In the 1959 Hollywood film titled The Nun’s Story, Audrey Hepburn plays the lead character. A young Belgian woman who enters a 1930’s convent to commit herself to the service of others. The film was adapted from a book written by Kathryn Hulme, based on the life of Belgian nun Marie Louise Habets.
The story’s theme reminds me of my own inclinations during the teen years. My family belonged to the Episcopal Church. It held many perspectives similar to the Roman Catholic outlook on faith and how it should be exercised.
The American Episcopal Church is the outgrowth of British Anglicanism, which emerged during the era of Henry VIII. One of the more intriguing aspects of the Episcopal belief system is the confluence of pious allegiance to rigorous doctrine and the Protestant focus on scripture while understanding its meaning.
To an Episcopalian of my era, the Book of Common Prayer was a mesmerizing guide, reciting how we should believe and act. First published in the mid-1550’s, it was modified over the centuries. The version we used was prepared in 1928. It caused us to regularly recite expressions of faith during worship in language aligned with doctrinal interpretations. To perpetually indoctrinate church members to both the meaning and uplifting language. Powerful and ecclesiastically significant.
I became fascinated with the power of language in how we behave and believe. But only if our mindset is moved in that direction. The 1950s was not a decade that revered soundbites and supercilious intonations appealing to the emotions. Television, radio, and movie theaters moved us in that direction. But the power of public schools and other institutions with the mission to enlighten people was still pervasive.
The YMCA, YWCA and Scouting programs were in some ways just as powerful as churches. They helped to build a society in which character was based on acceptance of well-articulated principles of living. Principles written in merit badge requirements, and the YMCA’s challenges to behave in ways associated with Christian principles.
In my formative 1950s years, the hymns that meant the most to me were service-related and behavioral. Such as I Would Be True written by Howard Arnold Walter in 1906. It focuses on being pure, humble, brave, and constantly giving to others.
As Richard Rohr suggests in, Falling Upward, how we behave as we mature is often guided by what we put in our personality and spiritual “vessel” when young. “I Would Be True” seemed simple and straightforward when I was a preteen and young adult. Everything became complicated as I matured.
Nevertheless, the admonitions in my personality “vessel” were a good touchstone throughout the years. They still are. Even a compass loses its veracity when unknown magnetic forces pull the needle one way or another. Adjustments are made until circumstances bring us back on course.
In The Nun’s Story, Sister Luke finally realizes her youthful idealism is no match for the expectations of her chosen faith. Extracting “self” from “service” results in an unacceptable amount of personal suffering. The real-life Sister Luke, Marie-Louise Habets, goes on with her life as a nurse. Habets continued to serve God and humanity, using her original personality “vessel” as a touchstone. Her compass needle was pulled off its original course. But the service she provided was just as significant.
Rejecting who we fundamentally are by becoming fully selfless, is not always the best way to achieve God’s will.
God does not require us to suffer personally to serve others. Sometimes it happens that way. But it is not required to sublimate our sense of being one of God’s creatures to accomplish the betterment of others.
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