Wednesday, February 23, 2011

In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden

Rumer Godden, who died in 1998 at age 90, was a prolific writer. This book was her fifteenth, and is a multilayered presentation of life in an English Benedictine convent from the late 1950’s to the late 1960’s. The “House of Brede”, the Benedictine convent in the book, is fictional, but Ms. Godden lived for three years in a gatehouse to an English monastery, so that she became well acquainted with Benedictine organization and their way of life.

The author vividly characterizes many of the inhabitants – two of the postulants in particular. One, Phillipa Talbot, is the principal character, whose story opens and closes the book. She comes to the abbey in her 40’s, a career woman who has risen high in a government ministry, who has her life “beautifully arranged.” Yet God has called her, it seems – for when she wanders into a church, someone beckons her to take his place in a line for confession, and she finds herself asking the priest for a meeting. In a crisis Phillipa did not expect, she says not that things in her life seemed empty, but that she began to look beyond them “into an emptiness.” Ms. Godden borrows these and many other expressions from Christianity to explain why faith and these faith communities persist. She does a good job of showing how, although living apart, the nuns are linked to the outside world through prayer, visiting and correspondence.

When the book was first published in 1969, one reviewer found the book lacking in its depiction of spiritual struggle, of what really happens to those who decide to enter monasteries. Yet the book has attracted readers with a wide spectrum of faith experience, from the very religious to agnostics and atheists. Suffice it to say that stories of sacrifice to a cause have always found an audience, and that this story, with its endearing and personable personalities, is above all, “a good read”.

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