Review: In This House of Brede

I finished this book on the flight from Seattle to Raleigh.  To my left was a dad watching a Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson movie.  To my right, across the aisle, was an Unaccompanied Minor who was too cool for school, or for playing peekaboo with the adorable toddler who kept popping over the seat in front of him.  The toddler gave up eventually, turned to me, and waved with that jellyfish finger wiggle of small children.  I smiled and waved back, but he looked quizzically at the tears in my eyes.  I was, yet again, having A Moment, courtesy of a book, in a public place.

Bird had recommended Rumer Godden’s In This House of Brede to me after she read it – part of her reading had, in fact, overlapped with us sharing a room at our nana’s house, and she kept me awake with her exclamations over the Benedictine monastery at Brede.  It’s a novel about nuns (Bird loves nuns) and a high-powered businesswoman, Philippa Talbot, who refuses a career-making promotion in order to go and follow the (unexpected) call to become a nun.  The book follows Philippa on her journey from preparing to enter the monastery to her Solemn Profession and beyond as she finds her place in the community in the years before Vatican II.

“What do you ask?”

“To try my vocation as a Benedictine in this house of Brede.”

At first, I found Godden’s narration a bit difficult to get used to.  It’s not quite like the third person omniscient one usually reads; there’s too much interjection from various characters, as though you’re dropping in on multiple overlapping conversations held in some sort of nondescript space, because it doesn’t matter where they said it, or even when (many of the side characters’ observations about events are followed by, “Dame So-and-so said afterwards“).  But, much like protagonist Philippa Talbot, once I grew accustomed to the rhythms of the story, I felt right at home.

The hop-around narration fit the community of the nuns, the self-effacement they were meant to seek, and the way each in turn affected all the others.  It is a book about relationships and communities of faith, and about relationships with people who understand neither community nor faith.  In one instance, Philippa’s former secretary is near death following complications from an abortion.  Her formerly shallow husband is shocked when Philippa says the sisters will pray for the secretary – “But they don’t even know her!” he says.  Nevertheless, all the sisters, even those with conflict between them, participate in a vigil praying fiercely for the life of this girl they do not know.

Another nun, Sister Cecily, struggles against her mother’s worldly expectations.  At her Clothing (when the postulant receives her novice’s habit to wear), Cecily’s mother calls the ceremony, which resembles a wedding, a mockery because there is no “real” bridegroom.  Cecily’s pain is palpable, for what could be more real to her than faith?  Godden gets vocation absolutely right – how some people are called to secular life, others to missionary work, and still others to contemplative lives, enclosed in a world of prayer that still touches and works for the world outside.

And meanwhile, the nuns are all too human.  Dame Veronica struggles with weakness of will and pride.  Abbess Hester leaves behind an enormous, secret debt from circumventing her advisers to achieve a pet project.  Philippa herself must unlearn all the things that made her so successful in the business world, realign her values, and learn to lean on the community.

Now, I don’t know how non-Catholics or non-Christians might like or dislike this novel, but I do think it could at least provide a genuine look at what religious communities strive to accomplish and how faith motivates everything they do.  Godden’s amazing portrayal of these characters as they navigate their personal relationships and their relationships with God struck me as so emotionally accurate that, yes, I found myself holding back tears on an airplane when I had to close the back cover and leave this house of Brede.

5/5 stars on Goodreads

Advertisements

Peace Is Not What We Should Pray For

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”… Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

“For peace in our nation.”  I paused.  “We pray to the Lord.”

The congregation, slower in its responses here than in my home parish on the other side of the state, mumbled, “Lord, hear our prayer.”

It’s not my job to improvise the intercessions – lectors just read, we don’t write – but at that moment I wished I could add something to the single, well-meaning, inadequate line of that particular prayer.

Because peace alone is not good enough.

Peace is easy for people like me to find.  Peace is what we get because we are white, and heterosexual, and cisgender, and above the poverty line.  Our peace is not truly disturbed by the reports on TV of violence elsewhere, of fear elsewhere, of hate crimes elsewhere, because, if you noticed, it is always elsewhere, not next door.  And even if it is next door, we can draw the blinds.  We can change the channel.  We can shuffle to and from our cars and listen only to radio stations that agree with us and read only the same old books we have always read and we can do this because we are the ones who are represented in those places.  We have the option of shutting ourselves off from those different from us.  And when we cannot ignore what’s happening outside our comfort zones, we can at least use it to reinforce the mentality that allows us to shake our heads gently and think, “At least We are not Like Them.”

Peace is easy for people like me to find.

But it is a “negative peace which is the absence of tension.”  The things that might bring us true peace, a “positive peace which is the presence of justice,” are more complicated.  And it’s not a terribly peaceful process.

Probably the writer of that intercession was hoping for a deeper peace, not just peace of mind or the bliss we speak of that comes from ignorance, but the peace we are promised in the Gospels, the kind “that surpasses all understanding,” which is good because a lot of other things right now surpass understanding.  But we are creatures who need the process spelled out for us, the true meaning defined and articulated point by point.

So this is what I’m praying for.

For peace and protection of marginalized groups and minorities as they face growing violence and aggression on top of the daily struggle of navigating a culture in which they are not the group in power.

For peace and communication between opposing views, that they may allow themselves to be coaxed toward a middle ground in which they can recognize the humanity of the Other standing before them.

For peace and humility in our leaders, that they may recognize their responsibility to those they represent and to the world as a whole.

For peace and true justice as we continue to work toward equality and a more perfect fulfillment of the American vision.

Lord, hear our prayer.

Purpose

the reason for which something exists or is done, made, used, etc.
an intended or desired result; end; aim; goal
determination; resoluteness
As the Engineer waits to hear back from grad schools and I wait to hear what part of the country I’ll be living in come September, I itch to start a job search.  But not just any job search.  At the risk of sounding like An Entitled Millennial, I admit that I want a job that gives me a sense of purpose.  I wouldn’t mind working as a waitress, a barista, a data entry person – at least, not at first.  There are many necessary jobs that make our society run smoothly in the ways that we are used to, and I respect the people who fulfill those needs.
But it turns out that I am the kind of person who, if she is unsatisfied in her job, is unsatisfied in general.
I blame some of this on my brain’s deeply entrenched habits.  I’m already much better at exaggerating negative emotions, consequences, and difficulties than celebrating and remembering victories and little happy things.  And if I spend a week writing down good things for my Gratitude Jar and journaling every night and Naming and Recognizing My Emotions, I do notice that life is not quite as Blah as it seemed the week before.  So I do try to do that.
The problem continues, however, when I try to make my job relate too closely to my passion.  I have already figured out that I don’t want writing to be my career in a traditional sense, at least not now, so I thought working at the Writing Center would be a good way to earn money while sticking close to the field that already provides me with a sense of purpose.  So I spend several hours a day showing students how to better put words into sentences, and then I come home and I open my laptop and I open my own Work In Progress…and the last thing I want to do is put words into sentences.
I read an article in a magazine a while back about the concept of “reservoirs of energy.”  The gist was that everyone has three reservoirs: Mental, Emotional, and Physical.  A full day at work might deplete your Mental reservoir, so coming home and being asked to figure out what the heck is wrong with the refrigerator because it’s making that high-pitched noise again is only going to demand Mental energy from an empty reservoir, making you feel more exhausted.  The trick is recognizing activities that might drain one reservoir and not pushing yourself past your limit in using that type of energy; for instance, you might exercise after work because your Physical energy is still nearly full, giving your Mental and Emotional energy a chance to refill in time for dinner with your family.
I think working too closely with writing on a daily basis does something similar.  I think it depletes my Writing Energy (more probably just Mental energy, but humor me).  This, of course, wouldn’t be a problem if my job were only focused on my own writing projects, where I could finish the day tired but satisfied at a job well done.  But right now, I’m so focused on helping other people with their writing that I still feel dissatisfied with my day’s work because I so rarely manage to make progress on my own projects.
C.S. Lewis wrote, “A vocation is a terrible thing.”  He was talking about the call to one day join God in Heaven, to go through the difficult work of preparing for that kind of relationship, but I think the quote applies equally to those of us who know what we are meant to do on this earth but don’t know how, exactly, to go about it.
Writing, it has long been clear to me, is my God-given purpose.  It is “the reason for which [this person, Grace] exists.”  But while this gives me a long term goal, a desired result for my life (fantasy books, and maybe a historical fiction or two), and though I have been determined and resolute in this goal for years (despite every unoriginal snarky comment in the book), that leaves a bit of a gap in my daily life.  Because I’m still trying to figure out how, exactly, I’m supposed to find a job that gives me a Daily Sense of Purpose without sapping energy from my Big Picture Purpose.

Words That Haunt Me

I have a little notebook with a cover like the Penguin Books version of Orwell’s 1984, two orange stripes framing the title spelled out in the center and the classic penguin eyeing me from between the words “complete” and “unabridged.”  I regularly lose and rediscover this notebook over the course of the year.  When I know where it is, I use it to record my favorite quotes, snippets of poetry, or bits of dialogue from various sources.  Whenever I lose it and find it again, I reread the whole thing, reminding myself of what was important to me when I wrote down that batch of quotes, that particular conversation from the TV show Bones, this epigraph from a novel I’ve otherwise forgotten.

A little while ago, I read this wonderful post from Cats and Chocolate, and it made me reach for the little Penguin notebook because I, too, wanted to share the words that haunt me.

So here they are:

The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow sharp as swords.

In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of the traveller who would report them.

And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gate should be shut and the keys be lost.

-JRR Tolkien

prayer-of-the-woodsFor the longest way round is the shortest way home. ~Mere Christianity, CS Lewis

Snatching the eternal out of the desperately fleeting is the great magic trick of human existence. ~Tennessee Williams

The words we take into ourselves help to shape us…They build and stretch and build again the chambers of our imagination. ~The Child That Books Built, Francis Spufford

Give away love like you’re made of the stuff; we’re rehearsing to spend eternity together. ~Bob Groff
Sometimes it’s the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine. ~The Imitation Game

Let us not take it for granted that life exists more fully in what is commonly thought big than in what is commonly thought small. ~Virginia Woolf

 

Some days I am not sure if my faith is riddled with doubt or whether, graciously, my doubt is riddled with faith.  And yet I continue to live in a world the way a religious person lives in the world; I keep living in a world that I know to be enchanted, and not left alone.  I doubt; I am uncertain; I am restless, prone to wander.  And yet glimmers of holy keep interrupting my gaze.

~Still, Lauren Winner

 

ancestors
The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night
Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,
Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom
The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.
The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.
And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself
Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.
~”The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm,” Wallace Stevens
People need stories more than bread itself.  They tell us how to live and why.
~The Storyteller, Arabian Nights

The Blessings Jar

I can’t work in clutter.  My room, in the upheaval and un-routine-ness that accompanies a new semester, had been in an Uneasy State of Chaos for a while, and I was sick of it.  So, working counterclockwise around my room from the door, I Cleaned – and yes, the capital is warranted, because it was no mere 10-second tidying up.  I dusted and organized and rearranged and adjusted until everything fit Just So.

I was on a roll until I got to my nightstand.  One of the Random Things that had come to rest in obscurity right next to my bed was a pickle jar with the label peeled off and many slips of multicolored paper inside.

2016-01-19 19.37.17

My Blessings Jar.

I’d forgotten about it, failed to keep up the habit, since last year when Bird gave me the idea (which I think she got from Pinterest).  As I swiped the dust rag over it, I thought now might be a good time to empty it, start fresh, swear to myself that I would chronicle at least One Good Thing each night from now on.  Settling criss-cross-applesauce on the floor, I poured out the tiny scraps and began to read.  Some made me chuckle, like liquid dishwasher soap from when the Commodore and I finally ran out of that awful powdered stuff and bought a gallon of the liquid we preferred.

Some, like Bird’s smile when she saw me in the chapel after her retreat, made me cry.

It amazes me, sometimes, the magnitude of things that can be tethered in tiny characters inked on paper.  The moments I had found worth recording were instances of love, support, and shared strength from my parents, my sister, the Commodore, the Southern Belle, the Engineer and his family, my friends from church, and my coworkers.  All the people in my life had contributed to these scribbly bits of paper showing me how many families I have looking out for me.

So often it’s easier to remember the one bad thing that happened at the end of an evening, or late in the afternoon, and let it erase all the silliness and contentment of the morning and lunchtime.  A whole day can be colored by just one negative thing.  But when I force myself to think of just One Good Thing, it’s funny how more Good Things start to come out of the shadows, shyly raising a hand to say, “Remember me?  You didn’t have such a bad day after all.”

I tucked the old blessings away in a box and set the empty, hopeful jar on my freshly dusted nightstand.

I think this is a habit worth attempting again.2016-01-19 19.38.25

A New Year’s Post

I’m trying something new this year.  Well, multiple new things, really.  In looking at my schedule, taking on all 27 or so of my proposed resolutions at once just isn’t going to happen.  For one thing, I have zero free time until the end of February, when I present my undergraduate thesis (further freakouts regarding the state of this ginormous project will be forthcoming, I’m sure).  For another, trying to implement a billion new pieces of a routine simultaneously just doesn’t work.  I’ve tried it.  It’s like carrying an armful of cats.  You want to hold onto all of them, but one or two are bound to wriggle out and go scampering off somewhere.  And you end up with a lot of claw marks from the ones that are left.

So my theory is that gradually adding clusters of new habits every two weeks or so might be easier to manage, particularly since my schedule is already going to drastically change about halfway through the semester.  My loose idea for this organizational tactic is as follows:

Immediate

The daily changes I want to make right away – drink a full water bottle daily; get outside once a day; journal every evening; read for pleasure; write literally anything, even just a sentence, for my own personal manuscript

New Semester

The stuff that will be easier to start when I get back to school and therefore has been pushed back until then – cut out mindless snacking; don’t skip Zumba classes; set up a real workspace instead of just sitting on the couch with Netflix on in the background; do homework the day it is assigned; incorporate daily Bible readings into my new semester routine; block out specific times to work on my thesis; don’t forget about meals

Post-Thesis Haze

The bigger picture things that will undoubtedly nag at the back of my mind but that I physically cannot spend time on until my thesis is done – start applying for post-grad jobs; devote an hour minimum each day to my own manuscript; get certified as a Zumba instructor; seek out freelance editorial and authorial work, even unpaid internships; focus on online professional development

Post-Grad

Honestly, I haven’t really dared to think this far ahead.  But if I’m still not skipping Zumba and I’m eating healthy and staying hydrated and working on my manuscript and feel like I’ve got my job situation sort of under control for the moment, then I’ll probably focus on my general theme for the year: be present.

I’ve fallen down many a stress spiral before, particularly this past semester, and these are frequently brought on by focusing too hard on the future.  I will never be completely happy-go-lucky or loosey-goosey with my schedule (I love my planner too much!) nor do I think that thinking about and planning for the future is a bad thing.  But when it makes me forget about how happy I am in the moment with the Engineer or how much I’m enjoying this particular sentence in my book or how great this writing session is going, it does become a problem.

And, as stressful as it may be at times, I really am looking forward to the year ahead, so I want to hold onto that and appreciate where I am in the life I’m building for myself.

Decision

the act of or need for making up one’s mind
something that is decided; resolution
the quality of being decided; firmness
I make lists.  I run a pencil down the edge of a ruler and divide my cardstock into two columns, one Pro, one Con.  I begin jotting, neatly at first, then scribbling as it becomes a stream of consciousness, leaping from one side to the other like a Highland sword dance.
I ask advice.  I gather opinions like berries, examining each one for ripeness, letting them dye my fingers and adding my stained fingerprints to the already constructed lists.
I consider myself, my own head and heart.  I still have trouble with this one – for a long time, emotions had very little to do with my major choices, unless it was to tip a balanced scale at the last minute.  Choosing a high school came down to academic reputation.  Picking my college came down to finances.  Making a decision based on feelings didn’t seem “smart,” and I was all about making the “smart” choice.
Which is probably why I was so stuck.  Why I couldn’t articulate to my friends, my family, even to myself what I wanted.  Why my heart still beats a little faster when I say it out loud, much less type it out.
I’ve decided to stay in my college town for the next year after graduation.  I can keep my apartment and my job, both of which I love.  I can be near the Engineer while he finishes up his last year of undergrad (switching majors sophomore year throws things a little out of whack).  And I can work on my own writing so the next time I pitch a manuscript to someone and they want to read it, I’ll actually have something to send them.
And I’m pretty excited about all that.

Too Loud to Be Heard

Walking down the mall to work this past week, I had to veer around a medium-sized clump of people ringed around a shouting man.  The man shouted about damnation, Jesus, and sin.  Sometimes he stood on a milk crate.  Sometimes people shouted back.  Mostly they just laughed.

But then I got to work and I heard the conversations inspired by this man and his shouting.

“Christians are so judgmental.”  “They’re all just a bunch of hypocrites.”  “This is why I hate religion.”

“Would you say I’m judgmental?” I wanted to ask.  “Would you assume that I condemn all those who don’t share my beliefs?”

In my fantasy, they answer, “Of course not.  You are tolerant and good.”

“Well,” my imaginary self responds, standing to make a dramatic exit, “I must not be a very good Christian then, since you say they’re all so awful.” The less charitable part of me wants to leave them spluttering, awkward, wishing they hadn’t made assumptions about their audience, ashamed of drawing such broad conclusions about a large group of people the same way they say Christians do.

But instead I bit my lip, because I had a shift in five minutes and not enough time to explain how they shouldn’t judge the whole from the part, viewing all of us in the same way as the yelling fundamentalist.

Catholics, traditionally, shy away from street corner evangelism.  We are not comfortable with tabling in the student union, or even handing out candy in front of our own church door.  But I wear my cross necklace, and if someone notices and wants to have a respectful discussion of belief systems with me, I will gladly sit down with them.  I seek more to understand, and to allow the other person to understand my own beliefs, than to convert them.

And this is the problem I have with people who shout one the mall.  They are not fostering discussion.  They are not leaving their audiences musing to themselves that perhaps there’s something to this whole God thing after all.  There is nothing productive about the conversations stemming from seeing this shouting man because those conversations only reflect the judgment that people feel from him.  His content may be solid, but the method of transmission is off-putting to say the least.

So, if anyone cares, I’m open to discussion.  But please: no shouting.

Things I’m Trying to Be Better About

Praying.

Calling home.

Making healthy dinners.

Awareness of how much I’m spending on coffee.

Awareness of how much I’m drinking coffee.

Posting on this blog.

Posting on Changeling Scribbles (actually no don’t go read it because I haven’t posted anything in weeks).

Reading for pleasure.

Working on my own writing.

Doing laundry before the basket overflows.

Not overscheduling myself.

Eating a real breakfast, not just a protein bar on the way out the door.

Leaving the Engineer’s at a reasonable hour because he gets grumpy when he doesn’t get to bed before 11.

Leaving the Engineer’s at a reasonable hour because I cannot actually replace sleep with coffee.

Pulling myself out of stress spirals about what to do with my life post-graduation.

Going out and doing things occasionally.

Loving myself.

Want

to wish, need, crave, demand, or desire

to be without or be deficient in

“Tell me, right now, what you want.”

I sat in a springy armchair in a slightly musty room in a retreat center, twisted sideways to face my friend in the tweed armchair on the other side of the end table.  I had asked her advice, or her listening, I suppose, because she is my peer, in a similar place in life, and because it was a retreat.  You do things like this on retreats, I thought, even if you’re leading them.  You have these conversations with yourself.  It’s inherent.  Walking away for a weekend, leaving behind homework, shedding those surface attachments, it all leaves room.  Quiet, quiet room in my mind for those wonderings.

What I want?

There have been too many voices contributing to that conversation; my own was drowned out long ago.  I don’t remember anymore, without any outside influences, what I want.

I want my colorful planner to be already laid out for the next five years, the way it has been all my life, but it isn’t.

What I want?

I want to work on my writing, to be near those I love, to simply go to work and come home and have time to do what I love and maybe enjoy my job as well, small things, really, when I list them like this, but I cannot want them, because they are not what I have said I wanted, what I claimed for myself, what others want for me.

I want not to be found wanting.  I desire things of my own, but worry that by fulfilling my own wishes I will become deficient in outsiders’ eyes.

What I want?

I’d like to know that too.  Or be able to admit that I know it, and that I want it at all.  That I think it’s what God wants for me, too, because I wouldn’t still feel this way otherwise.

I sat in a springy armchair in a slightly musty room in a retreat center, twisted sideways to face my friend.  She wanted to know what I wanted.

And somehow, I told her.