Gods breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth ;
Engine against th’ Almightie, sinner's towre,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six daies world-transposing in an houre,
A kinde of tune, which all things heare and fear ;
Softnesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and blisse,
Exalted Manna, gladnesse of the best,
Heaven in ordinarie, man well drest,
The milkie way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bels beyond the stars heard, the souls bloud,
The land of spices, something understood.
Kate O'Brien, The Land of Spices (Virago Modern Classics)
The Land of Spices is set in an Irish convent school in the years before World War I. Reverend Mother, the head of the school, is an English woman raised in Brussels, where her Order has its mother house. Her Irish pupils and many of her fellow nuns perceive her as cold, formal, and foreign. She was, we learn, a brilliant student who revered her gentle, scholarly father until she learned something about him that shocked her into taking the veil. Over the years, she has become efficient at her work, and a favorite of the Mother General of her order, but she is detached and, her father fears, "merciless" in her demand for perfection. Then, in her third year at the Irish convert, she takes an interest in a little girl named Anna, the school's youngest pupil, who is similarly smart and detached, and who is also spiritually wounded at an impressionable age.
The novel is about having the humility and the patience and the understanding to love rather than to stand in judgment. Kate O'Brien (1897-1974) is a marvelous writer. The novel is full of humor, lyricism, conflict, wisdom, and grace. Some passages, I have to admit, were difficult to read through the tears stinging and blurring my eyes. Others—Reverend Mother's correspondence with the mother house in Brussels—slowed me down a bit because they were in French. The novel—with its pages of French, and its references to George Herbert and Henry Vaughn and Shakespeare and Schiller—was a bracing workout for my liberal arts education, but the story was always completely absorbing and my effort was amply rewarded. At one point in the novel, Reverend Mother drafts a letter to her Mère Générale asking to be recalled from her Irish post, where she is considered too foreign and where she has trouble understanding the Irish character. She says her work in Ireland has been un gaspillage d'efforts, a waste of effort. But she is rewarded for her patience and effort, and so is the reader. In a sense, the novel is a about the humanizing effect of education, about how art and literature broaden our sympathy and our understanding—as long as we learn not narrowly and pedantically, but with an open heart. Discipline and hard work are sometimes rewarded with epiphany—with "something understood" both intellectually and spiritually.
The most gracious relationships in the novel are between mentor and student—between Reverend Mother and Mère Générale, between Reverend Mother and Anna. There is a distance built into the relationship—a distance that gives perspective and grace. Reverend Mother loves Anna generously, entirely without possessiveness, for the beautiful and independent flowering of her soul. This seems to be a model of divine love: "heaven in ordinarie," the love of God enacted in the sometimes surprisingly gracious relationships between human beings.
Reverend Mother is often at odds with the Irish culture and character, but she believes in a grace that goes deeper than these external differences. The love of God is all. She is Catholic and conservative—two things I am not—but I found her a marvelously compelling and sympathetic character. The novel ends in June 1914, as trouble and war are about to tear apart both Ireland and the world. Kate O'Brien wants us to look deeper than the external differences that set us apart, to find the human potential for grace that is in all of us.