When I was about eight years old, my mother ordained that I should go to the little Episcopal church that was only a block away from our house. In former days I had gone to a Lutheran church with my sister, but since getting married she had ceased to go to church at all, let alone to be available to take her little sister along. So my mother talked to an elderly neighbor of ours and arranged that she would pick me up on Sundays and take me to church, the Church of the Advent. You might notice two things about this arrangement: I didn’t have any particular say in the matter, and my mother did not go to church herself.
Fortunately for all parties, I soon decided that I liked going to an Episcopal church. Everything about the weekly high-church communion service, which was called a Mass, took hold on my imagination: The candles and incense, the flowing silk vestments of the priest, the stately language of the prayers, and the music, bravely sung by a small all-female volunteer choir. Two years later, I joined that choir and continued to sing for most of the next decade.
I am old enough that the Prayerbook and Hymnal which were to form my spirituality indelibly were the 1928 Book of Common Prayer and the Hymnal 1940, the products of a church that still called itself “Protestant Episcopal”. I have often said, only half-jokingly, that the Prayerbook taught me to use subordinate clauses, punctuate, and conjugate the English verb in both singular and plural. Almost all of those traits can be seen in the Collect for Purity which began every Mass, and which I can easily type from memory:
Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.
I learned about language from the Prayerbook, about the beauty and flexibility of the English language. When I encountered Donne, Herbert, and Milton as a precociously young college student, I was more prepared for them than I might otherwise have been because the Prayerbook had made their language mine.
The Prayerbook taught me how to read, how to write, and how to pray. The 1928 book gave me the collect, a literary form as tight and succinct as a sonnet or a haiku; the 1979 book, which was introduced into our parish when I was a teenager, gave me the Psalms. The Hymnal 1940 taught me how to listen and how to sing. It was and is an amazing compendium of Western church music, from Sarum plainsong to Negro spirituals, from Lutheran chorales harmonized by Bach to sentimental nineteenth-century tunes whose composers are justly forgotten, with a generous selection of the great composers and hymn-writers of the Anglican tradition: Thomas Tallis, Orlando Gibbons, William Croft, Charles Wesley, Isaac Watts. We sang Gibbons and Tallis, “O sacred head” and “Were you there?” in my little church. I learned to hear and understand modal music, and to this day my ear is basically modal. I learned to stand up straight, hold up my hymnal, and sing over my music, not into it.
Thanks to the Hymnal 1940, and to friends at church who had a passion for English cathedral choirs and their repertoire, when I met my husband by auditioning for a choir he directed, I had exactly the sort of voice and training he wanted: A soprano who understand modal tuning and sang with a straight tone. I was an English choirboy in the body of a twenty-four-year old American girl. (To this day, if you ask my husband how we met, he will smirk and reply, “She auditioned”.) But there was one more book in my childhood that had a huge formative influence on me spiritually. It happened to be a book about Roman Catholic nuns.
Rumer Godden is best known for a novel about nuns in India, Black Narcissus, but that wasn’t the book I read. It was her other novel, about an abbey of Benedictine nuns in England, In This House of Brede. Inspired by the memoirs of Dame Laurentia McLachlan of Stanbrook Abbey, this remarkable novel tells the story of Philippa Talbot, a widow with a high post in government who gives it up, at the age of forty, to become a cloistered contemplative nun. The reader is plunged along with her into the ancient rhythms of monastic life as laid down by St. Benedict some fourteen hundred years ago: Short sleep, plain food, hard dull work, and hours and hours of prayer, both in private and in the great sung daily offices which Benedict called the opus Dei, the work of God.
My first introduction to the book was through that strange artifact, a Reader’s Digest Condensed Book. The volume you see on the left contained not only Godden’s novel, but The King’s Pleasure by Norah Lofts, about Katherine of Aragon, Coretta Scott King’s memoir of her life with her husband, and a couple of other “condensed” titles. I read Mrs. King’s book and Lofts’ novel, but I read about Dame Philippa and her sister nuns over and over.
Then one day I discovered the original, unaltered version of the book on the shelves of my local library branch. My tolerant and wonderful librarians had no problem with my checking out adult books, and that was just one of many books which I borrowed repeatedly to read and re-read. Decades later, working at the central library of the system, I came upon the book on the discards-for-sale shelf; I bought it immediately, took it home, and discovered it was, in fact, one of the two copies formerly owned by my old branch. I have it to this day.
I am happy to say that the book is still in print and can be purchased through Amazon.com. Godden’s account of a community of women, engaged in singing prayers and loving God while also eating, cleaning up, taking care of their sick, and running a print shop and weaving vestments for sale left me with a lifelong love of the monastic life, of daily prayer based on the Psalms, and of the delicious trivia of Latin words, parts of the habit, Gregorian chant. The most important thing I learned, however, was simply that one could be a deeply religious person without being a fanatic or a freak. Philippa and her sisters, committed to their odd lifestyle in the midst of a modest English town, are neither saints nor neurotics; they hide secrets, bear grudges, struggle, fall and get up again. And they relate to one another, and to the small circle of men who contact their enclosed world, with love, honesty, forgiveness, integrity.
Another thing I learned, which has never been clear to me until very recently, is that In This House of Brede showed me that a book about women, a book about female characters, could be as interesting as any book about men. And while a book about women who style themselves brides of Christ might not exactly pass the Bechdel test, it’s a book about women that doesn’t revolve around sex, romance, attempts to get married, attempts to get divorced, having children, or even going shopping. Godden even handles the tricky issue of inappropriate bonds between the nuns, portraying a sensual yet not quite erotic attachment between Dame Maura, in charge of the abbey’s music, and young Sister Cecily, a brilliantly gifted singer. When Dame Maura oversteps good boundaries and her feelings frighten the younger nun, she accepts the Abbess’s suggestion that she go to a sister house in Canada where the nuns need help restoring their practice of the chant, returning five years later to a mature and stable Cecily who can handle their feelings wisely.
Another thing I love about this novel is that the male characters, while few in number, both stand up to the women as characters and relate to them with respect. Philippa, the protagonist, is supported by the friendship of a former male co-worker; Abbess Catherine is refreshed by her encounter with a famous sculptor who creates a new altar and a statue of Our Lady for the abbey. It’s no surprise that the reviews on Amazon are hugely enthusiastic; the only negative one is a critique of the current edition rather than of the book itself. One reviewer actually says that if he or she lived in the world of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, they would memorize and preserve this novel.
Spiritual guidance from books is not, as I would learn later, an exclusively Anglican or even exclusively Christian experience. But the formative influences of these three books is probably why, after trying many other spiritual paths, I am an Anglican again, today.
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