(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

The mention of the word “nun” evokes in many people’s minds an image of a black-clad figure, walking silently, eyes cast down. That a woman would choose to be cloistered in communion only with God and unaware of and unknown to her fellow human beings is a fascinating concept. Published originally in 1956, The Nun’s Story is based on the life of a real woman, a trained nurse, Marie Louis Habets, with whom Kathryn Hulme worked in the years following World War II, when both women were aid workers for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA). The two women were trained together and became friends and roommates at Wildflecken, a camp from which more than twenty thousand displaced persons would be repatriated to their homelands, primarily Poland.

The Nun’s Story opens in the 1920’s in Belgium, where Gabrielle Van der Mal, the daughter of a noted surgeon, enters the convent of the Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary. As a nursing student, Gabrielle first feels a calling to the religious life after she accompanies a group of sick pilgrims to Lourdes. Gabrielle is impressed with the care and gentleness of the nuns who work with the patients. Moreover, the piety of the pilgrims is evident, even when they are not cured of their physical illnesses. When the group returns home, Gabrielle begins to feel developing within her a vocation to the religious life.

Nuns vow to live a life of poverty (lacking personal possessions), chastity (keeping oneself sexually pure), and obedience (submitting oneself to the authority of one’s superiors). The education of a novice nun is designed to create a sense of unity and camaraderie with the other members of the order. Like military recruits, nuns learn that the unit is more important than the individual, and each individual is trained to act without a moment’s hesitation on an order given by a superior.

During her first year and a half in the convent, Gabrielle has many obligations and must learn all the minutiae of a life lived in community—the pattern of life called “the Rule” by its adherents. She learns that what the order demands more than anything...

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The Nun's Story Bibliography

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Hulme, Kathryn C. Undiscovered Country: A Spiritual Adventure. Boston/Toronto: Little, Brown, 1966. Hulme’s autobiography, with a much-expanded description of her life with Marie-Louis Habets as well as her earlier life, including her years in Paris.

Hulme, Kathryn C. The Wild Place. New York: Little, Brown, 1953. An account of Hulme’s years at Wildflecken working for the UNRRA. Winner of the Atlantic Monthly Nonfiction Award.

Patterson, William Patrick. Ladies of the Rope: Gurdjieff’s Special Left Bank Woman’s Group. Princeton, N.J.: Arete, 1998. A memoir of Hulme’s years in Paris as a pupil and later a disciple of G. I. Gurdjieff, philosopher and mystic. Tells of her becoming a member of the the Rope, a group of women dedicated to spiritual development.

Schleich, Kathryn. Hollywood and Catholic Women: Virgins, Whores, Mothers, and Other Images. New York: iUniverse, 2003. The author discusses the attitude of the Church throughout history and how Hollywood has adopted its point of view in films such as The Song of Bernadette (1943), The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945), A Nun’s Story (1959), Agnes of God (1985), and even the comedy Sister Act (1992).