Everything is the product of one universal creative effort. There is nothing dead in Nature.

– Seneca

There I was, impingly (i.e. happily) watching one the most rated films of our modern age when a thought struck me, just like that. No, not like this, just like that. (Sorry, that was a Tommy Cooper moment for those old and British enough). Anyway, the film was Black Narcissus, a finely told and beautifully filmed tale of nuns who are frightfully keen to be good and holy, but who go doolally in the Himalayas, unable to deal with “this place” they have come to.

“This place” is Mopu, a mountain summit palace, where formerly the old General (who was Nepalese, not a colonial Brit) kept his women. In less than a year, the nuns each fall to pieces, haunted by memories of life before they joined their order: lives that were in part far happier than the deliberate struggle they have chosen by becoming nuns.

By contrast, the “child-like” native people of the village, whom the nuns have come to “help” (o, the silent editorial power of the inverted comma) are happy, content, laughing, their lives apparently full of joy, although hard. They work because they have to; the nuns work because they want to forget the past and, after a time, blot out their doubts in God.

Mopu, the palace and especially the garden and summit, very much has its own spirit, in a way quite like the Marabar caves in the wonderful A Passage to India.

The idea of a place having a spirit is called ‘locus genii’. That translates first as ‘the geniuses of the place’: but here a genius is a spirit, like the genie in the lamp, not some prodigy/nerd (we get ‘genius’ from the Roman idea that very clever people were tutored by spirits – genii – living outside their body, guiding them forwards).

And the thing about Mopu’s spirit is, for the nuns, is that it demands of you:  you must either live in total harmony with it, like the holy man who sits naked on the hill top, mute (but multi-lingual and with several British honours – KCVO etc, making him a “Sir”), or you must ignore it, like the General’s English agent, Mr Dean, a rugged (denied) love interest character.

The wind blows through the convent at all times, the water is so pure it brings impurities of the body to the skin’s surface, the air so refined at such altitude that the nuns become over-tired, the snow so isolating they have only themselves to deal with. There is no avoiding the locus genii. And here was my interrupting thought: you feel the spirit of the place, so strongly, but the nuns seem alone, spiritually un-nourished: where is God?

Throughout, but unspoken, is a thread of inner-outer, of liminal, conflict. These women are trying to do their best by a code imposed upon them by their order (but which they readily accept, and have chosen).  We see that each has become a “bride of Christ” (how sexist the church is, amongst other things) because of heartache or troubles in the “outside” world.

And that is how it is known: “outside”. So what, then, is inside? What is deemed safe and permissible enough to be termed “inside”? These nuns have taken themselves away from their own families to a religious order, then away to Nepal, then from the large convent there, to Mopu. It is as though they want to become the smallest of the Russian matryoshka dolls. They retreat inside, and inside, and further inside.  But again, where is God? They bristle at the casual (although reverent) reference to Christ made by the General’s son – “we do not speak of our Lord so lightly”. They keep their sense of God apart, as well as inside themselves, and inspire (breathe in) within themselves a resulting conflict so great that it drives one of them to insanity and attempted murder.

Now, you can go several ways from this point:

  • You can say that there is a conflict between a Christian god and a pagan spirit of the place (the word relates to the countryside: paganus = country-dweller).
  • You can say that the nuns are unable to reconcile their isolating, distancing and rigid, rule-bound idea of God with the true experience of God in the world around them.
  • You can say that God is testing them, or has even abandoned them.
  • You can say that their sense of God is misplaced: they are in one of the most beautiful, rarified places in the world (the best God could make), surrounded by good people, but all it brings them is pain because they feel they must cling to an inappropriate, structured religion instead.
  • You can say they have a chance really to see the magic around them, to compare it with their teachings and strictures and draw their own conclusions, but they choose to resolve the conflict by running away rather than asking questions.

What a terrible irony – to be surrounded by the very best the world can offer, only for it to cause you heartache and conflict.

For me, it doesn’t matter what you call the beauty, the spirit, the specialness of a place to yourself. Regardless of your system of belief, it is being (or trying to be) ‘at one’ with the surroundings that matters. The nuns could have seen a Christian God surrounding them there (cf. the thought-provoking and great Gabriel Byrne / Patricia Arquette / Jonathan Pryce film Stigmata -“lift up a stone and you will find me,” writes Christ). The local holy man has obviously found something in it; a pagan might find their own gods or spirits. The experience of and quest for spirituality ain’t about religion. It can be, but it’s not nearly the whole story. The nuns chose religious structure (stricture) over possible love and new experiences; they chose religion over spirituality.