Chapter One of The Abbess of Crewe, by Muriel Spark

Muriel Spark in May 1960. PIC: Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Muriel Spark in May 1960. PIC: Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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Watergate prompted Muriel Spark to write The Abbess of Crewe in 1974, relocating the machinations of the White House to an English provincial convent. In today’s Scotsman, the novelist Ali Smith argues that its deft and funny dissection of the scandal belies its real target – every dishonest power structure under heaven. Here, we republish the book’s opening chapter

The Abbess of Crewe - Chapter One

‘What is wrong, Sister Winifrede,’ says the Abbess, clear and loud to the receptive air, ‘with the traditional keyhole method?’

Sister Winifrede says, in her whine of bewilderment, that voice of the very stupid, the mind where no dawn breaks, ‘But, Lady Abbess, we discussed right from the start –’

‘Silence!’ says the Abbess. ‘We observe silence, now, and meditate.’ She looks at the tall poplars of the avenue where they walk, as if the trees are listening. The poplars cast their shadows in the autumn afternoon’s end, and the shad- ows lie in regular still file across the pathway like a congregation of prostrate nuns of the Old Order. The Abbess of Crewe, soaring in her slender height, a very Lombardy poplar herself, moving by Sister Winifrede’s side, turns her pale eyes to the gravel walk where their four black shoes tread, tread and tread, two at a time, till they come to the end of this corridor of meditation lined by the secret police of poplars.

Out in the clear, on the open lawn, two men in dark police uniform pass them, with two Alsatian dogs pulling at their short leads. The men look straight ahead as the nuns go by with equal disregard.

After a while, out there on the open lawn, the Abbess speaks again. Her face is a white-skinned English skull, beautiful in the frame of her white nun’s coif. She is forty-two in her own age with fourteen generations of pale and ruling ancestors of England, and ten before them of France, carved also into the bones of her wonderful head.

‘Sister Winifrede,’ she now says, ‘whatever is spoken in the avenue of meditation goes on the record. You’ve been told several times. Won’t you ever learn?’

Sister Winifrede stops walking and tries to think. She strokes her black habit and clutches the rosary beads that hang from her girdle. Strangely, she is as tall as the Abbess, but never will she be a steeple or a tower, but a British matron in spite of her coif and her vows, and that great carnal chastity which fills her passing days. She stops walk- ing, there on the lawn; Winifrede, land of the midnight sun, looks at the Abbess, and presently that little sun, the disc of light and its aurora, appears in her brain like a miracle.

‘You mean, Lady Abbess,’ she says, ‘that you’ve even bugged the poplars?’

‘The trees of course are bugged,’ says the Abbess. ‘How else can we operate now that the scandal rages outside the walls? And now that you know this you do not know it so to speak. We have our security to consider, and I’m the only arbiter of what it consists of, witness the Rule of St Benedict. I’m your conscience and your authority. You perform my will and finish.’

‘But we’re something rather more than merely Bene- dictines, though, aren’t we?’ says Sister Winifrede in dark naïvety. ‘The Jesuits –’

‘Sister Winifrede,’ says the Abbess in her tone of lofty calm, ‘there’s a scandal going on, and you’re in it up to the neck whether you like it or not. The Ancient Rule obtains when I say it does. The Jesuits are for Jesuitry when I say it is so.’

A bell rings from the chapel ahead. It is six o’clock of the sweet autumnal evening. ‘In we go to Vespers whether you like it or whether you don’t.’

‘But I love the Office of Vespers. I love all the Hours of the Divine Office,’ Winifrede says in her blurting voice, indignant as any common Christian’s, a singsong lament of total misunderstanding.

The ladies walk, stately and tall, but the Abbess like a tower of ivory, Winifrede like a handsome hostess or businessman’s wife and a fair weekend tennis player, given the chance.

‘The chapel has not been bugged,’ remarks the Lady Abbess as they walk. ‘And the confessionals, never. Strange as it may seem, I thought well to omit any arrangement for the confessionals, at least, so far.’

The Lady Abbess is robed in white, Winifrede in black. The other black-habited sisters file into the chapel behind them, and the Office of Vespers begins.

The Abbess stands in her high place in the choir, white among the black. Twice a day she changes her habit. What a piece of work is her convent, how distant its newness from all the orthodoxies of the past, how far removed in its antiquities from those of the present! ‘It’s the only way,’ she once said, this Alexandra, the noble Lady Abbess, ‘to find an answer always ready to hand for any adverse criti- cism whatsoever.’

As for the Jesuits, there is no Order of women Jesuits. There is nothing at all on paper to reveal the mighty pact between the Abbey of Crewe and the Jesuit hierarchy, the overriding and most profitable pact. What Jesuits know of it but the few?

As for the Benedictines, so closely does the Abbess follow and insist upon the ancient and rigid Rule that the Benedictines proper have watched with amazement, too ladylike, both monks and nuns, to protest how the Lady Abbess ignores the latest reforms, rules her house as if the Vatican Council had never been; and yet have marvelled that such a great and so Benedictine a lady should have brought her strictly enclosed establishment to the point of an international newspaper scandal. How did it start off without so much as a hint of that old cause, sexual impro- priety, but merely from the little misplacement, or at most the theft, of Sister Felicity’s silver thimble? How will it all end?

‘In these days,’ the Abbess had said to her closest nuns, ‘we must form new monastic combines. The ages of the Father and of the Son are past. We have entered the age of the Holy Ghost. The wind bloweth where it listeth and it listeth most certainly on the Abbey of Crewe. I am a Benedictine with the Benedictines, a Jesuit with the Jesuits. I was elected Abbess and I stay the Abbess and I move as the Spirit moves me.’

Stretching out like the sea, the voices chant the Gregorian rhythm of the Vespers. Behind the Abbess, the stained-glass window darkens with a shadow, and the outline of a man climbing up to the window from the outside forms against the blue and the yellow of the glass. What does it matter, another reporter trying to find his way into the convent or another photographer as it might be? By now the scan- dal occupies the whole of the outside world, and the people of the press, after all, have to make a living. Anyway, he will not get into the chapel. The nuns continue their solemn chant while a faint grumble of voices outside the window faintly penetrates the chapel for a few moments. The police dogs start to bark, one picking up from the other in a loud litany of their own. Presently their noises stop and evidently the guards have appeared to investigate the intruder. The shadow behind the window disappears hastily.

These nuns sing loudly their versicles and responses, their antiphons:

Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord; at the presence of the God of Jacob

Who turned the rock into pools of water: and the strong hills into fountains of water.

Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to thy name, give glory:

because of thy mercy and thy faithfulness.

But the Abbess is known to prefer the Latin. It is said that she sometimes sings the Latin version at the same time as the congregation chants the new reformed English. Her high place is too far from the choir for the nuns to hear her voice except when she sings a solo part. This evening at Vespers her lips move with the others but discernibly at variance. The Lady Abbess, it is assumed, prays her canticles in Latin tonight.

She sits apart, facing the nuns, white before the altar. Stretching before her footstool are the green marble slabs, the grey slabs of the sisters buried there. Hildegarde lies there; Ignatia lies there; who will be next?

The Abbess moves her lips in song. In reality she is chanting English, not Latin; she is singing her own canticle, not the vespers for Sunday. She looks at the file of tombs and, thinking of who knows which occupant, past or to come, she softly chants:

Thy beauty shall no more be found, Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound My echoing song; then worms shall try That long-preserved virginity. . .

The cloud of nuns lift their white faces to record before the angels the final antiphon:

But our God is in heaven:

he has done all that he wished.

‘Amen,’ responds the Abbess, clear as light.

Outside in the grounds the dogs prowl and the guards patrol silently. The Abbess leads the way from the chapel to the house in the blue dusk. The nuns, high nuns, low nuns, choir nuns, novices and nobodies, fifty in all, follow two by two in hierarchical order, the Prioress and the Novice Mistress at the heels of the Abbess and at the end of the faceless line the meek novices.

‘Walburga,’ says the Abbess, half-turning towards the Prioress who walks behind her right arm; ‘Mildred,’ she says, turning to the Novice Mistress on her left, ‘go and rest now because I have to see you both together between the Offices of Matins and Lauds.’

Matins is sung at midnight. The Office of Lauds, which few convents now continue to celebrate at three in the morn- ing, is none the less observed at the Abbey of Crewe at that old traditional time. Between Matins and Lauds falls the favourite time for the Abbess to confer with her nearest nuns. Walburga and Mildred murmur their assent to the late-night appointment, bowing low to the lofty Abbess, tall spire that she is.

The congregation is at supper. Again the dogs are howl- ing outside. The seven o’clock news is on throughout the kingdom and if only the ordinary nuns had a wireless or a television set they would be hearing the latest developments in the Crewe Abbey scandal. As it is, these nuns who have never left the Abbey of Crewe since the day they entered it are silent with their fish pie at the refectory table while a senior nun stands at the corner lectern reading aloud to them. Her voice is nasal, with a haughty twang of the hunting country stock from which she and her high- coloured complexion have at one time disengaged themselves. She stands stockily, remote from the words as she half-intones them. She is reading from the great and ancient Rule of St Benedict, enumerating the instruments of good works:

To fear the day of judgement. To be in dread of hell.

To yearn for eternal life with all the longing of our soul. To keep the possibility of death every day before our eyes. To keep a continual watch on what we are doing with our life.

In every place to know for certain that God is looking at us.

When evil thoughts come into our head, to dash them at once on Christ, and open them up to our spiritual father.

To keep our mouth from bad and low talk. Not to be fond of talking.

Not to say what is idle or causes laughter.

Not to be fond of frequent or boisterous laughter. To listen willingly to holy reading.

The forks make tiny clinks on the plates moving bits of fish pie into the mouths of the community at the table. The reader toils on . . .

Not to gratify the desires of the flesh. To hate our own will.

To obey the commands of the Abbess in everything, even though she herself should unfortunately act otherwise, remembering the Lord’s command: ‘Practise and observe what they tell you, but not what they do.’ – Gospel of St Matthew, 23.

At the table the low nuns, high nuns and novices alike raise water to their lips and so does the reader. She replaces her glass . . .

Where there has been a quarrel, to make peace before sunset.

Quietly, the reader closes the book on the lectern and opens another that is set by its side. She continues her incantations:

A frequency is the number of times a periodic phenomenon repeats itself in unit time.

For electromagnetic waves the frequency is expressed in cycles per second or, for the higher frequencies, in kilocycles per second or megacycles per second.

A frequency deviation is the difference between the maxi- mum instantaneous frequency and the constant carrier frequency of a frequency-modulated radio transmission. Systems of recording sound come in the form of variations of magnetization along a continuous tape of, or coated with, or impregnated with, ferro-magnetic material.

In recording, the tape is drawn at constant speed through the airgap of an electromagnet energized by the audio- frequency current derived from a microphone.

Here endeth the reading. Deo gratias.

‘Amen,’ responds the refectory of nuns.

‘Sisters, be sober, be vigilant, for the Devil goes about as a raging lion, seeking whom he may devour.’

‘Amen.’

The Abbess of Crewe’s parlour glows with bright ornaments and brightest of all is a two-foot statue of the Infant of Prague. The Infant is adorned with its traditional robes, the episcopal crown and vestments embedded with such large and so many rich and gleaming jewels it would seem they could not possibly be real. However, they are real.

The Sisters, Mildred the Novice Mistress and Walburga the Prioress, sit with the Abbess. It is one o’clock in the morning. Lauds will be sung at three, when the congregation arises from sleep, as in the very old days, to observe the three-hourly ritual.

‘Of course it’s out of date,’ the Abbess had said to her two senior nuns when she began to reform the Abbey with the winsome approval of the late Abbess Hildegarde. ‘It is absurd in modern times that the nuns should have to get up twice in the middle of the night to sing the Matins and the Lauds. But modern times come into a historical context, and as far as I’m concerned history doesn’t work. Here, in the Abbey of Crewe, we have discarded history. We have entered the sphere, dear Sisters, of mythology. My nuns love it. Who doesn’t yearn to be part of a myth at whatever the price in comfort? The monastic system is in revolt throughout the rest of the world, thanks to historical devel- opment. Here, within the ambience of mythology, we have consummate satisfaction, we have peace.’

More than two years have passed since this state of peace was proclaimed. The Abbess sits in her silk-covered chair, now, between Matins and Lauds, having freshly changed her white robes. Before her sit the two black senior sisters while she speaks of what she has just seen on the television, tonight’s news, and of that Sister Felicity we have all heard about, who has lately fled the Abbey of Crewe to join her Jesuit lover and to tell her familiar story to the entranced world.

‘Felicity,’ says the Abbess to her two faithful nuns, ‘has now publicly announced her conviction that we have eaves- dropping devices planted throughout our property. She’s demanding a commission of inquiry by Scotland Yard.’

‘She was on the television again tonight?’ says Mildred.

‘Yes, with her insufferable charisma. She said she forgives us all, every one, but still she considers as a matter of prin- ciple that there should be a police inquiry.’

‘But she has no proof,’ says Walburga the Prioress.

‘Someone leaked the story to the evening papers,’ says the Abbess, ‘and they immediately got Felicity on the television.’

‘Who could have leaked it?’ says Walburga, her hands folded on her lap, immovable.

‘Her lax and leaky Jesuit, I dare say,’ the Abbess says, the skin of her face gleaming like a pearl, and her fresh, white robes falling about her to the floor. ‘That Thomas,’ says the Abbess, ‘who tumbles Felicity.’

‘Well, someone leaked it to Thomas,’ says Mildred, ‘and that could only be one of the three of us here, or Sister Winifrede. I suggest it must be Winifrede, the benighted clot, who’s been talking.’

‘Undoubtedly,’ says Walburga, ‘but why?’

‘ “Why?” is a fastidious question at any time,’ says the Abbess. ‘When applied to any action of Winifrede’s the word “why” is the inscrutable ingredient of a brown stew. I have plans for Winifrede.’

‘She was certainly instructed in the doctrine and official version that our electronic arrangements are merely laboratorial equipment for the training of our novices and nuns to meet the challenge of modern times,’ Sister Mildred says.

‘The late Abbess Hildegarde, may she rest in peace,’ says Walburga, ‘was out of her mind to admit Winifrede as a postulant, far less admit her to the veil.’

But the living Abbess of Crewe is saying, ‘Be that as it may, Winifrede is in it up to the neck, and the scandal stops at Winifrede.’

‘Amen,’ say the two black nuns. The Abbess reaches out to the Infant of Prague and touches with the tip of her finger a ruby embedded in its vestments. After a space she speaks:

‘The motorway from London to Crewe is jammed with reporters, according to the news. The A51 is a solid mass of vehicles. In the midst of the strikes and the oil crises.’

‘I hope the police are in force at the gates,’ Mildred says.

‘The police are in force,’ the Abbess says. ‘I was firm with the Home Office.’

‘There are long articles in this week’s Time and Newsweek,’ Walburga says. ‘They give four pages apiece to Britain’s national scandal of the nuns. They print Felicity’s picture.’

‘What are they saying?’ says the Abbess.

‘Time compares our public to Nero who fiddled while Rome burned. Newsweek recalls that it was a similar attitude of British frivolity and neglect of her national interests that led to the American Declaration of Independence. They make much of the affair of Sister Felicity’s thimble at the time of your election, Lady Abbess.’

‘I would have been elected Abbess in any case,’ says the

Abbess. ‘Felicity had no chance.’

‘The Americans have quite gathered that point,’ Walburga says. ‘They appear to be amused and rather shocked, of course, by the all-pervading bitchiness in this country.’

‘I dare say,’ says the Abbess. ‘This is a sad hour for England in these, the days of her decline. All this public uproar over a silver thimble, mounting as it has over the months. Such a scandal could never arise in the United States of America. They have a sense of proportion and they understand Human Nature over there; it’s the secret of their success. A realistic race, even if they do eat aspar- agus the wrong way. However, I have a letter from Rome, dear Sister Walburga, dear Sister Mildred. It’s from the Congregation of Religious. We have to take it seriously.’

‘We do,’ says Walburga.

‘We have to do something about it,’ says the Abbess, ‘because the Cardinal himself has written, not the Cardinal’s secretary. They’re putting out feelers. There are questions, and they are leading questions.’

‘Are they worried about the press and publicity?’ says Walburga, her fingers moving in her lap.

‘Yes, they want an explanation. But I,’ says the Abbess of Crewe, ‘am not worried about the publicity. It has come to the point where the more we get the better.’

Mildred’s mind seems to have wandered. She says with a sudden breakage in her calm, ‘Oh, we could be excom- municated! I know we’ll be excommunicated!’

The Abbess continues evenly, ‘The more scandal there is from this point on the better. We are truly moving in a mythological context. We are the actors; the press and the public are the chorus. Every columnist has his own version of the same old story, as it were Aeschylus, Sophocles or Euripides, only of course, let me tell you, of a far inferior dramatic style. I read classics for a year at Lady Margaret Hall before switching to Eng. Lit. However that may be – Walburga, Mildred, my Sisters – the facts of the matter are with us no longer, but we have returned to God who gave them. We can’t be excommunicated without the facts. As for the legal aspect, no judge in the kingdom would admit the case, let Felicity tell it like it was as she may. You cannot bring a charge against Agamemnon or subpoena Clytemnestra, can you?’

Walburga stares at the Abbess, as if at a new person. ‘You can,’ she says, ‘if you are an actor in the drama yourself.’ She shivers. ‘I feel a cold draught,’ she says. ‘Is there a window open?’

‘No,’ says the Abbess.

‘How shall you reply to Rome?’ Mildred says, her voice soft with fear.

‘On the question of the news reports I shall suggest we are the victims of popular demonology,’ says the Abbess.

‘Which we are. But they raise a second question on which I’m uncertain.’

‘Sister Felicity and her Jesuit!’ says Walburga.

‘No, of course not. Why should they trouble themselves about a salacious nun and a Jesuit? I must say a Jesuit, or any priest for that matter, would be the last man I would myself elect to be laid by. A man who undresses, maybe; but one who unfrocks, no.’

‘That type of priest usually prefers young students,’ Walburga observes. ‘I don’t know what Thomas sees in Felicity.’

‘Thomas wears civilian clothes, so he wouldn’t unfrock for Felicity,’ observes Mildred.

‘What I have to decide,’ says the Abbess, ‘is how to answer the second question in the letter from Rome. It is put very cautiously. They seem quite suspicious. They want to know how we reconcile our adherence to the strict enclosed Rule with the course in electronics which we have introduced into our daily curriculum in place of book-binding and hand-weaving. They want to know why we cannot relax the ancient Rule in conformity with the new reforms current in the other convents, since we have adopted such a very modern course of instruction as electronics. Or, conversely, they want to know why we teach electronics when we have been so adamant in adhering to the old observances. They seem to be suggesting, if you read between the lines, that the convent is bugged. They use the word “scandals” a great deal.’

‘It’s a snare,’ says Walburga. ‘That letter is a snare. They want you to fall into a snare. May we see the letter, Lady Abbess?’

‘No,’ says the Abbess. ‘So that, when questioned, you will not make any blunder and will be able to testify that you haven’t seen it. I’ll show you my answer, so that you can say you have seen it. The more truths and confusions the better.’

‘Are we to be questioned?’ says Mildred, folding her arms at her throat, across the white coif.

‘Who knows?’ says the Abbess. ‘In the meantime, Sisters, do you have any suggestions to offer as to how I can convinc- ingly reconcile our activities in my reply?’

The nuns sit in silence for a moment. Walburga looks at Mildred, but Mildred is staring at the carpet.

‘What is wrong with the carpet, Mildred?’ says the Abbess.

Mildred looks up. ‘Nothing, Lady Abbess,’ she says.

‘It’s a beautiful carpet, Lady Abbess,’ says Walburga, looking down at the rich green expanse beneath her feet.

The Abbess puts her white head to the side to admire her carpet, too. She intones with an evident secret happiness:

No white nor red was ever seen

So amorous as this lovely green.

Walburga shivers a little. Mildred watches the Abbess’s lips as if waiting for another little quotation.

‘How shall I reply to Rome?’ says the Abbess.

‘I would like to sleep on it,’ says Walburga.

‘I, too,’ says Mildred.

The Abbess looks at the carpet:

Annihilating all that’s made

To a green thought in a green shade.

‘I,’ says the Abbess, then, ‘would prefer not to sleep on it. Where is Sister Gertrude at this hour?’

‘In the Congo,’ Walburga says.

‘Then get her on the green line.’

‘We have no green line to the Congo,’ Walburga says.

‘She travels day and night by rail and river. She should have arrived at a capital some hours ago. It’s difficult to keep track of her whereabouts.’

‘If she has arrived at a capital we should hear from her tonight,’ the Abbess says. ‘That was the arrangement. The sooner we perfect the green line system the better. We should have in our laboratory a green line to everywhere; it would be convenient to consult Gertrude. I don’t know why she goes rushing around, spending her time on ecumenical ephemera. It has all been done before. The Arians, the Albigensians, the Jansenists of Port Royal, the English recusants, the Covenanters. So many schisms, anni- hilations and reconciliations. Finally the lion lies down with the lamb and Gertrude sees that they remain lying down. Meantime Sister Gertrude, believe me, is a philosopher at heart. There is a touch of Hegel, her compatriot, there. Philosophers, when they cease philosophising and take up action, are dangerous.’

‘Then why ask her advice?’ says Walburga.

‘Because we are in danger. Dangerous people understand well how to avoid it.’

‘She’s in a very wild area just now, reconciling the witch doctors’ rituals with a specially adapted rite of the Mass,’ Mildred says, ‘and moving the old missionaries out of that zone into another zone where they are sure to be opposed, probably massacred. However, this will be an appropriate reason for reinstating the orthodox Mass in the first zone, thus modifying the witch doctors’ bone-throwing practices. At least, that’s how I see it.’

‘I can’t keep up with Gertrude,’ says the Abbess. ‘How she is so popular I really don’t know. But even by her build one can foresee her stone statue in every village square: Blessed Mother Gertrude.’

‘Gertrude should have been a man,’ says Walburga. ‘With her moustache, you can see that.’

‘Bursting with male hormones,’ the Abbess says as she rises from her silk seat the better to adjust the gleaming robes of the Infant of Prague. ‘And now,’ says the Abbess, ‘we wait here for Gertrude to call us. Why can’t she be where we can call her?’

The telephone in the adjoining room rings so suddenly that surely, if it is Gertrude, she must have sensed her sisters’ want from the other field of the earth. Mildred treads softly over the green carpet to the adjoining room and answers the phone. It is Gertrude.

‘Amazing,’ says Walburga. ‘Dear Gertrude has an uncanny knowledge of what is needed where and when.’

The Abbess moves in her fresh white robes to the next room, followed by Walburga. Electronics control-room as it is, here, too, everything gleams. The Abbess sits at a long steel desk and takes the telephone.

‘Gertrude,’ says the Abbess, ‘the Abbess of Crewe has been discussing you with her Sisters Walburga and Mildred. We don’t know what to make of you. How should we think?’

‘I’m not a philosopher,’ says Gertrude’s deep voice, philosophically.

‘Dear Gertrude, are you well?’

‘Yes,’ says Gertrude.

‘You sound like bronchitis,’ says the Abbess.

‘Well, I’m not bronchitis.’

‘Gertrude,’ says the Abbess, ‘Sister Gertrude has charmed all the kingdom with her dangerous exploits, while the Abbess of Crewe continues to perform her part in the drama of The Abbess of Crewe. The world is having fun and wait- ing for the catharsis. Is this my destiny?’

‘It’s your calling,’ says Gertrude, philosophically.

‘Gertrude, my excellent nun, my learned Hun, we have a problem and we don’t know what to do with it.’

‘A problem you solve,’ says Gertrude.

‘Gertrude,’ wheedles the Abbess, ‘we’re in trouble with Rome. The Congregation of Religious has started to probe. They have written delicately to inquire how we reconcile our adherence to the Ancient Rule, which as you know they find suspect, with the laboratory and the courses we are giving the nuns in modern electronics, which, as you know, they find suspect.’

‘That isn’t a problem,’ says Gertrude. ‘It’s a paradox.’

‘Have you time for a very short seminar, Gertrude, on how one treats of a paradox?’

‘A paradox you live with,’ says Gertrude, and hangs up. The Abbess leads the way from this room of many shining square boxes, many lights and levers, many activating knobs, press-buttons and slide-buttons and devices fearfully and wonderfully beyond the reach of a humane vocabulary.

She leads the way back to the Infant of Prague, decked as it is with the glistening fruits of the nuns’ dowries. The Abbess sits at her little desk with the Sisters Walburga and Mildred silently composed beside her. She takes the grand writing-paper of the Abbey of Crewe and places it before her. She takes her pen from its gleaming holder and writes:

‘Your Very Reverend Eminence,

Your Eminence does me the honour to address me, and I humbly thank Your Eminence.

I have the honour to reply to Your Eminence, to submit that his sources of information are poisoned, his wells are impure. From there arise the rumours concerning my House, and I beg to write no more on that subject.

Your Eminence does me the honour to inquire of our activities, how we confront what Your Eminence does us the honour to call the problem of reconciling our activities in the field of technological surveillance with the principles of the traditional life and devotions to which we adhere.

I have the honour to reply to Your Eminence. I will humbly divide Your Eminence’s question into two parts. That we practise the activities described by Your Eminence I agree; that they present a problem I deny, and I will take the liberty to explain my distinction, and I hold:

That Religion is founded on principles of Paradox. That Paradox is to be accepted and presents no Problem. That electronic surveillance (even if a convent were one day to practise it) does not differ from any other type of watchfulness, which is a necessity of a Religious Community; we are told in the Scriptures “to watch and to pray”, which is itself a paradox since the two activities cannot effectively be practised together except in the paradoxical sense.’

*

‘You may see what I have written so far,’ says the Abbess to her nuns. ‘How does it strike you? Will it succeed in getting them muddled up for a while?’

The black bodies lean over her, the white coifs meet above the pages of the letter.

‘I see a difficulty,’ says Walburga. ‘They could object that telephone-tapping and bugging are not simply an extension of listening to hearsay and inviting confidences, the steam- ing open of letters and the regulation search of the novices’ closets. They might well say that we have entered a state where a difference of degree implies a difference in kind.’

‘I thought of that,’ says the Abbess. ‘But the fact that we have thought of it rather tends to exclude than presume that they in Rome will think of it. Their minds are set to liquidate the convent, not to maintain a courtly correspond- ence with us.’ The Abbess lifts her pen and continues:

‘Finally, Your Eminence, I take upon myself the honour to indicate to Your Eminence the fine flower and consummation of our holy and paradoxical establishment, our beloved and renowned Sister Gertrude whom we have sent out from our midst to labour for the ecumenical Faith. By river, by helicopter, by jet and by camel, Sister Gertrude covers the crust of the earth, followed as she is by photographers and reporters. Paradoxically it was our enclosed community who sent her out.’

‘Gertrude,’ says Mildred, ‘would be furious at that. She went off by herself.’

‘Gertrude must put up with it. She fits the rhetoric of the occasion,’ says the Abbess. She bends once more over her work. But the bell for Lauds chimes from the chapel. It is three in the morning. Faithful to the Rule, the Abbess immediately puts down her pen. One white swan, two black, they file from the room and down to the waiting hall. The whole congregation is assembled in steady composure. One by one they take their cloaks and follow the Abbess to the chapel, so softly ill-lit for Lauds. The nuns in their choirs chant and reply, with wakeful voices at three in the morning:

O Lord, our Lord, how wonderful is thy name in all the earth:

Thou who hast proclaimed thy glory upon the heavens. Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings thou hast

prepared praise to confuse thy adversaries:

to silence the enemy and the revengeful.

The Abbess from her high seat looks with a kind of wonder at her shadowy chapel of nuns, she listens with a fine joy to the keen plainchant, as if upon a certain newly created world. She contemplates and sees it is good. Her lips move with the Latin of the psalm. She stands before her high chair as one exalted by what she sees and thinks, as it might be she is contemplating the full existence of the Abbess of Crewe.

Et fecisti eum paulo minorem Angelis: Gloria et honore coronasti eum.

Soon she is whispering the melodious responses in other words of her great liking:

Every farthing of the cost,

All the dreaded cards foretell, Shall be paid, but from this night Not a whisper, not a thought,

Not a kiss nor look be lost.

*The Comforters by Muriel Spark, with an introduction by Ali Smith is published by Polygon, 220pp, £9.99