Life Against Nature

The Nun’s Story, by Kathryn Hulme. Little-Atlantic, Boston. $4.00.

Riding high on the nation’s best-seller lists in this fall and winter of election, war and rebellion is The Nun’s Story, Kathryn Hulme’s novelistic biography of a Belgian nurse who became a nun, served her order for 16 years at home and in the Congo and returned to “the world” at the end of World War II.

The book’s right to be a best-seller is obvious: it caters to the well-known American preoccupations with medicine and hospital life, with psychiatry, with the bizarre and mysterious continent of Africa, with the secrets of the cloister, and with the Resistance movements during the Nazi occupation. For Sister Luke, the heroine, did not lead a life of quiet retirement. During her novitiate she finished her nurse’s training and received a diploma in psychiatry in institutions run by her Order. Her first months out from under the wing of the mother-house where she was trained were in a rigorous government course in tropical medicine. The proving ground where she demonstrated the ability and stability to undertake missionary work was a large mental hospital for women which the Order operated.

Finally she reached Africa, the land of her dreams, but instead of being allowed to do evangelistic work among the natives was detained as a supervisory nurse in the European hospital in a large city in the Congo. Just before the outbreak of World War II, she made an emergency trip to Europe, accompanying a mental patient, and was caught in the hostilities. From her nursing post in the tuberculosis wing of a hospital she aided the fight of her countrymen against the Nazis after their armies had surrendered. In this struggle she realized openly what had been implicitly true all along, that she was more nurse than nun, and that her Christian conscience often contradicted the rule of life she had sworn to follow. The story ends the morning she shed her habit, and dressed in a lay nurse’s uniform supplied by the Order, stepped forth into a strange world to make her own way.

The elements of a “sure-fire hit” are here, but above them all are religion and the religious life. The Nun’s Story is being read in search of an answer to the spiritual needs of today by the same people who followed Thomas Merton to the Seven Storey Mountain, who seek to “understand” such diverse characters as Albert Schweitzer and Billy Graham, or who eagerly looked for Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift From The Sea. The answer given by The Nuns Story is not simple or unequivocal. In spite of her departure from the Order, Sister Luke remains a devout Catholic, and no where does she deny the validity of a Rule—for those who subscribe to it.

Article continues below

From the first days of her postulancy to the days of war, a battle raged between Sister Luke and the religious life. She and “it” might he described as the two protagonists of this book.

Gabrielle Van der Mal, the girl who became Sister Luke, was the lively young daughter of a famous surgeon. She had medicine in her blood, had learned to use a microscope when she learned to read. She was devoutly religious, and though her father had prevented her marriage to the man she loved, entered the Order from a sincere devotion and desire to serve Christ as a missionary in the Congo, a land that had captured her imagination.

Alongside Sister Luke is the Life to which she is dedicated. The making of a nun is given in brilliant detail, from the hundred bare cubicles which the novice marvels can hold such diverse women and not show it, to the perfect worship in the motherhouse chapel which must not be disturbed even when a Sister faints, to the silent meals in the refectory and to the “recreation” in the sunny garden where the sisters sit in a large circle and talk—but only of items of general interest. Through Sister Luke’s eyes as a novitiate we see these women living by a Rule which forbids mirrors (or even highly polished shoes), which provides a small flagellant made of light chains with hooks at the end of each (but orders moderation when it gives them), and which gives the older sisters permission to talk to the novices when their hair is clipped (to prevent nervous giggles at the sight of one another’s bald heads). With her we learn the rules governing the minutiae of daily life—eating, sleeping, walking, speaking, praying, travel, clothes, letters. Each small rule, we learn, is to further the community toward its goal of “constant conversation with God.”

The striking demands made in God’s name are for detachment, charity, obedience—and perfection in the keeping of the Rule. On the road to detachment from “the world” the nun leaves behind belongings, pictures, even a room of her own in the dormitory. The call of a bell stops her in the middle of a word or in the middle of a helpless child’s meal to turn to prayer. The road to charity leads through humility, service, and selflessness. Obedience is won through public confession of faults—and the older sisters help a younger one if her memory seems lacking. The goal of perfection involves continuous self-searching for faults—as well as a voice that is neither too loud nor too low, and promptness that is neither late nor early. The battle between Sister Luke and the religious life rages around one principle—obedience. The first trial came when a superior suggested that it might be a great gift to God if Sister Luke were purposely to fail her examination in tropical medicine, in order to restore the self-esteem of an older sister who feared she might fail. After days of self-searching and prayer she found that she could not throw away her training and prospects for service in such a way. In the Congo, gradually she turned from nun to nurse, apparently feeling that God needed her more in the hospital than in the sisterhood. Back at home, under the stress of war, she turned more and more to the Underground and to the spiritual needs of her patients as having priority over the rules of the Order. Sister Luke could not be a good nun; her conscience protested.

Article continues below

Whatever one’s religious background, this book leaves in the mind admiration and appreciation—of the life as well as of Sister Luke. The nuns who follow this Rule are fine people, sincere in their desire to serve God. There are a minimum of neurotic or misplaced inhabitants of the Order—a smaller percentage than one would find in “the world.” The grandeur of their goals shames those of us who with deadened consciences settle for less. In Sister Luke, in spite of her “failure”, we find a Christian heroine, for she tried, and her courage was spiritual as well as moral and physical. The great traditional vows of poverty, chastity and obedience when we see them lived before us strike at our hearts and show up our softness, self-indulgence, weakness of will, sloth, and our lack of any intention to put God first. The rigorous life of the cloister and the accomplishments of the sisters make us aware of the dissipation of our energies into so much that is not ‘ “of faith.”

And yet there is much about the so-called “religious life” that gives one pause. One to whom the Orders are strange, whose tradition does not include a veneration of them as a higher way of life, cannot but be struck by the conflicts inherent in this life. Obedience and charity are at war when a nurse takes away the cup of milk at a child’s lip so that she may pray. The “grand silence” Sister Luke found kept her from ever talking to her patients of their souls’ needs in the one time of day when they relaxed and “opened up.” The humility and charity in failing the medical tests would have been achieved at the cost of a lie. The detachment from the world includes detachment from the other nuns as well—and the heart cries out against such a studied denial of nature. Jesus stood at the tomb of Lazarus and wept, yet the sisterhood may not mourn its martyrs. What is the glory of “a life against nature?” (Mother Emmanuel’s description to the novices.)

Article continues below

The age we live in is in many ways an age of anarchy. Standards are changing in many areas of life, as governments are changing around the world. Our enthusiasms, our passions are muddied and impure. We Americans particularly are doing our best to sell our spiritual birthright for something we call “the American way of life,” but which in another day might be called gluttony or greed. The tenor of our times is to seek comfort and content. Our slang farewell bids fair to become our national creed: “Take it easy!”

Is it any wonder that from the midst of a self-indulgent, materialistic society like ours the cloister looks like heaven, or at least a haven? Its battles exist, but they look easier perhaps than the everyday decisions facing Christians. If I have given away everything it is no longer painful to decide between keeping up with the Joneses and my obligations as a Christian steward. If I bind myself to mass and prayers seven times a day, I am no longer plagued with the proper use of time. Is it any wonder that to one whose conscience pricks the cool, quiet, holy life of discipline and charity—and withdrawal—calls? Is it a surprise to find Trappist monks in our popular magazines—and Sister Luke sponsored as a Book of the Month? Or that untold numbers of women read Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s extremely tentative searchings for some kind of inner life?

But withdrawal can never be the answer for all of us—and as Protestants we even say for any of us. The life which the Gospel imparts is to be shared. Jesus was no ascetic—in fact he made rather a point of being the opposite. Neither did he show two ways of life-one for the mass of his followers and one for the special few with higher aspirations.

The New Testament denies a “life against nature.” It hallows all of life, all its relationships, all its duties and obligations, all its tasks. There is one call to all-in the words of Paul, “Follow after love.” How can we compute the value of an ordinary life—outwardly unrestricted by a special rule, unhampered by petty laws, in which the love of Christ is released? Which is greater, the denial of self within the bounds of a community, or the forgetfulness of self of an ordinary man, living an ordinary life, beset by the problems of all mankind, yet who gives the cup of water, the coat along with the cloak, or goes the second mile? We see Christ in a dedicated nun indeed, but is He not more evident in the life of a mother or house-wife who has made of her work an offering to God?

Article continues below

The disciplines of life which the convent brings to our attention are all there in the New Testament. Sister Luke and her world speak to our hearts because they have the strength too many of us lack. Set times of prayer are not a monopoly of any one group—they may he found recommended by such diverse Protestants as William Law and Frank Lauhach. Some of the disciplines should be part of our daily lives if we are aware of our need of “constant conversation with God.” Some of them have their place on special occasions, in times of preparation for future service, or for short periods of special need. Paul says husbands and wives may stay apart for prayer and fasting. Jesus spent some time in fasting, some whole nights in prayer; neither was made an absolute. For our discipline, our gifts, our virtues themselves, are all subservient to one principle: “The greatest of these is love.” Sister Luke said her conscience asked questions; love can tell us when to pray and when to work. It told Hudson Taylor on one occasion to get up from his knees where he was asking God to supply the needs of a family in want and give them the money in his pocket. “Love never faileth.”

Sister Luke can teach us the importance of singleness of heart—we who live so close to Mammon. She can teach us not to be afraid of differences which may be the result of following Christ—if a nun can forget all the inconveniences and peculiarities of her life in serving others, can we not bear to do without something our television sets declare we need, to be perhaps a little shabby, or to forego the neighborhood cocktail parties or poker games—for His sake?

We can love Sister Luke, and admire her for what she is—and at the same time remember the words of Paul: “I show you a more excellent way.”


Defensive Tone

American Catholicism by John Tracey Ellis. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1956. Cloth $3.00, paper $1.75.

The Right Reverend John Tracy Ellis, Professor of Church History at the Catholic University of America, editor of the Catholic Historical Review and author of a number of works on English and American Catholicism is certainly the right man to write this volume for The Chicago History of American Series. He has produced a succinct and scholarly piece of work for both historian and general reader.

Article continues below

It is not possible in the space available for this review to give anything more than a very brief statement of the contents of the work; but probably the four chapter headings summarize it most effectively. I. The Church in Colonial America, 1492–1790; II. Catholics as Citizens, 1790–1852; III. Civil War and Immigration, 1852–1908; IV. Recent American Catholicism.

Dr. Ellis traces clearly and interestingly the history of the rise and expansion of the Roman Catholic Church in the U.S.A. He cannot of course go into great detail, but his work does form a good, readable introduction.

The most important criticism which one could make of the work, however, is that a defensive tone dominates the work. There is a continual stress upon the “maltreatment” meted out to Roman Catholics both in Britain and in America.

No doubt Professor Ellis has some reason for complaint, but he never mentions that Roman Catholics in America were much better off than Protestants in Roman Catholic countries. For instance he fails to say that while Roman Catholics were at least permitted to live in Maryland, albeit under certain restrictions, Protestants were absolutely banned from New France and from the Spanish Empire.

Coupled with this he has ignored the reasons for American anti-Roman Catholic movements in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He has apparently failed to understand the influence which the anti-liberal actions of Pius IX and of the Roman church in Spain, Bolivia and other countries have had upon American Protestant thinking.

To pass these examples of Roman Catholic persecution off as having no more relation to American Catholicism than Afrikaander racial polices have to American Calvinists is a little misleading (p. 158). After all the anti-Protestant actions in Roman Catholic countries seem to be based upon that church’s doctrine and law. (cf. A. G. Cicognani, Canon Law, Philadelphia, 1935, pp. 120 ff.) It is because of this that many Americans fear the possibility of the Roman church gaining political power.

Yet, despite this weakness, the book should be of great use to those who are concerned with the contemporary American religious picture. It is well produced and has an excellent list of suggested readings.

Article continues below


Useful Instruction

Personal Evangelism, by J. C. Macaulay and Robert H. Belton. Moody Press, Chicago. $3.25.

The instructors in evangelism at Moody Bible Institute have prepared a textbook on personal evangelism that should find wide acceptance both in and out of the classroom. These men write out of passion for the souls of the lost, and both of them bring to the task a broad background of experience in this field. The result is a book which lends itself well to class use but which will be stimulating and helpful to the individual reader as well.

The book begins with a careful definition of evangelism and then treats the message of evangelism. This latter section shows that man’s need of salvation lies in his guilt, depravity, alienation and judgment, and then clearly demonstrates how perfectly the Gospel of Christ meets each aspect of man’s need. The authors’ conclusion here is “We need no new Gospel, no new evangelism but a mighty increase of sane, sound, Spirit-filled evangelism” (p. 28).

The presentation of the various forms of evangelism takes in some of the most recent developments in this field and shows how each new form has its place in God’s plan. The counsel given by the authors as to the way of approaching various types of people is most practical, and to this reviewer, the section on dealing with Roman Catholics was especially valuable. Almost any Christian, however experienced in personal work, would be helped and encouraged by reading these pages.

The book is characterized by a wealth of illustration, much of it drawn from the experience of the authors, and by an evident familiarity with the books which have become classics in this field. A helpful bibliography is appended, and a list of questions is given at the close of each chapter.


The Red Dean

Christians and Communism, by the Very Reverend Hewlett Johnson, D.D., Dean of Canterbury. Putnam. 10s, 6d.

Britain’s “Red Dean” states his views in this book, and sees Communism as an ally of Christianity. To do this, he has to concentrate on the field of moral ideals. Thus the Marxist slogan, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” is a commendable aim for the Christian. Ideas of brotherhood and of human rights may be found in the two systems. Moreover, the Christian approves the banning of suggestive papers, films and advertisements, as also do the Russians.

The Dean baits his hook attractively, but the hook is what worries the Christian. Ideas of brotherhood and human rights sound hollow in the face of happenings in Hungary and elsewhere. The kindly Communist provisions for old people presuppose that one is allowed to grow old before being “removed.” And at heart the Christian finds the basis of Communism in hopeless antagonism to Christianity, in spite of what the Dean says. Thus, “Ultimate reality, says the Marxist, is a substance, a stuff, a something objective, existing outside us and our mind, though including our minds. The basis of reality is substance, not just idea; substance, as in the Christian Creed” (p. 125). Here is a subtle misuse of the term “Substance” in the Nicene Creed. Are Christianity and Communism brothers because both are monistic, even though the ground of one is the personal God and the ground of the other is matter?

Article continues below

What shall we say of matter and spirit? “Jesus was materialistic in His attitude to the world” (p. 28). Yet He taught the essential need for faith in himself and of spiritual rebirth. “Jesus was not hated for his attitude to God. He was violently hated for his attitude to man” (p. 47). Yet scholars have shown a high proportion of parallels between the moral teachings of Jesus and those of the rabbis. Jesus stood his trial on a charge of blasphemy, and reasserted his own identity with the Son of Man of prophecy.


Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.