In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden (1969)
In This House of Brede is a quiet sort of book; reflective and introspective but lively and interesting at the same time.
Philippa Talbot is a successful career woman who joins an order of contemplative Benedictine nuns at the age of forty-two.
Self-possessed, capable, used to giving orders and making decisions, she enters her new life as a postulant with women half her age and finds that it is not a place where she can hide and shut herself off. In this closed community she embarks on a new beginning, comes face to face with the pain of her past, and discovers that others, too, have their frailties and struggles, from the Abbess to the novices.
Phillipa's initial struggles come from unexpected quarters:
'Thank God I shall never gave to give orders again...’ None of the things she had anticipated as being hard, were hard; not the cold, nor the long hours of prayer. It was the little things that were Philippa’s danger; things so little they made her ashamed...the habits of success were fast in Philippa; indulgences that had become habits. Other postulants and novices were not old enough to have them as embedded but for Philippa, in those first months at Brede, they were like hooks being torn out of her flesh.
The daily rubbing of different personalities draws out the little annoyances and personality quirks. One of the Benedictine vows was that of 'conversion of manners,' which involves 'an entirely different way of thinking from the world’s...self-effacement instead of self-aggrandizement: listening instead of talking...being willing to empty yourself...'
'If there is any instability, religious life will make it worse.'
The Benedictine postulants needed to know that there were no compensations to this chosen way of life. A young nun renounces love, marriage, and the gift of children, knowing that ‘the lack of these things will gnaw at her all her life, leave holes in her, yet she must be just as warm, as self-denying and hard working as any wife or mother, and just as loving, without anyone to hold to.’
Somehow most of them did it, as did Sister Cecily whose young man turned up at the Abbey to beg her to leave and marry him.
Oh my! That was difficult to read. I really thought she should leave, marry, and have kids, but maybe that just reflects what I would have done in those circumstances.
An order whose purpose it is to care for the sick or to engage in teaching is understandable to those on the outside, but Brede, being a contemplative order whose main work is prayer, is less inclined to be understood:
'Nowadays there’s a tendency to make everything utilitarian - even the things of the spirit,' said Dame Clare. ‘Beware of this,’ and ‘That wasn’t the way of the saints,’ said Dame Ursula. ‘They didn’t set out to be of use.'
Rumer Godden set her book in the mid 1950’s and mentions the death of Pope Pius XII. the election of his successor, Cardinal Roncalli (later Pope John XXIII) and subsequent changes in church structure. New recommendations for the nuns’ habit were adopted by some of the Abbeys, which was applauded by some but others said that it was casting away tradition.
There is a sense throughout the story of the anticipation of some major event or great drama about to occur but then it passes and life goes on. Not a great deal happens outside of the internal crises of the various characters in the 500 plus pages of this book, but Godden’s writing is compelling. I just wanted to keep reading and was surprised it was so hard to put down.
Philippa stays the course and learns that, ‘Nothing less than the whole is good enough for God.’
In This House of Brede is like a tapestry showing the complexities and flaws behind a work in progress, but it also displays the grace that brings about true transformation and growth that makes for something beautiful and whole. It is a great choice if you're looking for a literary book with a Lenten theme.
‘We have chosen a stillness more powerful than all activity.’
Linking to Christian Greats Challenge, No 7 Seasonal Book and Back to the Classics 2019: 20th Century Novel