Lent edging on, the daily reminders of sorrow and penitence.
Yesterday I sat and watched a 1959 BBC documentary on the enclosed Carmelite nuns of a convent near Presteigne on the Welsh Borders, so moving, the chapter nuns so well-spoken, soft upper middle-class accents. Beauty of the candle-lit procession into chapel, the Salve Regina chanted, the Prioress holding out her arms in the shape of a black cross to signify embrace, echoing the black crosses in the small cells (wooden sheds in the garden then).
The world I once imagined entering but of course it is all gone now, the convent closed and the nuns dispersed, lack of vocations, the shift in attitudes after Vatican II. I sat looking at 2016 photographs showing that austere and lovely simple convent as a plushy guesthouse. Lack of vocations forced the convent to close, as happened in so many places elsewhere.
This is what saddens me – that I fell in love with a Catholicism that had ceased to exist, the established traditions and certainties of the 1950s triumphalist Church, a missionary Church, a Church of ritual and elaborate liturgies. It is gone although the rise of strident polarised Trad Catholics may indicate a revival that is not especially literary, theologically informed or humane but recognises loss. In my early 20s I moved around in a haze of Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Antonia White, Flannery O’Connor – reading the letters of Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being, had been a pivotal point in my turning to the Church. And there was also the insidious slow marvellous influence of French Catholic writers: Francois Mauriac, the diaries of Raissa Maritain, the philosophy of Jacques Maritain. All of this had little in common with the actual Church in which I found myself although the writers’ names were familiar and catchphrases from Brideshead Revisited or The End of the Affair would be quoted at times. I was trying to live in the 1930s or 1950s, in a Church that had long disappeared. I was intrigued by the Liberation Theologies I studied and that meshed well with my own political leanings, more progressive and concerned with human rights, in part because to live in South Africa under apartheid was to live with the awareness of gross injustice. Resisting apartheid had nothing to do with narrow party politics, it was simply necessary to fight evil in our midst. And churches worked together in that particular struggle. As early as 1953 the Catholic Church in South Africa had declared apartheid a heresy. But racism, like sexism or homophobia, was not just an issue in the society but in the Church itself
The search for beauty and deeper faith practices went on alongside the struggle for social justice – a kind of slow and painful attrition within. A slow disillusionment. I could not feel I belonged and blamed myself.
Yesterday I thought again about someone mentioned with some scorn by the articulate soft-spoken Prioress, the notorious and widely admired ‘runaway nun’ Monica Baldwin whose memoir I Leap Over the Wall caused a furore in Catholic Britain. The cousin of Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, she had entered an Augustinian order before World War I and left 28 years later, during World War II, coming back into the world at the age of 50. Although her book was a huge success and for a time brought her prosperity and a home in Cornwall, she was a gifted, troubled and difficult woman, drifting from place to place, quarrelling with friends, unable to find peace. It is possible she suffered from some mood disorder or had paranoid, delusional episodes. She committed suicide in an old age home in 1975, taking an overdose of alcohol and barbiturates. On her gravestone are inscribed the words of St Augustine, the great convert from whom her order had taken its name and charism: Thou hast made us for Thyself/ And our hearts shall not rest/ Till they rest in Thee.
I have always thought that the older stricter convents with their unvarying routines and containment not only offered sanctuary and structure to those with a strong sense of vocation but also kept the world safe in some ways from those troubled restless seekers who were unfitted for lay existence and whose disruptive influence would cause havoc and destruction in the world outside the convent, to themselves as well as others. For a long time I wondered if I might not be one of these tormented drifting souls, needing to be shut away from society in order to find any quiet or productive worth. But that harsh assessment arose mostly from the exaggerated self-punitive despondency of a young woman at war with herself, a poor judge of character and unable to trust to the mercy of God. There are other kinder and more accurate explanations for a life disintegrating under severe stress and untreated trauma.
[Shocked as I wrote this, to be assailed by memories of indifference and repudiation from Catholics back then. Such puzzling heartlessness. Not to blame them but that is part of what I carry and it haunts me still. What I can’t write about: the way shame and bitterness stop the voice from uttering a word. Going up over the bridge from Lower Main Road back to the hellish place I thought of as Bedlam, the Catholic priest with bad-fitting teeth giving me a lift, quizzy and oblivious. I could not speak to him. That despair and hysterical loneliness, the lack of even the most basic resource s– soap, a pen, the ability to read, unable to mend broken shoes I shall never forget that. What deformed the person I had been, so that the cascade of anguished pleas, fraught and unconvincing rationalisations, accusations and apologies coming out of me was a torrent of garbage, the shrieking aloud in a desert. It was that broken fragmented babble or silence and all discourses similarly bankrupt.
And this too is the Lenten journey, the wounded self. Going right back to the child unable to keep herself safe from the chaotic, cruel adults around her, the refusal of neighbours, teachers, doctors matrons to see what was going on there on the child’s family. What cannot be forgotten or even forgiven in any human sense but must be left at the foot of the Cross.]