Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Nuns & Salzman's Lying Awake


The slew of Pope-posts continues!  (See papal election, Pope and Dirty War, Pope and environmentalism.)

From Saturday's BBC article "Pope Francis wants 'poor Church for the poor':"
Pope Francis has said he wants "a poor Church, for the poor" following his election as head of the world's 1.2bn Catholics on Wednesday. He said he chose the name Francis after 12-13th Century St Francis of Assisi, who represented "poverty and peace". He urged journalists to get to know the Church with its "virtues and sins" and to share its focus on "truth, goodness and beauty". Pope Francis takes over from Benedict XVI, who abdicated last month.

What a change from Pope Benedict! In case you've forgotten, about a year ago Benedict slammed nuns for focusing too much on the poor. Here's the New York Times article on that incident, "Vatican Reprimands a Group of U.S. Nuns and Plans Changes:"
The Vatican has appointed an American bishop to rein in the largest and most influential group of Catholic nuns in the United States, saying that an investigation found that the group had “serious doctrinal problems.”...“I’m stunned,” said Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of Network, a Catholic social justice lobby founded by sisters. Her group was also cited in the Vatican document, along with the Leadership Conference, for focusing its work too much on poverty and economic injustice, while keeping “silent” on abortion and same-sex marriage.

So what is a nun's life like?  Here are three novels on the subject:

Lying Awake by Mark Salzman:
Mark Salzman's Lying Awake is a finely wrought gem that plumbs the depths of one woman's soul, and in so doing raises salient questions about the power-and price-of faith. Sister John's cloistered life of peace and prayer has been electrified by ever more frequent visions of God's radiance, leading her toward a deep religious ecstasy. Her life and writings have become examples of devotion. Yet her visions are accompanied by shattering headaches that compel Sister John to seek medical help. When her doctor tells her an illness may be responsible for her gift, Sister John faces a wrenching choice: to risk her intimate glimpses of the divine in favor of a cure, or to continue her visions with the knowledge that they might be false-and might even cost her her life.
In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden:
This extraordinarily sensitive and insightful portrait of religious life centers on Philippa Talbot, a highly successful professional woman who leaves her life among the London elite to join a cloistered Benedictine community. In this gripping narrative of the crises surrounding the ancient Brede abbey, Rumer Godden penetrates to the mysterious, inner heart of a religious community—a place of complexity and conflict, as well as joy and love.
The Nun's Story by Kathryn Hulme (warning: the novel was written in the 1950s and contains racist depictions of the Congolese):
The lead character of the book, Sister Luke (pre-convent name Gabrielle Van Der Mal), finds her faith tested in Africa where she finds herself at odds with headstrong Dr. Fortunati, operator of a remote Congo hospital, with whom she gradually builds respect, and again during World War II, when she is ordered not to take sides. Ultimately, Sister Luke is forced to decide whether to remain in the convent or return to the outside world. Gabrielle/Sister Luke is stretched between her desire to be faithful to the rule of her congregation and her desire to be a nurse. As a nun she must remove all vestiges of "Gabrielle Van Der Mal" and sublimate herself into the devoted bride of Christ. As a nun there is no room for her personal desires and aspirations. Ultimately, the conflict between her devotion to the Church and the nursing profession, juxtaposed with her passionate Belgian patriotism and her love of her father (killed by Nazi fighter planes while treating wounded) bring her to an impasse...

I wanted novels about modern (20th/21st century) nuns. There are plenty more novels on nuns set in earlier times. The blog Book Group of One has a good list in its post about Nun-Fiction. Another interesting blog post about nun novels is Faith and lies: Two fascinating novels about nuns on Tor.com.

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