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Gregorian Chant Amid the Wheat Fields
A motherhouse typical of the period described in CONVENT, the now-empty Ursuline in Paola, Kansas, is for sale.

Religion, a coaxing, demanding, sometimes intellectually or spiritually questing set of questions and answers, is ideally for anyone and everyone who wishes to make the journey. The late John Updike, who was one of our most conspicuous and contemplative religious fiction writers in a medium that had outworn its New England spiritual roots in favor of fast, cheap thrills, once wrote of how personal certain religious writings were to the young husband, father, and writer of the mid-nineteen-fifties: “I remember standing in Blackwell’s great bookstore, in Oxford, staring at the plain broad backs of a complete set of Thomas Aquinas and thinking that somewhere there was a word that I needed. I read the ‘Encyclopedia Brittanica’ articles on ‘Jesus’ and ‘Miracles’; I read Chesterton, Unamuno, Mauriac, Maritain, C.S. Lewis, and Eliot, to name a few,” but not until he discovered the dour Kierkegaard whose own voice and fears matched Updike’s own did he feel at ease.

For writers such as Updike and Cheever, Muriel Spark and Iris Murdoch, the personal was made public by their turning their doubts and fears into fiction; it was a way to tread into unknown waters without somehow getting one’s feet wet. Yet, as generation after generation of committed men and women took that extra step by taking religious orders, the challenges of a religious life made its way, too, into print, not always in the same luminous manner of hope and release. The well-known former nun and now theologian and historian Karen Armstrong, in her wrenching memoir “Through the Narrow Gate,” describes how her seven-year habitation behind the walls of an early Sixties British Roman Catholic convent nearly ruined her physically and mentally, through anorexia and a nervous breakdown, before she finally, well, broke the habit. How different her first-hand experience from Updike’s imagined spiritual-physical paradoxes.

The Chesterfield, Missouri author Gerelyn Hollingsworth, in her sparely titled novel “Convent” (BookSurge), addresses the issue in a similarly painful, at times poignant way. A former Kansas Citian who, if her novel—with its many historical and regional references, from Winstead’s to the radio station WHB—is really the disguised memoir it reads as, depicts Ms. Hollingsworth’s years as overwhelming as Karen Armstrong’s in another country.

But then monastic life is another country, explicitly so. Thomas Merton may have enjoyed privileges such as leaving the Kentuckian Abbey of Gethsemani as he wished and publishing his best-selling memoirs and poems; but there are always exceptions to rules, and in monastic life rules are there to be followed, not broken. “Convent” follows the initiation and five years’ instruction at a Kansas City convent for a young woman named Audrey Thorney. As her last name infers, hers is indeed a thorny path, riddled with strict sisters, punishments and unearned penalties, teachings that often seemed obscure or irrelevant, and unstated provocations, all within the context of young women growing both physically and emotionally, in a time of turmoil both religious and political—within Audrey’s time inside her order, both Pope Pius XII and John XXIII die, and the first Catholic President, John Kennedy, is assassinated. (In an eerie, brief scene revealing how cloistered the nuns are, the author writes of that Friday, November 22, “We were sitting in a classroom at Bishop Miege High School, watching a demonstration of a square dance, when someone opened the door. The teacher lifted the needle off the record.” She learns of the news and calmly tells the students, after which: “The woman did not seem overly concerned. She started the record again and indicated to the four dancers they should resume.”)

“Convent” reads dryly, with characters who—apart from a ferocious creation named Sister Wulfram, a diabolical meanie who goes out of her way to unsettle Audrey—feel more real to the author than they do to the reader. And the chapters, though they move quickly via the telegraphed prose style, have a sameness: there is no third act, in Hollywood screenwriting terms. Yet, Ms. Hollingsworth’s details do form an intriguing insider’s guide to a way of life that has, to some degree, receded. The necessitude for rules, whether dressing for donning their postulant positions or learning how to remain silent or wearing the habits “we had longed for,” is enforced as a way of life. When the young women chafe under the demands of the sisters, their confusion and resentment are plain enough to be understood by outsiders: this ongoing battle, between the sisters and their students, and between the novitiates themselves, is the real story.

The book has been set in the 1960s, when nuns were still an important religious, political, and cultural touchstone. (The Audrey Hepburn movie, “The Nun’s Story,” about a young woman’s spiritual trials before she is released from her vows, came out in 1959.) If it was in the past two decades that we saw changes in convent life, such as discarding the “penguin” outfits and allowing nuns more freedom, a just released report indicating that young priests and nuns are opting for the traditional ways makes a book like “Convent” all the more relevant. The study by the Vatican found that many young women now wish to wear the habits and follow the strict rules that sent so many women (and men) to leave over the past twenty years. Years do make a difference; religions turn slowly, built or un-built or rebuilt, individually.

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Added: August 23, 2009. 08:59 AM CDT
True that Merton's abbots gave him permissions, waaay beyond those given to monks whose writings did not generate huge royalties.

Perhaps they were afraid the famous author would leave the monastery, if they held him to the Rule. (And wasn't he considering doing that when he was electrocuted?)

When he fell in love with Margie, and his abbot told him to stop seeing her, he continued to do so.
Added: August 22, 2009. 12:51 AM CDT
re Thomas Merton
To clarify one point: Actually Thomas Merton was as subject to obedience as any other monk, but his abbots gave permission occasionally to leave the monastery for specific purposes. Not could be publish what he pleased. His best known book, The Seven Storey Mountain, an autobiography, was written at the request of his abbot, and every book that followed had to be approved. For more detail, see the revised edition of my biography of Merton, "Living With Wisdom," published last year by Orbis Books.

Jim Forest
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