Sunday, November 8, 2015

Lessons from In This House of Brede

Vocations can come to the most unlikely people in the most unlikely circumstances, and there's no resisting.  It's as if God put out a finger and said 'You.'

My father's aunt was a religious sister and I have very fond memories of visiting Sister Rose at the convent.  I was always intrigued and awe-struck by her habit: rosary beads dangling from the black cord around her waist, the white whimple underneath a black veil, and a silver Latin cross sharp against the black of her long dress.  

Equally striking was the sound of the convent: silence.  No matter the time or day of our visit, we would walk the halls to go to the Chapel or visitor's room and hear...nothing.  No television, radio, or shouting.  Silence.  

And this wasn't even a cloistered community!   I had no experience and little knowledge of that particular vocation, so I was excited to read In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden.  

At times I felt as though I were reading an enlightening behind-the-scenes documentary about cloistered nuns; other times, I was gripped by a riveting narrative about women of various personalities and talents living out their vocations together; then I was spiritually moved within my soul and even brought the themes and ideas to my prayer at night.

Godden spent three whole years living in the gatehouse of an English Benedictine Abbey to acquaint herself with life behind the gates of a cloister.  That experience and first-hand observation breathes truth and validity to her novel.

Former Stanbrook Abbey in Worcestershire, the real-life model for Brede Abbey

It is, indeed, a fascinating novel.  The whole concept of living in a cloister--spending one's life behind a gate, never to move about in society--is curious.  How do they do it?  Why do they do it?

The idea is that the world needs people of prayer.  The Kingdom of God needs the power of concentrated, dedicated prayer.  In a sense, cloistered sisters do not leave the world; they are physically removed, but they imbue the world with their intercessory presence.  This work they carry on while on their knees in their community's chapel is quiet, perhaps largely unrecognized.  But what would the world be without it?

Indicatively, there is one particularly powerful scene in the novel where one of the nuns--Dame Philippa--learns that a former co-worker (Penny) is in a near-death situation after complications following an abortion.  Now, should Penny bleed to death in the hospital room, she may die with that mortal sin on her soul.

Philippa reaches out to her fellow nuns, requesting their prayers for Penny.  Philippa herself passes most of the night in the chapel, pleading that Penny will live.  She is not alone; instead, a quiet train of nuns come in and out of the chapel as the hours of the night pass, Penny's life wavering between this world and the next.  

The nuns storm heaven; they keep vigil for Penny, even though none of them save Philippa even know the girl.  They love her though: they love all people the way they are called to love God.

The nuns in Godden's novel are Benedictines and, according to the Rule of St. Benedict, take three vows upon profession: stability, conversion of manners, and obedience.

It is the final vow that I've been considering most of all, especially in my prayer.  

"Dame Philippa won't have won until she can do what she is asked, what is needed, without a battle." 

Do I always do what God asks of me?  And if I do, is it done reluctantly, begrudgingly, only because there is no other option?  Or do I embrace God's Will ... without a battle?  

The greatest beauty of this book, in my opinion, is witnessing how the protagonist grows spiritually and learns to obey fully, giving herself to God and to her community.  As one of the nuns quotes St. Basil:

"When you have become God's in the measure He wants, He, Himself, will know how to bestow you on others." 

How Philippa is bestowed on others is inspiring, fulfilling, and a great witness to God's working in our lives.  He has the perfect plan, as long as we respond to the fullest to our vocation.

The book is unabashedly Catholic, as one should expect of a novel about cloistered nuns!  And it's very catholic (universal) in its Catholicity, which I find particularly interesting.  A cursory glance at some online reviews revealed that the book's appeal is far and wide.  Professed atheists recommended In This House of Brede, explaining that they read it even multiple times.  

Perhaps such enthusiasm stems from the supremely engaging plot.  Godden presents a cast of characters who are alive with their faults and uniqueness.  They interact, argue, comfort, and forgive.  The nuns all wear the same habit and have the same vocation, but they are each written as individuals.  

The structure of the plot is similarly appealing.  It is not chronological, but rather weaves back and forth from past to present, from scene to scene, as well as from nun to nun.  It is the steadiness of the liturgical year and daily cloister timeline, marked by the chapel bells, that structures the skipping narrative.  It is the House of Brede that anchors the book--as well as the lives of its inhabitants.

Bowls of flowers surrounded the high altar; the candles made points of flame above them, and, in the centre, the disc of the white Host was enthroned in the glittering monstrance.  Was it fancy because she was so tired, thought Philippa, a mere illusion, or was the Host penetrated with a light of its own?  A kind of window through which, had she the eyes, she could have looked straight into heaven...

Godden converted to Catholicism one year before In This House of Brede was published.  Reading this book has made me a better Catholic.  I suppose that is the highest praise a book can receive.

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