The Road to Carmel

As I opened the door and walked into the Carmelite monastery, I was immediately overwhelmed by a sense of serenity and solitude. It was my third time visiting the monastery and I am still amazed by the pristine surroundings on the top of a hill. Indeed, many come here to seek peace and quiet in these sequestered grounds, away from the hustle and bustle of the world outside.

I was greeted with warm and welcoming smiles from Sister Linda and Sister Joanne. We sit down to chat and in the midst of our conversation, Sister Linda reveals to me, “Sister Joanne started attending daily Mass even before she became a Catholic.”

When she was a teenager, Sister Joanne attended Methodist Girls’ School and Anglo-Chinese School and was familiar with scriptural passages. She participated and attended Methodist services but never converted to the faith. When she was 14 years old, she read a book entitled, The Nun’s Story by Kathryn Hulme. She was deeply moved and she knew in her heart that she would be very happy living a life as a nun. At that time however, it seemed impossible because she was far from being a Catholic. In fact she even swore she “would never become a Catholic”. Little did she know that God was already manifesting His plans in her life.

In her 20s, she was searching for the truth and seeking God even though she claimed herself to be a “free thinker”. She had asked her aunt to take her to a Buddhist temple and also accepted her Catholic friend’s invitation to attend a Charismatic Prayer Group meeting. She started attending the meetings regularly and made very good friends, feeling loved and embraced by these brothers and sisters in Christ. She remembers those times fondly, saying, “ We would spend so much time just talking about God.” Undoubtedly, these friends were important companions on her journey to finding God and later, the Carmelite Monastery.

They soon invited her to a Thanksgiving Mass. It was the first time she attended a Catholic Mass and she immediately recognized the beauty of the Mass as she witnessed the Gospel coming alive. “It was like nothing I have ever experienced before,” she says with awe.

Subsequently she was drawn to the Mass every month and eventually everyday. However, she wasn’t ready to commit fully to becoming a Catholic. She still had many questions about the faith, all of which could be answered by her knowledgeable Catholic friends, except one. She still could not grasp the concept of praying to Mother Mary. [1]

One day she attended an ecumenical[2] Christian event at Saint Andrew’s Cathedral and the guest speaker for that event was then Archbishop Gregory Yong. The former bishop opened his speech with the unforgettable lines, “Today I’m going to talk to you about Mother Mary. Mother Mary allowed the Holy Spirit to work in her life.” Upon hearing these words, all her doubts disappeared as Sister Joanne became convinced that she too wanted the Holy Spirit working in her life. She began attending Catechism classes and became a devout Catholic at the age of 30.

Sister Joanne worked as a Passenger Relations Officer in Singapore Airlines for more than 10 years before joining the monastery. Although the thought of becoming a nun did cross her mind, especially because she admired Mother Teresa so much, the logical side of her brushed it off as she was already in her 30s and thought that “she was too old” to become one. Besides, she had other plans for her life. She was pursuing a Degree in Management in the Singapore Institute of Management.

It was yet another invitation of a friend that led her to the gates of Carmel. Sister Joanne thought that she was merely accompanying this friend who was interested to join the Carmelite religious order. She was also encouraged by her friend to apply, to which Sister Joanne responded, “If Sister asks me to join, I will.” True enough, it was Sister Linda who had greeted the both of them and had asked Sister Joanne to try staying in the monastery for a week to experience the life there. Keeping her promise to her friend, Sister Joanne decided to try it out.

From left: Sister Joanne & Sister Linda from the Carmelite Sisters, OCD.

At this point, Sister Linda interjects, “When young women come to the monastery with the desire to join the religious order, they are invited to stay for a week in a small room and they are given menial tasks to complete, so that they can be undisturbed and spend time in the silence, discerning God’s plans for them.”

Sister Joanne was assigned to clean the windows, including the windows near the tabernacle[3] in the monastery’s chapel. As she was innocently wiping the windows with a toothbrush and a bottle of Vim, she heard God saying to her, “I have prepared a place for you here.”

When asked how she was so sure that God was speaking to her, she replied without hesitation, “You know it in your heart.” She graciously accepted the Lord’s calling and eight months later, become a Carmelite nun. “So what happened to your scholarship? Did you have to repay your bond?” I asked her curiously. Thankfully, by the grace of God, the institution did not require her to do so.

Therefore, she was able to leave her family, friends and her worldly life behind with ease. She never saw this as a sacrifice, but instead, regards it as a high privilege to devote her life to praying for both the living and the dead in this vineyard of God.

Today, Sister Linda, Sister Joanne and the rest of the Carmelite Sisters encounter many people who come to the monastery to ask for their powerful intercessory prayers. Although they don’t always know what becomes of those who ask for their prayers, they do witness God working through them as they hear of cases such as people who had Stage 4 cancer becoming completely cured. As Sister Linda aptly puts it, “Our God is a Living God. Miracles happen all the time.”

Sister Joanne’s road to Carmel is nothing short of a miracle and she is now leading a life of pure joy and intimacy with God – the life she had dreamt about when she was 14 years old.

[1] Catholics do not actually pray to Mother Mary. Instead we ask her to pray with us to Jesus and to intercede for us.
[2] This is an event involving Christians from different denominations.
[3] The tabernacle houses the Eucharist, the body of Christ. Catholics believe that Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist.

Claudine Fernandez