I’ve been following the work of Leonie’s Longing for a few years now, even though I’m having the opposite problem from many others who might read this: my circumstances mean that I am having a hard time *entering* a convent, rather than transitioning out of one. I’ve been discerning a call to consecrated life for 4 years and counting…what a wild, unexpected, eye-opening, hilarious, frustrating, love-filled adventure!
The soundtrack to much of it has come from one of my favourite artists: Audrey Assad. I donated to a crowdfunding campaign for her new album Evergreen a few months ago. Thanks to the behind-the-scenes glimpses she gave, I knew most of the words before it was released to donors at the end of January. (Now it’s available for the wider public – on iTunes, Spotify, and other major services.) I’ve had a lot of time to contemplate the lyrics, and have found them to be a blessing in this current “stagnant” season of my discernment. I’ve found myself asking “Is God working, when I haven’t seen any ‘progress’ towards His plan for me in months? Is He still there?”
I suppose it’s not that different “on the other side” of the convent…thinking that God’s plan was for you to live in a religious community, when, at least for a time, you’ve been called back out into the lay world with no idea of what’s next. As I wrestle with Him, I’m grateful to know that at least one other Catholic out there has admitted that faith doesn’t come easy for her. Kudos to Audrey for being been brave enough to share her story in a culture that expects faith to provide constant happiness and easy answers. I thought a song-by-song review of the album was the best way to pass on what her prayers have taught me.
#1 – Evergreen – The album opens with one of the most perplexing ideas of our faith: God on a cross – who would have thought it? This place looks nothing like Eden. And yet the Cross – and our God exhausted, suffering, totally spent as He’s on it – is what saves us and brings us to new life. We meet someone who has not completely worked through a trial in her faith yet, but is learning to find God in the strange, unknown, untamed places He has led her. Here in the wild, my hands are empty, and yet I’ve had all I needed. There is no drought out here in the desert; I’ve found a water that’s living. Out past the fear, doubt becomes wonder…rivers appear and I’m going under…” I get the sense that the struggle could have destroyed her, but didn’t. In having no other option but to trust God, she has learned that he can be trusted. Instead of asking whether God will provide for her, she is amazed to find out how. The tree of life is evergreen, indeed – remaining with us, showing us that divine life and love will have the final word, even when all seems lost.
At first, I thought these words were an odd choice to begin the album. Why start with a song about seeing the light at the end of the tunnel? But I’ve come to see it as encouragement from a friend, saying “I’ve made it through the worst part of this situation and grown in it. You can too.”
#2 – Deliverer – If you read the lyrics the way I did originally, you might be a bit shocked. You are not possessive; You respect all things. You are not invasive; You have no envy. You are not insistent…And then your mind, like mine, might ramble for a bit… “WHAT!? Aren’t You supposed to be…well…jealous? Aren’t You supposed to invade and ruin our ideas of what is good, right, true, and brings joy? One of the prayers at Mass says that we are ‘a people of His own possession!’ Didn’t my desire to orient every part of my life towards God bring me on this path in the first place? Didn’t I start traveling down this road because He asked me to consider it?”
Audrey wrote a blog post explaining her intentions here – God may rule over us, but as the song later says, He does not “force us” to love Him. Instead, His love “is freedom” and will always surpass our human impulse to make what we love into our own image. True callings from God – to religious life and elsewhere – are asked of us, not demanded. They include the possibility of saying no.
The best part, by far, is the bridge: In the ruins of my heart You preach to the poor, turning over stones to show me there is more – more than all I ask, more than I’m looking for in the ruins of my heart. Putting together all these realizations about who God is not, and what he does not expect of us, is painful. It’s so different from what we might be used to. Getting to the ruins of our hearts will have forced us to see our poverty and weakness…but all of it is met with such abundant love.
#3 – Little Things With Great Love – This song was first featured on the fantastic “Work Songs” album by the Porter’s Gate Worship Project (on Spotify here and iTunes here). Audrey was inspired by a phrase often attributed to Mother Teresa: This You have asked of us – do little things with great love.
My favourite saints tend to be those who see everything as an opportunity for love and holiness – St. Therese, St. Gianna, and yes, Mother Teresa, to name a few. Like them, Audrey reminds us that no flower grows unseen…No simple act of mercy escapes His watchful eye. For there is One who sees me; His hand is over mine.
The second verse is a bit more personal. When Work Songs was released, I had just found out that a childhood friend of mine was accepted as a postulant in a certain convent. Another of my best friends had already lived there for a year…and it was the same one that I’d been dreaming of since I was a teenager. It felt like the Lord was rubbing it in – “You can’t be there, so here’s your consolation prize!” Of course, God is not that cruel, and I needed Audrey’s words to remind me of the truth for the next few months. In the kingdom of the heavens, no suffering is unknown. Each tear that falls is holy, each breaking heart a throne. There is a song of beauty on every weeping eye. For there is One who loves me – His heart, it breaks with mine. He does not mock my pain and desperation…He shares it.
#4 – The Joy of the Lord – The first line sounds so much like the impasse I’ve reached. Mountains ahead of me and valleys behind – the road may be narrow, but your mercy is wide. Having to climb those mountains doesn’t necessarily mean I’ve gotten God’s will “wrong.” God’s love is with us no matter how lost or “off-track” we feel. And then the deepest truth: Sorrow may linger and last for the night but I am never alone. The joy of the Lord is my strength… I am on this path because of the Lord – because I have known His love and want to return it wholeheartedly, because that kind of answer will bring joy to my Love’s heart and my own. And as I gather courage to take the next step, I may be weak, but I’ll cling to the vine. I’m pressed but not crushed, for You are making new wine. Wounds may be opened and weakness revealed, but I will be healed in the fire. I am reminded of my weakness, and my need to trust that these obstacles have a purpose. (St. Therese’s attitude to her own delay in living her vocation comes to mind. She treated her period of waiting to enter Carmel like a “training ground” to grow in virtue. That image gives me such hope! I hope it does the same for you, no matter what your future holds.)
#5 – River (feat. Propaganda) – “River” isn’t as obviously connected to discernment…but the frustration and hope of people seeking justice, and God’s “reaction” to the movements of their hearts, will stand out. She could not even follow the Lord and live. ‘God will be with you just as you say he is.’
#6 – Unfolding – This is a cry of desperation. How do I grieve what I can’t let go? It’s got a hold on me. How do I mourn what I cannot know? It’s got a hold, it’s got a hold on me… None of us know what life with the communities we love and cannot remain with would have been. Having to grieve what might have been doesn’t always make sense, and can feel like a waste of time. At its deepest, it can lead us to question Who God is, how He sees us, and even make our own identity a mystery. Oh my God, I don’t know what this was, am I a child of your love or just chaos unfolding? How do I keep what I cannot find – I’m letting go, I’m letting go of You. (Well, not entirely, but getting rid of old, ill-fitting ideas of who God is and what He wants from us can be frightening at times.) I don’t have the answer to any of these questions, and neither does Audrey…but at least we aren’t alone?
#7 – Teresa – Mother Teresa is known around the world as an example of faith. It was only after her death that the decades of desolation she experienced came to light. Again, while I’ve only known small bits of this darkness, it’s not hard to see myself in the pleading questions she must have had for her Divine “Lover”: did you call my name just to plunge me deep into the darkness? I, too, find it hard not to listen to the accusers around me…whispering to me that I’m wilfully blind and clinging to nothing. If God has really called me to be His, wouldn’t He make it easier and more obvious? If you’ve just left community life, it must seem like even more of a betrayal. Does Jesus still love you if you were not meant to live for Him in this particular way?
Mother Teresa’s attitude towards His absence is an extraordinary. She wanted to admit her pain privately, but to hide it from everyone else she came into contact with. She wanted to smile even at Jesus – after all, I trusted your promise, I gave you my life. We should strive to imitate that perseverance and loyalty. At the same time, I find it comforting to know that one of the greatest saints also questioned His love for her.
#8 – Irrational Season – More than anything else on the record, this one comes the closest to capturing the current state of my heart. I’m at a standstill, and it doesn’t make sense Nothing sensible has yet appeared in this irrational season…but the light is wilder here, out on the edge of reason. I may have a lot of desires, but I’m trying to have very few expectations. That way, God is almost “more free” to act. My plans won’t prevent me from seeing the radical love in His vision for my life, which expands far beyond my own. At the same time, I can see that Love burns bright and clear out where I cannot seize Him.
Again, we find that real Love does not want to possess or be possessed. I personally know what I am meant to do (Be His. Make self-giving service and prayer the point of my life. Tell other people how much they are loved.) The how is still a mystery. (Religious life? Consecrated virginity? Who knows!) To see God revealing a “destination” in the lives of people I love, while I am still traveling towards mine, is extremely frustrating…but it’s yet another call to cultivate trust.
#9 – Wounded Healer – I love the Celtic sound Audrey explores here! God may be mysterious, and His work might even leave us hurt and confused, but He is not distant. Pain is not foreign to Him. As Isaiah says, by your wounds we shall be healed. God’s power is not the brute force of a dictator, bending us to His unpredictable whim. Instead, its aim is to heal and unite us to Him in love. His arms stretched out not to part the seas, but to open up the grave. Blood poured out not for war, but peace and to show us God’s own face. His way contains no fire, no fury, just death into life. over and over, till all things are right. Knowing that he suffers with us makes it so much easier to say Wounded Healer, we give our hearts to you.
#10 – When I See You – Audrey has said that this song is inspired by the Prodigal Son. I can see two stages of his (and our) approach to the Father: You have loved me well, in a million ways, but my wounds are all I know. So I turn my head and I hide my face, too afraid to come back home. From where some of us stand, it might sound like “Why should I come to You with this wounded heart when my response to Your love seems to be the cause of it?” We might even wonder whether He’ll look down on us for thinking that way. The second verse shows the adventure we’re being called to: When my fear comes close, and it robs me blind, oh, how Your love provides for me. What a winding road, what a river wild, being Yours, becoming free! We will not feel abandoned, miserable, or captive forever. That’s not the state God intended for us. The once-paralyzing fear grows cold in the light of Your love once we see Him as He really is.
#11 – Immanuel’s Land – Depending on where you are in your healing, this will either be the easiest or hardest song to hear. Christ, He is the fountain, the deep, sweet well of love…fuller than the ocean, His mercy does expand…no problem there. I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved’s mine!? For most of my post-conversion life, I have believed that such intimate expressions of love belong only to…well, nuns! Not so. C.S. Lewis even embraced the term; the line “And this is the marvel of marvels, that he called me Beloved.” is hidden towards the end of the Narnia series. We are the ones God loves, whether we’re in the convent or out, whether we’ve discovered our vocation and made a permanent commitment to love or not. Jesus, of course, does not give Himself to us halfway.
For me, the most important wisdom is found in the “bride’s” priorities. Love has revealed Himself to her, and so she eyes not her garment, but her dear Bridegroom’s face. She will not gaze at glory, but on my King of grace – not at the crown He giveth, but on His pierced hand. None of the beauty around her is as captivating as its Source.
I am trying not to worry about my own “garment.” Will I swap shopping sprees for habits one day? Is a wedding dress completely off the table? I have no idea. At times I’ve found myself so distracted by thoughts on what might be that I miss what is. I’m not going to be an expert on love just because I’ve made some kind of commitment. The ways I am asked to love today will shape the ways I love in my permanent vocation. I should realize that now, and keep fighting the temptation to look in at myself all the time.
12 – Drawn to You – Plenty of Christian songs are inspired by the enthusiastic, all-consuming commitment of a new convert. Evergreen finishes with a similar profession of sorts, reflecting Audrey’s faith in its current stripped-down form. All my devotion is like sinking sand. I’ve nothing to cling to but Your sweet hand. No clear emotions keeping me safe at night; only Your presence, like a candle light. The “fragility” she faces is not so different from the setbacks we face in discovering our vocations. We can’t rely on our hearts alone to tell us what is true. Even the circumstances in front of us do not always tell us of God’s goodness as clearly as we’d like. As painful as the “refining” process has been, she has discovered how much she needs to rely on Jesus. After everything I’ve had, after everything I’ve lost, Lord, I know this much is true. I’m still drawn to you. Sorrow has become precious. Even her tears have been transformed into an offering of the highest praise. Most importantly, none of this is “accepted” in a grumbling, obligatory way. Audrey and her “offering” are welcomed by the Lord as-is. There is no need for perfection or masks with this God who sees and loves all the imperfections. Can we remain faithful to Him after everything’s been said and especially after everything love cost? (Think of two friends who don’t need to be caught up in conversation to enjoy spending time with each other.) Audrey’s experience proves that love transcending feelings may not always be pleasant, but it is possible.
By Rosemary Kate.
Dear Leonie’s Longing Readers, I feel like I have been keeping a secret from you, and that secret is this book. I first heard about Hurting in the Church through a book review, and my reaction was, “I have to read this book!” Father Thomas Berg is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York with a history not unlike our own. He spent 34 years in religious life as a member of the Legionaries of Christ. This priest, I thought, will have something to say to me. He did.
Hurting in the Church is divided into three sections. The first section shares personal stories of the ways we, the lay faithful, hurt in the Church today. The second is a grouping of several chapters on personal healing, and the third speaks of the hope for healing the Church at large. The book masterfully draws you in with stories that anyone can identify with in some aspect, thus providing the authority for what Fr. Berg says in the following sections.
The first part is where Father Berg shares his story. If you are familiar with the recent past of the Legionaries of Christ, you will know that Father Berg left the community during a time of deep turmoil. In the end, though, his reasons and the circumstances for leaving were deeply personal and unique, just as they are for each of us. Father Berg courageously allows his wounds, like the wounds of Christ, to be a source of healing for others. He also assists in sharing the stories of others, including those wounded by the scandal of priestly sexual abuse. Later in the book Father Berg does not shy away from this topic, and contributes to the ongoing discussion of how the Church can move forward. But this review is not meant to focus on that piece. Ultimately, the connection between Father Berg’s personal journey and the journey of anyone who has left religious life gives this book a voice that particularly spoke to me, and I think could speak to you.
The second part of the book is where I found much food for thought. Father Berg continues to share anecdotes from his personal healing, and his words said to me, “what you are experiencing is to be expected.” I found in these pages a mirror of my own journey, a source of reflection where I could name my experiences and grow from them. One example is on page 110:
“One of the effects of suffering a severe emotional trauma such as betrayal is the sense that our life has been upended. Our compass seems to fail, and we lose our north. Long-held convictions about life, love, and purpose—once foundational for our own self-understanding—can be abruptly shattered. It can give us the terrifying sensation of being held to the precipice of an existential void. Anxiety attacks and depression are not uncommon responses to such interior turmoil.”
Yet all of this is written with the underpinnings of hope. A few pages later, Fr. Berg writes, “I rediscovered that, at my core, my life was anchored in that experience of the love of Jesus” (p. 113).
The third section looks at the universal Church. After providing guidance on how one can personally heal, Father Berg expands his vision and speaks of what the Church is, can, and will be if and when her members heal individually and help each other heal. I found the first section a draw into the book, the middle a “deep dive,” and the third a gentle exit to the reality of the world we live in as well as a roadmap of where it could go.
Hurting in the Church is a much-needed book for our time, and a great tool for anyone, as Father Berg masterfully explains in his note at the beginning. With its rich content, it took me a few months to read it; therefore, dear readers, I hope you will forgive me for not sharing it sooner. It was only published in 2017, so I have not kept silent for very long after all. Father Thomas Berg’s writing has been a much-needed companion, teaching me, as he writes, “the wound and how I chose to deal with it would have a lasting influence on who I would become from that point on in my life” (p. 109, emphasis in the original). I have left religious life, which, no matter how peaceful or not, created a wound in my life, and both that wound and my time in religious life will have a lasting influence on me. With Father Berg’s inspiration, that lasting influence will be a positive one. I hope he can assist you in coming to the same conclusion.
Hurting in the Church: A Way Forward for Wounded Catholics, by Father Thomas Berg, published by Our Sunday Visitor – Website: http://fatherberg.com/
Abba’s Heart, Finding Our Way Back to the Father’s Delight by Neal Lozano and Matthew Lozano.
Abba’s Heart was the book that most fed my heart during a difficult time of solitude.
This book unveils for the reader the person of the Father, and His love for us through the person of Jesus, whose sole mission is to lead us to the Father and the Father’s love.
Initially I was a little hesitant, I felt my relationship with with Jesus and the Church was a bit fragile – but the title intrigued me. Who doesn’t want to find their way back to the Father’s delight? So, I kept reading. This book helped open my own heart to that delight of his love, feeling and knowing that I was loved was what I most needed. It started my inner healing and it gave me hope. Suddenly my hurt was overcome by this amazing love and faithfulness!
The book has four main sections. The first is: The Way Home, which looks at our own heart, its brokenness and tragedy. The second part: The Father’s Heart, looks at God’s heart and His desire to console us, to love us, to give Himself to us in a tender way. The third section is titled: Coming Home. This section takes a closer look at the weaknesses and obstacles that prevent us from being aware of this amazing love the Father has for us. Lastly, Life in the Father’s House calls us to act, to forgive, to trust in His love in order to worship and to move on, at our own pace; rooted in His love.
Throughout the book Lozano uses some personal anecdotes and the parable of the Prodigal Son to reinforce the message of God’s love for each of us. And, each chapter ends with a beautiful prayer that always seemed to capture exactly what my own heart most needed.
I was so grateful that I found this book. I hope you get a chance to read it and that it brings you healing, hope and the delight of knowing you are loved by God.
Roses Among Thorns, Simple Advice for Renewing Your Spiritual Journey by St. Francis de Sales, published by Sophia Institute Press.
St. Jane de Chantal was the foundress of the Visitation sisters (Visitandines), along with St. Francis de Sales, her spiritual director. St. Francis is known for his keen counsels. This book contains 60 excerpts of some his most poignant and sweet advice, and it does just as the title promises: it renews your spiritual journey.
On the practical side, what I liked about this book, is that it is short, almost pocket size, so you can carry it anywhere. And, the excerpts are only a couple of paragraphs long so you can make a short meditation of it, or even read and re-read the same excerpt until the words really sink in. You can also read the excerpts as you wish: pick a topic per day; chose a topic at random; or read it cover to cover, it doesn’t matter – you will find it uplifting and full of hope.
On the spiritual side, I’ve always found St. Francis the Sales to be kind and honest, never condemning or harsh. If you’ve read “Divine Intimacy” or any other of his books you will realize why he is the model of spiritual directors. His style is personable, gentle and encouraging! It is as if a friend that knows you well was speaking with you.
For example under the topic: A Time of Depression, St. Francis writes:
“A melancholy humor has overcome you for a time, and from being sorrowful, you have become anxious. Do not let yourself become anxious. Do not lose your peace. Even though it seems to you that you do everything without any savor, feeling or strength continue to embrace our crucified Lord, and give him your heart, consecrate your mind to him with your affections just as they are…”
My humble and personal advice is that you pray to the Holy Spirit before reading any excerpt in this book, and imagine it is a good friend speaking to you. It will really soothe your spirit, it did mine. I am so happy to share this little gem with you. I hope you also enjoy it.
I would have been about twenty the first time I read Rumer Godden’s novel (actual quote from a friend: “You want to be a nun, and you haven’t read In This House of Brede?”), and at first I found it hard going. For one thing, there are a lot of characters. It’s easier the second time around, once you know that there are three main characters (Philippa, Cecily and Abbess Catherine) and three important secondary characters (Dames Veronica, Agnes and Maura), and that all the others are well-drawn but incidental to the story.
The main reason I struggled to read Brede, though, was that the things I was reading kept striking home too sharply, as the characters’ doubts and trials became a mirror for my own. There’s a scene partway through the novel in which one of the sisters is told by the abbess that – after her future in the abbey had been hanging in the balance – she will be permitted to make temporary vows. And this character, normally so efficient, cold and practical, feels the relief so deeply that she collapses in a faint. I knew that one day, I too would wait while the Council met to decide whether or not to admit me to profession: I, who desired the religious life with my whole being, could easily imagine collapsing with relief when accepted. Or trying to hold on to a vocation in the face of the same internal and external pressures faced by another sister throughout her novitiate. Rumer Godden writes her characters intensely and unsparingly, and just as in real life, their virtues can easily tip over the edge and become flaws. Philippa Talbot is a widow who gave up a high-powered government career to enter the religious life in her forties, and her drive and acute intelligence isolate her from the other novices. Cecily Scallon is a brilliant but fragile young musician whose family opposed her entrance into religious life, and her determination sometimes hovers at the edge of selfishness. But if virtues can become flaws then the reverse is also true, and the book’s most rewarding and beautiful moments come when, by the grace of God, a character is able to turn around and gain a true victory over self.
In This House of Brede is largely, as you will have gathered from my description above, a character-driven book, but character development is intricately woven through its layers of plots and sub-plots. In a nutshell, it is the story of an English Benedictine monastery in the early 1960s. The old abbess dies suddenly of a stroke, and her successor Abbess Catherine inherits a catastrophic financial situation that casts doubt on the future of the monastery, as well as a religious landscape that is changing beyond recognition with the opening of the Second Vatican Council in Rome. One of the main differences between the novel and its 1975 film adaptation starring Diana Rigg is that the latter chose to leave out these aspects of the novel, and to focus on the relationships between the nuns instead. The film is quite pleasant in itself and I’ve watched it a number of times, but the source material is so complex that, by simplifying it and stripping out the sub-plots, a lot of the most profound (and dramatic!) moments of the book were lost: the tense medical emergency that threatens to shatter the lives of several characters; the slow crafting of a new chapel that mirrors the nuns’ own growth in faith; and also the scene I had most looked forward to seeing on screen, in which the abbey’s most treasured possession gives up a secret it had held for over a century. Brede really deserves an adaptation into a television series, I think, to follow the author’s carefully balanced and layered plotlines fully, and most of all to do justice to the varied, struggling, loving and movingly human women who live within the walls of the abbey a life devoted to God.
Godden was a Benedictine Oblate who wrote no fewer than three novels about nuns: Black Narcissus, written in thirty years before her conversion to Catholicism, examines the psyches of troubled missionary sisters from a cold and critical distance and was, I thought, very much an outsider’s view of the religious life, while Brede, written in 1969, has more balanced and mature characters, and shows a deeper, internalised understanding of the monastic vocation. The last, 1979’s Five For Sorrow, Ten For Joy, is a much darker book (the heroine, Lise, enters the convent straight out of prison), and certainly not for the fainthearted, but it too reveals the dignity and sacrifice of the religious life and those who live it. Black Narcissus is probably the most famous of the three to a secular audience, but it is the quiet and complex Brede that has won most admiration from the religious sisters I have known. If there is any book that can lay claim to being the novel about the contemplative religious life, it is surely In This House of Brede.
Given that Monica Baldwin’s I Leap Over the Wall is perhaps the most famous book ever about leaving the convent, it’s surprising that it took me so long to read it. Or perhaps not. I’d read Father Richard Butler’s analysis of it in his book Religious Vocation: An Unnecessary Mystery, in which he thoroughly criticised her understanding of vocation, and other authors I’d encountered had also written about its shortcomings. So it was with some trepidation that I picked it up in my local library, and made a startling discovery: this book is funny.
Perhaps I should qualify that. Episodes from the author’s post-convent life (especially her work in a camp for munitions workers) can be harrowing, but she brings to everything a wry, ironic, and exquisitely British sense of humour that keeps it from getting weighed down. Baldwin was a genteel young woman of twenty-one when she entered an enclosed monastic community in 1914, and she returned to secular life in 1941 to find the world turned upside-down by two World Wars. I Leap Over the Wall is the story of her attempts to deal with new social mores (“an object was handed to me which I can only describe as a very realistically modelled bust-bodice. That its purpose was to emphasise contours which, in my girlhood, were always decorously concealed was but too evident”), find paid work (“who, in these days of battle, murder, and sudden death, wanted illuminated addresses or initial letters from the Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berri, or the Book of Kells?”), assist in the War Effort (“nobody who was not actually fingered one can have any idea of the degree of iciness to which a brussels sprout can attain if it really makes up its mind; nor of the rapidity with which this iciness can be communicated to the hands of anyone who attempts to sever it from its parent stalk at half-past eight on a cold and frosty morning in the early days of March”) and to try to catch up with a society that had left her behind in every way.
Her narrative is carefully structured: she’ll begin with an episode from her post-convent life – for example, people-watching in a stuffy train carriage on the way to the latest in a string of job interviews – and then shift into a comparison with religious life. (In this case, it was a discussion of the conflict between the two types of nuns one finds in a monastery: the Fresh-Air Fiends who want the windows open in every sort of weather, and the Fug Fiends who always want them closed no matter what.) She writes about her time in the convent with a blend of warmth and tension that anyone who has faced a violent interior battle to stay in religious life will understand perfectly. Occasionally, her detached story-telling style will shift into something like poetry as she describes, say, the hand-woven lace on the altar linens used in her community: “cream, foam-colour, ivory, linen-white, ghost-grey or palest oyster – all the faint, indescribable quarter-tones between white and white that exist only in lace; most of it was well over a yard in depth” or the rich pigments which she laid out for the work of illuminating manuscripts.
She doesn’t shy away from spiritual depth, either. Though it’s only at the very end that she states directly why she left the convent, her detailed discussions throughout about mental suffering, the difficulties of conquering the self, and the Dark Night of the Soul, give more than a hint. On a happier note, Chapter 8 includes a fascinating description of the attrait, a concept I hadn’t previously encountered – for someone interested in religious life, it’s worth borrowing this book from the library for these couple of pages alone. Baldwin describes the attrait as “the special angle or aspect of the spiritual life towards which a soul feels particularly drawn,” and, for nuns, a vocation within a vocation: “there was a nun to whom the doctrine of Grace as revealed in the Epistles of Saint Paul was everything; and another who offered her life, with its prayers, works, sufferings, and joys, for the Sanctification of Priests. Another – an Apostolic Soul – lived only to win the graces necessary for the Conversion of Sinners; another for the Foreign Missions; yet another was wholly inspired by the idea of membership in the Mystical Body of Christ” – different “facets of the million-faced jewel of religious life.”
Not that she can’t speak eloquently about the hardest aspects of religious life, too. But she isn’t bitter; if she suffered from the cold as a nun, she also suffered from the cold as a farm worker in her post-convent life, and doesn’t see fit to say which experience was worse. And, always, her descriptions are handled with a touch of self-deprecating humour that lightens the tone.
I picked up I Leap Over the Wall expecting to hate it. Instead, I found a book that wasn’t perfect (you have to skim over paragraphs of irrelevant details sometimes!), but which turned out to be a perceptive and often charming account of life as a fish-out-of-water in the wild world of England in wartime, and an interesting look at the religious vocation “from the point of view of one who had no such vocation.”