Rebecca J. LESTER, Jesus in Our Wombs: Embodying Modernity in a Mexican Convent. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. pp. 344. No Price Listed pb. ISBN 0-520-24268-8.
Reviewed by Georgie Ann WEATHERBY, Gonzaga University, Spokane, WA 99258-0065

In Jesus in Our Wombs, Lester begins by promising to link a theory of the self to a theory of the body. The ethnography follows eighteen young women on their early, transformative journey in a Mexican convent, shaping their bodily practices to fit with a spirituality not marred by modernity.

The postulants, "Siervas," believe in selfless, active service to those less fortunate. They are not a contemplative order. "They strive to become living testimonies of Christ's immeasurable love, and they hope that as His brides, each will serve as a humble exemplar of how to be a woman in a world gone mad" (pg. 2). Their complaints run the gamut from corrupt politics to high divorce and murder rates to the trivial consumptions of most people in their daily lives. The entering class of new Siervas was studied in 1994-1995. The question Lester poses throughout is: What keeps these women in the convent?

The novitiates were trained to simultaneously be the daughters, brides, and mothers of Christ. These women were politicized, while being schooled in broader cultural concerns. The nuns are fulfilling a "potentiality" the kind of life we could ALL lead if we weren't so tied to our own personal ambitions. The process of "becoming" for these nuns is actually the main focus of the book.

In terms of the theories Lester invokes, feminism and Marxism stand at the forefront. While the latter makes sense, since Fr. Muro (the Siervas' founder) was anticonsumption, seeing wealth as the root of all evil, he also saw women as meant for a traditional, submissive, subservient role. While feminist theories often join with Marxism in their disdain for Capitalism, they see no place for secondary status in the lives of women. Being "mothers" and "homemakers" is the role of women Fr. Muro passionately promotes. Hence, the conjoining of these two theories is somewhat perplexing in an attempt to untangle the antimodernity of the postulants. In fact, Fr. Muro would likely equate feminism with the "masculinization" of women he so abhorred (a view equated with the highly frowned upon "Americanism" as well). "Once the family disintegrates... the whole society disintegrates... the woman is the heart of the family, and the family is the heart of the society" (pg. 63).

Within the chapters that follow, the reader learns of the discernment prior to entering the convent, of poverty, chastity, and obedience as the "three vows," of the "dispositions" of humility, purity, and "entrega" (a fascinating combination of surrender and sacrifice), and finally, what is termed "metaphysical problematics."

Future sections beyond the religious formation treat the various levels of commitment, including brokeness (identifying the call to give one's life over), belonging (figuring out one's way through solidarity and "fitting in"), containment (becoming accustomed to austere surroundings and curtailed personal possessions), and regimentation (obedience via the physical body) where the "mindful body" is greatly emphasized (pg. 179).

Then the author turns to self-critique in the form of diagnosing the soul. The examination of conscience (a three times daily evaluation tool utilized for the purposes of self-monitoring and internal reflection) is treated in-depth. "Discerning your vocation is like sifting flour for a cake... you take out what doesn't belong, and leave the good stuff" (pg. 182). Via penitence, mortification, and suffering, one learns how far they have yet to go to reach God, and they thirst for that moment of closeness which seems as this point so unattainable.

The surrender of giving oneself over to God then begins the healing process. Again, the concept of "entrega" arises as one works between surrender and sacrifice. This "signifies throwing oneself into something in an active way an active passivity, an agentic surrender" (pg. 193). Entrega also involves empathic identification in two directions, with Jesus and with humankind. The stories about faith coupled with Christianity (dying for the love of Christ) provide some of the most compelling moments of the book. Along with this, there is a fine treatment of "dryness," which might better be termed "doubt" or "disconnect." This is where there is a lack of feeling in prayer, and the Lord is clearly not present. This test of faith is turned back on the postulant, as God is weak in those not reinforcing his spirit.

Near the close of the book, we learn of the postulants' mission work and the enhanced sense of "conversion" it can bring, of finally "getting it" (pg. 208). Next comes integration, including a discussion of the value of time itself. Ultimately time, on its highest plain, belongs to God.

Theories of transformation move us back to the psychoanalytic roots of change. The tone reflected here is first experienced early on in the book with a heavy discussion of theory which does not segue so smoothly into and back from the everyday observations of the postulants themselves. Perhaps this could be billed as a book on theory AND a book on practice, all rolled into one. There are many ways to analyze the transformation of religious sisters through time. This treatment examines the more psychological approaches, leaving the social structure surrounding the interior environment mostly as an afterthought (finally mentioned in the very last portion). A deeper study would include a stronger sociological focus throughout, though an astute reader can draw these links naturally from the richly textured observations of daily life in the convent, and preparations for permanency expected of each woman who enters with at least the intent to give her life over, to stay long-term.

The theory of the body is actually only fully described in the end, momentarily, though promised from the outset. The book itself takes on a mammoth task, and meets at least some of its original goals in moving through initial convent life, step by step, brick by brick. That the focus is on Mexico is interestingly often immaterial, gauging the international reach of religious life.

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