On the Other Side of Happiness in Spain

They don't receive fifty or a hundred emails and text messages a day. They don't have to deal with bumper-to-bumper traffic, bosses, or wonder how they will pay the mortgage. How do they survive?
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¨Hemos conocido el amor que Dios nos tiene y hemos creido en Él.¨ -13n. 4, 16
¨We have known the love God has for us and we have believed in Him.¨
-- The words above the door as you enter to see the nuns.

Las Monjas: The nuns at the 17th century Convento de Santa Teresa.

I have sisters who look out for me. Not siblings, but a group of nuns who live in the 17th century Convento de Santa Teresa in Spain.

The first time I was invited to meet them was a few years ago. I remember my excitement and curiosity as I was escorted through the brick courtyard. As my host and sister-in-law opened the large wooden antique door, it squeaked and I could hear a million whispers and stories as we passed through.

She walked to a revolving window and a key appeared, but there was no face to be seen on the other side. We entered a room to the left decorated with a large old painting of the angelic Saint Teresa in a gilt gold frame. It was magnificent and poetic in this quaint greeting space. To our right, there was a wall of elongated bars, much like those in a prison, separating a tiny part of the room. My sister-in-law, her children, nieces, nephews, and aunts all pushed chairs closer to the bars... and we waited.

Soon in scuffled one by one a group of women in brown and black with just a touch of white. The monjas (nuns), about ten or so, flashed smiles and passed their hands through the bars to be held by us. In utter chaos, each monja asked questions, laughed, and smiled. They were excited to have us visit on the day of my nephew's communion! This informal dance kept on for some time. I stood back observing and feeling lucky to be able to meet the monjas. This hidden part of Spanish culture is not something you can see as a tourist.

My sister-in-law told me the names of the monjas, two of whom are her aunts and have been living at the convent for over sixty years. I remember Aunt Pilar the best, with her tinted glasses and grand smile. They already knew who I was, grabbing my hands and speaking quickly -- too fast for my beginner Spanish at the time. Their smiles were delightful and I was told that they were always thinking and praying for my happiness. I left feeling blessed to have met these women.

As nuns, they are bound by vows of poverty and obedience. Every morning, they wake up, sing at mass, do work around the convent, pray for the people they know and those they don't around the world. They attend to visitors, listening and giving advice from all the years of studying theology.

One might wonder how the monjas could remain content separated from human contact by man-made bars. Moreover, how could they remain joyful without seeing the Seven Wonders of the World, or visiting Paris, Rome, or New York? What about trying sushi, Chinese food or even a Mexican burrito!? And to think that they have no smartphones, televisions, or Apple computers. They don't receive fifty or a hundred emails and text messages a day. They don't have to deal with bumper-to-bumper traffic, bosses, or wonder how they will pay the mortgage. How do they survive?

But I know they are lucky to be content with what little they have. In American culture, we tend to define ourselves based on what we do and what we have. If we are not wealthy, how can we be successful? If we are not thin, surely we are not happy. However, what I have learned living in Spain is that some of the happiest people I have met have very little and seek pleasure in other intangible things like being surrounded by family, celebrating with lots of fiestas, scrumptious food (and a little wine) while telling jokes, singing songs and dancing. From what I've experienced, Spaniards are quite good at this!

I stopped by the convent last year while photographing a wedding. After the ceremony at the city hall, the couple offered the monjas flowers and a brown-clad monja blessed the couple and prayed for a lifetime of joy and good fortune.


I returned once more in October of this year to pay homage to Aunt Pilar on her saint day. Aunt Pilar walked in with a huge smile and the same old tinted glasses. She was surprised and delighted to see me, as I was unexpected. She put her warm delicate hands through the bars wanting to touch mine. It felt as if by touching her I was being blessed by a higher being.

This time, there were not as many of us so we were in a smaller room to the right of the convent entryway. Together sat five sisters from a family of nine siblings as they paid a typical family visit. Aunt Pilar and Aunt Micaela admired their great-niece as she sat close, the center of attention, singing songs she had learned in colegio (primary school). They laughed at her broken jokes, and those of the others. Even they told jokes. Another sang a jota and I sang the only song I know by heart, "These Are a Few of My Favorite Things" from The Sound of Music, and we laughed and enjoyed this special time together.

As I left I felt peaceful and enriched -- a bit of family always helps. And to know that I have the sisters watching over me is not so bad either. -- Lori Needleman

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