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The cover flap of the first edition of Rumer Godden’s 1979 novel, Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy, carries a comment from a Washington Post reviewer, who wrote, “Rumer Godden has written beautifully about nuns.” I smiled when I read the statement. It is at best only partially true. Godden wrote wonderful stories about nuns, but in Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy, she wrote about a great deal more. In fact, Elizabeth Fanshawe, Godden’s protagonist, is more an icon of what it means to be a human being than an icon of what it means to be any particular kind of nun.
Rumer Godden’s novel came at exactly the time when it was most needed to make the point that sanctity is a process and a struggle for us all, religious as well as lay. By 1979, the Catholic community was locked in disagreement about exactly what nuns were meant to be. Or look like. Or do. The first blush of excitement that came with Vatican Council II and its sweeping adaptations to the modern world had worn off by this time. In its place was the confusion that normally follows any major social change. Religious life became a point of disagreement, if for no other reason than that nuns had become icons of a Catholic community frozen in time. Unchanging. Immutable. They were thought to be fixed in form and function. They personified a kind of merit theology that made rule keeping the acme of the spiritual life.
Nuns of that day, for the most part, embodied a spirituality that was staid, quiet, conforming, and ghettoized. Most of the 125,000 women religious in America had spent their lives in the convent and the parish school, or in the hospital residence hall and the Catholic hospital. Their world had become a safe, antiseptic environment, far different from the frontier life or the immigrant journeys or the urban poverty that nuns in earlier years had shared.
But now, suddenly, women religious were leaving the schools and the hospitals in droves for whole new kinds of social witness. They went to work in peace-and-justice centers, halfway houses for women, retreat centers, soup kitchens, storefront missions in the inner city, urban shelters, and prison chaplaincies. Not surprisingly, the Catholic world thought the whole phenomenon of nuns working in society at large was new. Nothing could be further from reality.
In fact, most of religious life had been founded in the slums of the world: feeding the poor, educating girls, nursing the wounded, working with immigrants and native peoples. Only late in the day, as such works became mainstream or the social climate changed, were these groups homogenized, institutionalized, domesticated.
At first glance, a reader might assume that Godden is writing about the pre-Vatican model of religious, who lived in cloistered monasteries, wore habits, and spent most of their lives at prayer. On the contrary. Godden has gone to the bone in this one.
The Sisters of Bethany, the nuns Godden writes about in Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy, were founded in 1948, in the wake of World War II. They were inspired by the work of Père Lataste, a French priest whose prison ministry strove to rebuild the spiritual lives of women prisoners. The Sisters of Bethany not only ministered to women in prison but also welcomed former prisoners into their own ranks. Elizabeth Fanshawe is one of these sisters. She wears a habit, but that’s her only likeness to the holy-card nuns of the human imagination.
Why? Because this book is not really about what it is to be a nun. It is about what it is to be human. It is about the human search for happiness, freedom, and fulfillment and the struggle to tell the bogus from the true in the process. That is why it is so important that this book be republished and remembered. Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy is about growth, choice, struggle, and the freedom of the soul that transcends the license of the body. It is about finding sin where we least expect it—and finding holiness where we least expect it too. It is about each of us and the lives we live underneath those we display to the world. Most of all, it is about the astounding, illimitable, and certain mercy of God.
This book confounds our understanding of what God and goodness are all about.
Clearly, Rumer Godden knew both theology and humanity well. She exposes the whole gamut of life to us in her sixty books, which include many novels and books for children. In this novel, to show us the nature of God, she wraps human nature up in a habit and systematically unmasks it for all to see. By the end, we don’t know what shocks us more: Godden’s insight into the nature of sin or Godden’s awareness of the mercy of God.
Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy is set in postwar France. An innocent young woman, Elizabeth Fanshawe—known as Lise in the book—gets caught up in the delirious debauchery that marked the liberation of Paris. Moral boundaries weaken as the sense of freedom sweeps through an exhausted but exhilarated France.
When the revelry ends, however, Lise is anything but free. She finds herself in a prison of sexual excess, dominated by the charming man who saved her from the loneliness of a strange city. She works in his brothel. Eventually she runs it. Ironically, she grows in the position to become an effective administrator of a way of life that enslaves women in the name of freeing them. Beaten and betrayed—and no longer beguiled by the man, Patrice, whose sick harem she has come to oversee—she murders him in an attempt to liberate his newest, youngest victim from the very chains she herself has not been able to escape.
And then the world of the book tips and shifts and shows us the other side of ourselves. Sent to prison for murdering Patrice, Lise meets the Sisters of Bethany—some of them former prisoners and prostitutes themselves who now dedicate their lives to the salvation of others.
Then the real freedom begins. As the Portuguese say, “God writes straight with crooked lines.”
This time, Lise chooses to follow Jesus. She chooses one set of rules—spiritual ones—over the rules of the brothel. She chooses one “house” over another—a monastery for a prison. She chooses one kind of captivity, one kind of love, one kind of freedom over another.
Not everyone, Godden is clear, makes the same choices in life, even in the same situation. Lise tries hard to save one girl and fails; she rejects another and becomes, despite herself, the saving spiritual model of the girl’s life. Each of us is faced with choices: freedom or license, holiness or sinfulness, our own standards or the laws of God. This book makes us rethink all the ideas we’ve ever had about grace and God, forgiveness and repentance, freedom and captivity, sinners and saints.
In the end, like the Sisters of Bethany, we find ourselves less sure about who among us is really the sinner, and who the saint.
Even in ways Godden could not have dreamed of when she wrote Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy, things are not what they seem. The model of Mary Magdalene as the repentant sinner, the scriptural metaphor of this work, has long ago been disproved. Mary Magdalene and the repentant sinner are not the same woman in Scripture at all, something the Eastern church has always preached and the Western church has for centuries ignored. Both women are in us all. None of us are free of our lesser selves or out of reach of our greater selves. Godden shows us that all we need to do at every moment of our lives is choose and choose and choose again.
Joan Chittister, OSB, is a well-known author, columnist, retreat director, and lecturer. Her books include The Way We Were and Called to Question. She is a member of the Benedictine sisters of Erie.
Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy
This book is for Dorothy Watson with love and thanks for all it owes to her adventurous encouragement, endurance—
and endless patience with its author.
The characters in this book are fictitious except for Père Lataste, Mère Henri Dominique, and Soeur Noël, who are part of the history of Béthanie; also five other characters of today who have consented to be portrayed—with fictional names—simply because I could not imagine them as any other than they are. Their stories, though, are typical of what I heard, saw, and learned through the generosity of the sisters. In fact the book is, I hope, a truthful reflection of the life and work of the Dominicaines de Béthanie, that unique Dominican Third Order of the Congregation of Saint Mary Magdalen conceived by Père Marie Jean Joseph Lataste in the 1860s.
Père Lataste held the belief, as did the first sisters of Béthanie and many others, including the writer, that in the New Testament the Mary of the Mary and Martha story at Bethany was the same Mary Magdalen, the sinful woman from whom seven devils were driven out, who anointed Christ’s feet at the supper given by Simon the Pharisee; she anointed them again with spikenard at another dinner just before his death when Judas Iscariot objected to the ointment’s cost. Many contest this belief, but clues to its possibility can be found, not only in the gospels but also in contemporary Jewish history.
In actuality, France has now only one Maison Centrale for women, that of Rennes, but for the purposes of the plot in this novel there are two such prisons, Vesoul and Le Fouest.
To explain the title: a rosary has fifteen “decades”—ten beads in each—of which five decades are the “sorrowful” ones, five “joyous,” and five “glorious.” The sisters of Béthanie wear the full rosary, which has three strands, one for each “mood.” What most laypeople use is really a “chaplet” or “chapelet,” a single strand of five decades told bead by bead, three times over.
My grateful thanks are due first of all to Maître Luba Schirmann, Avocat au Barreau de Paris, whose influence and kindness opened many doors for me; to Monsieur l’Avocat Général Robert Schmeck for permission to attend the Cour d’Assises in Paris; to Monsieur Chapiteau of the Ministère de la Justice (Directeur de l’Administration Pénitentiaire), who allowed me to visit the Maison Centrale for Women; to the personnel of the prisons for their friendship, invaluable help, and the trust with which they allowed me to see and question as I wished; to my agent, Georges Hoffman of the Agence Hoffman, for his indefatigable care and interest; above all to the sisters of Béthanie and their Reverend Mother General, who have given me riches that go far beyond this book.
They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick. . . . Go yea and learn what that meaneth.
Jesus, in Matthew 9:12–13
The Pretty Beads
Perhaps it was right that Lise should first see the beads as they lay in the dirt and debris of a table outside the cheapest kind of café among the rubbish of the Paris night.
Brought up in England—her Aunt Millicent was Protestant to her firm bones—Lise had never touched a rosary before. Patrice would have shrugged and smiled: “Quelle dévotion sentimentale!” but, “Many of our girls had a ‘chapelet,’?” Lise was to tell Soeur Marie Alcide. “Some of them were devoted to it.”
“Filles de joie—to give them their happiest name—prostitutes, often are,” said the sister.
“Yes. Often ours would climb up to the Sacré Coeur in Montmartre, all those steep steps, to light a candle,” said Lise. “I used to think it ironic that it was usually to Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, the pure Little Flower. They were far more reverent than many people in the world.”
In the world: that is the phrase nuns use of people outside the convent, but we, too, lived in a different world from other women, thought Lise.
It was the silver glint of the cross that had caught her eye, or was it the hard little hand that held it? A ragamuffin hand, almost a child’s. “I don’t know. I never shall know,” said Lise. “But I couldn’t bear to see either of them in that pool of vomit and stale beer. I unclenched the fingers, picked up the beads and wiped them, and put them in my handkerchief. Then I took Vivi home.”
The sound of the bell carried far over the orchards and fields of the convent of Belle Source.
It was the first bell for Vespers, not a bell in a bell tower but a handbell, rung outside by the soeur réglementaire, the bell ringer, and, in ones and twos, the nuns came in, those from the farm and garden shedding their heavy boots and dark blue overalls, all taking off their aprons. Each sister washed her hands in the basin at the end of the corridor, straightened her veil or took off her blue work head-handkerchief and put on her veil, then went to her place in the line where all the community stood. This was the time when each told, before them all, of any fault she had made.
“What—every day?” asked Father Marc, the new aumônier. “That seems a little overscrupulous. What faults could they possibly have?”
“Only faults against charity and I’m sure not many.” The prioress smiled. “But at our Béthanies we need charity as perhaps nowhere else.”
“And, perhaps, as nowhere else,” Marc was to say when he knew them better, “these sisters understand the creeping power of sin, if you allow the least crack . . .”
“I lingered in the garden after recreation and so kept two of my sisters waiting.”
“I answered Soeur Marie Christine back and was rude.” Soeur Marie Christine made a swift movement of reconciliation.
“I spoke sharply . . .” They were those “least cracks”; but, like an echo from far far back, far from the steadfastness of Belle Source:
“She wouldn’t stop crying so I stuffed my handkerchief into her mouth, down and down until . . .”
“He came in drunk, the third time that week. He sat down and vomited all over my clean table and his food . . . I took a kitchen knife—it wasn’t big . . .”
“Very well then, if you want to know. I went to bed with five boys in one night. Why shouldn’t I? Everyone at the college did it.”
“The first time I tried was when a man used to come outside the school. A lot of us did it but I . . . at first it was only a sniff but soon . . . soon I was getting zunked—high—more than I knew, then it got so that I had to have it, but it was six hundred francs for thirty grams and I hadn’t any money. That’s why I . . .”
They were only echoes and, of course, only for some, and no one knew for whom. All alike, the sisters stood in their white tunics and black veils, no difference between them.
In chapel for Vespers the sacristan had lit the candles on the three-branched candlestick that stood by the altar; on the altar itself was a bowl of roses, otherwise it was bare though a lamp set on the floor burned before the tabernacle; all else was quiet and simple, the arched, whitewashed ceiling, the polished floor, plain wooden stalls.
The prioress inclined her head and the nuns came in, their white tunics seeming to fill the chapel with light while the black of the veils picked out faces, some old, some young, pale or rosy or sunburned like Soeur Fiacre who looked after the gardens. Some wore spectacles; some strode, some limped; all, as they took their places, kept their hands under their scapulars, which made them more anonymous.
Toward the end of Vespers came, as it always did, the Magnificat, the Virgin Mary’s words of exaltation:
Mon âme exalte le Seigneur;
exulte mon esprit en Dieu, mon Sauveur . . .
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit has rejoiced in God, my Savior.
He has regarded the lowliness of his handmaid
and he, who is mighty, hath done great things in me.
and in me . . . and me . . . me . . . me . . . Another echo, glorified, that ran through the ranks of the nuns.
Great things. “Impossible things,” most would have said.
“Father, I should like to introduce you to our sisters.” After Vespers the prioress walked with Father Marc into the corridor. It was the Year of the Rabbit. “Fitting, because I have become a rabbit,” said Marc.
He had celebrated the Chinese New Year in Hong Kong or, rather, Kowloon, in his parish “of huts and sampans,” as he called it. The Dominicans had only just come there, “and were so sorely needed.” Now, only in April, he was in France again, “sent back ignominiously.”
“Not ignominiously,” said Father Louis, Marc’s best friend, once his novice master.
The long row of nuns seemed formidable. “Soeur Marie Hilaire de la Croix . . . Soeur Magdaleine Josephine . . . Soeur Marguerite . . . Soeur Marie Alcide,” a very old nun but with small black eyes that penetrated among her wrinkles. “Soeur Magdaleine de la Trinité . . . Soeur Marie Agnès . . . Soeur Thecla . . . Soeur Fiacre . . . Soeur Marie Magdaleine de l’Enfant Jésus . . . Soeur Marie Lise.” So many Maries and Magdaleines, thought Marc. “Well, if you were they, wouldn’t you like to have those names if you could?” asked Father Louis. “Soeur Elizabeth, Soeur Lucie . . .” The big brown eyes glanced timidly at Marc and were immediately veiled.
“I sometimes have to believe,” Marc said that evening to Louis, “that being celibate does bring its dangers; one can stay a child. That little Soeur Lucie . . .”
“What makes you think she is celibate?” asked Louis.
Marc had not wanted to come to Belle Source. When the father provincial had told him of this appointment, Marc, in his dismay, had gone straight to his friend, now prior of the great house of Saint Dominic, near Paris.
“Louis, help me out of this.”
“I can’t, Marc.”
“You have influence, Louis. Please.”
“No.” The brusque answer made Marc blink. Then, “There they were beginning to know me,” he said—“there” meaning Kowloon. “I was learning the dialect, beginning to be able to understand them. They were so pitiful, Louis, the poverty and despair. I couldn’t do much, but at least I was there for them, day and night.”
“And what will you be at Belle Source?”
“For forty-five or so nuns! In Kowloon, that godforsaken hell-spot, there were hundreds, thousands, of poor souls . . .”
“The sisters work for souls too,” Louis reminded him. “You haven’t a monopoly.”
Marc flushed and Louis put an arm round his shoulders. “Cheer up. It isn’t the end of the world, mon ami—my friend. Think of the salads you will have,” he said. “You can help with the hay and the apple picking. It’s part of their healing.”
“I don’t want any more healing, thank you.”
“I wasn’t thinking of you.” Louis said it in the old mild way that at once brought Marc to quietness.
“I’m sorry—but, mon Père, why? Why? Why?” demanded Marc. He had given Louis the old novice master title and, indeed, there was something of the novice still in Father Marc for all his forty-one years—the eagerness, passion, and rebellion. “Why?” he demanded. “Why?”
“You know why. Typhoid is no joke, Marc, and then that formidable heart attack—three months in hospital.” Louis rose from his desk and put his hand on Marc’s shoulder. “Come and sit down. Let’s have a drink. My scallywag friend, Jules Carpentier, who runs the betting shop here, keeps me in Armagnac, bless him.”
They drank out of the prior’s liqueur brandy glasses, unexpectedly fine old glass, “left to me by my Aunt Tilde.”
Marc smiled. “Something you didn’t sell to give the money away.”
“No. I was fond of Aunt Tilde. Odd,” said Louis. “I have scarcely ever bought anything in my life. It has always been given. Of course,” said Louis, his eyes twinkling, “I know how to take.”
“Is that a hint?”
“Maybe.” Louis looked into the gold of the Armagnac, savoring the aroma as the glass warmed in his hand. “To begin with, couldn’t you enjoy your drink?” But Marc burst out again.
“To drop out of life when I had scarcely begun.”
“Out of life?” Now it was Louis who smiled. “I can guess Béthanie will give you a few surprises.”
At seven o’clock, the morning after his introduction, Marc said his first Mass at Belle Source. Father Louis was server.
“I should serve you, as I always did.”
“Not now. You are the chaplain, confessor, and, if you really care, general factotum, Father Marc.”
He says Mass beautifully, thought Soeur Marie Lise with relief. Instinctively she liked this new priest— But how ill he looks, she thought, thin and sallow and the strangely tonsured hair. “It isn’t a tonsure,” Marc was to tell her. “It’s just that after typhoid my hair wouldn’t grow again.”
It was Soeur Marie Lise who cleared the altar after the Mass, carrying out book and vessels. Then she brought in the monstrance, shaped on its tall stem like a star. Vested in a stole, Marc put in the Host and knelt for a few moments before it, while behind him the soft voices sang. Though the monstrance was of gold, the chapel, he noticed, was plain almost to poorness; there was not even an organ. As he left, a sister moved a prie-dieu to the middle of the choir; from now until Benediction, there would be perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, the nuns keeping vigil, perhaps several at a time, perhaps only one, but the Presence was never left alone, and in the chapel silence, absolute and peaceful, reigned. Double glass doors shut off all sound from the antechapel.
Soeur Marie Lise brought a small rack of candles that would burn all day on the altar, then another bowl of roses. There was an inner and outer sacristy; to the inner one the sisters never came, except to clean and to lay out the vestments of the day; here Marc and Father Louis made their own silent prayer. Then they walked down to the aumônier’s small house for breakfast.
In the domaine, a dew mist was drying off lawns and paths, flower beds and well-kept vegetable plots. Not a nun was to be seen—“I expect they are at their breakfast—I’m sure more frugal than ours”—but the cows had been driven out to the paddocks—“Jerseys,” said Louis, “and what beauties. I can guess they are part of the income of Belle Source.” The hens were out too and in the pheasantry the cocks strutted in the brilliance of their feathers. Ducks quacked from the moat that ran along the walls. Last night, taking an evening stroll, Marc and Louis had passed a pen with a notice: “Attention! Je couve,” and had trod delicately by so as not to disturb the brooding pheasant hen. “She’s another way by which Belle Source earns its living,” and, “Marc, I envy you this,” said Father Louis. At a turn of the path, they met the sacristan, her arms full of daffodils for the chapel. “I wanted to pick them before the sun took off the dew,” she said.
Marc had noticed this sister the evening before because of her height and the grace with which she moved. Later, he had gone into the wrong sacristy and found her there polishing the silver and had asked her name. “Soeur Marie Lise du Rosaire.”
It was another of these, as he was to learn, anonymous names—no surnames or family names were given at Béthanie—but he had asked, pleasantly, as he would have asked any nun, “You have a particular devotion to the rosary then?”
“No.” It was brusque, almost rude, and, to his dismay, two red patches appeared on her cheeks. “I’m afraid I haven’t learned that devotion.” She put the chalices away and shut the cupboard. “Good night, Father,” she said, and was gone, but this morning she was smiling and “buoyant with happiness,” as Louis said afterward.
“It was a lovely thing for me, mon Père,” she said to Marc with complete friendliness, “that you should have said your first Mass here this morning. For me it’s an anniversary. Eighteen years ago today, I entered Béthanie.”
“Congratulations, Sister.” Both men said it warmly and Louis added, “I envy you being sacristan.”
“I’m not sacristan. I’m only filling in for Soeur Magdaleine Baptiste who is ill. I’m the convent dogsbody.”
“Also, I’m told, one of the missionaries, the prison visitors.” Louis had an extraordinary way of finding things out. Without questions, thought Marc. “A very special work,” said Father Louis.
“Just work.” As she moved away toward the chapel a puff of wind caught her veil, blowing it back, and they saw she had a scar on her left check, running from her brow to the ear. Marc had already noticed the poise of the tall figure; and found himself wondering how old she was; the line of hair that showed was as black as the veil that hid it; she had had eighteen years at Béthanie, but one could enter at any age, twenty, thirty, forty, or more, so that told nothing; all the same Marc sensed there was some deep gulf between this Soeur Marie Lise and the girl she must once have been. Her blue eyes were direct, steady, but there was the scar and, There are dark feelings here, thought Marc, feelings that not even control can hide. He was not surprised when, over coffee, Louis said, “That sacristan of yours . . .”
“She’s not sacristan and she’s not mine.”
“Soeur Marie Lise then,” and Louis said, “I have seen that face before . . .” He brooded. Then, “Yes,” he said, “it was quite long ago. It must have been soon after World War II.” Father Louis had been in the First. “You could only have been twelve years old or so, Marc, too young to know, but . . . Yes, I remember her.”