“Give her something difficult.”
That’s an elderly nun’s advice to an inexperienced Benedictine abbess after a prideful and conniving younger nun has contributed to hardships being faced by the entire community in Rumer Godden’s classic novel, In This House of Brede.
The abbess, taking her elder’s advice, gives the troublesome nun, Dame Veronica, a difficult translation in need of a quick turnover for a publisher. The nun is appalled at the idea. Her pretensions aside, she knows she is not studied enough, or stylist enough, to do justice to a translation of Rufinus.
“It’s work for Dame Agnes,” she says, meaning, for the community’s first scholar—a woman the jealous younger nun has recently spited and treated abominably.
“You are a good Latinist, too,” the Abbess says, “and I’m sure Dame Agnes would help you.”
But Veronica, of course, will have to ask for that help.
Boom! It is as profound a “mic drop moment” as a contemplative nun might dare in that place and time. The Abbess has simultaneously complimented her troublesome daughter’s strengths while reminding her of her demonstrated weaknesses in mind and spirit. This prestigious assignment will nevertheless demand the fullest application of both, and the unspoken reality between the nuns is that Dame Veronica’s best work will only be sufficient to the task (and only reflect well upon the community) if she is willing to seek the help, council, and guidance of someone else—and not just anyone, but one she has sinned against.
Abbess Catherine has given the younger nun “something difficult” to do, indeed.
There is hope of a secondary effect in the abbess’ order: that in working together, the strain between the two nuns will be lessened as both come to a better understanding of each woman’s talents and deficiencies. That would be not only a boon to the community as a whole, but an instructive witness to the victory and power inherent in the virtue of humility.
In recent weeks, this scene from a favorite novel has been repeating like a small literary gif in my head, except instead of nuns, it plays out between God and my Guardian Angel:
God: “Give her something difficult.”
Guardian Angel handing me two projects that intimidate on every level.
Me: “This is hard! It’s work for someone holier and smarter!”
Guardian Angel: “You’re not wholly evil or stupid, but I’m sure if you ask, you’ll find help, Miss Independent.”
God: “BOOYAH!” Mic drop from heaven.
On an old stone floor, a dropped mic might echo and momentarily disturb the peace. From heaven, a dropped mic shakes one’s very firmament, and the feedback reverberates endlessly. In my case, it chased me back to the place I should have been from the start: before the Tabernacle of the Lord, asking help from one I have sinned against, and to my home oratory and the Liturgy of the Hours.
It was before the Tabernacle that I was able to finally come to grips with the self-doubt that has been plaguing a book I must soon deliver.
Slinking over to the shiny metal box whose holy and living content nevertheless permeates the space of the church, I mumbled in real humility that I had no idea what had made me believe that I could write anything useful about Marian prayer to begin with. “I’m not prayerful enough,” I objected. “I’m not holy enough.”
And in one of those moments that practicing Christians will recognize, there was an interior nudge—a strange insertion of understanding where only seconds before had resided fear—which Oprah Winfrey and Mike Pence might characterize as God “telling” us something we need to hear.
In my case, the understanding was clear and immediate: “Well, you’re not holy. But I AM, and I have given you this work. All you must do is be open to it. Ephphatha!”
Now, like most people who doubt themselves, I am a prideful person, and I also continue to think that I am a savvy being who knows stuff, so I nodded my head in understanding and then asked, “Okay, but how do I know this isn’t me just telling myself this? What if this is all ego?”
Again came the interior nudge. “All that is required of you is consent. Believe that, and that will be enough.”
It helped. I returned to work and made encouraging progress on the stalled project, for which I was grateful, but the next morning I arose full of the same sense of inadequacy, still thinking, “It’s work for someone else; who am I to be doing this?”
And then I lit a candle at my prayer space and opened the breviary to that morning’s Office of Readings, which included an excerpt from Hebrews 3—the reminder that those who doubted God, even after they had been fed daily by his heavenly bread, failed to reach the Promised Land: “We see, moreover,” said the epistle writer, “that it was their unbelief that kept them from entering.” Emphasis mine.
Shivers. The line I had read perhaps scores of times without really seeing seemed thrust before my eyes, in sixteen-point bold italic—as though my Guardian Angel was handing me something difficult. “All that is required is your consent. Believe that.”
Perhaps for those Children of Israel forever carping at Moses, consent—by which I mean full, trusting, faith-informed and continuous consent—was the difficult thing those “stiff-necked people” were given to undertake, because consent requires humility. It requires not just the admission of dependency, but the belief that such a dependency will be attended to with justice by the one who asks for our consent, and our faithfulness to it.
It also requires a further belief: that God’s notion of justice is better-informed than our own.
Every day one must wake up and renew the consent one has given to God, and then believe—really believe, without trying to take it all back into one’s hands and manage on one’s own, again and again—that it will be enough.
Do it with an attitude of certitude and who knows, perhaps one finally gets to heaven and makes a mic drop of one’s own, in the form of one mighty and continuous “Amen!”
“Give her something difficult.” Oh, indeed, Lord. Indeed. I’m working on it.