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