31 March 2014

Monica Baldwin and the beginning of the journey

I have been re-exploring a favourite (and somewhat obscure) author: Monica Baldwin, niece of Stanley Earl Baldwin, three-times prime minister of England. I first stumbled across Monica in a school book bin when I was about 14, with her fascinating book The Called and the Chosen: the diary of Sister Ursula Auberon, Abbaye de ka Sainte Croix, Framleghen (1957) was being sold off for about 30 cents from the school library. 

The Called and the Chosen was a watershed book for me. I was young, impressionable, and trying to find my way in the world. I was also a member of a deeply Protestant, non-conformist church that still had a strong distrust of all things Catholic. However, I have always had a driving interest in history and simply could not accept the implicit teaching of the church I belonged to that nothing interesting happened between the Acts of the Apostles, the Reformation, and now. 

Monica's book, telling the story of a young woman who entered a convent and then the things that she experienced there, made a deep impression on me. The diarist, Sr Ursula, describes things that I had never experienced at the time, such as the liturgical wonders of Christmas midnight Mass, and the experiences in contemplative prayer. I was entranced. I read and re-read it, feeling for Sr Ursula as she struggled with her vocation and eventual choice to leave the convent because she felt she was called elsewhere and needed to be honest to that call - but with a huge sense of peace because she made the right decision. 

I lost the book for many years after lending it to a friend who didn't return it (why is it that people who would be horrified at the idea of stealing anything else think it's okay to steal books?) and only found another copy with great difficulty some 15 years later. After this, I discovered Monica Baldwin had written two other books: the properly autobiographical I Leap Over the Wall and Goose in the Jungle, where she details her own exodus from the Canonesses Regular of St Augustine after 28 years (1914-1941) and how she adapted (and didn't) to a completely different world and kind of life. In these books she continues to explore what it meant for her to pray, and to find God - the convent was not the right place for her, but she began to explore the ways that the world around her could lead her towards God. 

Thinking about it, Monica Baldwin probably had a lot to do with my own vocation. She helped me see that lots of the things I was longing for actually had a place in church (gorgeous music, silence, prayer, contemplation - none of which fitted in the places where I was at the time) and that what the Celts called the book of nature was more rich and subtle a teacher of faith than anything produced by fallible humans. The Anglican church became the place where I could place all of those parts of my disparate nature and they could all find a home - and unlike Monica, I found that all of them in the end led me to the religious life, firstly with the Franciscans and then the Benedictine Community of Solitude. 

So, even though her own journey into the convent ended with her gathering her courage and leaving, Monica's journey through the convent and into the faith of the everyday has inspired my own. 

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