As a teenager, I read Rumer Godden’s In This House of Brede, a novel about a highly competent career woman who joins an enclosed community of nuns. It describes her subsequent struggles adapting to the world of the monastery and facing what today we should call her “demons”. But actually they are her unhealed past, her pride and self-will.
I don’t think it’s true to say that it gave me a romantic view of such a world, because the different characters illustrate repeatedly that whatever romance there may be to be found in a monastery, any flight from the world which is not rooted in the pursuit of Truth is doomed to fail, for the demands of the discipline of the vows and of prayer and silence mean there is nowhere to escape God or the self. Community life brings the little kinks in one’s own and everyone else’s personalities into sharp focus.
I am not so foolish as to imagine that cloisters, habits and bells, and the thousand small details which delineate monastic life, are what imbue holiness, any more than the medieval quadrangles of a university guarantee the quality of its education. But they whisper of an enduring history of dedicated struggle in pursuit of a noble end, of a perduring wisdom about its quest, and of the the Gospel truth that any individual seeking to find him or herself must lose themselves in something and Someone greater.
These reflections emerged from my first Christmas celebrated with a community of Benedictine nuns at the Abbey of St Cecilia in Ryde. From In This House of Brede, I always retained the memory of how it describes the beauty of hearing the Martyrology sung on Christmas Eve. So this year, hearing it sung for the first time ever, I understood why it was a prominent detail.
The Roman Martyrology is a book listing all the feast days of saints. It can be proclaimed during the Divine Office or simply read aloud at meals to detail the celebrations for the forthcoming day. So it is that at the end of Prime on Christmas Eve the proclamation, or Kalenda, of Christ’s birth is sung to an ancient chant. In a very simple monotone it begins: “When ages beyond number had run their course since the creation of the world …”
It narrates the history of salvation through flood and the patriarchs, detailing the years which have elapsed since Abraham and Moses and David, and including secular dates like the founding of Rome. And finally, with the announcement of the birth of Christ, the monotone becomes a chant of heavenly melody, utterly simple but exquisitely beautiful by contrast to what has gone before as the chantress sings: “In the 42nd year of the reign of Caesar Octavian Augustus, the whole world being at peace, Jesus Christ, eternal God and Son of the eternal Father, desiring to consecrate the world by his most loving presence … was born of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem of Judah, and was made man.”
And in this proclamation is contained the real romance, not just of monasticism, but also of the whole Christian life. That is, that since Christ has come into the world created things can point to things beyond themselves, can bear a significance greater than hitherto possible. The monotone of sin and death yields at the presence of Christ to a rhapsody which beautifies and completes all that has gone before. The transformation of our nature emerges from the same nature. It’s the same music if you will, but now the music takes on a new form; it can yield beauty and expressive meaning.
This is equally true of all the extraordinary discipline of the nuns’ lives. Far from being removed from reality, they are completely grounded, disciplining their bodies and minds to be fully present to the mystery of God among them in Word and in Sacrament. Precisely because they are directed towards the presence of Christ, the detailed routine, which might seem strange to contemporary eyes, becomes heavy with meaning in the way that the monotone chant changes to honour the one for whom it is sung. In the same way, their hidden life sings aloud the presence of the Incarnate Jesus to a world too busy to stop, too distracted to wait in silence, too self-willed to open empty hands to receive.
Pastor Iuventus is a Catholic priest in London
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