BOOK Review: THE NUN’S STORY by Kathryn Hulme

Whenever the movie version of The Nun’s Story comes on TCM, I end up transfixed, watching until the end, regardless what else I’d planned on doing during those hours. The film, starring Audrey Hepburn as Sister Luke, is beautifully shot and a magnificent piece of storytelling.

So is the book upon which it was based, which I reread recently. Published in 1956, the novel reads like autobiography, the tale of Gabrielle van der Mal, a Belgian nurse, daughter of an esteemed doctor, who enters the convent in 1927, desirous to serve God as a missionary sister in the Congo. The tale follows her early life as a postulant and novice and her continual struggle with obedience, a battle which she cannot win, ultimately choosing to leave the sisterhood at the end of World War II, when seething hatred for the Germans, who killed her father, provides the impetus for self-examination that leads her to the lonely door to the world again.

The Nun’s Story fascinates on many levels, one of which is the rich detail of convent life, the descriptions of the many silent humblings sisters embrace–everything from learning to lift the back of their habits when descending stairs, so as not to wear out the hems, to how to close doors silently and keep one’s keys from jangling. All of these actions focus on obedience to the will of God through the Rule of the convent. Simple actions, to be sure, but fraught with difficulty for a smart and eager intellect. Sister Luke’s focus from the outset is on the care of her patients, and she chafes at and even forgets rules that prevent her from ministering to their needs as fulsomely as she desires. Intellectually and medically gifted, she excels in her studies, but instead of being rewarded for her achievements, she is asked to humble herself by deliberately failing an important exam, so a less confident sister could surpass her. Mightily wrestling with this request, she cannot honor it in good conscience. She passes, but doesn’t earn the trip to the Congo she’d craved. Instead, she’s sent to nurse at an asylum.

After her asylum assignment, however, she finally wins the right to serve as a missionary sister. For many years, she nurses in the Congo, and it is during this time, under a loving Superior and a cantankerous surgeon, she feels closest to God and most in sync with her sisterhood. Nonetheless, she constantly must say “mea culpas” in front of her convent for her sins against the Rule, as nursing needs push even the thought of them from her head during exigent cases. She agonizes over these lapses, and the reader feels acutely her inner fight:

How many times in the name of obedience and for its sake alone had she asked the little permissions which she dared not even hint at to the doctor each time she slipped away, because she knew how completely meaningless, possibly slavelike, they would seem in the eyes of the world? How many times? So often that now it no longer irked what was left of her pride to ask….May I break my sleep tonight, ma Mere, and visit Monsier Diderot, who is going to die? May I skip a meal in penance for my sins of omission? Besides, I mean, doing the penance you gave me in the culpa?

She listened to her interior monologue as if she were in the world and reading a nun’s mind. It was pitiful and astonishing to note the things a nun could agonize over. You’d think their Creator had said to them, This is a way of being that must not perish from this earth and you and your sisters are the keepers of it pro tem, each one of one small part of it according to her lights and strengths.

While her obedience lags, her communion with her sisters soars. They each act individually yet in the same way, coming to the same conclusions about natives wearing fetishes, for example, after a sister is killed (they all urge the natives to keep wearing them, to show them their lack of value–a conclusion they reach individually, yet as one).

When she eventually must transport a case back to Belgium, war prevents a return to her beloved Congo, and the struggle with obedience consumes her spirit. She decides to leave.

The Nun’s Story, in both movie and book form, is great storytelling, but not just because it allows readers to peek inside an old convent, surreptitiously viewing the lives of nuns. Sister Luke’s inner conflict is universal. It is, simply, the struggle to be good, to ascertain what God wants of us, what the universe is saying to us, where we are most needed and how to use our talents to maximum effect even in the smallest of ways. How to be thoughtful and loving every second of a day.

A little research revealed that Kathryn Hulme, the author, was not a nun herself, but met a former sister, Marie Louise Habets, after World War II when they were both doing work with refugees. They stayed together the rest of their lives. When Hulme died, she left her literary estate to Habets, and upon her death, she gave the rights to several sisters and family members. Because of the confusion of who really owns the rights, The Nun’s Story has not been reprinted. This is a tremendous shame as it is a story for all ages.


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