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Sister Agnet, 25, a Hindu convert, took the courageous step of entering Bethany after studying the caste system at university. Although caste permeates all religions of Indian society, it remains most evident among Hindus. Sister Agnet explained how various political parties in India now identify with specific castes and religions; the politicization of caste and religion has led to interreligious tensions and violence. Although illegal, caste discrimination is very much a part of Indian society and, she adds, a most negative aspect.

Dismayed by what she learned and inspired by the Gospel, she embraced Christianity and entered Bethany. She faced strong opposition from her family, she recalled, especially from two of her brothers. Through her letters, however, she has now convinced her mother that she took the right path.

Sister Agnet has taken temporary vows, which will be renewed several times until her final profession of vows in three to six years. Prior to her final profession, Sister Agnet will remain at the generalate at Kottayam where she will begin her professional training according to her talents and the needs of the community.

Bethany’s junior sisters live by a very tight schedule punctuated by bells: they get up with the first bell at 5:00 A.M., start group prayer by 5:30, followed by meditation at 6:00. Half an hour later they participate in the Divine Liturgy, which is celebrated by a priest from the nearby Bethany ashram.

Breakfast is at 7:45; then at 8:00 they begin their chores – milking cows, gardening, preparing lunch or laundry. By 9:30 they are in class, studying liturgy, Scripture or English. At 10:30 they have personal prayer in their chapel, followed at 11:00 by a class on the rule of the community or the Bethany constitution.

At noon they have choir practice and prayer. Lunch is at 1:00, which is followed by free time. At 3:00 they are back in class, then rosary at 4:00, coffee break at 4:30, then gardening until meditation at 6:00, which runs into evening prayer. At 7:15 they have spiritual reading until supper at 7:30. Recreation time at 8:00, night prayers by 9:00, and a study period from 9:30 until lights-out at 10:30.

After spending an exhausting February day with the sisters, observing them in prayer and meditation, making altar breads and laboring in the gardens and kitchens, I was invited to some entertainments that were put on especially for me.

A performance ensued of Christian songs and dances in the ancient Indian manner and a hilarious dramatization of Jonah and the whale. One comic and voluble sister with a false beard played Jonah, while sisters made well-choreographed impressions of the sinking boat or gobbling whale. The community gathered to enjoy the spectacle to rounds of applause and laughter.

It was an altogether bubbly day spent with the Bethany Sisters, appreciating at first the spiritual sincerity of their life, their selfless devotion to service and, finally, their infectious exuberance and humor. Now I know what Sister Philomena means by “following Christ in an Indian way.”

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Sean Sprague, a California-based photojournalist, has recently returned from an extensive trip to southern India.

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Tags: India Sisters Priests Syro-Malankara Catholic Church Vocations (religious)