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Ordensschwester und Ärztin in Londoner Mission

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Aufgezeichnet von Blanche Girouard
Erschienen in „The Tablet“ vom 19. September 2020

Sr. Simone Herrmann, Medical Mission Sister, Doctor, London, aged 44 

‘I know there are no hopeless cases’ or ‘My faith gives me inspiration’.

I’m a registrar in the A and E department of a big inner city hospital in London. The patients don’t know I’m a nun: it’s of no importance when I treat them. Only rarely does it come in useful; for example once, when I couldn’t get a priest for a dying patient, I offered to say a prayer with him and he was very happy. But I’d never suggest it of my own accord. Absolutely not! I would consider that intrusive.

I grew up in a Catholic family in the Black Forest. I didn’t enjoy going to church but from the age of 9 I was a Catholic Girl Guide and I loved that. I stayed involved during university and in 1996, shortly after the genocide, I went to Rwanda to visit Guide groups in refugee camps.

I had just started studying medicine. We’d been learning about fixing bones and bio-chemicals but not who made the bone or how you can be healed when there is no medical healing. In Rwanda I met women who had experienced so much suffering – lost half their families – but were trying to build up their country again. ‘How do you have the strength?’ I asked one. ‘It’s God who saved me,’ she said.

“Wow,’ I thought. ‘What a life-giving power! This is the answer I’ve been seeking throughout my studies.’

I knew I both wanted to be a doctor and experience a life-giving spirituality. When it occurred to me that I could be a nun, I wasn’t excited. But I visited the Medical Mission Sisters and I found we had a lot in common. And I really liked the way they prayed: bringing their lives together, in a very intense way, and sharing them with each other.

Sr Simone Herrmann im Dienst

I finished my surgical training and hoped to go to Ethiopia. Then, as happens in religious life, I was asked, ‘What do you think about going to the UK first for three to four years?’

In the past, our mission was always to go where we were asked – to raise up a hospital or some other kind of  health project. When we did this, we would live nearby in community and sometimes that worked well and sometimes it didn’t – because it can be very challenging if you live in a different country with people from different cultures. 

So my sisters wanted me to help to set up a community in London for younger sisters from all over the world, so they could first experience how it is to live together as women coming from different cultures – as a kind of mission of its own.

Today, there are four of us – two Indians, a Filipina and myself – and we live in a four-bedroom house in Ealing.  

We each have a general task – I’m responsible for the car and house maintenance – and each week we compare diaries to work out who’s going to do that week’s shopping and cooking and so forth. We are very careful about how much we spend and also what we spend money on. So we try to buy local products from the farmers’ market, support the shops in our local area and avoid any plastic packaging.

We don’t have a habit – we just wear country appropriate clothing – and we don’t have a fixed breviary – we’re given the space to work out how we, as younger ones, want to live religious life.

In the beginning we had a lot of discussion about how we’d pray. Now we have a daily reading that we read privately each morning. We journey with it all day and about three times a week we come together in the evening, read that day’s reading, reflect on it in silence and share. We also read a psalm or an inspirational text and maybe sing a song together and we finish off with a simple blessing.

The most important thing, from the beginning, was that we could come together in the evening. Because if we’d struggled that day or there was a difficult atmosphere in the community, this was a common point where we could pray together and know, ‘This is our holy time, our common ground where we can sit together and be equal.’

Tensions do arise: usually because of communication problems and the different cultural ways of dealing with conflict. Europeans tend to be very direct and like to resolve things one-to one. Asian, African and Latin cultures tend to prefer dealing with problems together in community. Sisters from Western countries tend to need more space for themselves. For me, personally, a closed bedroom door isn’t offensive. But for others, who come from a more community-minded culture, it can be. Different food customs can also cause difficulties. For some of my sisters, garlic is essential but for me, , it’s very difficult! And then there’s the issue of clothing and jewellery: because sometimes we feel differently about it.  

In the past, things went wrong when sisters lived with conflicts because they weren’t able to talk to one other and to understand their different values. This is not much different to conflicts we have today. So we have regular meetings to resolve issues and a sister comes to support us. It’s sometimes hard to hear the truth about oneself but it’s all part of our healing mission. Because if I’m doing something that offends people and causes them to keep their distance, my sisters are the ones who can tell me so I can change it.

For me, the healing mission is at the core of the church and I see that as my calling. I want to follow in Jesus’ footsteps – not just healing people and sending them off, but bringing them back into the centre of society. I’ve realised I don’t need to go to Africa to do that: I have found my mission here.

You don’t give up your sexuality just because you enter religious life – you just live with it differently, not in a partnership with a man or woman. I did have a boyfriend when I was at school and, for me, that was an important experience. Because we talk a lot about love in religious life and how can you do that if you haven’t experienced butterflies in your stomach? Today, I feel like a woman and I want to share who and what I am. But I also want to love and be available to all people without distinction, so entering a partnership is not for me.

In A & E I specialise in working with the homeless. Often they come in with additional problems, like a drug or alcohol addiction, mental health issues, no housing and no GP. So we have a dedicated homeless team in-house and we try to build up a trusting relationship with our patients.

For example, once we had a Czech patient with very long hair who hadn’t taken a shower for a long, long time and had lots of lice. He didn’t speak English so it was hard to make him sit down so we could wash him. But we managed to show him, ‘This is a safe place. We won’t harm you. We want to help you and make you feel better’ and, in the end, after a good wash and haircut, he was standing in front of a mirror with a comb, beautifying his new hairstyle!

We also had a patient who was regularly brought in drunk and self-discharged. It turned out that he had a lung tumour and he knew it. But his family had died in a car accident so he was nearly drinking himself to death. He had no GP and never went to a day centre so seeing him at A and E was the only way to get through to him. Thankfully, we managed to arrange hostel accommodation and get him to engage with cancer treatment and now he is doing very well!

My faith gives me the conviction that there are no hopeless cases: we all have a sparkle of God in us, which can never be destroyed, and from which God wants to lead us into the fullness of life. Knowing this, I am shaken when I see a young person die or a drug addict destroy himself with substances. I find that very hard. But since I know I cannot answer everything, I just put it on a list. And one day, when I meet God face to face, we’ll go through it!

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