Inspired by a tale from the life of St. Gertrude.
Dear Mother Abbess,
It is not with a little discomfort that I address this letter to you, regarding the matter that you requested me to put down on paper two weeks ago. Please understand that my delay was not out of disrespect for your office, but rather out of my uncertainty about whether what you ask me to recount for you actually happened, or whether I was not deceived by the Devil in some way.
For it is true that as the years have passed my doubt about this incident has grown, even as the certitude of the other sisters has deepened. For while I know that I did not dream it (as all the sisters say, including yourself, seeing as you were the Auxiliary Abbess at the time, that they smelt the scent of Gardenia flowers for almost an entire hour after it had occurred – the telltale sign of an Encounter in this convent ever since the first one by our foundress, the Venerable Sister Mary Apio of the Annunciation), I wonder if it was not the Liar himself that played a nasty trick on me.
However, as you have requested me to come forth with all, I will try here to narrate to you the events of that afternoon, 13 years ago, at the monastery of the Discalced Carmelites in Kawanda, as best as I remember them.
The monastery in Kawanda was a magnificent complex, as you yourself must no doubt recall. It was a C-shaped, old, red-bricked series of interlinked buildings that, at the time, had been standing for close to 60 years. There were marble floors and stained-glass windows and beautiful images of Christ and the Saints everywhere you looked. The chapel stood at the head of the C-shape, partly closing it off to make an incomplete 0 formation with the lawn in the centre. That afternoon, a Friday as I recall it, was particularly serene. The sun magnificently illumined the lush, green paspalum of our compound, highlighting and gleaming off the old, rusty, cream-coloured shell of an ancient UXV kikere Volkswagen, which had long become fossilized and part of the vegetation. Locusts rapidly clicked their wings somewhere in the grass and lizards scurried around in the undergrowth of the kikere. It was said that this car had once been driven by the Venerable Father Robert Kyeyune, the first Ugandan chaplain of the Carmelites, several decades before.
The quiet of that afternoon, as the sisters shuffled through the corridor of the C-shape from the sleeping quarters to the refectory, was immensely peaceful. Long rows, to and fro, of black veils and white habits, a beauty like no other, a humble garb that the mighty St. Teresa of Avila herself was proud to don.
I had just emerged from the chapel, from my customary pre-lunch fifteen minutes of thanksgiving to Christ before the Tabernacle, above which hangs that famous painting of the first Encounter, with Sister Mary Apio, her dark face glowing, on her knees, gazing up at her Redeemer, who had promised her that the Ugandan Carmelites would persevere until the end of the age. This painting, on this particular day, had attracted my attention more than usual because we had received worrying news earlier in the week that the monastery in Kawanda was to be closed and the sisters transferred to Kenya and Rwanda. I remember looking at the Tabernacle and asking Christ to recall the promise He Himself had made to our foundress all those decades ago, and saying how happy I was that He had done such a thing for little worms like us.
I had emerged from the chapel and was making my way towards the refectory with the other sisters, a box-file of papers with hymns and printed homilies on them cradled to my chest, when I looked out into the compound at the sunlight, the paspalum and the husk of the Volkswagen, and heard the most peculiar bird singing. The song was loud and sharp and sounded like someone calling out repeatedly. It was then as though time stood still and I was caught in this beautiful, sun-lit moment, a sort of still-shot of the beauty of being in a place like this at a time like this, all the while with the strangest birdsong in the background. I remember noticing that the corridor had grown a bit darker and quieter, with the lawns reflecting more brilliantly the afternoon sunlight into my eyes.
I cannot explain why the song this bird made caught my attention or had this effect on me, but it sounded almost as though it were making an announcement, alerting me to the coming of something, a harbinger of the advent of some great entity.
Without turning my head back into my line of path in the corridor, I became aware suddenly that whatever had been announced by the bird’s insistent song was already there in the hallway, among the sisters, in the crowd of white and black. I knew, by some strange intuition, that it was making its way towards me and I could feel, without knowing how, that it was a man.
When I turned and looked ahead of me the sisters were still moving to and fro, but there in their midst, moving among and with them, was a tall man, a man as beautiful and as magnificent as you could never hope to see…and he was making his way towards me. I dared not in my heart hope it to be who I wanted it to be. This man walked almost in slow motion, and yet kept pace with the nuns that were moving in my direction. There was a subtle glow around him that felt like the light from a candle. I went numb and dropped the box-file, with a loud clatter, onto the marble floor.
The man was dressed in flowing satin robes of scarlet and a slick dark blue, and had a brown, cherubic face. His hair flowed and his beard was dark and woolly. He finally reached the spot where I was standing but did not break his stride. Instead, he turned and looked at me as he passed, and I saw now, O my soul, that he was like the sons of God I had read and dreamt about in the scriptures. In that moment, as he looked at me and I stared back like a doe in love, I knew that I would never be as blissful in all my life as I was now, at this particular instant. The passage of time seemed to pause and my soul yearned to throw itself into his bosom and there abide forever. As I gazed like a fool into brown eyes, into deep pits of beauty with which he gazed back at me, my mind blank and confused, he smiled and said, “Why are you afraid?”, immediately triggering in me the memory of my prayer in the chapel a few minutes prior, and, without breaking his stride, he, as if in slow motion again, turned away and kept moving in file with the sisters.
I turned to gaze at his flowing, royal figure as now the dim halo around him seemed to grow in brightness, but I felt a nudge on my left shoulder and turned to see who it was. The moment I took my eyes off the man a kind of sharp regret pierced my heart, and I knew that when I turned back he would be gone. I regretted ever paying heed to that nudge and taking my eyes off the thing that has filled my dreams with the most wonder and awe ever since.
The nudge had come from Sister Petronilla.
“Are you alright? You dropped your file,” she said.
“Oh!” I replied, startled by my reawakening into reality. “I’m such a clumsy fool!”
And then, almost immediately, murmurs erupted in the corridor and all the sisters stopped moving. A commotion arose.
“What is it?” I asked Sister Petronilla.
“Do you not smell the Gardenia flowers?” she said.
“Now that you mention it…” I replied, surprised by the sweet scent that suddenly washed over the entire monastery. I heard later that some villagers from Kawanda, who were passing by the monastery that afternoon, also reported catching a “flowery scent” emanating from the convent. The entire place was abuzz with excitement and chatter.
“It’s the sign!” one of the sisters shouted.
Sister Petronilla turned to me. “The Lord has appeared to one of us,” she said, “I wonder who it could be.”
“Sister Roberta,” I said. “It has to be. She’s the holiest one among us.”
You must forgive me here, dear Mother, for telling Sister Petra what I told her, for I could not be sure of what or who I had seen and felt it prudent not to say anything at the time, as I have read stories from the lives of the Saints where the Devil appeared as a heavenly being and deceived unwary souls. I was determined not to become part of that number.
As was the norm in our convent, the Mother Abbess, the late Sister Angelique Mbabazi, allowed us only thirty minutes to soak in our awe and wonder before she called order and had us go on with the day. The scent of Gardenia, like I mentioned before, lingered for about an hour before finally dissolving into the afternoon Kawanda air. I still remember how loudly and beautifully we sang at compline that evening, everyone still exhilarated by the thought that our Spouse had walked among us.
We never spoke openly about it a lot afterwards because Mother Abbess did not like such talk, being a very grounded and practical woman as you yourself recall, but in the evenings after compline we still whispered about it as we shuffled towards the sleeping quarters. Nobody ever discovered who it was that had been visited, but I think that Sister Petronilla always held me somewhat under suspicion. One day, just after matins as we were heading for breakfast, two nuns in a crowded thoroughfare of black tops and flowing white habits, she stopped me in the corridor, almost at the very spot on which I had stood that afternoon, looked me intently in the eyes and said, “Was it you?” I looked back at her in confusion and asked what she was talking about, to which she simply shrugged and said, “I guess it doesn’t matter anymore.” She never brought it up again.
And it would have died with me, dear Mother, had not your illness quickly deteriorated, inspiring in you the desire to know who had been visited that afternoon 13 years ago, before you depart to be with your Spouse. Whether or not what I saw was from the Lord or from the Deceiver I leave to your judgment and to that of the Church. As for me, I must here end my narration for, as you know, we have recently moved to a new monastery in Kyanja and we are yet to settle in; there is a lot to be done in setting up furniture and making the new chapel ready for its first Mass tomorrow. I have also recently taken over the sewing and knitting and so I cannot spare any more time lest I tarry in my duties. I, therefore, beg you leave and beg you your prayers. Our old home in Kawanda may be gone but we are still here, the Carmelites, and we will be here till the end, as He promised. Amen.
I pray Him make you well soon but if not, please give Him a kiss for me when you finally see Him face to face.
Forever your daughter,
Sister Jeanne Musiime
Monastery of the Discalced Carmelites,