasticized menu written in seven languages with pictures of their sad paella and rabo de toro.
Though we usually go for ethnic food when in the big city, this time we decide on a new organic place. Located on a corner in a residential street, we appear to be the only out-of-town-ers. I am certainly the only non-Latina.
From our street-side table, we are able to do some quality people watching, as the real malageños – fashionable, traditional, risqué or retro punk – go about their daily life. Business people bike back from work, parents pick up the kids from preschool, workers deliver cases of wine and neighbours chat from one window to the next. During another escapade, we got to watch aspiring ‘actors’ and ‘actresses’ enter the casting session for what appeared to be a not completely legit adult movie. This time around, we are just as lucky, catching a band practice in a building across the street. Though we do not see the musicians, we get a free Spanish guitar concert, and this, just a handful blocks from Calle Larios, Malaga’s busiest walking mall.
Look up, look down
I should mention that this very same pedestrian-only avenue, which crosses the Casco Histórico, has the most beautiful rust coloured marble paving (for those who manage to tear their eyes away from the wall-to-wall shopping bonanza). Each piece of marble is so remarkable that I would take any of them home and put it as art on the wall. The stone looks particularly stunning when it has been recently polished, around Semana Santa and before Christmas. They also look great after a rainfall, though water makes the stone lethally slippery, so consider yourself forewarned.
Actually, this is yet another great thing about escaping to a place where we usually do not trot about. We tend to look more up, or down as in the case of the pavement. At home, walking the same old streets, I often forget to see what really surrounds us. During an escapade, on the other hand, my head continually swivels, enjoying both horizontal and vertical splendours. Escaping allows one to see life from a slightly different angle, inspiring one to observe and sense more intensely, even as one returns to familiar surroundings.
The evening has come upon us. Though there is still much urban exploring to be done, such as enjoying the sunset from Malaga’s Cathedral roof or watching a foreign movie in its original language. But we feel more than content. Filled with new sights, sounds and tastes, we wander back to the bus station, where the same driver chauffeurs us home. As I watch the beautiful sculptural landscape of Andalucía flying by, I know that we will escape again a Friday or two from now. Where we will go is yet to be decided.Read / Add Comments
The other day, my husband and I drove past a man walking with an animal draped over his shoulders. At first, I thought it was a shepherd with an injured sheep dog, but as we came closer I realized that the roadside wanderer was a Franciscan monk. The site flew by, leaving me with a Sunday school image of a saint carrying a lamb. Such a vision would not even be fathomable in our past life in North America. We never saw monks and nuns on the street there, unless it was Halloween. But living in rural Andalucía, we have become accustomed to the daily presence of sisters and brothers of the cloth.
There is no doubt – Spain is a very Catholic country. In Ronda, people still cross themselves when they pass a roadside chapel, even if they are driving a scooter on a bumpy road. Many still send their kids to Catholic schools and most of our neighbours are active members of one of the town’s fourteen religious brotherhoods. The vast majority still celebrate the milestones in life in front of an altar and do not consider a rosary a fashion accessory. Though few locals go to church on Sundays anymore, they all know the Mass back to front. And everybody in town seems to have at least one great-aunt that is a nun. It shouldn’t therefore be a surprise that our town of barely 35 000 residents has at least half a dozen working convents and monasteries. But for how much longer will they be around?
Every month a Spanish monastery or convent needs to close its doors. Most have been serving the community for centuries, teaching the young, nursing the sick, helping the needy, or offering spiritual counselling and prayers. In 1980, Spain had almost 100.000 monks and nuns in dozens of orders. Four decades later, 40.000 remain. An additional 1000 members depart each year, not abandoning their faith for secular living – most simply die of old age. The average Spanish monk or nun is 64 years old, while stricter orders such as Jesuits have an average age of 75.
The local convent, like our neighbourhood, is named after St. Francis. Convento San Francisco was constructed in the 17th century, at the location where King Fernando sieged the town in 1485. The convent was attacked by Napoleon’s forces in the War of Independence and was almost burned to the ground during the Spanish Civil War. One would think by this gloomy history that nothing is left of the original buildings. Yet, walking through the convent’s courtyards, passing heavy wooden doors with huge hand-forged keys, up creaking steps into silent halls holding ancient niches with crackled religious paintings and hand tinted Baby Jesus porcelain dolls, one can easily imagine how life would have been here centuries ago.
But what is it really like to be a nun in this day and age? I decided to pay a visit and talk to our Franciscan hermanas (sisters) next door.
Sor Natividad or La Madre Abuela (89)
The oldest and dearest nun in the convent is Sor Natividad (Sister Nativity), or as we call her la Madre Abuela (the Mother Grandmother). The former abbess is a feisty little woman, who loves sharing jokes with my husband when he comes to take her blood pressure. When I comment on her good humour, she explains frankly: “We have made a vow of poverty, but not of misery!”
Quickly approaching 90, La Madre Abuela is unstoppable. She is responsible for the abundance of flowers in the convent’s courtyard, is a master seamstress, and the go-between when there is construction work in the convent. She also fixes shirts and hems pants for the congregation against a symbolic donation to the convent. Come to think of it, I don’t think I have ever seen her without her sewing scissor dangling from a string or a thimble in the pocket of her patched, worn, brown Franciscan robe. Though her doctor won’t allow her to work like she used to, she protested when she was told to stop doing the laundry, by hand, in winter, in the century-old stone sinks in the convent’s garden, especially since they have perfectly working modern laundry machines inside… “What do they want me to do? Sit down and wait to die?” she says with twinkle in her eye.
Always wanting to join a convent, Rosário as she used to be called was born in Estepa in the province of Sevilla in 1929. (Those days the nuns used to change their name upon giving their vows.) Her father had passed away before she was born and her mother had lost 5 of their 11 children in childbirth or early childhood. Understandably, she therefore didn’t want to ‘loose’ her youngest child to the church, especially since one of her older daughters already was a nun. But Rosaríta, or little Rosario didn’t give up, arguing wisely that she wouldn’t be lost, because she wouldn’t be dead, since nuns were still of this world. Her mother told her to “Pray and ask God what you are supposed to be”. To join an order, she needed a letter from her priest, stating that she came from a good Christian family, were the right type of girl, had a strong vocation and the right disposition for monastic life. “Some people thought that I didn’t have the personality to be a cloistered nun, but being ‘enclaustrada’ doesn’t mean that you need to be sad”.
Rosario came as a novice to Convento San Francisco on the 18th of April in 1952, more than 66 years ago. “I am VERY happy here in the convent. I would never have changed my life,“ she says, always with a warm smile.
Due to Spain’s difficult economic situation during the last century, many young girls became nuns. Giving their vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, they would spend the rest of their lives inside a convent having no further contact with their loved ones, as the Church would be their new family. Even to this day, 75 % of Spanish religious are women, out of which one third have chosen a cloistered life.
La Madre, Sor Nieves (75)
Madre Nieves, or Sor Nieves as we used to call her, is the abbess, a role she was elected to just over a year ago in a secret ballot amongst the nuns. As Mother Superior, she deals with convent business and Church affairs, communicates with the local priests and oversees the nuns. Nieves is the only rondeña of the sisters. In fact, she grew up across the street from the convent, running in and out of its halls as a child, so monastic life always seemed to be her path. At 18, she told her parents “God has called me” and asked their permission to join the Franciscans, but since the age of majority was 21, she needed her parents’ written consent. Now 75 years old, the convent has been her home for 57 years.
Social and bubbly, Madre Nieves will always greet me with a cheery “Hola Preciosa!” when I come to visit. While some nuns dislike leaving the convent, she enjoys an occasional trip up to town. Last time we met her, she was there because she had problems with her cell phone. This type of outside errand would have been unheard of just a couple of decades ago, but these days cloistered nuns are allowed to go out to see the doctor, to visit government offices and to attend necessary appointments. Not every nun see smart phones and social media as part of a religious’ life, but even Pope Francis is an active tweeter with more than 17 million followers, which is probably more than many celebrities. For Madre Nieves, WhatsApp allows her to keep in contact with people. In fact, this is how we set up the times for these interviews.
The greatest joy in living a monastic life for Madre Nieves is to be God’s servant and to be able to serve those who serve. She confides that living a communal and cloistered life is not always easy. In her words: “We have our feet on the ground, like everybody else. We are neither angels, nor saints. But we have a good life here. We are poor, but we are doing OK”.
The day at the convent starts at 6.30 a.m. and ends at 10 p.m., always with prayers. The sisters keep silent until after breakfast and from dinner until bedtime, and ought to refrain from unnecessary chatter and speak in low volume for the remainder of the day. Contemplative nuns do primarily two things, pray and work, as the sisters view physical labour as an extension of their contemplative work. And work they do. Unbeknown to many, the convent receives no funds from Rome. Furthermore, they hardly receive any private donations anymore. Though the nuns live very frugally (up to last winter had no heating in their cells), they still need money to live. The sisters are responsible for generating enough funds to cover their living expenses and the upkeep of the buildings. Some convents use all their income just taking care of their ageing and ailing sisters, while others have resorted to asking for help at the local Food Bank. Our nuns tell me that they will not beg for help. At the same time, they no longer earn enough from their traditional production of sweets to sustain the convent, never mind covering Social Security and pensions, which the sisters became part of in 1977.
The nuns at Convento San Francisco are trying to adapt to the changing times, though for many it is a steep learning curve. The convent needs to find new ways of generating revenue, just to make ends meet. While the nuns have always sold baked goods, they are now trying to expand their business to supplying local restaurants and stores, as well. The convent’s industrial-size kitchen looks like a mid-century version of a commercial bakeshop, where the sisters shell almonds, one by one, to make their almond cookies. If one were to calculate the actual cost of each piece, nobody but the Spanish royal family would afford them. It is a labour or love, or for the sisters, perhaps of devotion? Their baking is not all that the sisters are changing. Unused rooms on the upper floor of the convent are now rented out as storage, and spare quarters in the outer courtyard are being transformed into rental lodging. Maybe soon the nuns of San Francisco will be listed on AirBnB?
The sisters tell me that Spanish convents are in a crisis, because of the lack of vocation amongst the young, because there aren’t enough priests to say mass, and because of the rising cost of maintaining the old, enormous and often historically significant buildings. In the not very distant past, monks and nuns were the society’s teachers, nurses and health care workers. These days, you need certificates and university degrees to practice any type of profession. Religious training inside a closed convent won’t be considered practical working experience outside the convent’s walls. Even the role of caring for ‘souls’ is gradually being taken over by the secular society in the form of psychologists, marriage councillors, social workers, addiction therapists, and more than anything, the Internet. A young person who wants to help the needy can find a slew of charitable organizations that won’t demand the personal restrictions of a religious order. With all the choices offered in our contemporary society, it is difficult to imagine a young Spanish willing compromise him or her-self to a cloistered life of celibacy and poverty. “Had it not been for our novices from other countries, we would have had to close down”, says the abbess.
Convento San Francisco had 18 nuns when she arrived almost six decades ago. Today they are 5 nuns left. Out of these, only two are Spanish born, the others are from Kenya and Mexico, while the convent’s three new novices are from Madagascar and Tanzania. One in every five Spanish religious sisters and brothers are from another country. The majority of the postulants and novices who join Spanish religious orders come from Africa, Latin America and Asia, as these are the only areas in the world where the Catholic community is still growing or maintaining its numbers. Yet, even this ‘importation’ from other continents is not able to stop the dwindling numbers of monks and nuns or the continuous threat of closure that most both monasteries and convents are facing.
Sor Isabel (45)
In contrast to some of the older nuns, Sor Isabel had a professional career prior to becoming a nun. Originally from Machakos in Kenya, Elizabeth as here name used to be, told her parents that she wanted to be a nun when she was 17. Believing it was the passing fancy of a teenager, her father insisted that she get an education and a profession before making a final decision. Elizabeth studied business and worked for 4 years. When she informed her employer that she wanted to enter a convent instead, they doubted her decision. She was told to try for a year. If she didn’t like it, she could come back to work.
Sor Isabel never looked back and has now been a nun for 14 years. “There may have been moments of doubt, but I always returned to my faith,” she says. In Kenya, most nuns choose an active life of teaching and mission work instead of a contemplative life in a closed convent, but Sor Isabel preferred the silence. “We do not need to be present to help, because prayers have no limit”, she says. She confides that living a cloistered life has its challenges. The nuns have different backgrounds, languages and characters, which get amplified in a communal existence. Part of this convivencia or coexistence is resolving issues – through reflection, listening and acceptance.
In addition to household chores, Sor Isabel coordinates the education of the novices, a training period which usually last 2 years. I met the novices in the teaching room, where they take lessons in Spanish, vocational singing and scripture reading. Why do they want to become nuns, I ask and they smile shyly, mumbling about serving El Señor. Finding new novices and postulants is also the responsibility of each convent, not the Church. Foreign nuns have in recent years been allowed to visit their family every 4 or 5 years and to go home if there is a death in the family (funds permitting). During these travels, the sisters are ambassadors for their convent, trying to spur interest amongst young girls in their country to join their sisterhood.
Sor Clara (44)
Sor Clara, or Herminia as is her Christian name, is originally from Aguas Calientes in Mexico. She grew up in front of the parish church, where she sang in a choir, participated in youth groups, and later taught bible studies. Recognizing her vocation, the local nuns invited her to a religious’ experience in a convent. Even then, she felt that this was what she wanted. Upon her parish’ urgings, she studied and became a Catholic schoolteacher instead. While working as a teacher for 5 years, she longed for a quieter life. She never forgot about her experience in the convent. She knew that a cloistered life is what she needed to give her life meaning.
Sor Clara came from Mexico to Convento San Francisco, which has been her home or the past 9 years. “I am a very solitary person. I love silence, praying and being near nature, where I feel a direct connection with God.” But monastic living cannot be all easy, I wonder, and she admits that it took her some time to get used to the non-spicy Spanish food, and more so to adapt to Ronda’s mountain climate, which can be very cold in winter. The only task she doesn’t really look forward to, is the cooking, which is done on rotation among the sisters. The other nuns joke about how they all get thinner during the weeks when it is the Mexican sister’s turn to make the meals, but it is all done in good humour.
Sor Clara prefers to play music, religious music, of course. She is trying to learn to play the church organ so she can assist with Mass, though the convent only has a partly functioning organ for her to practice on. But, with the Franciscan sisters’ faith and patience, I am sure a proper organ will find its way to them, one day.
Possibly digging more than I ought to, I ask Sor Clara how she can help the outside world while being shut inside a convent. “We represent the world of the needy. We pray for those who do not pray, for those who suffer the most and for those who do not know God. For me, there is only God. Y Basta.”
Convento San Francisco is still managing to stay afloat, but I cannot help but wonder for how much longer these historical institutions will survive? Will people still want to join the order in the future, or is this the end of the sisterhood, as we know it?
“We have gone through many rough patches throughout history and we will pass this one, as well,” Sor Clara says. “Because ours is not a human project, it is a divine one.”Read / Add Comments