Wednesday, April 15, 2009

In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden

Someone once asked me if I'd ever considered converting to Roman Catholicism. It seems another friend of hers had converted, and she wondered if my studies of theology and church history drew me toward the long established traditions of the Roman Catholic Church. Doctrinally, the answer is a definite no, but if it were simply a matter of prayer and piety, monasticism has appealed to me since my first seminary class in Medieval Theology.

In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden revived that fascination for me, but it also put a more realistic face on monasticism (in its modern form) than what I learned from the instructional and theological writings of Medieval monks. Don't think that I'm minimizing historical theology - may it never be! The Medieval authors are definitely worth reading! Anselm of Canterbury is my personal favorite, and St. Anselm: A Portrait in a Landscape is a thorough biography, while Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works would be an excellent introduction to his primary writings. The Rule of Saint Benedict would also provide a short introduction to the life of prayer which the nuns of Brede followed.

The story of Philippa Talbot provides the linear framework of the novel, tracing her entrance to Brede Abbey as a successful, 40-something, career woman, through her years as a postulant, novice, junior, and fully professed Benedictine nun. I would hesitate, however, to say that it is only Philippa's story. The Abbey is above all a community of prayer, but in that community there is such a variety of women, all with unique gifts and personalities, that it is a framework for both piety and personal growth as iron sharpens iron (read Carrie's post and note the picture for a visual image of this illustration). As various crises affect one or another of the nuns and often the whole Abbey, strengths and weaknesses of character are exposed. I have read few novels in which the author's character development reveals true growth of character in such a wide and varied number of individuals. It is rich indeed.

The beauty of this novel - what makes it a lasting masterpiece - is that its lessons transcend the walls of the abbey, rising above categories of gender and religion, to meet every reader in his or her own unique situation. True community is messy, whether that community is a monastery, a church (Protestant or Catholic), a workplace, or a family. Godden forsakes idealism and shows us the weaknesses of human nature and of human relationships, but not without a hope of redemption.

So am I ready to convert now? No, but with the nuns of Brede Abbey, I will remind my Protestant friends, "We were all Catholics once..." (347). May we not forget that in the history of the Church universal the Roman Catholic Church preserved and extended the Gospel (however imperfectly, as we still do today) for the vast majority of those years. With that Church universal let us boldly proclaim the lines of the Nicene Creed: "And I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church."

Favorite quotations:
“Tomorrow I shall not be among you any more; not of you but mysteriously still with you, thought Philippa. As Lady Abbess of Brede had said, ‘People think we renounce the world. We don’t. We renounce its ways but we are still very much in it and it is very much in us.’” (15)

“‘Don’t you see, it’s like a pageant. Our Cardinal has said the liturgy entertains as well as feeds us…Yes, we’re not angels but humans,’ said Dame Clare, ‘and human nature is made so that it needs variety. The Church is like a wise mother and has given us this great cycle of the liturgical year with its different words and colours. You’ll see how you will learn to welcome the feast days and the saints’ days as they come round, each with a different story and, as it were, a different aspect; they grow very dear, though still exacting.’” (59-60)

"'I think,' said Dame Maura, lifting her hands, 'that Thomas Aquinas and Johann Sebastian Bach must occupy thrones side by side in heaven.'" (119)

"McTurk surprised her. 'A Solemn Profession isn't touching in the way a Clothing is,' she said when she saw him three days later. . . 'Certainly not,' said McTurk. 'It was awe-ful, full of awe. I know now,' he said, 'at least, have an inkling of what it means to love God with your whole heart and mind and strength.' 'Having seen Him, I love and trust Him. He is the love of my choice,' Philippa had sung, 'until death.' Awe-ful and full of joy - happiness was too light a word - joy that was in the whole monastery that day. . .
"'And now what?' asked McTurk.
"'As far as anyone in the world will know, nothing,' said Philippa. 'No one will hear any more of me; six hours a day in my stall in choir; two perhaps, of manual labor in the house or garden: some time for study; silence: singing prayer: living: room to live. I shall disappear, be almost anonymous. Yes, I have learnt now. No more Philippa Talbot,' she said, glorying. 'Arranging, deciding, settling - that arrogant creature!'
"'Then what will she do?' asked McTurk.
"'Simply grow,' but McTurk's wise monkey-eyes grew quizzical again. 'Difficult to grow without yourself,' said McTurk." (228-229)

Also reviewed by:
The Anchoress
Canticle of Chiara
Happy Catholic (don't be mislead by the quotation from fellow blogger Exultet, who thought Brede was about Anglican nuns instead of Catholics.)
The View from the Foothills

(If you have reviewed In This House of Brede, leave a comment with a link, and I'll add it above.)


hopeinbrazil said...

This book has been on my shelf for years AND came highly recommended so I'm not sure why I haven't read it yet. Maybe your review will give me the nudge I need. =)

Page Turner said...

Hope ~ It is definitely worth moving to the top of the TBR pile! I would love to read your review when you've read it.

ThatDeborahGirl said...

I love this book and have been reading it recently. It's the only book I've ever done a review of on my blog.

Because of the recent crackdown on nuns, I was looking for quotes from it today on Obedience (I'm at work and don't have it with me, although it's lying on my pillow at home)because someone on another site was asking if the Catholic hierarchy expects unthinking Obedience from their nuns and priests. I was going to quote the bit about Obedience being a part of monastic life, but that it didn't mean Obedient to the point of doing something wrong, lying or going against conscience.

I find this book more and more relevant, every time I read it.