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Prof, writer, contemplative nun turns 100

On Saturday, March 28, Sister Teresa Joseph Patrick of Jesus and Mary, known in academe as JD Constantino or Jo, now a contemplative Carmelite nun, turns 100. Because of the Luzon-wide lockdown to prevent the worsening of the COVID-19 pandemic, the mass and celebration at the Monastery of St. Therese on Gilmore Avenue in Quezon City has been canceled. Surely, many of Sister Teresa’s younger colleagues and former students at the University of the Philippines (UP) would have been there.

I wrote a feature story on Sister Teresa for the Inquirer 10 years ago when she turned 90, “Columnist-turned-cloistered nun continues ‘life as prayer and prayer as life’” (4/11/10). That story is included in my book “You Can’t Interview God: Church Women and Men in the News” (Anvil, 2013).

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To be able to write that story, what long conversations we had in the monastery parlor! I had known Sister Teresa as a nun for a long time, but at 90 then, her erudition still amazed me.

She talks a mile a minute. She is abreast with the goings-on in the world, perhaps more than most. With fire and frenzy, she continues to write as if deadlines were still part of her life. Her erudition and sparkling intellect shine through conversations. She laughs, she listens, she remembers. She talks about the Philippines with great passion. Through her body of written works as a nun, she communicates to the world.

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All those, but for (four) decades now, prayer and total commitment to God have been the essence of her life.

A former professor of literature at the University of the Philippines, and later, a daily columnist of The Manila Chronicle while she was working at the Development Bank of the Philippines, JD answered the call to the religious life in 1974 at the age of 54 and joined the contemplative Carmelite order. This meant leaving all—family, friends, freedom, a flourishing career—in order to live a life of prayer, silence, and sacrifice while observing the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

Today, one could say that the world that Sister Teresa had left behind has not totally left her alone. It is right at her door at the monastery. They continue to come—friends, former colleagues, ideologues, intellectuals, religious, writers, seekers. The learned and the simple of mind, the rich and the poor, the distraught and the joyful, the needy, the thankful, the confused and the enlightened. Many ask for prayers, others just want to commune with her. This is not to say that her life of contemplation has been compromised.

Although she no longer belongs to the rat-race world that is our lot, she, the contemplative, remains in the heart of it. For isn’t contemplation “a long loving gaze at the world”?

(The last time I visited, Sister Teresa was wearing a brown monk’s cowl—a hoodie—because, she said, putting the veil in place with tiny pins was hard for her fingers.)

JD was born on March 28, 1920, in Tondo, Manila, when the Philippines was under American rule. It was during the 1920s that the works of Filipino women writers began to flourish.

The fourth of five children, JD attended Torres High School and, later, UP for BS in Education and graduated cum laude and class valedictorian in 1940.

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She was teaching high school when World War II broke out. “I refused to teach the Japanese Co-Prosperity Sphere program,” she recalled, and instead she worked at the Department of Social Welfare.

“The war literally blasted me out into an ‘unreal city,’” she said, borrowing T.S. Eliot’s words. After the war, JD taught at UP. In 1947, she was sent to Columbia University in the US where she finished her MA in English and Comparative Literature. A favorite professor, Mark Van Doren, introduced her to Trappist monk Thomas Merton’s writings, among them, “The Seven Storey Mountain.” Her search had begun.

If she were younger, the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the world would surely be part of Sister Teresa’s spiritual treatises.

Next week, JD on prayer and writing. That is, if COVID-19 does not put on hold writing schedules and waylay just about everything that we once thought was urgent and important. What a difference a virus makes.

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