I am most indebted to everyone who suggested I read In This House of Brede. Darwin brought it home from the library for me last night. I sat down with the book right after dinner, and at twenty pages in had already drawn two conclusions:
1) This was going to be an absolutely gripping novel.
2) Rumer Godden is a consummate master of her craft.
In This House of Brede is an elegant and eloquent account of life in the Benedictine abbey of Brede, anchored (though not tethered) by the story of Phillipa, a wealthy businesswoman who leaves behind her worldly successes to follow her vocation. Godden never holds herself aloof from the complexities of ninety-odd women each trying in her own way to life out the Benedictine ideal. Instead, she creates a beautifully delineated picture of the joys, the consistency, and the sometime pettiness of the cloistered contemplative life, centered around the seven-fold structure of the Hours.
I read late into the night, finally turning the last page at 1:30. Tired as I was, I lay awake meditating on the life of a Benedictine: the series of prayers, the singing, the assigned tasks, the night vigils. Not half an hour later, as I washed a girl, dressed her again, stripped her bed, and put the sheets in the wash, I smiled to think that for all the differences, the night vigil is something the cloistered nun and mother of small children have in common.
*Addendum* Thanks especially to Entropy, who put the idea in my head.