REVIEW and INTERVIEW
Sister Jaguar's Journey
by Sister Judy Bisignano
and Sandra C. Morse
and Sandra C. Morse
Sister Jaguar's Journey is the memoir of Sister Judy Bisignano, available as both a book and a DVD. Sister Judy shares an excerpt from the book and a short interview. You can also read my reviews of both the book and the DVD.
Sister Jaguar's Journey tells the story of Sister Judy Bisignano, a Dominican nun, who spent sixty-eight years looking for God in all the wrong places. A lifetime of prayer and public service as a fierce and renowned educator failed to bring her the peace and divine connection she had always sought.
Over the years she had started several unique and very successful alternative schools in Tucson, Arizona. Yet, after the César Chávez Learning Community, a school in the Mexican-American community, closed she was forced to confront the devastating effects of her lifelong anger on her life, her work, and those around her.
Divine intervention presented herself in the form of Sandra Morse, a friend and professional communication philosopher, who with a simple invitation to visit the Achuar community in the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest, forever changed Sister Judy's life. Launching her onto a path toward reconciliation with her turbulent, abusive, angry past, she eventually found peace and forgiveness through a shamanic (healing) ceremony when she drank ayahuasca, the plant medicine in the Amazon rainforest.
Guided by the indigenous wisdom of Pachamama (Mother Earth) and the sacred rituals of the Achuar people, she found that her life’s purpose was not to become an intelligent, creative, American educator, author and nun but rather a compassionate human being. The first step on this journey was to override the devastating effects of lifelong anger and self-condemnation with which she had become so familiar, and entrenched. The decision to take part in the ayahuasca plant medicine ceremony was a pivotal moment for her, and offered a new beginning. Yes, a Dominican nun drinking ayahuasca - and it changed everything.
There on the banks of the Pastaza River, with the Achuar, she found her true self. While sitting along in a canoe along the river bank, she and two Achuar guides witnessed a black jaguar devour a white bird. To date, she is the only visitor to encounter a black jaguar. According to the Achuar shaman, seeing a black jaguar in the Amazon jungle was a good omen, one that empowered Sister Judy to experience a series of cultural, environmental and spiritual shifts that ultimately transformed her life.
In many ways, Sister Jaguar’s Journey is the story of one nun’s transformational passage from self-rejection to self-acceptance; from self-blame to self-love. It is, perhaps, the journey of each of us as we search for peace in this life and beyond.
The Achuar call her "Hermana Otorango - Sister Jaguar," and so will you.
Sister Judy Bisignano read an excerpt from Sister Jaguar's Journey.
Praise for the Book
"This book is a must read. First of all, Sister Judy writes in a very clear and direct way, but with lovely metaphors and with brilliant spiritual connections between the rainforest and the Catholic pews of her youth and her nunnery experience. [...] This is a taste of life beyond the pew, an interdenominational commune with the life force, a chance to grasp the interconnectedness of the earth." ~ Elaine
"Sister Jaguar's Journey captivated me from beginning to end! [...] Give this book to your friends … I guarantee they haven't heard a story quite like this before." ~ allie m
"This is a wonderful well-written memoir, narrated with warts-and-all honesty by a woman who is spunky, sometimes irreverent, super smart, and always engaging. I recommend it highly for all readers who love intriguing memoirs, as well as for anyone making their own spiritual journey. And it is a must for anyone wanting to know more about the wisdom of the tribal people who still dwell in heart of the rainforest, in Ecuador and elsewhere." ~ JSD
"I was thoroughly impressed with the writing quality and completely enraptured with Sister Judy's descriptions of her life, her struggles and her journey. This book drew me in from the very first chapter and held my attention. Gave this book to my wife to read and she couldn't put it down. Perfect for anyone who ever wondered, 'what is my life's purpose'. Very interesting read." ~ Antal J. Voros
"Thank you for taking me on such a beautiful journey Sister Jaguar. I was deeply touched by some of the things that have happened to you, some of them that we share, and how you managed to go through such an amazing transformation. Very inspirational, and I hope the work I do can slowly take me close to the results you had ... maybe I will follow your spirit through the rain forest too one day. Thank you!!!" ~ Happy go lucky
My Review of the Book
By Lynda Dickson
The book begins with a Foreword by Sandra Morse, Sister Judy's therapist and the person who first invited her to visit the Amazon Jungle in Ecuador. Sandra believes that, "sharing 'your story,' then moving beyond its pain with new eyes, insight and possibilities, [is] the purpose - the destiny - of every human being." In Sister Jaguar's Journey, Sister Judy tells us her story.
After a short Introduction, the book is divided into three parts: Part One details Sister Judy's journey of self-discovery, Part Two gives us an introduction to the Achuar people, and Part Three contains prayers from the rainforest. A glossary of terms is included at the end of the book.
From the outset, Sister Judy establishes a great conversational tone and includes just the right amount of detail about her childhood to let us know where she came from. She gives us heartbreaking accounts of abuse at the hands of her own mother but also candid and courageous admissions of her own wrong-doings. She sought comfort and escape by helping out the Adrian Dominican sisters at the nearby convent school. The welcoming lagoon became her refuge and the place where she first replaced her abusive mother with the embrace of Mother Nature. She became a nun after graduating from high school, in an attempt to escape her home and marriage and to stop perpetuating her mother's cycle of abuse. We get a fascinating look into the process of becoming a nun and into Sister Judy's rebellion against the culture of discipline and abuse within the church, which resulted in it taking three years to complete her novitiate, instead of the usual one year. To get away from that environment, she embraced social justice and community work. She was a witness to the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. She become a teacher in New Mexico and Arizona and established the Kino Learning Center. In the early 1980s, she was an active participant in the Sanctuary Movement, which aimed to provide a safe haven for poor refugees from Central America. She even smuggled Bibles into China following the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. She also founded the César Chávez Middle School and Aztlán Academy in Tucson, Arizona. However, she became increasingly angry and disenchanted with the Arizona State Board of Charter Schools, which eventually closed the schools.
On the personal front, her older sister died from lymphoma at age 23, her mother died of cancer, and Sister Judy herself battled numerous forms of cancer over a period of more than thirty years. Throughout her life, Sister Judy was plagued by abuse, depression, suicidal thoughts, and an all-consuming anger. She finally sought the assistance of therapist Sandra Morse, which led to her life-changing visit to Ecuador in 2009. We find out about Sister Judy's involvement with the Pachamama Alliance, how she got the name "Sister Jaguar", and about her spiritual awakening in the Amazon Rainforest with the Achuar people - where she finally found peace in the arms of Pachamama (Mother Earth) at the age of sixty-eight. Sister Judy discovers that "I am the only one who can be responsible for me." Follow her journey, and you will discover this, too.
Sister Jaguar's Journey is told with humor and humility and, throughout her tale, Sister Judy constantly gives thanks to those who have had an impact in her life. Well, from me to you, Sister Jaguar, a sincere thank-you.
My Review of the DVD
By Lynda Dickson
In addition to reading the book, I was also lucky enough to view the DVD of Sister Jaguar's Journey, which is available directly from the website. The DVD is the perfect companion to the book, as we get to see video footage of the Achuar Territory on Ecuador's Amazon River and of the black jaguar that led to Sister Judy being named "Sister Jaguar". We also get to see Sister Judy and Sandra Morse telling their stories.
Sister Judy tells of her childhood difficulties, how she sought refuge in the nearby convent, and how she thought that becoming a nun was the perfect way to avoid becoming a mother or getting married. In the 1960s, she become involved in issues of social justice, as the Adrian Dominican nuns were the perfect platform to give a voice to the poor. However, she also found out that the convent had another side, involving angry and abusive superiors who meted out harsh discipline. Sister Judy sought escape by working in the community as a teacher, eventually founding the Kino Learning Center and the César Chávez Learning Community. But she was always filled with anger.
Sandra Morse helped Sister Judy deal with her behavioral problems by taking her to visit the shamans in the Amazon rainforest. This was Sister Judy's introduction to Pachamama (translated as Mother Earth, or even God). She received a spiritual awakening after drinking ayahuasca in a healing ceremony. She found peace and forgiveness and accepted responsibility for the impact her anger had on herself, her family, and her community. Sandra Morse's hope is that we can all take inspiration from Sister Judy and take responsibility for our own lives and what we have to offer.
This is a profoundly moving account of a Catholic nun who, after looking for God in all the wrong places for sixty-eight years, finally finds God and home in nature.
Interview with Sister Judy Bisignano (originally published on the author's website)
Why do the Achuar call you Sister Jaguar?
On my first trip to the Amazon I saw a black jaguar along the river bank. That’s when the Achuar started calling me Sister Jaguar. I am the only visitor to see a jaguar since Pachamama Alliance started taking people to the jungle in 2000.
What was it like taking ayahuasca for the first time? You’ve said that it transformed you – how so?
The Achuar affectionately call ayahuasca "Grandmother". Raphael Taish, shaman of the Wayusentsa village, puts it very simply, "Grandmother is a plant teacher. She tells you what you need to know."
I went to the jungle to participate in the ayahuasca plant medicine ceremony. Throughout my life as a nun, I slowly lost my soul and allowed events and circumstances to move me to a place of profound sadness. Anger and depression controlled my thoughts, feelings and actions. Lacking the life skills to cope with dignity and grace, I slipped farther and farther away from my center. I lost what the Achuar call arutum – the energy of life itself – the force that creates communion and hope, the vigor that allows one to move forward into an optimistic future. My connection with nature, life and God had dissipated. It was not until I searched for and eventually found Pachamama in the Ecuadorian rainforest that I arrived at acceptance, commitment and peace. In a moment of exhaustion on the bank of the Pastaza River my mind finally exploded! I took off my shoes and stood on holy ground, without preparation, words or the need to bargain. A nearby palm tree offered me a leaf and suggested I lay upon it. In full and total humility I uttered my first true prayer: "God help me!"
There in the jungle, Grandmother sent me the spirit of the jaguar where I experienced the recklessness of my anger. The river ran with blood. The plants and bushes turned to skulls. Giant trees morphed into metallic insects of colossal size.
But Grandmother also offered her tender embrace. Vibrating lines of energy shimmering like the Northern Lights, candle light shooting outward in all directions in an attempt to recreate the Big Bang, colorful spider webs holding planets and people in place, and shooting stars became the faces of every student I ever taught. Fifty years of faces flashed before me. As I took it in, I knew the kids had forgiven me. I knew they accepted me for whom I was. I knew I had given them more than my anger and hostility.
There in the jungle, Grandmother pushed my tormented humanness to truth. For the first time I realized that hope was as powerful as despair. As I laid suspended in silence, benevolence replaced all the malevolence I ever generated on earth. Grace diluted my anger and replaced my grief with peace. Pachamama whispered without words, "Welcome home, Sister Jaguar, welcome home."
Why did I wait so long to go that deep?
You are passionate about the rainforest since your first trip there in 2009 and have been back five times since. Can you talk a bit about why? And what it and the Achuar people mean to you?
I go to the Amazon rainforest to connect with Ecuador’s native Achuar people who guard defiantly the entrance to their pristine, natural habitat and untainted local communities. It is an honor to experience their lives and rituals and witness the role they play in preserving Pachamama (Mother Earth). As I journey into the rainforest, it is as if I travel back in time thousands of years, to that moment when humans first turned to each other for security, community and love. When I go to the Amazon jungle, I feel as if I am going home.
How has your life changed since your first trip to the rainforest?
While I live in religious community and love my Sisters deeply, Pachamama has given me another gift of a local, heart-opening community with indigenous roots and values. This unique community resides in the hearts of its members while it accepts everyone as individuals. This community does not need to constrain me and make sure that I comply with its rules and regulations. It is not designed for reformation, but rather for transformation and relaxation. In this community, we trust each other to abandon our defenses in order to be with each other in loving, appropriate ways. I have no need to protect myself within this group; we safeguard each other. My hope for this fledgling community is that we grow into a global network that includes diverse people, especially my Sisters and the poor, as we serve Pachamama and her people.
In this local community I am not considered just another old person. I am a revered elder with special privileges consisting of time to pray, study, read, write, listen, think, feel, and simply be. As an elder, I have the privilege of holding the collective wisdom of the group while inviting our ancestors to participate in our ceremonies and rituals since it is their collective wisdom that I hold. I know my body is slowing down. Luckily, I still have racing thoughts! I still dream of shape-shifting (profoundly changing) the world! As opportunities manifest themselves, I make sure I lead from my heart rather than my head. I insist that, within community, well-being is mutual. I encourage women to find their modern selves within the world and their indigenous selves within their culture. As this happens, we are all more free.
What do you hope people take away with them when they see this film?
Hopefully, people viewing the film will leave with the same arutum – the same energy of life – that I found while visiting the Achuar in the Amazon jungle. After all, Pachamama is Mother Earth. She resides in us and we reside in her. She is everywhere! We are one!
I always knew that the path to peace was an inner journey. As a nun, I engaged in a variety of practices for sixty-eight years with minimal psychological and spiritual return. Then, in a single, simple, life-changing shamanic ritual in Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest, the heart-opening plant medicine I refer lovingly to as Grandmother suspended the clutter of my judging mind. The anger and depression from my past collided with the worry and anxiety from my future. There I was, suspended in the forgiveness and peace of the present moment forever changed. I want every person who sees the film to have a mystical, Pachamama magical moment! I want the viewers to join me in dismissing our childhood, religious and cultural conditioning as well as all perceived negative notions of ourselves and the world. I want us to surrender together as Pachamama draws us into the present moment. I want us to rest in Pachamama’s loving embrace – heart beat to heart beat with her and all of creation. As we forgive and accept ourselves in that moment, I want the viewers to experience Pachamama’s peace on a personal, primal, pristine level. I want everyone in the theater to know that they are finally headed home!
I had no idea what Remigio Santi Panky, the Achuar artist at Kapawi Ecolodge, was painting on my face. The day before, I had become the first visitor to ever see a black jaguar in the jungle! That's when I got the name Hermana Otorango - Sister Jaguar! So Remigio figured my face paint was appropriate! The jaguar is a very powerful animal for the Achuar. It guards the entrance to the underworld as we travel through various levels of consciousness. The jaguar teaches us what we need to know in ways that may not be "pretty" - but necessary! Always listen to your inner jaguar. She will get your attention one way or another!
About the Authors
Sister Judy Bisignano, a Dominican nun, is a fierce educator, and in so many ways a rebel. Sister Jaguar's Journey tells the story of her difficult childhood, and her attempt to avoid family life, marriage and motherhood by entering the convent, where she was met with an even more abusive situation. Ever the survivor, she worked with children and opened several schools, yet when the school she started for the Mexican-American community was closed down, she was forced to confront the devastating effects of her lifelong anger. Her journey takes her to the rainforest of Ecuador and the sacred rituals of the Achuar people. It was here in this moment, in this place, with these special people, that she found God, healing and forgiveness. The Achuar call her Sister Jaguar, and so will you.
Sandra Morse is a communications philosopher and has a private practice in Tucson, Arizona. She holds a BA degree in philosophy and communication and is a certified mediator. Sandra and her husband, Michael, are Directors of Inch by Inch, LLC and Global Worming, LLC whereby soil amendments, worm castings and worms are developed in an effort to return Pachamama (Mother Earth) to her original, pristine condition.
Sandra has been a long time facilitator of Awakening The Dreamer Symposiums for the Pachamama Alliance, Inc. in San Francisco, CA. This international organization educates individuals to become proactive creators of a global future by taking a stand for a thriving, just and sustainable world.
For over a decade, Sandra has conducted numerous immersion experiences to the Ecuadorian rainforest for The Pachamama Alliance. Achuar elders from the villages of Wayusentsa and Kusutkau have publicly thanked and honored Sandra as "one of them".
Besides producing and narrating the film, Sister Jaguar's Journey, Sandra Morse with Sister Judy Bisignano co-authored the book by the same title. The pair went on to write Maketai: An Ode to Pachamama, a photographic essay honoring their friends the Achuar who protect and preserve the pristine Amazon rainforest.