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My Hand on the Bush

Geraldine Graber with her last date, December 1953

Interview with former nun Geraldine Graber -Sister Anthony- who entered a convent in Toronto, at the age of sixteen and taught elementary school during her seventeen years as a nun. Geraldine Graber "Gerri" , Director, Founder of WHISCA, holds a PhD degree from Oregon State University, to provide for AIDS orphans, to support education, and to foster independent living through employment training in Chad and, currently, in Kenya..

Geraldine Graber at Sixteen (Click on photos to enlarge)Geraldine Graber at Sixteen (Click on photos to enlarge)Annick: What inspired you to become a nun at sixteen when most teenagers are just looking forward to their first romance?

GG:  I had wanted to join my teachers as a nun from the first day I met them.  They were very kind to me, and at home I was lost in the middle of eight children.  I had also formed a close relationship with Jesus at age five, also perhaps out of loneliness.  I had a few boyfriends by age 16, but always knew I was only waiting to reach the age when I could enter the convent.

Annick: Did your parents approve your choice of life?

GG:  They encouraged all five of us first girls in the family to become nuns.

Geraldine Graber with last date, December 1953Geraldine Graber with last date, December 1953Annick: Do you think that a teenager at sixteen has a pretty good idea of what it means to live in a convent for the rest of her life?

GG:  I cannot speak for all teenagers, but for me, I can say I knew exactly what I was doing.  I was escaping the world that I had been taught was wicked.

Annick: Were you happy as a nun? Did you feel like something was missing in your life, at times?

GG:  I was happy as long as I felt I was doing some good in the troubled world.  When I began to see that others were doing more for the world than I was as a primary teacher, doubts began to take hold.  By age 27, I most certainly began to feel that, while I could sublimate my affection for children by teaching them, personal affection and male relationships were missing in my life.

Raised in Vancouver, Canada, former nun Geraldine Graber -Sister Anthony- Raised in Vancouver, Canada, former nun Geraldine Graber -Sister Anthony-Annick: We all know that nuns and priests spend much time of their day praying, but it is not clear to us to whom they are praying to or what they are praying about; and if they are creating their own prayers since “Our Father” or, “Paster Noster” seem to be the only best-known prayer in Christianity.

GG:  The “Our Father” is really a summary of the truths Jesus taught regarding our relationship to God and the world.  Perhaps it is because the Christian leaders deviated so far from this prayer with their personal prayers that they lost its focus, missed its lessons, and missed its promise of a global earthly spiritual Kingdom of God.

Annick: Was the “Little Office of Our Lady” a compilation book of prayers strictly reserved for the nuns and was it obligatory for all the clergy?

GG: The “Little Office of Our Lady” was a shortened version of the long breviary of the priests, and it was also said by lay members of the Sodality of Mary.

Geraldine Graber in ChadGeraldine Graber in ChadAnnick: Often we hear students complaining the way they were treated by nuns at school. Do you believe that many nuns ended up being frustrated about their strict life style?  We hear so many stories.

GG:  We tended to be just as strictly punishing with our students as we were with ourselves.  I don’t think many were taking out their personal frustrations on students, but a few, verging on insanity, certainly did.  I experienced that behaviour in a couple of cases, and was the victim of their madness myself.

Geraldine Graber in Kenya, 2009Geraldine Graber in Kenya, 2009Annick: I suppose there comes the day when we ask ourselves, why I am doing this and not that. When did you first realize that you had so much more to learn from God than just being inside ; a convent?

GG:  I am only now realizing how much I have to learn from God.  At that time, I only realized I had something to learn from life rather than escaping from it to live as though I were already dead when I compared the lives of dedicated service of my lay colleagues to my comfortable life of silent contemplation.

Annick: Of course, it is different for each person but where did your search take you once you knew there was more to know and to do?

Musician in ChadMusician in ChadGG:  I first thought that theological training to become a spiritual educator of adults would be more satisfying than teaching primary school children. Curiously, that search eventually took me away from God, at least from the God I realized had been created in my imagination.  I decided to allow the true God to remain unknown to me and that I would go about living in the present.  I cleared my entire mental hard drive of all religious files.

Annick: It must have been a very confusing time once you had decided that life in a convent was not the answer to your prayers. How old were you when you made the decision to leave the convent?

GG: I had just turned thirty-three when I realized that staying was impossible for me and left physically just before my thirty-fourth birthday.

Sewing Machine ProjectSewing Machine ProjectAnnick: It takes a lot of courage for one to search and be strong enough to face one’s own reality knowing that all the sisters in the convent would reject your decision. Did you pray God to help you in your 'démarche' and to help you see the light and find all answers to your questions?

GG:  I felt abandoned by God as well as the Sisters. It was a Jewish psychiatrist who was my main support during that time of transition.  He had shocked me into reality with his statement: “You obviously need a God who is a tyrant.  My God gives choices.”  On shaky spiritual legs, I tried a new approach to life by not begging for guidance anywhere but within myself.

Children in ChadChildren in ChadAnnick: I heard many former nuns saying the same thing,  that they were rejected. How can that be when one loves and serves God?  Are they afraid of something and, if so,  what?

GG:  That same psychiatrist alerted me to the reaction I would receive from the Sisters.  He said those who were curious about leaving themselves would try to contact me and those who were afraid to leave would not.  He said many would not be able to cope with the adjustment.

Annick: Are you still in touch with some of the sisters?

Geraldine GraberGeraldine GraberGG:  Two of my closest friends still adhere to the practice of non-communication with those who leave as recently as a couple of years ago and either refused to talk to me at all on the telephone or requested that I not continue to try to communicate with them.

Annick: Their behaviour seems to be opposite to Jesus’ teachings who taught us about LOVE. Are you saddened by their way of being with you?

GG:  No, I’m not saddened.  I feel the way you would if you tried to talk to somebody who was sleeping and they said, “Don’t wake me up yet.”  The image of Jesus that we find in the New Testament is very far from what we find in the practice of many Christians of all sects, not just Catholics, and not just nuns.

Annick: Yes, there is a verse from the Tablet of Ahmad that reminds me what you just expressed it says: “Rely upon God, thy God and the Lord of thy fathers.  For the people are wandering in the paths of delusion, bereft of discernment to see God with their own eyes, or hear His Melody with their own ears.  Thus have We found them, as thou also dost witness.” Are you still practicing as Catholic or searching for the true path?

Family in ChadFamily in ChadGG:  No.  I left the church to marry a divorced man.  Through a series of dreams and a mystical experience, I was led to the Bahá’í Faith.

Annick: Do you feel your questions were answered with the Baha’i Faith? Is it much easier for you to be closer to God, today?

GG: All my questions are answered.  Again, I live a spiritual life, but this time it is based in the reality of a connection to God through the practical teachings of an historical Manifestation of Himself in the world, Bahá’u’lláh, Who lived recently enough in history to be stripped of legend and who personally set up a system to protect His writings from misinterpretation.

Annick: Understanding man's relationship to God is so important in one’s life that I’m sure it is the same for any religious person no matter what religion he or she belongs to. Aren’t we all responsible for our own spiritual development? 

Nuns Don't Cry by G. L. GraberNuns Don't Cry by G. L. GraberGG: Certainly that is what Bahá’u’lláh teaches.  In this age of the maturity of humanity, individual maturity demands individual investigation of truth, and it is no longer acceptable to follow blindly what is told to us by others--even Church authorities, who know no more than we would if we studied history and the Scriptures for ourselves.  And if we add study of the Scriptures of all religions as well as science, as Bahá’u’lláh recommends, we would probably know more than the traditional religious leaders.

Annick: Sacrificing our life for mankind is worship so where life does take you from there?

GG:  The teachings took me to a life of detachment dedicated to the service of humanity, now in Africa.  Ironically, I end my life as the kind of nun I originally wanted to be.

Annick: Ms. Graber,  your answers very enlightening. Thank you so much for sharing your story  and an excerpt from your wonderful book "Nuns Don't Cry" with our readers.

The Huckleberry Bush

by Geraldine Graber
Excerpt from Nuns Don’t Cry p.225, TreeSide Press, 2004 (Revised 2005, AYDY Press)

The excuse I needed for divorce had arrived with Adam Richter.  There was no emotional tugging of heart strings.  The arrangement was intellectual and almost clinical.  We were both looking for intellectual stimulation and companionship.  We sized each other up like the catalogue items that we were and decided to marry.

I knew that I could not practise my Catholic religion once I married a divorced man.  For me to continue receiving the sacraments, the rules at that time required that we live like brother and sister.  This was the time to clear the idols out of my mental closet.  I would get rid of all the icons of Jesus and Mary, all the doctrines, theological constructs of God, rules and rituals of the Church, the authority of its hierarchy, and try to leave myself open to the God I knew nothing about.  I refused to conjure up any images at all.  My prayer became a wordless acknowledgment of a Supreme Being.  If I was throwing out the baby with the bathwater, it was only the Baby Jesus I was throwing out—with all of His Infant of Prague doll clothes.  I was taking my childhood “Protestant game” as far as I could by having no church at all.  Ironically, it was then that I regained faith in God.

Every weekend, Adam and I drove to a lake or stream to camp and hike.  Adam bought me my first pair of hiking boots and patiently helped me to conquer my fears of the wilderness.   By late summer, I was the one who refused to stay indoors on the weekends.  Huckleberries were ripening on the mountain, and Adam knew exactly where to find them.
It was early on a Sunday morning in August that we drove up Mount Seymour above Vancouver.  Mists made a mirage of the city awakening in the rosy glow of sunrise.  Silence enveloped us, and towering trees arched cathedral-like around us.  Adam climbed deeper into the forest, and left me in a clearing nearer the path. 

Bird songs high above me echoed distant calls.  The ping of berries in my pail played percussion to it.  I was enfolded in the beauty and light around me, oblivious of everything else.  Suddenly, with the next cluster of berries I grasped, a vibration like an electrical charge shot up my arm.  I was transfixed in that spot and became one with the bush, the dead cedar tree under the bush, the earth nestling the tree trunk, the mountain, and spinning outward in flashing circular waves, the universe itself, and God?  In an instant, the spell was over.

Standing frozen with my hand on the bush, I was in tears when Adam came out to the path.  I stammered some nonsense about oneness.

God isn’t only in churches you know,” he remarked matter-of-factly, dumping his berries into the cooler.  He smiled with understanding and went back into the woods.

Geraldine Graber, Director, Founder of WHISCA, holds a PhD degree from Oregon State University. Graduate studies at UBC and OSU centered on education, speech communication with a specialization in multicultural education, and a minor in English as an Additional Language. Under-graduate work included a major in English in addition to professional teaching certificates in three provinces. Teaching experience ranged from primary to graduate education students at Eastern Washington University.

Upon retirement, Ms Graber began training English teachers in Chad and Cameroon. She founded Willing Hearts International Society-Canada (WHISCA) in 2004 to provide for AIDS orphans, to support education, and to foster independent living through employment training in Chad and, currently, in Kenya. Photos by Willing Hearts International Society — Canada (WHISCA)

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