Thursday, December 30, 2010

Marele Day's "Lambs of God": Definition of Church Depends on Who's Imagining Church

Here's a picture of the reality of church--a picture of what the real church, as opposed to the ideal church to which it all too often appears many bishops and priests imagine themselves ministering, entails in many parts of the world--that you don't read everyday.  This is Australian novelist Marele Day, in her hilarious, shocking, theologically probing novel Lambs of God (NY: Riverhead Books, 1998):

With his eyes closed he could be anywhere.  During his training at the seminary he had often thought about his first Easter mass as principal celebrant.  A grand mass in a grand cathedral, haloes of real gold around the statues, clothes of the finest linen.  Bishops, cardinals, perhaps even the Pope himself present while Ignatius presided.  His brethren prostrate at the altar in their red vestments, the rich tones of a full choir, each member holding a candle, and on the last note of the chant, the last candle being snuffed out and the grand cathedral hushed.

Father Ignatius opened his eyes to his flock--three barefoot old nuns, and a gathering of sheep.  As the nuns knelt in prayer he caught sight of their white ankles.  The soles of their washed feet were already dirty again.  This crumbling drafty chapel, this motley congregation, he had never imagined that he would be celebrating mass in a place like this.  Nevertheless.  "Where two or three of you gather to pray in my name, there you will find me."  The words he was saying in this remote outpost were the same holy words being repeated in the ornate cathedrals of the world.  At this very moment, throughout Christendom, every church, be it lofty or lowly, resounded with the passion of Christ (pp. 180-181).

I read Lambs of God on the flight across the Atlantic last week, and haven't been able to get its vivid images out of my mind.  For readers who haven't encountered the novel and might want to read it, I'll try not to give too much of the plot away.  The bare bones of the story: three aging nuns live in a crumbling island monastery (the location is never identified; it could be a Hebridean island or one of the islands off the west coast of Ireland) that has become so disconnected from the rest of the world that no one, including church authorities, even knows the community still exists.

It has been some years since there has been an abbess.  The three remaining nuns continue living as if their ancient monastery is fully thriving, even as holes open in the roofs of its buildings and the sheep they herd are welcomed into the chapel with them to share their prayers.  Because they are completely cut off from any outside world and the church at large, they develop their own highly eccentric--but nonetheless profoundly traditional--form of monastic life, seemingly oblivious to the fact that their monasticism departs in significant ways from what has become the norm in Catholic religious life of their period.

And then they're discovered.  A young priest who has spotted the tiny island on a map, and who realizes its property belongs to the church and has great value as a potential resort for affluent vacationers, suddenly appears on the scene.  When the three nuns realize his objective is to dispossess them of their monastery, and that the primary value driving his ostensible quest to transfer them to comfortable new surroundings in a conventional monastery, they take him captive.

Justifying their decision by telling themselves that the poor young priest obviously needs to be evangelized, since his values and his view of their lives as monastics is at serious odds with core Catholic values and the monastic tradition . . . . And so much of the humor of the novel turns on the priest's unshakable certainty that he's dealing with a bunch of dirty old cranks who have no clue about what it means to be nuns, and the nuns' absolute assurance that God has sent the priest to them so that they might save his soul.

The novel is full of sharp scenes in which the contrast between the two viewpoints becomes apparent in slyly told ways--as, for instance, when the priest arrives and the three nuns politely invite him to share their prayer with him, and he replies, "Of course!  I'd be delighted to lead you in prayer."

I won't say more.  There may be readers of this blog who would like to read this wonderful novel, which is well worth the read.  And if you do so, prepare to have your theological presuppositions about what constitutes the heart of orthodoxy, and what ecclesiology and spiritual life are all about, turned upside down, in a way that demonstrates the profound connections between a very ancient, very traditional Catholic spirituality and "pagan" myths and folktales centering on the spiritual power of spinsters and shepherdesses and witches who bake and brew and cast spells powerful enough to change the hearts of even the most obdurately certain men of God.

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