Rumer Godden

The Sunday Salon: Old Friends

“Old friends, old friends, sat on the park bench like bookends..."

Paul Simon’s poignant tune has been running through my mind all week as I’ve been re-reading a book I first read over 40 years ago. In This House of Brede, a novel by Rumer Godden, is the story of Phillippa Talbot, 40 year old woman who leaves behind a successful career in business and enters a Benedictine monastery to become a contemplative nun. 

“Is it easier to be than to do?” she inquires of a friend, who questions her decision to eschew a life of productive activity. And though the book was written almost 50 years ago, this question is one we ask of ourselves more and more in the 21st century. For this group of nuns, the work of their lives is of spiritual being - the majority of their days are spent in prayer and worship for people in the outside world who seek supplication and intercessory prayer. As a community they perform the Divine Office. They write books and create artwork designed to uplift and sustain spiritual life. They humble themselves before God and each other.

The novel, besides being a fascinating look inside the life of monastic nuns during the early 1960’s, is also one of those ensemble novels I always enjoy reading. The story is as much about the other nuns and postulants as it is about Phillippa (who becomes Dame Phillippa when she takes her solemn vows). Dame Catherine Ismay, who becomes the reluctant, yet clear-headed Abbess; Sister Cecily, the extraordinarily beautiful and musically gifted  young postulant a whose mother nearly disowned her because of  her vocation; Dame Agnes, old and wise, who is wary of Phillippa because sees something worldly her that is impossible to leave behind. 

When I read this book the first time I was maybe 15 or 16 and had just started attending Catholic high school. My only religious experiences to date had been sporadic attendance at a small Baptist church. The liturgy and ritual of the Catholic church quickly captured my imagination, I was eager to learn more about it. Many of my teachers were nuns (not Benedictine, of course, but Felicians), and I wasn’t quite sure how to relate to them. Becoming acquainted with Godden’s characters helped me understand them and feel more comfortable with them.

As I read this battered old library edition with it’s hard cover and rigid heavy-duty binding, it’s pages yellowed and stained after sitting on the shelf for 40 years, I wonder how long its been since someone read this book.  There are so many new books calling for our attention these days, books with beautifully designed covers, whose authors pop up in our Facebook and Twitter feeds. I picked it up at the library one day when I was wandering through the stacks and heard it beckon me from the shelf, whispering “pssst, over here” in a tremulous voice.

Just like an old, old friend.

It’s good to get reacquainted.