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Posts Tagged ‘nuns’

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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I don’t often blog about sequels, but Ken Follett’s World Without End is not really a sequel. I was telling a coworker today that you can read it without having read The Pillars of the Earth, because while it takes place in fictional Kingsbridge, it starts a couple hundred years later. So while there are a few references to the history of the town and the people who lived there in the time of The Pillars of the Earth, you can easily follow the story without having read the earlier book.

In the 1300s, Kingsbridge now has both a prior and a prioress, and whereas Prior Philip in the first book was a savvy leader who could handle political maneuvering, but was basically basically benevolent, the Priors in the second book are decidedly not (the men anyway — the Prioresses are much more like Philip). They are deeply conservative theologically and socially, they make no attempt to understand the town they control and the lives they impact, and the worst two scheme, plot, spy, blackmail, manipulate, undermine, lie, and even steal. One of the characters sits thinking about this: “Godwyn’s influence was malign, but all the same his power never ceased to grow. Why was that? Perhaps because he was an ambitious man with no conscience — a potent combination.” This week, that really resonates, doesn’t it?

Meanwhile in similar struggles ensue among secular leaders in the guild, where some greedy and selfish folks try to hold back those who would innovate our of concern for their own power and prestige, and petty grudges trump what’s best for the common good. The heroes of the book, a builder named Merthin and a wool merchant turned nun/healer named Caris, struggle against these difficulties in the town and the priory. Caris also fights misogyny and clericism: while her experience tending the sick leads her to discover what works best and how to actually help people get better, the priests are the ones who go to college, studying ancient medical texts. They order bloodletting and goat dung poultices while Caris determines that cleaning wounds with wine, hand washing, separating the seriously ill from other patients, and even, yes, mask wearing, are more effective.

It was strange to read about a sermon denouncing the wearing of cloth masks as heretical (the prior has heard this is a muslim practice) during a plague outbreak given the world’s present circumstances, and a plot twist predicated on one faction of hospital workers refusing to wear masks and the unfortunate outcome (no spoiler, I’m sure — more mask refusers than wearers got plague, which was more or less a death sentence). Follett writes about the temptations of power and greed and how these temptations lead to cruelty and violence., and undermine community and the common good. Maybe because I was expecting it this time, it didn’t bother me quite as much. Or maybe because the horrors of right now — COVID and white supremacists and Trump apologists and the willingness of so many elected leaders to lie and mislead and for so many Americans to believe lies and be misled — are so much more tangibly awful than the fictional violence of the middle ages. Anyway, I skimmed the more violent details.

Follett published this book in 2007, a time when the Anglican communion was in turmoil about LGBTQ clergy, so I appreciated that he makes it clear in World Without End that we’ve always had LQBTQ clergy. It’s an especially nice touch that Follett makes these characters among the more likeable and responsible people in the book. I also enjoyed the parts of the story that describe the various innovations and social changes that impact his characters’ lives. And he makes an interesting narrative choice by opening the book with a group of children witnessing a mysterious event in the forest and then following the paths of those children through adulthood.

Again, I enjoyed this very much, although I ended up staying up too late reading to find out what happened. I’m looking forward to starting A Column of Fire.

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Ever since I read Lolly Willowes a few years ago I wanted to read more Sylvia Townsend Warner. Recently, I was looking for an escape, and picked up The Corner That Held Them. It fascinated me that the same author who wrote a book in which the devil appears as a sympathetic character would write another — considered a masterpiece — about a convent in the English countryside in the 1300s.

Although some people include this on plague novel lists, the Black Death plays a small (albeit pivotal) role in the book. It’s really about the human drama of a close-knit community, and about the management of a small convent in the Middle Ages, when such places got by on the dowries rich families paid for their daughters to become novices. And on the rents paid by by nearby tenants, and the manors on which they were founded. Which are some topics I’m a bit hazy on, and I plan to look into further.

The novel tells the story of the nuns’ lives — as a community, without dwelling too long on individuals —  their ambitions and fears, the way the convent’s well being depends on the bishop as well as the bailiff. Which near as I can tell is the property manager or overseer, who manages things like firewood and harvests and livestock. The prioress has some power but must manage up — the bishop, his custos (another kind of overseer, who reports on the management of the convent itself), the nuns’ priest (Sir Ralph, who is quite a fascinating character), the families who would place their daughters as novices.

There are a number of dramas of varying impact — a building project that goes awry, some personality clashes that even become violent, and endless financial issues. And towards the end of the novel, an uprising of poor people who are tired of being sent to the king’s wars, and tired of the church’s wealth. In fact, the pivotal events that lead to a surprise ending are triggered by the uprising, and by a visit from a beggar woman, Annis, who has fallen in with a thief who was raised at the convent.

Annis is working out what to do with a silly nun who wants to sell something (that isn’t hers to sell) “for the relief of the poor” when she has a thought that could probably sum up the novel’s theme:

“It is not hunger or nakedness that worst afflict the poor, for a very little thieving or a small alms can remedy that. No, the wretchedness of the poor lies below hunger and nakedness. It consists of their incessant incertitude and fear, the drudging succession of shift and scheme and subterfuge, the labouring in the quicksand where every step that takes hold of the firm ground is also a step into the danger of condemnation. Not cold and hunger but Law and Justice are the bitterest affliction of the poor.”

Townsend Warner wrote this in the 1940s about the 1300s . . . and it’s still an accurate description of systemic poverty.

And the writing took me away. Here’s a bit about the family members of Dame Matilda, come to see her installed as prioress in 1368: “Even with one’s eyes shut one could tell what manner of folk they were by the smells that came from their garments: an uncle’s lined boots, a grandfather’s hat, the velvet gown a great-great-grandmother had bequeathed.”

Or this description of Sir Ralph, ensconced in his role as nuns’ priest: “Now, in his dusty chamber or walking his accustomed rounds, a mere thinking could pierce his heart with pleasure.” Townsend Warner lists a number of these pleasurable ordinary thoughts, including, “. . . Saint Paul’s transfigured faith suddenly bursting out amid his polished arguments as the face of a satyr looks out from the laurel bush.” As vivid a simile of Paul’s letters as you’ll read.

An entrancing read, as forthright about the problematic power structures of the church as about human nature, entertaining and beautiful and strange. I’ll be thinking about this book for a while.

 

 

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