Love like Nun Other

I bought myself Rumer Godden's In This House of Brede for Christmas. I had thought Rumer Godden was a recent discovery, but now I realise I had read this book at school, and I think probably Black Narcissus as well, without remembering that they were written by Godden.

In This House of Brede is the kind of book you wish you could live inside forever. It's so rich, so wise and so fascinating - and it's about nuns! On one level, it's the story of Philippa Talbot, a successful 40-something civil servant, who turns her back on her old life to enter the abbey; and it's the story of several years in the life of the community, the incidents and accidents, the disasters and blessings that visit them.

But In This House of Brede is also an unflinching examination of community life. The ninety-six women of the abbey are all very different personalities, with different backgrounds, and they are far from perfect. They remain people - striving for holiness, working hard to help each other, but flawed, rubbing each other up the wrong way, irritating, sometimes clashing outright. Rumer Godden captures the pinpricks and rewards of life in a community where there is no escape from your companions. Dame Beatrice is sentimental, Dame Agnes sharp-tongued. Abbess Catherine is strong, but weighed down with the burdens of her office as leader. Sister Hilary is slapdash, Sister Cecily perhaps too joyous, too sure of her vocation? Dame Veronica is weak, Dame Maura rather frightening. The characters are vividly drawn, their struggles very real.

And perhaps most importantly, the book draws us into the spiritual life of the abbey - the whole purpose of the nuns' lives. They are an enclosed order, separated from the world for their work of prayer, study and song. To a non-religious person, there is something slightly surreal about the notion of all these women dedicating themselves to an endless cycle of prayer and praise, hidden away from the rest of the world. It could be argued that it's a criminal waste of their talents and energy to spend all those years sending up one-way messages to their imaginary friend... And I'm very sure that an abbey like Brede would struggle, these days, to attract several new postulants a year, as they do in the book.

And yet reading this lovely, passionate account of religious life, it's impossible not to be moved by the nuns' dedication, the rigour and the beauty of the life they've chosen. I can't help feeling that the wisdom and the peace that they earn, their work of prayer and music, does have value, even if it's difficult for a modern agnostic to understand.

Even, perhaps, if there is no God.

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