Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Another churchy novel, but Catholic nuns instead of Anglican clergymen

Rumer Godden's In this House of Brede is something I've been meaning to read for a long time, and it didn't disappoint. It's a really beautiful novel about a house of Benedictine nuns in England.
The life of the great monastery flowed as steadily as a river, no matter what rocks and crosscurrents there were; Philippa often thought of the river Rother that wound through the marshes of Kent and Sussex, oldest Christendom in England, watering the meadows whose grass fed the famous marsh sheep, then winding below the town to the estuary that flowed to the sea. Brede Abbey was like that, thought Philippa, coming from far sources to flow through days, weeks, years, toward eternity.
The nuns of Brede Abbey are cloistered; they're not the sort of nuns who teach school or run hospitals or bring food to poor families, although they do give food to those who come to their door and produce things like books and church linens. Their primary work, though, is in praying the Liturgy of the Hours. The church prescribes psalms, hymns, and other texts to be prayed at eight specified times throughout each day; now, not everyone, of course, can do this, so the idea (simply put) of nuns like those portrayed at Brede is that they sing the prayers as fully and beautifully as possible on behalf of everyone else. They set themselves apart so that their primary work can be prayer.

There are various plot lines in the books: aspiring nuns and the challenges they face; a financial crisis; personality conflicts; a group of foreign postulants; intrusions from the outside world; and revelations about the nuns' previous lives. But really the focus of the book isn't on any one of these things. It's on the living out of the nuns' contemplative vocation: how do these women spend their time, what do they do? How can they give up their futures and everything they have to live like this, and why? What good does it do? Obviously, I am not a nun nor have I ever been, but the book feels very honest, and like a good representation of the life. There's plenty happening in the book, but not so much that it feels contrived or manufactured. Set over the 1950s and 1960s, the changes and enthusiasms surrounding the Second Vatican Council feature but don't overwhelm the story. If Godden sees "continuity in spite of individual failings" as the characteristic of the monastery, the style and plotting of the book carry that message as much as any individual plot development or moment.

Godden's writing style is interesting; she weaves bits of one conversation into her account of another. I guess you could say there are lots of "flashbacks" except they're very frequent, sometime as sort as one line of dialogue, and there aren't an excess of markers to help you get your bearings as to when and where you are. It's an interesting effect, although I found it slightly disorienting for about the first half of the book. Since In this House of Brede is about a community, this writing style helps to convey the sort of layers of memories and interactions that make up a network of relationships, so once I got used to it, I thought it really worked well.

My copy is the "Loyola Classics" edition, part of a series "connecting today's readers to the timeless themes of Catholic fiction". I think all the books in the series are 20th century, but I might be wrong. Anyway, it has a nicely designed cover, a couple pages of introduction, and some discussion questions. There's also a section of notes about monastic life and terminology, although I thought Godden does a good enough job of explaining Benedictine practices that if you wanted to know more, you ought to just go get a proper book on the subject. And then the "notes" have some odd features themselves. The biggest example I saw was that under the heading "The Miserere" (I don't know where this pops up in the text; there's not any sort of reference system) it says:
The verse: Sprinkle me with hyssop and I shall be cleansed; wash me and I shall be made whiter than snow is used in all Catholic churches before the chief Mass on Sunday when the celebrant comes down the nave, sprinkling the people with holy water.
This, to be perfectly frank, is not really true; it's true of the old mass, but the new post-Vatican II mass doesn't have this "asperges" rite. So I'm left wondering where these notes are from and how old they are! The discussion questions at the end are all right, but overall I was a little underwhelmed with the "Loyola Classics" format even though I think it's a good concept.

When I was planning to spend a weekend at St Cecilia's Abbey in Ryde, one of the places Godden based Brede on, a friend recommended this book to me with the warning that it could make anyone think they had a vocation to become a Benedictine nun - even a man! I've admired contemplative nuns for years, as long as I've known of their existence, and even after St Cecilia's and In this House of Brede I'm sorry to say I don't think it's my calling. But the book is an excellent and engrossing depiction of life in a religious community, and I'm certainly glad to have read it. Although I'm still not sure if it's Brede like "breed" or "bread". I gather there's a movie version; maybe I'll have to get that to find out.

1 comment:

  1. All of my nun knowledge comes from The Sound of Music. Lemon OUT.