Reprinted from Magnificat (www.magnificat.com)
Great Conversion Stories: Rumer Godden
By John Janaro
Rumer Godden (1907–1998) was a unique author who explored our common humanity amidst the vast diversity of human experience in a world of unprecedented change. Her long journey to the Catholic Church did not diminish her appreciation for the variety of peoples and cultures of the East, but instead deepened her compassionate insight into the natural religious inclination of humanity, ultimately fulfilled only in Jesus Christ.
Margaret Rumer Godden spent much of the first half of her life in British India, where her father was in the shipping business. Their unconventional parents gave the Godden sisters a wide experience of life in northern India, from Calcutta to the Himalayas to Kashmir. The family was nominally Anglican, and Rumer studied the Bible, but she was also taught to respect the different religions of the large household staff, which included Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists. She learned much from close interaction with them, but perhaps her most vivid and enduring mentor as a child was Hannah, the nanny, a devout Catholic. Hannah’s strong faith, simplicity, wisdom, and great charity in caring for the children gave Godden her seminal encounter with Catholicism, and it remained in her memory even during her years as an adult without any religious commitment.
Those years of intense writing were marked by growth and suffering: her first marriage fell apart, and she lived with her two young daughters in various parts of India. Godden had a fascination with religion, a desire for truth, and a painful sense of the colonial-era conflict between earnest Westerners with their constructive projects and the ancient, seemingly impassive ways of the East. She was searching for a way to define the purpose of her own life, and she considered becoming Hindu. When she looked at Christianity, Catholicism haunted her but seemed overwhelming and impossible.
She returned to England in 1948, and remarried after her divorce. Her literary career was established, and some of her books were made into successful films. Still, she carried the divisions between East and West in her heart, and her suffering helped forge her perspective into something of a bridge of mutual understanding. But she knew she could not remain an outside observer, without her own personal religious commitment. She didn’t know how to take the next steps.
At this critical time, she met the English Jesuit Thomas Roberts, who had retired as Archbishop of Bombay and was living in the Jesuit residence on Farm Street in London. His friendship and counsel played a crucial role in drawing Godden to commit herself to the Catholic Church, even though her remarriage prevented her for some years from entering into the Church’s sacramental life.
Then, in 1961, Godden had a decisive encounter that would shape her spiritual life and Catholic commitment thereafter. Seeking prayers for her older daughter’s difficult pregnancy, she approached the Catholic Benedictine nuns of Stanbrook Abbey. The sisters befriended her, and in them she saw a profound life of adherence to Christ, and real humanity with all its aspirations and frailty. Eventually Rumer Godden became a lay Benedictine oblate of Stanbrook. She also based one of her more famous novels on the lives of these nuns who loved God and struggled to be faithful to him and to love each other: In This House of Brede.