A Look at the Contemplative Life

In This House of Brede

By Rummer Godden

Published 1969

Read July 2019

Godden gives us a loving look at about twenty years in the life of an English Benedictine Abbey.  A primary character is Philippa Talbot who in her 40’s leaves a successful career to join the Abbey in about 1954.  Fairly shortly after her arrival Abbess Dame Hester Cunningham Proctor dies which provides Godden a useful device to introduce both the process of naming a new Abbess and to introduce us to a number of characters that are fully developed over the course of the book.  Elspeth Scallon enters the Novitiate and becomes Sister Cecilia just as Abbess Proctor dies providing Godden the opportunity to follow her journey on the path to becoming a fully vowed nun and contrasting her path, Phillipa’s and the path of other Noviatates. 

Overall Godden progresses the story of the characters and the overall community from Philippa’s arrival forward, but she takes many opportunities to discuss various aspects of the Benedictine contemplative community including structure of the day, organization of the community, various specific feasts and special events, and challenges facing the community.  In most cases she gives perspectives on the topic from many of the characters which allows her to develop the specific characters, to provide an in-depth view of the topic, and to give a look at the changes potentially or actually introduced as new Noviate arrive and as Pope John initiates the Vatican II Council. 

Godden provides us an in-depth view of the workings of the Abbey and helps the reader understand what draws one to join, what the path to full vows entails, and what keeps the nuns actively engaged in their chosen life for decades.  Fortunately Godden provides as well stories of novices that don’t remain part of the community and the numerous challenges that individual members of the community face across their lives in the Abbey.  Godden provides a short glimpse of the community’s reaction to the Vatican II Council and its impact without passing any sort of judgement about it. 

While not a book this reader might have selected for herself (again the value of being in a book discussion group that provides such opportunities!), this reader does feel enriched having read this thoughtful, lovely and loving, but not at all saccharine, look at this type of religious life and the way it was conducted during this period.

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