- English Benedictine Nuns in Exile in the Seventeenth Century: Living Spirituality by Laurence Lux-Sterritt
It is only recently that women religious have been reintegrated into the historiography of the early modern world. Laurence Lux-Sterritt suggests that thanks to the Reformation and their subsequent exiled existence in mainland Europe, English women religious were doubly neglected until the 'Who Were the Nuns?' project and a simultaneous mini-boom in research recovered the story of these c.4000 women. To this research can be added Lux-Sterritt's own deeply interesting study of the English Benedictine convents that were founded at Brussels, Cambrai, Dunkirk, Ghent, Paris, Pontoise, and Ypres during the seventeenth century.
Splitting the book into two distinct sections, Lux-Sterritt's first four chapters focus on the nuns' goal of physical and mental death to the world. Chiming with historians of early modern European convents, Lux-Sterritt judges enclosure a fragile physical entity, but nonetheless psychologically difficult, requiring the nuns to break with family, friends and, ultimately, the world. In the second chapter, she takes these ideas further, venturing that the English convents theoretically represented the perfect separation from familial influence, being as they were in exile. However, although there was less aristocratic interference than in other European houses, Lux-Sterritt asserts that the English convents still relied on familial financial support, as well as for recruitment. Moreover, English nuns remained dependent on secular interactions for their survival, whether through benefactions or, to ease the pressures of exile, the acceptance of boarders or establishment of schools. In this way, Lux-Sterritt argues forcefully, English Benedictine nuns helped to keep the flame of faith alive in their homeland and historians must consider the nuns part of the English mission.
The book's second half focuses on the nuns' stated aim of dying to themselves. Concentrating on how nuns strove to control their emotions and passions in order to achieve their spiritual goals, Lux-Sterritt explores the gap between the theory and the reality of their lives. Although there was a general Catholic experience, she argues that each individual's mystical experience was personal and unique. Benedictine nuns operated in a liminal space, between the national and the international church, an environment where "the individual fed the collective and vice versa; it is often difficult to determine where the one stops and the other begins" (p. 253). Unlike the findings of Nicky Hallett in her work on the English Carmelite convents in exile, Lux-Sterritt judges that extreme asceticism was not the norm in English Benedictine houses. Nevertheless, the author does find differences between those who followed a more sensory Ignatian spirituality rooted in the Spiritual Exercises, and those who followed the Benedictine Augustine Baker's meditative guidance. Although not within the scope of this book, it would be interesting to know whether Protestant spiritual diaries were as intense as those outlined by Lux-Sterritt. One also wonders how different the female experience was from the male; for example, "the aura of a mystical quest, a mission in enemy territory" (p. 142) is very much distinctive [End Page 810] of the Catholic Reformation idea of the Church Militant engaged in a daily battle against sin rather than a distinctive experience of English Benedictine nuns, or Lucy Knatchbull's offering to God of "her memory, her understanding and her will" (p. 146), the very prayer of the then recently canonized Ignatius of Loyola, is indicative of a Jesuit-led spirituality rather than a distinctly female one.
Overall, Lux-Sterritt fully convinces the reader of her central argument, that it was impossible for the nuns to achieve total death to the world—if not of the world, they were still in it and had to make appropriate choices about the level of interaction. This is a patiently written, accessible book that pleasingly foregrounds the religious experience of exiled English nuns; its focus on one order a particular strength rather than indicative of any narrowness. In short, it...