Are you interested in how a funny, sporty, charismatic, well-read, modern woman might want to spend the rest of her life shut up in a traditional, enclosed order of nuns, spending most of the day in silence (when not praying in plainchant)?
If you are, then The Joy of God, a new collection of writings by Sister Mary David, goes a long way to answering that question.
Michele Totah, “Mickey” to her many friends, was the last sort of person you might expect to choose a life of religious confinement on the Isle of Wight, as she did for her last 22 years. This sparky American embraced a life that radically rejected all the exciting possibilities of the secular world for a talented young woman.
I began to understand how this happened by speaking to her friends as well as her sisters in St Cecilia’s Abbey, for the obituary we ran in the Daily Telegraph after she died aged 60 in 2017, of cancer.
Her long friendships went back to her days doing postgraduate study at Christ Church, Oxford. From them I caught a sense of her infectious spirit – a spirit of joy, indeed, since she could date her intense love of God back to childhood.
It was her remarkable gifts of enthusing others which led to her becoming a brilliant instructor of novices. The notes to novices included in The Joy of God deal with the challenges they might face in the monastery, but they apply just as well to life “outside”.
We learn, for instance, how to cope with sharing a space with people who annoy us (“the rubs, pinpricks and blunders of social interaction”). An attitude of patience is essential, because without patience none of the other virtues – humility, obedience, silence and so on – will flourish.
St Benedict, she explains, when he describes the fourth degree of humility, lists some of the challenges: harshness, things that go against the grain, injuries, suffering, “being tested like silver in the furnace, having afflictions laid on one’s back … being struck on one cheek, having one’s clothes taken … enduring false brethren”.
“Nobody can say he didn’t warn us!” says Sister Mary David. We are to accept each other’s weaknesses and oddities, “everything that is a trial to our patience”, as Christ did, “in a redemptive way, as a profound expression of the whole Paschal mystery, Good Friday and Easter Sunday”.
Sometimes it is easier to forgive the weakness of others “than to receive forgiveness for our own – and in doing so forgive ourselves”.
Being merciful to others, and to ourselves, is one of the threads that run through these writings. There’s a beautiful story (recounted in Vincent Twomey’s book on Benedict XVI) about Cardinal Ratzinger asking one of his students how his thesis was going. There was still work to be done, the student replied. The cardinal “turned to me with those piercing but kindly eyes, saying with a smile: ‘Have the courage to leave some gaps.’”
Another theme is bravery. Sister Mary David was short in stature, like her patron David, king of Israel and psalmist. But Fr Erik Varden writes in his introduction that no one who knew her would have any trouble imagining her stepping forth to confront “some braggart Goliath in the name of goodness and truth, her heart firm in faith”.
Reading her scholarly writings illuminates Sister Mary David’s spirituality – very good is The Spirit of Solesmes, her edition of the spiritual writings of the founding figures of the Solesmes monastic tradition, Dom Prosper Guéranger (1805-75), Abbess Cécile Bruyère (1845-1909) and Dom Paul Delatte (1848-1937).
But this new book more vigorously conveys its author’s vigour, dynamism – and her humanity.
She knew darkness, like St Thérèse of Lisieux, the Carmelite nun who died painfully at 24 of tuberculosis, and who is frequently cited.
The following are Sister Mary David’s words: “We need to remember this: we have to go against what we feel on the surface (turmoil, blackness, sense of diminishment) and cast ourselves in faith on God … If Jesus is our life, we cannot rest on the security of feelings. They are of little account.”
Sister Elizabeth Burgess was the infirmarian who looked after Sister Mary David when she was dying, and typed up final letters to friends. In editing these writings so skilfully for publication she has done a great service.
Think of Naaman the Syrian, cited by Sister Mary David: he is the leper told by Elisha to wash himself in the Jordan seven times (2 Kings 5). Like Naaman – and by extension, the reader, with our daily routines – the nun immerses herself in the stream of daily living, prayer, liturgy, work and service; and like Naaman, whose “flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child”, she – and we – emerges refreshed, transfigured.
Andrew M Brown is obituaries editor of the Daily Telegraph. The Joy of God: Collected Writings, by Sister Mary David, is published by Bloomsbury