O Felix Culpa!

Here’s a fun read for troubled times, fellow People of God (and everyone else)! Dame Muriel Spark’s 1974 novel, The Abbess of Crewe, is a tart tale of a Catholic abbey in England where traditional ways are adhered to in the face of recent conciliar reforms (observing the offices and Matins and Lauds at midnight and three in the morning; the wearing of full habits; eating food that can range from “fine little biscuits” and pate with wine, for the abbess and her intimates, to tinned cat food (Mew) on toast and boiled nettles for the “low” nuns. Traditions are adhered to in the face of countervailing trends—except, that is, for the electronic bugging and recording of audio and video everywhere on the grounds.

This novel, a satire of both Watergate and Catholic hierarchies, presents the formidable Abbess Alexandra, a “tall spire” of beauty in a gleaming white habit, who recites poetry (her tastes run to Pound, Yeats and Auden) to herself during prayers and uses The Art of War as a guide for action. The abbey is embroiled in scandal and crawling with reporters and television cameras, due to Alexandra’s rival, Felicity, and her indiscretions with a Jesuit, and a bungled theft of love-letters by two members of the Society of Jesus, whose superiors, Maximilian and Baudouin, end up fleeing to America to give “seminars respectively in ecclesiastical stage management and demonology.”

Alexandra finally quashes St. Francis-loving Felicity’s growing love-rebellion by giving a speech about the difference between Ladies and Bourgeoises. “A Lady is cheerful and accommodating when dealing with the perpetrators of a third-rate burglary; but a Bourgeoise calls the police. A Lady does not recognize the existence of a scandal which touches upon her own House, but a Bourgeoise broadcasts it urbi et orbi, which is to say, all over the place. A Lady may secretly believe in nothing; but a Bourgeoise invariably proclaims her belief, and believes in the wrong things.”

Thus can we glimpse the illuminating spirit of our own quotidian struggles in Holy Mother Church; the Vicar of Christ and his lieutenants are Ladies; we, the sewing nuns, the children, the women, the “lay” (a term which always makes me giggle, since that’s what we get to do, or perhaps what we are seen by some as being solely useful for) are but Bourgeoises; that is, even in God’s house, some people are far, far more equal than others.

Mary Valle lives in Baltimore and is the author of Cancer Doesn't Give a Shit About Your Stupid Attitude: Reflections on Cancer and Catholicism. She blogs on KtB as The Communicant. For more Mary, check out her blog or follow her on Twitter.