A joyfully Franciscan view of Catholic life, inspired by St. Clare (Santa Chiara) of Assisi!

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Chiara Offreduccio (St. Clare) was born in 1194. It is said that when her mother had Chiara in her womb, an angel appeared to her and said, "your child will be a light that will illuminate the world!" Hence, her mother named the child Chiara, which means "light. As G.K. Chesterton put it, St. Clare was a romantic figure just like Juliet was. However, instead of running away from her family in order to be with an earthly man, Clare gave up everything and ran away from her family for the love of her Savior!

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Benedictine Blessings: Review of "In This House of Brede" by Rumer Godden

In modern culture according to trashy women’s magazines, all a woman needs for her fulfillment is a stellar career, a man who loves (or lusts after) her, designer clothes, and a cat. Well, Philippa Talbot, a successful London businesswomen, has all of that- but it is simply not enough. Indeed, she chooses to leave all of her worldly possessions in pursuit of the man who truly loves her- Jesus.

The life of a cloistered Benedictine nun that she pursues is in no way the quiet oasis that many fantasize cloistered life to be. Indeed, it is rife with starvation, loneliness, and rancor amongst her fellow “sisters.” Nonetheless, for anyone who is interested in pursuing a cloistered vocation, Rumer Godden’s masterpiece In This House of Brede is a must-read. Below is my review of the book….

I was initially expecting a “conversion story,” ala The Seven Storey Mountain. However, Philippa’s conversion is a fait accomplis when the book starts. The real story begins when she knocks on the door of Brede Abbey and tells the Mother Abbess, “I wish to try my vocation as a Benedictine nun in this house of Brede,” thus the title of the novel.

The greatest asset of the novel is its apparent realism. The reality is that although they are “sisters,” the nuns at the abbey are not immune from pettiness and sin. That is one of the points is that, as wonderful as the book may be, is often overlooked by Mother Mary Francis in Right to be Merry. Indeed, becoming a nun means that you’re literally plopped into the midst of women whom you’re not related to and love is not naturally innate. Indeed, as a nun, love towards the other sisters is a sacrifice and gift that requires the grace of God. Philippa, just like St. Therese, had to face the resentment and indifference of a number of different nuns who show very un-sisterly like behavior towards her. One of those sisters is Dame Agnes, who resents Dame Philippa for her superior learning. However, one of the beauties of the book is that by the end, Philippa has come to learn to love each of the sisters equally, cherishing their many different charisms. However, just like in a marriage in which there are times when it is so very difficult to love one’s spouse, In This House of Brede illustrates that it is equally difficult find the will to love in a cloister.

Regarding love in the cloister, the book illustrates the need to love each nun equally, despite the fact that a nun might feel personally drawn to another because of similar interests or personality. Abbess Catherine in the book especially must learn to deal with this responsibility to love all equally. Indeed, I remember my talk with Mother Clare at Bethlehem Poor Clare monastery, and she told me that it is very much a challenge for an abbess to put aside her personal preferences in favor of equal sisterly love for the entire community. Indeed, she says that it is often difficult to hide a particular excitement when a “favored one” comes into the room at recreation time.

In keeping with this theme, one of the criticisms that I have of the book is a sequence that focuses on the special relationship between Dame Colette and Sister Kazuko, one of the five Japanese postulants that are admitted into Brede. Sister Kazuko ultimately says that Dame Colette is her true mother, as opposed to Mother Abbess Catherine. While the author would have painted this as a vice in any of the other sisters, Godden seems to glamorize the “favored” status of Dame Colette in the eyes of Sister Kazuko. Why is Sister Kazuko relieved of the responsibility to show equal love to all of the sisters?

Another aspect of the book that I really liked was the focus on vocational struggle. Abbess Catherine struggles with the fact that she didn’t really want the role of leader of the Abbey- which very much reminded me of Pope Benedict, who admitted that he never wanted to be Pope. Similarly, in the end of the book, Dame Philippa, in her quest of anonymity, struggles with the notion of her being chosen to be prioress at Brede’s new foundation in Japan. And, the most touching vocational story in the book is that of Sister Cecily, who is one of my favorite characters in the book. After overcoming her demanding parents’ wishes for her not to enter Brede, Cecily must then convince her superiors that she is fit to become a sister. Moreover, even after her first profession as a nun, Cecily has a wealthy, handsome suitor who tries to dissuade her from her vocation. She is haunted by memories of her past romance with Larry, her suitor, and is almost tempted to leave Brede to marry him when she encounters one of Philippa’s married friends who has recently has a baby. The sight of beautiful new life and the natural female desire to have children almost causes Cecily to leave Brede. In one of the most beautiful passages of the entire book, Cecily reminds herself that she already has a spouse in Jesus and realizes that He is all that she needs:

All in all, the book emphasizes that what one does with her life isn’t her own choice. It is God’s. Thus, although we might want our lives to be one way, our Lord might have something entirely different- but more beautiful- in mind and He will give us the strength to do it.

As I mentioned in my previous post, there is a part of the book where Brede is infested with new postulants and sisters who have a liberal agenda to destroy the abbey by getting rid of habits and taking down the cloister grille and omitting Eucharistic adoration. While at first the Abbess is tempted to give into their intimidating demands, she is reminded that Brede is like a great ship, never changing its course, always sailing towards God. Indeed, the best monasteries fit this description- monasteries that have never altered their course in the quest for God.

In my personal vocational journey, I found this book very informative. Before I had read In This House of Brede, I thought that my entering a monastery would immediately promise me all of the things that I now seek. I thought that I would constantly have a rich and ever-deepening prayer life in a cloister, but this book illustrates that even nuns go through very long “dry spells” of prayer. I thought that entering a monastery would give me scores of loving friends who unconditionally cared about me, but In This House of Brede taught me that nuns are privy to the same personal resentments that plague all of us laywomen. Finally, this book showed to me that sin is existent everywhere, yet no sin is beyond redemption from our Lord.

In closing, despite how much homework I might have put off in order to read this nearly 700 page book, I am very glad that I did. It has been one of the biggest doses of reality that I’ve received in quite a while.


Blogger Argent said...

Thank you. It's been awhile since I read the book. Though the discussion is about vocation in a cloister, I have struggled with my own vocation as a mother at home and see parallels.

One of the greatest temptations for me to overcome was a sense of not accomplishing anything particularly great or sensational. Through the years, in learning to embrace my ordinary existence, I have come to see that my children's happy dispositions is a great gift, especially in this world where dysfunction seems to reign supreme.

God bless in your own discernment.

11:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have you read AMATA MEANS BELOVED? It's short but similar. It really left me in tears! You'd love it!

7:53 PM  
Blogger Chiara said...

Argent, I went on your blog and I really love it! Thank you for sharing your comments with me. It seems as though you're a phenomenal wife and mother, and remember, my spiritual director told me that he thinks that there are just as many married saints as there are religious saints- the only reason the married ones don't get canonozed is that they don't have entire communities or orders pushing for their cause.

I understand when you say that you felt as if you weren't doing anything sensational. I too am having a hard time dealing with my recent decision to ultimately get married to my boyfriend- I feel as if I'm not "going all the way" for God. However, I use the Mother Abbess' words from "The Sound of Music"- you have to follow a "dream that will need all the love you can give." Can we love best in a monastery or in the context of marriage?

I think answering that question requires alot of thought, prayer, and exploring. I don't think that enough young women are given the proper resources these days in order to explore that possible vocation of cloistered life. Hopefully the mission of my blog is to encourage young women to think about that possibility, no matter what their ultimate decision may be.

Anyonymous...I have not had the pleasure of reading AMATA MEANS BELOVED. It seems like a beautiful book. I will confess, however, that being so in love with the Franciscans/Poor Clares and to a lesser extent the Benedictines, I have not extensively researched Dominican cloistered life. Also, people here at ND are crazy about the Dominicans, so I've kind of shyed away from exploring the OP as a reaction to that overkill. However, in the not-so-distant future, I will be sure to do a big feature on the Order of Preachers!

- Chiara

6:12 PM  

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