Monday, February 8, 2010

Some Quick Thoughts on Brede

This passage really stopped me in my tracks the other night; but I'm having a hard time articulating what I want to say about it:

In the church the postulant knelt with the Abbess on the step facing the sanctuary, as the Abbess presented the newcomer to her Lord, and on each girl, as on Phillipa, a stillness always fell as if from a quieting hand; stillness, the scent of flowers, and, above all, the lamp burning, showing by its live small flame that the Presence was there, unseen but on the altar; it was the first time any of them had seen it through the grille, yet it looked nearer.


I suppose it speaks to me of what I have given up by choosing marriage and family instead of religious life, the nearness of that presence.

It also reminds me a little of how Waugh uses the Presence lamp in that final scene of Brideshead Revisited. Interesting how that light is a sort of Catholic shorthand, by including it an author can say so much without words.

Also this is as good a time as any to comment on how much I like the way Godden weaves the tales of the other nuns in the novitiate through Phillipa's story. Here you can see that she's telling us about Phillipa's experience and yet also Phillipa becomes a sort of every nun. It also reminds me a bit of the way China Court is structured as well, sometimes it's hard to tell where in time we are. Is Phillipa a novice or a junior nun?

10 comments:

bearing said...

Hi, I started lurking as soon as I saw you were going to read and discuss Brede. My copy is on loan right now...

... but...

Also this is as good a time as any to comment on how much I like the way Godden weaves the tales of the other nuns in the novitiate through Phillipa's story. Here you can see that she's telling us about Phillipa's experience and yet also Phillipa becomes a sort of every nun.

It's so much more than just weaving the tales of the other nuns together. The magic of this book is the way Godden weaves the voices of the other nuns together. She patches every part of every narrative together with snatches of conversation or gossip or whisper, the voices of the sisters. What I think is so remarkable about it is that she shows, in a very natural way, how each of their separate voices retains its individual identity at the same time that each becomes part of something larger, the overall story. None of them is the star of this story, not even Philippa; Philippa slips in among the files of sisters, and her story becomes part of the whole. The sisters are not diminished as persons by entering into this story. Their voices ARE the story. I have never in my life seen a narrative device that more perfectly serves to illuminate a major theme of the novel.

No one sister owns a climax of the novel, either. As you read along, some thread becomes prominent and urgent, as if leading the reader toward climax, resolution, conclusion; but there is no single climax, no single resolution; a story just sort of recedes and up rises another to take its place. You get the sense that each sister's private tragedies become the fabric of the whole story that is Brede. It's not a collective that absorbs them and renders them voiceless or anonymous. It's a community that they create out of their own selves.

BettyDuffy said...

Melanie, I also was thinking about how nice it would be to live in a monastery, especially after having had a family. The book recalls my days with the Regnum Christi consecrated, but then I couldn't wait to get out and try my hand at married life. Some people are never satisfied.

I was thinking about ways to apply a kind of monasticism to home life, which I know is not a new idea, just a new idea for me. I read the rule of St Benedict in college, but I think it's time to revisit it.

BettyDuffy said...

Bearing, you hit on a good point, the whispers and comments and gossip that allow the reader to be in every corner of Brede, and to cross back and forth through time. It feels more like omniscient reader than an omniscient narrator.

Melanie B said...

Thank you, bearing, you articulated that much better than I did. Must be that wonderful new mother leisure time to snuggle with your little guy and think. I kept trying to get my thoughts in order but so many interruptions. I finally just posted it dissatisfied with what I'd been unable to say.

All those voices weaving together to make a whole, retaining their unique personalities and yet none of them overwhelming the others.... it really is like the choir singing the Office isn't it?

About applying monasticism to home life, right now it just seems clear to me that just as the sisters must lay down what they are doing when the bell rings to call them to prayer as a mother I must lay down what I am doing when a child calls for my assistance. Its active rather than contemplative but still a discipline, a death to self.

Reading the Rule of St Benedict sounds like a good idea. Maybe we should tackle that next?

Chevy said...

I also felt a pull toward a Rule and I read A 'Mothers Rule of Life' by Holly Pierlot very soon after reading Godden's Brede and Five. Lots of interesting stuff, but the most compelling content was Holly's reversion story. I wasn't able to actually implement a Rule or anything around here, but it did get me thinking and praying about my priorities with more focus.

To comment on the snippet above; it's a perfect example of Godden's ability to describe a moment in time that is at once a singular profound and personal experience and also universal and catholic (and Catholic). Just gives me chills!

I feel as if she read my mind at a moment when I'd had a very moving or weighty experience and then depicted it, immortalized it, in a beautiful way I never could have. So matter of fact, yes, and yet so.... I can't find a word.

ps. I just had a thought that maybe commenting on current reads is for the members only? sorry if I'm overstepping, pls let me know-no worries!

Emily J. said...

On the sanctuary lamp -- that makes me happy to belong to a faith with real symbols!

Actually, I was thinking earlier about the juxtaposition of Philippa and Julian in the beginning of the book, which kind of applies to what Melanie is saying about the active vs. contemplative life as a parent (although sometimes it seems that caring for children requires a sort of alteration or turning off of the mind that might be compared to meditation). Don't you think there are many more Marthas than Marys out there, although maybe bloggers are more contemplative than not? And while many Marthas wish they were more like Marys, there are probably very few Marys who want to be more Marthaish. Were I to join an order, I don't think I'd be called to a contemplative one - unless it was God's way of forcing change. I'd want to be off to the missions with Julian, or maybe teaching with the Dominicans, although those good deeds can become empty when one loses sight of the purpose for doing. (Hence, my voluntary volunteering time out these past few months.)
Earlier today on the radio I heard an ad for a talk by Gary Chapman of Love Languages fame; my love language is definitely "acts of service": I don't want hugs or gifts; show me you love me by doing something for me, and I'll show you my love by doing something for you. I like to show God I love Him by doing stuff. So when Philippa asks Julian, "Is it easier to 'be' than to 'do?'" my answer is not for me, but I'm trying...

Emily J. said...

PS Hi Chevy! Always good to hear from another voice.

mrsdarwin said...

I love the Rule of St. Benedict and put in a vote for reading that next, although it's not my selection turn.

I recall someone telling me once that she couldn't get into Godden's books because the narrative style was just too confusing. I really love the way that Godden slips back and forth in time, in narration, in space. Betty nailed the effect: the "omniscient reader". And I think it's a particularly apt device for a book like In This House of Brede, in which Godden is exploring not just one character, but the whole ideal and reality of religious life. It takes all these women to make a convent. Just following Phillipa's arc would be interesting, but not as compelling.

BettyDuffy said...

I have to applaud Godden especially for taking me to the particular nook or cranny or whispered conversation that I didn't know I wanted to see or overhear until I was there.

As far as the next read goes: It seems like we might be back at the beginning of the list unless anyone has been overlooked. Speak now, or I'm choosing the next book.

Melanie B said...

I just remembered that a few years ago the Headmistress at The Common Room blog had a series of posts in which she read the Rule of St Benedict and commented on how it might apply to the family as Christian community.