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Posts Tagged ‘In This House of Brede’

For some reason I’ve read a few books featuring nuns during the pandemic. In summer of 2020, I read The Corner That Held Them, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s black comedy set in the 1100s through the1300s at a convent. Back in January I read World Without End by Ken Follett (also set in the 1300s) one of the Pillars of the Earth series, in which a nun nurse introduces masks as a way to protect against the plague. Then recently, I read Lauren Groff’s novel Matrix, set in the 1100s. After I finished Matrix, I decided to pull out a novel I’d picked up on either a library book sale shelf or free cart at some point, In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden. Unlike those other three books, this one is set in relatively contemporary times, opening in 1954. Like the others, it is set in England.

Like Groff, Godden sets her book entirely inside a community of nuns, in this case Benedictines in England. The central character, Philippa, comes to the monastery (which is what Brede Abbey is — a Benedictine monastery, which can be a community of either nuns or monks) later in life, after a successful career in some kind of government service. At the beginning of the book she has arrived as a postulant, and by the end of the book she’s been at Brede fourteen years and is a fully professed nun. The nuns at Brede are an enclosed order, meaning they separate themselves from the world; in the church and in the parlors where they may speak with visitors, they have a grille in place that mark this separation.

All of the little details of their communal life are fascinating, the descriptions of the “clothing” ceremony when a postulant becomes a novice nun and wears a habit, the different vows taken, the division of labor, the singing of the services, the hours of prayer, the pattern of life and of the seasons, both natural and liturgical, at Brede. Although much of the novel follows Philippa’s progress, there are many other nuns that feature, including Abbess Hester, who dies without confessing a secret she’s sworn the cellerar, Dame Veronica to, and Abbess Catherine, who has to manage when she uncovers the secret and its cost. In that regard, as with Matrix, readers get a glimpse into the way a monastery is run and all that is involved. Godden, like Groff, also relates the ways that an enclosed community, like any community, has to work out differences of opinion, personality conflicts, jealousies and hurt feelings, etc.

In This House of Brede is different in that Matrix was also concerned with the way Marie, the abbess, bends the community to her will, which she discerns in part through her visions and in part through her extensive political network who keep her informed of what’s happening outside the abbey, especially at the royal courts of France and England. But In This House of Brede‘s central concern is the development of the different characters’ vocations within the monastery, and of their spiritual lives. It’s a fascinating look at how a life centered in prayer and community subtly molds the characters. It doesn’t change who they are, but it changes how they are, how they relate to one another and how they live. You would think such a topic would not lend itself to much of a plot, but there are several interesting twists here and there, and those keep the story moving.

Godden’s writing is lovely. The only other book of hers I’d read is Impunity Jane, a children’s story about a pocket doll that was a favorite around here. This passage nicely conveys how Godden conveys Philippa’s inner thoughts as she waits to hear whether she’s been accepted for Simple Profession, the first set of vows a Benedictine nun takes:

“If a place has been filled with prayer, though it is empty something remains: a quiet, a steadiness. Philippa had thought of a mosque she had seen in Bengal, a mosque of seven domes, eleventh century, and as with all unspoiled Moslem mosques, empty, not a lamp or a vase or a chair; only walls glimmering with their pale marble. She remembered how, her shoes off, she had stood there, not looking but feeling. No one is there; God is there. And here, in Brede Abbey, the quiet was stronger — and close. The light flickering by the tabernacle was warm, alive, and as if they were still there, she heard what the nuns had sung last night at Benediction: ‘Christus vincit, Christus regnat. Christus imperat,’ with its three soft repeated cadences. ‘Christus vincit,’ and ‘Thank you,’ Philippa had whispered, ‘thank you for bringing me where I am,’ and, ‘Even if you send me away, I shall be here forever.'”

A fascinating and beautiful read.

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