1969 by The Viking Press, Inc.
Introduction by Phyllis Tickle © 2005 Loyola Press
A strange peace settled over me as I began to read Rumer Godden’s In This House of Brede. From the first page to the last, amid all the turmoil and joy to be found in this cloistered community, this peace settled down and never left me. And more than that, it took me by surprise, I who subsist mostly on exciting and adventuresome literature.
I admire contemplatives. I loved, and continue to love, reading Thomas Merton; and about our saints and blesseds. But for myself, I have this nagging voice that tells me to get up and get going, and any time spent reading and relaxing is stolen from the important works and days of my life. And then the bell rings for nones and I am settled as a mist in the quiet valley.
Philippa Talbot, successful, professional, talented, approaching middle age, is the protagonist of In This House of Brede. She has risen up the ranks of England’s civil service to be one of the first and most influential women in her department. Well-educated, well-traveled, and well-heeled, Philippa has settled in to a life that many aspire to but few achieve. She is widowed (he died in the Second World War), and while she has a platonic and satisfying friendship with a sympathetic and charming married man, they were once lovers. All this is hers, and then she gives it up to live the life of a cloistered nun in a Benedictine abbey.
While it may seem sudden, her entrance to this new life is a long, inexorable progress to fulfillment through loss, and gain through abnegation.
Those of us who have never visited an abbey may imagine this life as serene, ordered, and deliberate…maybe what we have read about or seen in films. But I should have known that we may leave the world, but the world doesn’t leave us. All the human frailties can be found at Brede…even so can all the human perfections be found there as well. The running of an abbey of 90 nuns is as complicated as any corporation, and so it is with Brede: kitchen, bakery, sewing rooms, fields, orchards, buildings, living quarters, offices. And accomplished with what a corporation might have for petty cash.
Then Godden interweaves the story of a seeker just entering, showing all the fears and expectations she experiences. Then Godden throws real-life personalities into the mix and what a story it becomes! Jealousy, envy, love, admiration, skill, failure, success, tragedy, bliss…and woven through all of that, the love of God and God’s love for us, and how it can frighten or embolden us. While this may be a novel about religious life, the “religious” part is not a shield from the “life” part. But it is a guiding part and a goal as well.
I still find it hard to describe, this “strange peace” that permeates this book and which settles me down every time I pick it up. But part of what came to me is that religious life, contemplative and cloistered life is not “entered in to.” It’s more like the tide. There is a slow and progressive rising, sudden incursions of waves and their retreat, rising to the spring tide level and then just as deliberately falling away until the disorder of the ocean’s floor is visible…and back again. So while there may be joy, there will also be pain. Here, the fulfillment of Ecclesiastes is fully present, and its inevitability is part of what I see as comforting. So the only way to escape is to run full speed into the life.
For a Dominican, there is no more apt description. To be a Dominican means to voyage full speed into life, with God as the wind in your sails.
In This House of Brede is a sea voyage like Melville’s or Dana’s with shoals and deep water, wind and rain, sun and breeze. Its depiction of monastic life is inspiring. Its foundation in the changes within the Roman Catholic Church is brilliant. Its characterization is encyclopedic.
Rumer Godden has given us a book that will certainly prove a beacon in everyone’s quest within their own order, religious or lay or secular. As many reviewers have said, it is one of the few books they go back to time after time. It should be required reading for all monastic orders.