|Audrey Hepburn in The Nun's Story|
Gabrielle’s father opposes her entry into the convent, but he has also opposed her marrying Jean because Jean’s mother died insane. Given the religious name Sister Luke, Gabrielle is gradually introduced to the community which runs hospitals and schools, as postulant, then novice, and finally a professed nun. She is awed by the Rule of obedience, learning to drop what she is doing whenever the bell sounds to wake up, to go to chapel, to the refectory and to bed, all done in the company of her sisters. Under the watchful eye of the older nuns and the Mother Superior, she learns to examine her conscience, note her faults and take the punishments meted out.
“One by one the lights in the chapel would be extinguished until there were left only the vigil light at the altar and the shaded lamp that illuminated the statue of the Virgin Mary. When everything else was dark the nuns began to sing. … The awesome antiphon swelled in the dark and expanded it.” This moment, for Gabrielle, made possible the next day.
Eventually Sister Luke is assigned to study at the school of tropical medicines. She longs to go to the Congo, where the Belgians have missions. She is extremely good at recognizing under the microscope the bacterium and viruses that cause various diseases. Other nuns accuse her of pride. Her Mother Superior asks whether she would be able to fail her examinations to show humility. Sister Luke asks “How can I know He would want this from me?” She is told to ask Him. Sister Luke’s whole being rocks with this inner disturbance, but she is not able to fail.
When she is sent to a hospital for the insane instead of the Congo, Sister Luke wonders why. The experience is made memorable by certain violent patients and relationships with her sisters. At last she is posted to the Congo in 1932. On shipboard, she and another sister carry out the requirements of their Rule alongside the very lively life of the world.
The Congo is unlike anything Sister Luke expected. She is soon the nurse requested by Dr. Fortunati for his early morning surgeries (due to heat). He is seen as a genius, but difficult. Her Mother Superior worries that Sister Luke is neglecting her spiritual life, the nurse carrying away the nun. She manages to save a man’s leg when the doctor is not available. And she organizes her black assistants, training them so they become trusted helpers.
At one point Sister Luke gets dysentery and is so sick she is given last rites. She recovers, however, knowing her preparation for death, for which she is congratulated, was a sham. “You are not a nun yet,” she tells herself. She is desperate to learn humility. Going back to her double shifts, she also gets tuberculosis. Most nuns who get it are sent back to Europe, but the doctor arranges a cure, a three-month stay in a second floor aerie where she can rest, eat and become a child again. She learns to live from day to day, finding briefly that she understands what grace is like. She recovers and goes back to her intense schedule. Dr. Fortunati tells her, however, “You are a worldly nun – never will you be what your convent wants.”
Sister Luke is sent back to Belgium in 1939. She works in a tuberculosis hospital as war begins. When she sees Nazi storm troopers dropping out of the sky, she realizes she has hated the Germans since World War I, when they humiliated her beloved father. She also learns of his death assisting refugees as they are strafed by German planes. She begins to assist the lay nurses who are involved in resisting the Nazis, hiding people and deflecting German officers. She realizes she will never make a nun with hatred in her heart. She begins the painful process of leaving the order, certain that “God hates a hypocrite.”
As with many great stories, Sister Luke is based on a real person who became Kathryn Hulme’s dearest friend and partner. Marie Louise Habets was a Belgian nurse who worked with Hulme for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration in Germany at Wildflecken, Germany after the war. Hulme has written several books about this work. At first Hulme has no knowledge of Habets’ background as a nun and is surprised Habets is so happy to find work in the UNRRA. She writes in Undiscovered Country : “Since I knew what a superb nurse she was and how her services would have been welcomed anywhere in her homeland, her remark made no sense to me. But neither, for that matter, did her extraordinary smooth countenance on which life had left no trace of all the suffering she had seen.”