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.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Interrupting Brede for a Moment...

To discuss syllabus selection (and I'm going to continue to call it a 'syllabus' even though we are more or less a book club, because I like the way it sounds).

Question: Now that we have made it through one cycle of everyone choosing a book, do you want to continue choosing books under that model?

Another option is to hash out the upcoming year's reads in one fell swoop (i.e. Now).

Yet another option would be to take turns being a "Benevolent Dictator" whereby the group can discuss monthly some potential reads, and the BD can choose from the books on the table based on what she thinks the group could most benefit from reading. This model has the advantage of not putting too much pressure on the book chooser for the month (not wanting to displease the group with a selection out of left field), and also of creating a reading list with some continuity while, at the same time, giving us the time to let the list evolve.

If we go with the Benevolent Dictator model for instance, I would consider the Rule of Saint Benedict for next month's read because it goes with our current discussion. If the group tabled a couple other books that make a good follow up to Brede, I would choose from those tabled.

What do you think?

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Brede and Mrs. Peel

Has anyone ever seen this dramatization of Brede?

It's really good, but not anywhere near as good as the book, and it also changes some important details.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Brede Again

You can tell I've been on vacation and have so much more leisure time both to read and to compose comments on the reading. Oh how wonderful to have extra hands to hold the baby, other people to read to the girls, take them for walks, entertain them! And not having to plan meals, do the dishes, or the laundry. (Yes, my mom spoils me terribly!) It would be Eden if only the children actually slept at night.

If you are in the outside world, thought Abbess Catherine, a misdemeanour or fault can go almost unnoticed; conscience is not as tender, as cleansed and polished with many rubbings as with us-- examinations of conscience every day, every week a Chapter of Faults, and instant acknowledgments. Yes, thought Abbess Catherine, it is the difference between a rough and pitted surface and one so planed down and polished that the least mark shows.

I love that image of the surface planed and polished so that the least mark shows. It strikes me that the novel is that polished surface. The contrast between the events in the outside world, Phillipa's past and Penny present especially (trying to avoid spoilers for those who haven't yet got to those sections-- or should I not worry about that?), and the dramas of life inside the enclosure. I'm especially thinking of the drama between Cecily and Dame Maura which results in Dame Maura's departure for Canada. In the outside world the emotional play between the two nuns would be almost not worth mentioning. And yet the consequences of that tension are just as far reaching as the much more obvious conflict of the loss of a child.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A Modernized Brede

Did anyone else happen to catch this post by the Anchoress last year? She links to an article and video from The Guardian about the Benedictine nuns of Stanbrook Abbey, the model for Brede Abbey, (Godden spent several years living in the guest house of Stanbrook, researching the history of the community and speaking with the nuns). The article is about the community moving to a new location, a move necessitated by the decline in numbers-- now just 22 professed sisters and two novices.

The new facility is, well, ugly. As the Anchoress says:
Benedictines are always practical, and certainly, the nuns needed to be freed up from the arduous upkeep of a monastery meant to house many more than 22 sisters (and it is an unqualified good that the handicapped have full access to the house) but part of being practical, to my way of thinking, is realizing that we human beings have hearts that crave beauty. Particularly for enclosed monastics, who spend all of their lives within the confines of their house and chapel and the grounds, the new place seems drearily stark and unjoyful, to me.
It's an interesting question that addresses one of the main themes of Brede. Certainly we know where Abbess Hester would stand on the question of beauty. And yet the current Abbess says that the building has hindered their spiritual life. Of course, that does have to be their primary concern. Obviously the new buildings were planned for utility rather than beauty; though I'm not sure that isn't a false dichotomy. Why can't utility still be beautiful? I can imagine the discussion that lead up to the nuns moving away from their beautiful historic Abbey. I wonder whether anyone fought to have a more aesthetically pleasing design for the new place.

In the video clip you can catch a few peeks at the original abbey. More pictures here. I find it helpful in picturing what Brede is supposed to look like.

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?

Friday, February 5, 2010

Off to a good start...

The motto was 'Pax,' but the word was set in a circle of thorns. Pax: peace, but what a strange peace, made of unremitting toil and effort, seldom with a seen result; subject to constant interruptions, unexpected demands, short sleep at night, little comfort, sometimes scant food; beset with disappointments and usually misunderstood; yet peace all the same, undeviating, filled with joy and gratitude and love. "It is my own peace I give unto you." Not, notice, the world's peace.