A Nun’s Life: Reading Lil Copan’s Little Hours Has Changed Mine
Little Hours by Lil Copan is that rare novel for which the last page leads directly back to the first. There was no sense of relief when it was over (as I sometimes have, even when I’ve enjoyed a book, because I’m now free to move on). Nor was there a sense of having accomplished something. Little Hours is a quiet book whose plot builds soundlessly, like an ocean swell that lifts you entirely off your feet. I returned to page one because I wanted to see where that swell came from, and feel again that lifting. Also, I felt that at first I hadn’t paid enough attention, and Little Hours is all about attention—the ways that life, friendship, nature, love, God are accessible via the careful, directed attention that we pay them.
The narrator of the novel is a nun, Sister Athanasius, who has lived out her adult life in a very small order on Cape Cod called the Sisters of Saint Hildegard of Bingen. The book comprises the letters she writes to a young woman, Miriam, who at first is curious about what it’s like to live at a convent, but who becomes—via their correspondence—a dear friend and confidant. The novel is never preachy, yet reverberates with deep spirituality and wisdom. I found myself marking many passages.
Within the apparently narrow confines of the religious community, urgent struggles play out, whether between the sisters or within the nuns’ own minds. Says Sister Athanasius, “We are away from the world, but we are not away. We experience the same struggles in a different context” (6). For example, the sister charged with keeping the living spaces clean is locked in a combat of wills with the sister in charge of the community’s small farm, who can’t seem to keep manure and mud off the floors. While the conflict seems almost laughable, it threatens to tear the community apart. Of this war of wills Sister Athanasius says, “When two people have equal and opposite callings from Our Lord, a simple resolution seems distant, doesn’t it, Miriam?” (10). The same can be said of so much that causes discord and anger in the wider world.
Sister Athanasius reads widely in an effort to understand for herself “others’ experience of the monastic life and why and how so many stay. And why some have felt compelled to leave” (9). She herself struggles every day to find a reason for staying, or to find a reason for leaving, or to find a purpose for her very life and its minutes, hours and years. “No matter how many years I’ve lived the vowed life, I often feel like I am losing my footing. But maybe lost footing, Miriam, is a way to find the truth of our place in the world and with God?” (15).
At the heart of this book lies the power of paradox and how there must be room in our hearts for two apparently opposite truths to coexist. But doing so is never easy; it takes “spiritual work.” As Sister Athanasius says, “Some of us seem so adapted to [this monastic life] . . . Others don’t fit the habit at all—through no fault of their own. They enter the monastery out of obedience [to an internal call] and determination. Maybe it is those who are so seemingly ill-fitting who are doing God’s greatest work? . . . living a life they would not have chosen for themselves, yet they shoulder the task . . .” (p128).
Maybe I found the ethos at the center of Little Hours so compelling because in today’s world, we’re expected to choose a side and defend our position with loud conviction. But what if there is merit in trying to live within the paradox of competing truths? What if there is even greater truth residing in that space, something having to do with mercy—and with love?