IS AGING THE START OF AN INWARD JOURNEY?
Myron J. Pereira in conversation with Jeanne Devos, ICM
Sister Jeanne, all your adult life you have worked for poor women, the house-workers, and even now in your eighties, you haven’t let up. ‘Age is just a number’, they say. What is your view on aging?
I have always considered aging as a normal process of life. It’s a process of nature, and as such, it has a purpose. For me our lives have a clear purpose, and each person has a God-given mission. The aim of my life is to discover this task, this mission, and so to find my fulfilment. I believe that I have done this, and so there is a deep sense of satisfaction. More time gives me more space – this is what aging means. And it is a call to go deeper.
When you look back at your life, how do you feel?
I really enjoy looking back at my life. I experience a sense of gratitude, as well as a sense of wonder. Why wonder, you ask? I wonder at the pattern of my life, how it grew from one thing into another. A bit like what Dag Hammarskjold wrote, “The threads are already there, the shuttle is in our hands, and as we let it pass through, the pattern becomes clearer to us.” That is what I experienced. All my life I’ve been searching for a way, looking for models and patterns. The wonderful thing is that the “way” comes to us.
When I was young, a teenager, reading the writings of Gandhi and Tagore opened a window in my soul, and I made my first contact with the mysterious land which is India. I’ve often asked myself, “Is this what Jesus meant when he said, ‘I am the Way’?” He puts us on the right path which leads to him in ways we would never imagine.
I’ve received so much from working in groups where we search together, and work with different talents to come to a new result. Trusting the group is such a strength and support. It takes away all hesitation – what I cannot do, others can. Nothing is impossible. And it is wonderful – what happens working together.
Looking back at life puts me in the mood of gratitude. That’s the second thing I want to say. It’s one big act of thanksgiving. I’ve encountered so much goodness in life, both in different forms, and in the people I’ve met along the way: in our sharing together, in support, help, encouragement, acceptance, forgiveness.
It’s so clear to me that there is a wonderful strength that guides it all. As the Lord has promised, “I will be there with you, always.”
I feel you are an exemplar of ‘productive aging’. Tell us, what is your driving force?
The first thing I’d say is it’s the silent but powerful influences of my home and upbringing, the family I grew up in and received so much from, through simple living and solid values. It was also being part of the church renewal in the 1960s. Yes, I have received numerous chances in life.
Then the youth groups in my adolescent years, influenced by the Cardijn method of “see – judge – act” as the basis for all my decisions. Besides, the method of “revision de vie”, the regular review of life which slowly grew into an attitude of life that has accompanied me through all my years. In other words, I developed the habit of making clear choices and living by them.
The Bible has also been a source of inspiration: the Lord’s command to Moses in Exodus 3 “Set my people free” became the motivation for the house workers movement; Isaiah 58, where the prophet sets down what the Lord wants of us, “to let the oppressed go free, to break every yoke; to share your bread with the hungry, and shelter the homeless poor.” There was also the search and support of my community, and the congregation, where at regular intervals we would evaluate and share together the challenges and possibilities for our mission today. We understand each other, and support each other. But even more, we know we have God with us. This is the meaning of Jesus: Emmanuel – “God is with us”. This is the meaning of my faith.
Does aging always mean spiritual growth? Is it always an interior journey?
Yes, but not always. I have now the chance to meet many sisters who are growing old very gracefully and I learn from them. Some aging persons here and there may live in the past, and therefore find the present difficult and unpleasant.
The psychologist Jung used to say that up to middle-age, all of us want to “grow up”, want to achieve. But the tasks of aging is the challenge of “growing down” – that is, beginning our inward journey, a journey not of external accomplishments, but of interiority, of the spirit. My faith grows deeper. God, I realize, is greater than our heart. It’s an ongoing growth in acceptance, being able to take life as it comes without being unduly upset.
When I say ‘spirituality’, I don’t mean only prayers and rituals. I mean rather, a sense of ongoing connectedness with the presence of God in the here-and-now, in the little details of life, in the signs of the time. This is what some scholars have called, “the mysticism of daily life”, or seeing God in all things, as Ignatius of Loyola would put it. This means creating a space in myself and around myself where I can listen, where I can give thanks for all that has been, where I can wonder and marvel at all that the Lord has done, and continues to do. Specially, I am in admiration at the creativity of the younger generation who have taken on this work of ours, and will make it grow.
How remarkable to hear you speak like this, Sr. Jeanne! And yet so many fear aging, and the disability which comes with it. And most of all they fear death. What would your message be to such as these?
What you say is true. Some people do fear aging, and death which comes after it. Neither of these is easy. For me it is often a practice of patience with myself because learning and remembering is no longer that easy. The search for meaning remains always; it allows us to grow in trust and faith. As for myself, I do not yet see death as the abrupt end of something, but rather as the beginning of something new and wonderful. This is because of my trust in the person of Jesus, and my earnest wish to fulfil the task he gave me.
This is why though there have been difficulties and tensions, my life has been largely a fulfilling one – a gift, for which I’ve always been thankful. I’ve not missed life’s beauty, its warmth and its goodness. And solidarity with my domestic workers and children in domestic work has reinforced this.
To all those who are anxious, I would say, “Let us trust life and trust God who gave it to us, who accompanies us, and keeps us in the palm of His hand, whether we are aware of him or not. Trust him who has called you, and who will certainly welcome you into eternal life.”
Set my people free…! Jeanne Devos and the Domestic Workers
Jeanne Devos, ICM is a sister who has spent her adult life serving women most in need in India. She founded the National Domestic Workers Movement to organize one of the most powerless segments of society – house workers – and to publicly advocate their cause.
Born in Belgium in 1935, Jeanne entered the Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (better known as ICM Sisters) in 1958. In 1963 she was sent to India.
A 1978 survey on the conditions of domestic servants in India revealed the harsh conditions these women endured all across the country. As a result, in 1980 Sr. Jeanne began to organize small groups of domestic workers, and to work with them in whatever way she could. These women usually came from the poorest segments in society and worked in conditions close to slavery.
In 1985 she founded the National Domestic Workers Movement, based in Mumbai. It organizes women and girls, and takes up their cases for public redress. NDWM now operates in 18 States of the country and works in 28 different languages. The world has not been slow to notice Jeanne’s contribution to the empowerment of poor women:
In 2009 she was awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of the Crown by King Albert II of Belgium. In November 2017, she was specially felicitated in Mumbai by King Philippe and Queen Mathilde of Belgium on their state visit to India.
Sr. Jeanne, now 82, lives in Belgium. But she still has links with the NDWM team for the rights of domestic workers, and against the trafficking of women and children for forced labour (often domestic work).