A few years ago, I read a profoundly Catholic novel written by author Rumor Godden and entitled In this House of Brede. I highly recommend it. I think I’ll read it again — it’s been too long. It was also made into a movie starring Diana Rigg, made in 1975, which I have not seen. Out of love for the book, I think I’ll not see it either.
The book follows the path of Philippa Talbot, an unmarried 40-something who works her way up the ladder in British government in the 1950s. At the opening of the book, she is one of the few ranking women in the government — a career woman who is both respected and respectable. To the dismay of her assistant and few close friends, she determines to leave her vaulted life behind — and quit cigarettes — in order to enter a cloistered Benedictine convent in the English countryside called Brede Abbey.
The lovely thing about the book is that it’s all about struggle. You’d think, once a person enters the cloister that all worry and worldly concerns magically evaporate. You’d think that everyone else in the community would be boring and nearing in perfection. You’d think that nothing about the characters would resonate with us “ordinary” Catholics who live outside holy confines.
Those assumptions would be incorrect. I found myself identifying with the characters in this book, a lot. The nuns are presented in varying layers of depth. You get the sense that some are settled and on a path to holiness while others are much more fallible and caught up in personal difficulty. But the theme that emerges is that Christ has a way of filling us all with grace, to the very limit of what we are disposed to contain, and more.
Upon reading the very first paragraph of the Prologue, I was seized by Brede:
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 nights, 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.
I was seized because I thought this was to be a work of fiction concerning 20th-Century English cloistered nuns, and yet I am somewhat familiar with constant interruptions, unexpected demand, short sleep at nights, secondary to altogether different reasons, and also peace, filled with joy and gratitude and love.
The Church does not suggest that the ordained, the consecrated, or the cloistered have a greater capacity for peace, joy, gratitude and love than anyone else. Rather, these things come from each person’s good discernment and response to entering the state of life to which we are called.
The Church teaches that the first vocation of the Christian is to follow Jesus. (CCC 2232). We don’t all follow Him in the same way, but it is in the Church, in communion with all the baptized, that the Christian fulfills his vocation. (CCC 2030). It is in this sense that a Catholic Family, as part of the Catholic Family, has the capacity to be as holy as any convent, and it should be, because God calls us to his own beatitude, or state of “blessedness”. (CCC 1719). God put us into the world to know, to love, and to serve him, and so to come to paradise. Beatitude makes us ‘partakers of the divine nature’ and of eternal life. (CCC 1720).
St. Augustine says “How is it, then, that I seek you, Lord? Since in seeking you, my God, I seek a happy life, let me seek you so that my soul may live, for my body draws life from my soul and my soul draws life from you.” (Conf. 10, 20: PL 32, 791). And Aquinas says “God alone satisfies.” (Expos. in symb. post. I.).