This was the perfect read for self-isolating, a story of women monastics. I felt so deeply immersed in Benedictine spirituality that when I looked out my front window I almost expected to see a cloister. If prayer were an Olympic event, the nuns at Brede would be gold medalists. Seven times a day, from Vigils at 4 am to Comline at 8.30 pm they chant the daily office in Latin, praying for their community, for the world, and for people outside who have asked their intercessions. Though they would appear cut off from the world, they are continually involved. The monetary is a kind of spiritual power station, generating praise, thanksgiving, and intercessions for those in need.
The story begins in the mid 1950s and the main character is Philippa Talbot, a forty year old senior civil servant, apparently in something like the Treasury. Her husband died in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, and we discover much later that she is also a bereaved mother. At mid life she discovers a vocation to join a cloistered order of nuns. In the book we follow her career from postulant to taking her final vows, which bestows on her the title of Dame Philippa. The standard of obedience and humility, as well as the primitive washing facilities, would frighten most contemporary readers away. As the Abbess reminds them, they endeavour to live like the poor, and fifty percent of English families then didn’t have bathrooms.
The nuns regard themselves as ‘Brides of Christ’ and the ceremony of being accepted by the order, called ‘Clothing’ involves an actual wedding ceremony with a bridal gown, much to the chagrin of the rejected fiancé and the mother of one of the characters. As C. S.Lewis remarked of Spenser’s allegory, it wasn’t that Spenser was Catholic, it’s that the Catholic Church is allegorical. Some of the trapping, like the grills that separate the nuns from visitors, do rouse in me some Protestant misgivings. Yet I admired them greatly.
Still, after I finished I felt some artistic flaws. It seemed a little too convenient that Philippa had lived in Japan and spoke Japanese, and we’re not told when or how she got there . And the gripping story of the death of her young son, which she finally tells the Abbess, surely would not have been concealed so long. It would have formed a major element of the process of discerning her vocation. An episode containing a crush between two members of the order was handled well, and generally Abbess Catherine was a wonderful portrait of a spiritually and practically wise woman.
Now, some seventy years later, this species of spirituality is yet rarer. I notice that the monastery that served as the model for Brede is now a luxury hotel and a venue for wedding parties – how ironic. And as an Anglican, I thought that the Abbess ought to be ordained and preside at the eucharist. They certainly were expert liturgists and Dom Gervase, their chaplain, rather a wimp. Vatican II is a crucial event in the book for the nuns, but when this book was published in 1969 I doubt many of us realised this form of spirituality would be almost extinct in half a century. But it always will be an ideal and a model for all of us who are following a spiritual path, whether in a cloister or out in the open world. Everybody works, everybody studies, everybody prays whether indoors or out.