TO AN extent unmatched by any other British writer of her time, Iris Murdoch (1919-99) devoted her creative life to thinking about religion, and, in particular, about what the decline of Christianity in the UK has meant in the post-war period. “Christianity is not abandoned so much as simply unknown,” she wrote in 1970. “A generation has been growing up outside it.”
Loss of faith was a crisis that she addressed overtly, at length, in her philosophical writing, especially Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992). One can get quickly to the heart of the matter, however, by looking at a single exchange in Jeffrey Meyer’s 1990 Paris Review interview with the author. In it, she disavows belief in a “personal God”, a divine Christ, a life after death. What she stands by, on the other hand, is mindfulness, attention, love, compassion, and liberation from the “fat relentless ego” and its self-serving fantasies. Inveterate Platonist that she was, she affirmed “The Good” rather than “God”.
And yet Murdoch did not want to lose too much by asserting too little. Matthew Arnold’s notion of lofty morality plus emotion was not enough to live on. Although the “old literal beliefs” had to be discarded, she wanted, somehow, to keep the structures and the stories, the particularities of the Church’s earthen vessel, the “picturesque”, the sonorities of the Authorised Version and Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer. She even wanted to keep Jesus Christ — provided that he could “become like the Buddha, both real and mystical, but no longer the divine all-in-one man of traditional Christianity of the West”.
She hoped for a Christianity that could “demythologise” itself. But could this renewal happen before sheer unbelief took over? For her, the world was charged with the grandeur of the Good. But how to make the Good compelling? How to “invent new religious imagery (or twist old religious imagery) in an empty situation”, to live a religious life without illusions?
For all the importance that Murdoch accorded to religion in her work, there is no easy way to characterise what kind of believer she was, or how she imagined that the austerity of the Good could gain the magnetic force once exerted by God. Although technically an atheist, she was also unapologetically an Anglican, of a sort: “I grew up in Anglican Christianity, and I feel in a way I am still inside the Anglican Church.” She attended services, but without receiving the sacrament (“Something inhibits me from doing this — I’m not quite sure what”).
“I still myself use the Christian mythology,” she observed. “I am moved by it, and I see its religious significance and the way in which ordinary life is given a radiance.”
IN KEEPING with her critical analysis of post-war Christianity in decline, a number of Murdoch’s most vividly drawn fictional characters find that they no longer “fit” within the Church that has shaped them: the priests Cato Forbes and Brendan Craddock in Henry and Cato (1976); a recently cloistered nun, Ann Cavidge, in Nuns and Soldiers (1980); and a passionate if erratic seeker, Bellamy James, in The Green Knight (1993).
In different ways, all of these figures have been “soaked in Christianity and in Christ, sunk, saturated, stained indelibly all through” (Nuns and Soldiers). At some point, however, whether through the loss of faith or because of its deepening, they find that they are “in the wrong place” and must move on. The novels explore these times of transition.
The fictional world in which Murdoch seemed most at home spiritually is conjured up by the The Bell (1962), which was the most well-received of her works and, coincidentally, the most Anglican in its frame of reference.
The gathered souls of this novel are an example of the Prayer Book’s “all sorts and conditions”. “You must think we’re a proper collection of otherworldly crackpots,” the community director at Imber Court, Michael Meade, jokes to the earnest teenage newcomer, the “keen practising Christian” Toby.
Imber Court is Meade’s ancestral Gloucestershire family home, re-purposed by him as an intentional community of Anglicans who can neither live in the world nor out of it, “whose desire for God makes them unsatisfactory citizens of an ordinary life, but whose strength or temperament fails them to surrender the world completely”.
Those who have made that surrender live in an enclosed convent of Anglican Benedictines, Imber Abbey, which was dissolved in the 16th century and restored in the late 19th century. It is a “great storehouse of spiritual energy across the lake”, located behind high walls and an imposing gate. Although a world apart from the Court and its motley crew, it is not inaccessible to them. There is a visitors’ chapel adjacent to the worship space of the nuns, albeit separated by a grille and set at an angle to the high altar.
The more Protestant among the fellowship are unnerved by the scent of incense and the “hideous purity and austerity” of the Sisters’ plainchant; the more Catholic duplicate the abbey rite as best they can — women veiled, everyone at prayer on their knees — in the shabby makeshift chapel of the Court’s former dining room.
What no one can doubt is the power and integrity of the abbess, as idealised a figure as one can find in Murdoch’s fiction, and someone for whom she felt a personal affinity. If, as her Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals would have it, “Good is the reality of which God is the dream,” then this nun has real dreams. She also has a large measure of what counts much for sanctity in Murdoch’s book — unfantasised, modest common sense, delivered to people she attends to seriously.
The abbess understands that, for intense people such as Meade, “disturbed and hunted by God”, the best course may be the middle path between spiritual highs and lows. At least, this advice is what he takes away from his occasional conversations with her.
THE novel’s cast of characters comprises a variety of recognisable Anglican “types”, clergy and lay, as well as a pair of temporary guests: Paul Greenwood (an art historian studying medieval manuscripts at the abbey), and his wife, Dora.
Dora comes the Court attempting a half-hearted reconciliation with her husband, and is wholly at odds with its religiosity: “She had never in fact been able to distinguish religion from superstition, and had given up her own practice of it when she discovered that she could say the Lord’s Prayer quickly but not slowly.”
Aside from one officious Sister who regularly comes to the Court, the enclosed Abbey nuns who are glimpsed in passing (at prayer, at work and play, and, in one spectacular moment, at swimming) are of good humour and cheer, in no way suffering what Dora takes to be their incarceration, “shut up like that” in a “dark hole”.
In the course of the novel, the ancient convent bell that disappeared at the time of the Reformation — “a thing from another world” — is retrieved. Eventually, Dora (of all people) turns to the bell “for help . . . as if supplicating”. A dilettante artist, she is dumbfounded by the integrity of the work, and envies the seriousness of the craftsman who embellished it. What she does not realise, which The Bell will go on to recount, is the sheer cost of truth-telling.
IN THE course of the novel, Meade comes through the refining fires of a great tribulation, bearing all the marks of one who has embraced Murdoch’s notion of true religion. The mass takes him out of himself — his comforting illusions, his intoxicating romantic weave of thought and emotion — so that, in its presence, he can pay attention to a pure reality, to a fact. The Real Presence, then, is what he brings to the consecrated bread and wine — his attention. Because the mass exists, so does he; and so, too, do other people, all of them otherwise foundering in the welter of this human comedy.
For Meade, as for the author of The Bell, it is the abbess who has the most resonant “truth-telling voice” of all: “Remember that all our failures are ultimately failures in love. Imperfect love must not be condemned and rejected, but made perfect. The way is always forward, never back.” For the author of Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, going forward, never back, means leaving “God” behind and advancing to a chastened apprehension of the “Good”.
None the less, it is impossible to deny the eloquence of the abbess, or the consonance of her words with Murdoch’s own thought, or to dismiss as pure happenstance the fictional fact that Imber Abbey itself is growing.
The days of the old religion may be numbered — how long will the nuns carry on? — but at least in this novel the convent bell keeps ringing for Sext and Nones, the Sisters keep the faith, and the Anglican abbess’s words continue to overflow the confines of their traditional bounds. She speaks as one who has authority; she is worth listening to.
Dr Peter S. Hawkins is Professor of Religion and Literature at Yale Divinity School. His essay on Iris Murdoch, “Anglican Atheist”, appears in Anglican Women Novelists, published this month by Bloomsbury at £27.99 (Church Times Bookshop special price £22.99).