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Nunc Dimittis

Buttered Sleeves

On a nun's multitasking abilities.


Christian publishers, much like the manufacturers of washing powder, have a ready-made but perhaps easily forgotten focus group in communities of consecrated religious. In my Dominican convent, as in many convents around the world, the sisters observe the monastic tradition of reading at meals: each suppertime, one of us will read aloud from a book of spirituality or theology, a biography of a saint, a treatise on prayer or similar, while the rest of the community eats and listens in silence. This tradition serves to build up the sororal life of the religious house through shared intellectual and spiritual endeavour. It also creates very discerning book reviewers. On entering the convent, the novice sister discovers that reading suppers are not simply a novel and edifying way to spend half an hour of a weekday evening. In fact, they are the training ground for the development of a nexus of obscure but nevertheless highly useful mental and spiritual disciplines. First, the novice develops the ability to assimilate large amounts of textual information while simultaneously peeling a satsuma, cutting up a sandwich, or wondering why the last sister who used the peanut butter did not simply throw out the practically empty jar, rather than assuming her fellow sisters would want to spend five minutes scraping the bottom with a knife. Eventually she finds herself able to listen without accidentally buttering her sleeve, and a new skill is mastered: becoming attentive not only to the words of the spoken text, but to the emotional equilibrium of the community as the reading progresses. For a poor book, a challenging book, or an informative book is never more quickly or more profoundly exposed than when it is being read out loud, and real-time literary criticism is broadcast from the face and body language of each sister. Brows furrowing deeper and deeper as a particularly tedious chapter stretches out before us, like an empty motorway in high summer; bitten-back smiles of appreciation at good, lively prose; the hush and almost sacred stillness that descends on the table as a saint approaches the hour of death. It’s an excellent gauge of orthodoxy, too: hours of novitiate classes on philosophy and theology exercise far less hold over the novice’s memory and imagination than the sight of her Mistress of Studies dropping her fork in alarm at a well-meaning but ham-fistedly modalist analogy of the Trinity.    Table reading is unparalleled as a means of getting to the heart of a book, for there is no better context in which to come to appreciate a work of prose than it in the company of people whom you love and trust, and whom you know could not control their facial expressions if they tried. Our local Benedictine nuns send us their quarterly newsletter in the mail, and we know that their book review section is solidly trustworthy, for they, too, will have gone through all the familiar stages of trying to stifle laughter for the sake of preserving silence and observing that look on Mother Abbess’s face when constructing their literary opinions. Table reading transforms the process of coming to know and love a book into a common project, one swept up into the grand common project of coming to know and to love all of God’s good creation—and, pre-eminently, coming to know and love one another. After all, what better way is there to learn, not only of the book in question, but about the sisters whom God has deigned to surround us with (or, in some cases, rub us up against)? Why spend hours questioning them about their likes and dislikes, their family background, their earliest memories, their relationship with their father, when one can simply look around the table at supper to see an apparently dour sister turned dewy-eyed by the Dialogues of Saint Catherine of Siena, or a fellow novice revealed, by her silently quaking shoulders during The Everlasting Man, to be one of those people who finds all Chesterton indiscriminately funny? As with all the faculties of our human nature, given to us by our Creator and redeemed and re-made in His incarnate Son, the human love of words exists in a sanctifying exitus reditus: a divine gift which can, if we let it, lead us back to the heart of the giver. To read together as a community is to choose to cooperate ever more closely with the God Who gave us words, Who speaks to us in words, and Who ultimately came to dwell among us as the very Word made flesh. For the consecrated religious who observe this practice, the lessons of table reading can be among the most profound of our lives in the convent—and, indeed, of our whole lives as a member of the community of the baptized. This, then, is my advice to Christan authors: find your nearest convent—ideally, the nearest Dominicans. We know a good book when we hear one, and our motto is “Veritas.” Sister Carino Hodder is a Dominican Sister of Saint Joseph based in the New Forest in England.

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