Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Brede and Emotion

I'm going to 'fess up here and admit that, having read Brede once before, I only just this weekend got around to checking it out and reading it again. (Love the look of the Loyola Classics edition, BTW, especially with the heavy coating the library puts on the cover. Never has a paperback felt so substantial.) And I'm glad I did, because Brede is one of those books where, the reader having come to the end, she flips right back to beginning and starts over again, just to catch up on who's who and where's where and revel in the language.

One thing that struck me almost immediately upon re-reading is how I connected emotionally with the story this time around. I think my first reading was mainly an absorption of plot and language. But this time, only a few pages in, I found myself already choking up as Phillipa sits on the train and remembers singing to Keith. I actually had to put the book down and recover for a moment before I could read on.

This happened at numerous points throughout the book -- when Dame Catherine is elected abbess, when Phillipa struggles with deprivations in the convent, when the nuns hold the vigil for Penny Stevens. Rumer Godden is a master of capturing an emotional moment and bringing out its poignancy in her well-chosen words, and I felt like putty in her hands.

Oddly enough, the one part of the book where I felt more detached than the rest was what was, before, the most emotional moment for me: when Phillipa finally tells the story of Keith. On my first reading, I'd felt like the soft-hearted sister Beatrice, as I charged through the story in tears at 2 am. This is a natural response, I think -- we're all mothers here, and can easily put ourselves in Phillipa's place. What if that was my child? How would I respond? But on this second reading, I felt more like Abbess Catherine, listening to the story thoughtfully and with detachment.

One last note -- the Church has a great deal of wisdom in encouraging both Marys and Marthas in their vocation. Sister Julian finds her true vocation in an active order of Marthas, working in India with the poor, wearing habits of "cheapest serge", throwing herself into an active life of external service. But Brede is necessary as well, as a "powerhouse" of prayer and reflection. Even within Brede the divide exists, with the claustral and choir nuns. One cannot exist without the other, and it's best if they work in harmony, not opposition.


BettyDuffy said...

I loved the part when they were talking about how the sisters will often pray a vigil at night because that's when most of the sin occurs, and then something about a life being saved by the prayers of a Cloistered sister somewhere.

JOB said...

How Brede fares in the long run, I think, will be determined by how well it compares, in a certain sense, to Hansen's "Mariette" and Salzman's "Lying Awake."

Of the three, it did the most with the least - which isn't to say it's necessarily the best, but it is the fullest story of the three. The others could just as well have been written as short stories - though to their detriment. Brede could not have been written as anything but a novel. There is a "complete action" of the soul in the story it seems that gives it a breadth worth returning to.


mrsdarwin said...

JOB, I think you're right. I've not read "Lying Awake", but I have read "Mariette in Ecstasy", and while I admired it, I think it could well have been a novella. Brede has a richness and a luxury of layers that Mariette could not touch. I think it adds to Brede that there is none of the showily mystical -- the sisters have to grapple with holidness shot through with humanity, or humanity shot through with holiness, without great signs or wonders.

Emily J. said...

This is my second time through the book as well, and it is like a reunion with old friends, whereas the first time, I had a harder time keeping the sisters straight, although they each have such distinct personalities and gifts. My first reading was for a book club, and I folded the pagecorners down on pages I wanted to remember for our discussion. This time I'm folding down different corners. Love the scene of Abbess Catherine's annoyance at the frequent interruptions - so familiar to a parent - only to be confronted with the littleness of her frustrations. And her enjoyment of her discussions with Duranski: "Mind on mind enkindles warmth" (part of the joy of blogging...). Love the quote from Knox in the section about the discipline about the cross being "I" crossed out. Love the comments about the world still being with them. Godden does such a good job moving from episode to episode. JOB's comments make me wonder if you could call Brede a kind of monastic epic, while Marriette is lyrical. Haven't read "Lying Awake" either - one to add to the list?

JOB said...

Mrs. Darwin, Emily,

"Lying Awake" is worth a read - it covers a good deal of the ground "Mariette" did - I'll leave it to you to say whether better or worse. Of course, what's remarkable about it is the fact that its Jewish author is a secular Cinophile with presumably little or no experience of cloistered religious life (let alone the Catholic faith).

I think the epic/lyric distinction hits the nail on the head.