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The Contemplative Life

Originally published April 2020

I have a thing for fiction about nuns. And a quiet admiration mixed with puzzlement. I can only imagine the shape of what drives a woman to devote her life to God.

A caveat before I wander off into convent sisterhood fiction: I know next to nothing about the catholic faith, except for what I have seen on television or read in books, and the brief period in which I sang in a catholic church choir. I’ve heard the tropes, jokes, and unfortunate exploitation of children of the faith. I was never a fan of The Flying Nun, but I did love Ingrid Bergman in The Bells of St Mary’s.

My favorite nun-portrayer is Deborah Kerr. As Sister Clodagh, the leading role in Black Narcissus, Kerr, lit by Michael Powell’s characteristic luminous lighting, perfectly expresses the sister’s struggle to understand the mystical world in which she finds herself. In Heaven Knows, Mr. Alison she finds the courage to resist Robert Mitchum’s plea to marry him.

English writer Rumer Godden, raised in colonial India (what is now Bangladesh) wrote five nun novels; Black Narcissus and In This House of Brede are her best known. The Nun’s Story, written about the experiences of a Beligan friend and ex-nun, Kathryn Hulme celebrates the accomplishments of nuns in hospital and in war. Audrey Hepburn (also Belgian by birth) was nominated for an Oscar for her performance of Sister Luke, even though she was the most graceful and gamine nun ever to wear a habit. In the most heart-wrenching scene in the film, ex-Sister Luke goes through the ritual of removing that habit and stepping into the clothing she wore when she entered the convent.

Nuns had it bad during wartime as enemy invaders raped them, murdered them, and took them prisoner. Their convents have been the stage for murder, the occult, and the unearthing of secret scandal. They have been portrayed as exerting psychological and physical torture on catholic school students.

Still, stories of their lives fascinate me.

As I write this, I have Lillies of the Field in the background. It’s a relief to see humorous nun fiction, something other than comediennes hiding in convents as nuns, or men disguising themselves as nuns to avoid danger, usually mafiosi trying to track down their stolen money.

Novels that I have not read abound. The Abbess of Crewe by Muriel Spark, The Corner that Held Them by Sylvia Townsend, The Bell by Iris Murdock. There are a surprising number of mystery novels involving nuns and convents, and of course salacious tales of nuns committing sins—most of these written by men.

In the late 1950’s, actress Dolores Hart had starred with Montgomery Clift, Robert Wagner and Elvis Presley, among others. However, at the onset of the next decade, she exited Hollywood to join a Benedictine convent in Connecticut. Her autobiography, The Ear of the Heart, co-written with Richard DeNeut, is captivating.

I suppose I am drawn to the stories of women who chose—or are chosen—to enter the cloistered life because it’s such an alien act. Ritual, vows of silence, the barbs of sin, the pleasure of daily work and prayer; this is how we are shown the contemplative life in film and on the printed page. I guess it’s likely these scenes are not always real.

Nuns have day jobs. They may live in the convent but leave to work at publishing houses, clinics, schools. But the drama inherent in this valuable work is not what intrigues me. It is the mystery of convent life that intrigues me, the camaraderie of the female in a house of women, with a single purpose.

An interesting setting for a novel—no wonder there are so many of them.

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2 thoughts on “The Contemplative Life”

  1. I’m re-reading This House of Brede right now. And I too–utterly non-Catholic–am fascinated by nuns. I have long recognized that part of what draws me is the theatre of the thing–the rules, ritual, and clothing used to shape something I only vaguely comprehend: the power of a relationship with God, as a larger force for good in the world. I’m not drawn to the sort of Freudian “many women locked up together is a breeding ground for neurosis” stories about conventual life. I’m interested in the stories of fallible women who embrace the purpose of conventual life.

  2. The convent is also a refuge from the abuses of life. It seems to be the one safe place a woman can hide from husbands, family, employers, etc. etc all who want her to be something she isn’t. Property.

    In previous centuries a convent was also about the only place a woman of ambition, industry, and intelligence could get an education, control her life, and become an effective leader and manager of land.

    In modern life there have been times when the world becomes overwhelming. I have longed for a life of contemplation but only for a while. When life returns to normal I’m glad I didn’t run away and get trapped in a way of life to which I am not suited. I am not obedient, don’t like celibacy, fear poverty, and am rarely obedient.

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