"They tell me that often the worst criminals make the best nuns ... Because, they have known the depths. 'Out of the depths, I cried to Thee'..."
Having read Rumer Godden's In This House of Brede, I was eager to reenter the world of the religious convent. Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy is similar in that a substantial portion of the novel takes place within the community of the Dominican Sisters of Bethany. Godden, in her engaging, vividly descriptive way inserts the reader into the daily life of the nuns, as well as the liturgical year of the Church.
Yet, Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy also focuses on two other, very different communities.
The novel can be divided into three different time periods within the life of the protagonist. First, Elizabeth Fanshaw is a young, sheltered English girl serving as a driver in WWII. On the night of the liberation of Paris, she pursues her own liberation, commencing a night of celebration and passion. Elizabeth meets Patrice, falls in love with him, and then quickly learns he is the owner of a brothel. She becomes Lise Ambard, prostitute and, eventually, Madam of the Rue Duchesne.
In the second period, Lise is convicted of murder and sentenced to prison. She is known as "La Balafree" (the scarred one) due to the scar she bears on her face, a wound inflicted when she intervened in a fight between Patrice and another man.
While in prison, Lise meets the Sisters of Bethany, whose special charism is to minister to convicts. In fact, many of the nuns are former convicts themselves! (Interestingly, this order of nuns actually exists: two Sisters of Bethany were advisors to Godden and the community benefited financially from the sale of her novel.) When Lise has served her term, she takes on her third and final name: Sister Marie Lise of the Rosary.
Lise becomes entangled in the first community of the brothel, hoping to find the freedom to pursue love. Instead, she finds herself in a self-serving, abusive, and destructive environment. She has entered a prison of her own doing and any effort to free herself--or those around her--are futile.
Ironically, it is within the walls of prison that Lise begins to glimpse freedom.
I never saw it, thought Lise. Long before I went to prison, I was in a prison ...
Finally, as she enters the religious life, Lise achieves the freedom she has sought: a freedom obtained only through self-surrender to God and to others. Freedom requires submission. Lise is most free when she lays her freedom at the feet of Christ.
"Then...Madame Lise, where are you going?"
"Where I shall find just what we have both left," said Lise. "Walls--or, perhaps, not walls, bounds that I musn't cross without leave. Rules I musn't break. Times to keep, silence, work, and where I must be obedient, poor."
"You mean--another prison?"
"Not prison, freedom. That's the paradox. I believe it will be such freedom as I can't imagine now."
The image of rosary beads follows Lise through these various periods of her life. Godden, characteristic of her writing style, does not offer a linear progression of events. Instead, Lise's story unfolds back-and-forth from past to present. All three communities appear at once as the reader slowly understands what precipitated the events of Lise's life.
At first, this kind of narrative is a bit confusing. However, it makes for a suspenseful revelation of the climax. And it also symbolically reveals the action of God's grace in one life: how an event of the past, an evil event, can become the working of something much greater; that God can bring tremendous good out of the darkest of sin.
We can never escape the past; it is part of our present. But our past can be the means of our redemption.
This was an engaging, fast-paced read with a beautiful message of hope for all of us sinners: God can take us from the deepest depths and raise us to become saints. The sorrowful mysteries of the rosary show us the penalty of our sins, but "where sin increased, grace abounded all the more" (Romans 5:20). From the sorrow of our sins God pours forth the glorious joy of His forgiveness, mercy, and redemption.