The Parallel Between Monastic Nuns and Motherhood

A Reflection on In This House of Brede

by Megan Keyser

How delighted I was to see Rumer Godden’s inspiring Catholic novel, In This House of Brede, among the reading selections in this “Year of the Sister.” This was my second reading of the novel, and I was struck, even more profoundly this subsequent time, with the exquisite poignancy of the work, which paints a vivid and awe-inspiring glimpse into the rich beauty of monasticism, while also stripping away the somewhat “unapproachable” veneer of cloistered life, and, subsequently, humanizes a community of rather ordinary women, who are none-the-less embarking on a journey of extraordinary and radical spiritual surrender. To the modern individual, it might seem incredulous to accept that parallels could possibly exist between monastic nuns, who have entered into a life dedicated to prayer, spiritual pursuits, and worldly detachment, and mothers, who are very much entrenched in the material demands of managing a home and attending to corporeal needs of human existence. But the challenges and difficulties inherent to both remain strikingly similar, as they each represent a denial of self for the Love of God. This shared purpose unites us – as sleep-deprived, daunted, and frankly, overwhelmed mothers – to the faithful women depicted in this book, because, as Dame Clare, the sage zelatrix (assistant novice mistress), attests, to truly become Christ-like, we are all called to “…[do] what is asked of [us] with [our] whole heart, even if [we] don’t like it, even if [we] can’t agree….It is submitting [our] will, even when it goes against the grain…” (pg. 159). This complete surrender can be terrifying, and it is what caused Philippa – the driven and determined career woman of near Herculean acclaim – considerable trepidation. In a similar fashion, motherhood represents an “intensity of work” never before undertaken – even in the most rigorous of college course loads or the most ambitious of career aspirations – because none of those things truly embodies the entire gift of self that motherhood entails (pg. 106). Mothers, like nuns, “have no holidays” (pg. 106).

Ironically, however, it is the constant demand of self-surrender, this continual crucible that invites the peace we ultimately seek: the “peace which passeth all understanding” – a peace that cannot be found without the Sacrificial Love of Christ and our subsequent imitation of that Love (Philippians 4:7). The paradoxical nature of such a peace is eloquently described in Godden’s “Prologue,” which reads:

“The motto was ‘Pax,’ but the word was set in a circle of thorns. Pax: peace, but what a strange peace, made of unremitting toil and effort, seldom with a seen result; subject to constant interruptions, unexpected demands, short sleep at nights, little comfort, sometimes scant food; beset with disappointments and usually misunderstood; yet peace all the same, undeviating, filled with joy and gratitude and love. ‘It is My own peace I give unto you.’ Not, notice, the world’s peace” (pg. 3).

An unpopular notion in our modern world, so doggedly focused on ease, utilitarianism, and the transient, but one that authentic motherhood strives to embrace. Of course, like Philippa, our wills tend to bristle at the daily calls to deny ourselves for something, rather Someone, greater, but it is amazing how, regardless of the frequency of our missteps and failures, these trials, which Christ places before us, truly chip away at our self-centeredness by beckoning us to (what often appear to us as) insurmountable heights. Though we may cry out in agony or insist, “I can’t!”, He knows that, through Him, we indeed can: reaching a potential we did not even realize we had within us until God brings it about through His Grace and our cooperation and resignation to His Will.

All too frequently and regrettably, I have internally questioned God’s wisdom in placing me in a state of life to which I seem ill-suited: “Wasn’t I more virtuous and prayerful as a single woman? How am I cultivating patience when I am crumpled on the floor, tears streaming down my cheeks and incoherent sobs or pleas issuing from my lips, thoroughly unable to force my sleep-deprived self to be civil to my own children? How can I possibly do the things God is asking of me, when I sometimes cannot even muster the desire to get out of bed and face a day of diapers and messes, chaos and mayhem?” My hormonally compromised mind (as I am often in an exhausted and overwhelmed state of pregnancy or nursing) have the tendency to cloud moments of my mothering experience in a negative light, but the fact remains: I frequently lament that I have become (as what I perceive) a more irritable and less gracious individual since having children. Yet, I wonder: before having these children – these blessedly adorable, insatiably inquisitive, customarily mischievous, exquisitely unique, divinely-ordained children, with their singular human capacity for untold goodness, poignant beauty, and even heart-wrenching trial – was I ever really and truly tested? Was I ever stretched to the limits of my potential? Nearly every woman who has given birth can recall that moment in labor when the physical agony has reached its unimaginable zenith, and the cry of “I can’t do this!” is uttered with all the anguished feeling a woman can possibly muster. We think we cannot possibly cross the formidable threshold before us, and somehow, despite all odds, we do…as millions of other mothers have before us. Paradoxically, it is precisely when we feel like we are failing, when we are confronting the smallness of ourselves and our dependence upon God – crying out in sorrow for His assistance, that we are growing in virtue and eroding the prideful façade of worldly “perfection.” And what may appear as failure to our fallen human selves and to the world is really the ultimate triumph: the victory over our very self – over comfort, over self-centeredness, over our will – for the sake of something glorious. Like any worthy mentor, coach, or instructor, Christ will expect nothing less than our very best (which is as varied as our singular abilities, personalities, and circumstances), and He will often stretch and push us to our absolute limits of spiritual, emotional, intellectual, and physical endurance and capabilities. Namely, He demands the gift of our entire selves.

Again, in watching the unfolding of Philippa’s journey at Brede, and witnessing, too, the spiritual travails of others – Catherine, Cecily, Maura, and Agnes – my compassion and empathy for these women was kindled. How many of us, like Philippa, have felt doubt rising as we grapple with the enormity of our mothering responsibilities (addressing the spiritual and temporal needs of our children; managing an orderly and Godly household; continually cultivating a strong marital relationship; navigating difficulties with family members; pursuing our passions and gifts; balancing our spiritual life with our material concerns; the list goes on…) and silently whispered her words: “Can I be patient and wise enough?” (pg. 626). How many of us have lamented the loss (even for a temporary period) of important, and even truly meritorious, hopes, dreams, or affections to more perfectly obey Christ’s call? Our preferences and desires are measured against the weightiness of self-giving love, and like Philippa, we, with our weak human hearts, cannot help but recount and grieve all that will be sacrificed on behalf of Christ: “Everything [I] had counted on at Brede would be gone, the peace, the anonymity, the shield of Abbess Catherine, the friendships – and the fun” (626). Moments like these made me realize the profound connection of those united in Christ. Whether tirelessly chanting within the medieval choir of an abbey or devotedly soothing a fussy infant through the night, we share the Cross.

In one of the novel’s most magnificent moments, Dame Agnes, in a beautiful demonstration of the power of fellowship and community, seeks out Philippa in her moment of crisis. Dame Agnes, detailing the Benedictines acquisition of Brede, reveals to Philippa that Elinor Hartshorn, the last surviving member of the estate, had hoped to retain just one small piece of the land for herself, on which to build a house: “…She offered us Brede, [but] there was one small bit Elinor wanted to keep for herself…the gift was most handsome even without that…just one little enclave that she wanted to keep for herself, but though we needed Brede so badly – we were badly cramped- a house just here would have spoilt the enclosure, so we had to refuse…Of course, she surrendered the enclave. She withdrew her condition and gave the whole gift. It was inevitable. Nothing less that the whole is good enough for God” (632).

At more times than many of us would perhaps like to admit, we have felt moments of confusion, inadequacy, and even, hopelessness. Yet, as Philippa discovered on her own spiritual journey, she was called to singular purpose – a greatness to which God specifically called her own soul. A greatness achieved in Christ’s Sacrifice.

“‘Out of nearly a hundred nuns, why should I be the only one?’ That was Phillipa’s silent cry of anguish.

‘Because you are the only one” (pg. 628).

I pray that each of us, through the Grace of God, through our sisterhood in Christ, and though our daily submission to His Will, will truly embody the person God lovingly envisioned from before our very creation, and leave nothing, not even a little piece, back, but rather, freely, joyfully, obligingly give the “whole gift.”

“She remembered her Solemn Profession, her vows and the moment when she had lain before the altar – a holocaust. A little thing, thought Philippa, but the greatest gift anyone can give: yourself.”

Written by Megan Keyser

Originally hailing from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Megan is a 2006 Hillsdale College graduate with a degree in Classical Studies. These days, Megan thrives on the challenges and joys of her role as a Catholic, stay-at-home mother, who heads a chapter of the Well-Read Mom, dabbles in social commentary and other writing pursuits, and advocates for the pro-life cause. Despite the inevitable chaos of large family life, Megan is thankful for her lively brood and relishes juggling household responsibilities, babies in diapers, and, of course, a good book. She resides in Noblesville, Indiana, with her husband, Marc, an engineer in the energy industry, and their nine children, ages 13 years to 10 months old.

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