Flipping through the TV channels the other day—an annoying habit those of us of a certain age have—I came across the 1959 movie The Nun’s Story. I had of course heard of the movie. It famously features a luminous Audrey Hepburn in the Most Beautiful Movie Nun category, a prize long held by Ingrid Bergman. The film was an enormous success, raking in millions as well as eight Academy Award nominations, including one for Hepburn. No winners, however.
The film was directed by Fred Zinnemann, who won Best Director Oscars for High Noon, From Here to Eternity, and A Man for All Seasons, every conservative Catholic lawyer’s favorite film. Zinnemann, a Jewish immigrant from Austria whose parents were murdered in the Holocaust, seems to have had a feel for Catholic stories. Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc was reputedly his favorite movie, and he shared with Dreyer a fondness for close-ups. I found The Nun’s Story fascinating in parts, if interminable. It traces the spiritual struggles of Gabrielle van der Mal, the brilliant and pious daughter of a Belgian surgeon, from the late 1920s to World War II. On one level, it almost plays like a recruitment film for the consecrated life. It is a very serious, if sometimes monotonous, examination of traditionalist Catholic spirituality. We follow “Gaby” from postulant, to novice, to final vows, then on to missionary work as a nurse in the Belgian Congo, and finally back to Belgium as war descends. The movie runs a penitential two and a half hours, which feels almost as long as it takes Hepburn’s character, no longer “Gaby” but now Sr. Luke, to come to the realization that she was not destined to be a nun after all.
Van der Mal joins a nursing, teaching, and missionary order based on the Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary, which was founded in the early nineteenth century in Ghent. The order is enclosed, and follows a strict rule. The film goes to great, almost documentary lengths in showing life under the rule in the convent (Zinnemann got his start in documentaries). There is a martial tone and a stark beauty to these scenes, amplified by the seemingly corpse-like obedience of the nuns, the dramatic rituals of their common prayer and life, and their elaborate rites of initiation. Nuns prostrate themselves before the order’s superior general, played with an unflappable and imperious authority by the great Edith Evans, whose voice has a certain monarchical timbre. Each nun conducts an examination of conscience twice daily, recording her faults in a notebook. Sins and failings are confessed before the superior general and the entire congregation. Nuns are required to call out the faults of other sisters—“in charity,” of course—in front of the entire congregation. (Luke Timothy Johnson has written about why this practice has wisely been discontinued in today’s monasteries—“How a Monk Learns Mercy,” October 5, 2018.) The superior general determines the appropriate penance. On one occasion, Van der Mal is instructed to kiss the feet of all the nuns in the refectory and beg them for bread. Penance is meted out if a drink of water is taken without permission between meals, if milk is spilt, if a nun talks to anyone without permission during “the great silence.” A series of hand gestures, rather than speech, is the convent’s workaday vernacular. In order to practice humility, the novices are instructed to walk close to the walls of the halls, never in the middle, and never to hurry. Their hands must stay still and out of sight, except when nursing or praying. Other nuns are never to be touched. You pull on someone’s sleeve to get her attention. Individual friendships are forbidden. All mail is read by superiors. Throughout the day, life is regulated by the convent’s bells, “which are the voice of God.” Even if nursing a patient, a nun must stop when the community is summoned by the bells.
The purpose of these seemingly trivial disciplines, as the film explains, is to instill obedience and humility: to place God’s commands, as they are made manifest by the order’s rule and hierarchy, before merely human desires or needs. Mirrors are forbidden. “Divest yourself of the vanities of this world,” the novices are told. They must detach themselves from family and friends, from material things, and even from memories of their previous life. In doing so, they make room for the love of Christ in their hearts. They are told that sacrifice is the only test of our love of God. Spiritual perfection is the ever-elusive goal, and it requires the most rigorous practices. The life of a nun, explains the superior general, is thereby one of endless sacrifice, and in many ways goes against human nature.
You can say that again.