by MAUREEN VINCENT
Nuns by Marcelle Bernstein (Collins £4.95)
We Catholics tend to take our nuns far too much for granted. At least, that goes for Catholic women who have been educated by nuns. And I suspect that it goes for the rest of us as well.
There they are, we believe, safely tucked up in their convents, praying for us. They lead peaceful, gentle and untroubled lives. The harsh realities of the everyday world are not for them. We honour them, love them, sometimes we even envy them. In short, we sentimentalise them. And then we usually forget about them.
Marcelle Bernstein gives all our complacencies in relation to those called to the religious life a real shake-up. Her book is like a breath of wind through a long-closed window which has suddenly been prised open. It tears apart a few cobwebs, destroys a few comfortable myths, stirs up the dust on our outworn concepts.
But here at last is something which has been lacking without anyone actually realising the lack. Marcelle Bernstein is a Jewess. Her first contact with convent life was when she visited one to get copy for a magazine article she was writing.
She says of that contact: "It was a revelation. Here were chatty, intellectual women perfectly prepared to discuss not only 'their reasons for entering but the difficulties they encounter: not only what it means to sacrifice much emotional and all sexual satisfaction, but where they buy their underwear."
She left the convent thirsting to find out more. But she found that "most books on the subject seemed intended for t he knowledgeable insider . . . None of them answered the questions I wanted to ask. I decided that the best way to learn what I wanted to know was to write a book myself".
Her hook is a triumph for her and for the nuns she interviewed, on every subject, from every kind of Order. She manages to pack on astonishing amount of in formation on every aspect of Ihe religious life into a book which is difficult to put down once you have started to read it.
Her writing is brisk and easy. She comes to no conclusions -or if she does she leaves the reader to infer what they are and to draw different ones if so inclined.
Some nuns will not like the book: neither will some lay people. But it will probably be a long time before anything so comprehensive on the subject is tackled again.