'Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy' entwines the historical characters of Pere Lataste and Soeur Noel with author Rumer Godden’s own characters.
The young Dominican priest doubted his visit to the prison would prove much use. He later wrote to a friend, saying, “I entered with considerable embarrassment, persuaded that the undertaking would prove futile.” Armed with only a year’s experience of priestly ministry and the Holy Spirit, Marie-Jean-Joseph Lataste, O.P., was sent to preach a spiritual retreat at the women’s prison in Cadillac-sur-Garrone, France, in September 1864.
Lataste famously began his conferences by addressing the prisons’s debased and forgotten women as “my dear sisters.” What happened next was transformative. As they raised their downturned faces, Lastaste recalls they looked “like flowers after a spring rain.” By his preaching, in which his kindness and genuine love were evident, Lataste was able to convince the inmates of a truth he deeply believed: “God does not look at what we have been; God sees only what we are.”
During the retreat, in front of the Blessed Sacrament, Lataste received the grace to conceive a radical idea. Driven by the concern of what might happen to these former inmates when they left prison (as many religious orders would not accept candidates who had been in prison), Lataste founded a new religious congregation, a house of Bethany. Lataste held the traditional view that Mary (the sister of Martha and Lazarus mentioned in Luke 10 and John 11) was Mary Magdalene, and that she had been a notorious sinner. He writes,
The Gospel tells us that at Bethany there lived two sisters: Martha of inviolable virtue and Mary Magdalene who had been a sinner. Jesus loved to come and rest in their home, where one served him and the other listened to his words. He made no distinction between them — or did he …? It is rather Magdalene who is preferred.
In the house of Bethany, formally known as the Congregation of Dominican Sisters of Bethany, those who had been prisoners and prostitutes could live side-by-side among others, without question or difference. In such a home, loved and known, these women could regain their lost dignity and be seen for the first time as the beloved daughters of the Father. Lataste writes,
They must be saved, not only from the past dishonor, but from that inevitable return to crime; they must be saved, not only for this life, but for eternity; they must be saved out of love for him who said: ‘The Son of man has come to seek and to save what was lost.’
The incredible story of Pere Lataste and his “dear sisters” forms the background of English Catholic novelist Rumer Godden’s Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy. The novel entwines the historical characters of Pere Lataste and Soeur Noel, the first sister of Bethany, with Godden’s own characters drawn forth from the chiaroscuro of the human condition. As in her masterful In this House of Brede, Godden probes the depths of the heart with psychological mastery.
The novel opens as the protagonist pulls a rosary from a pile of debris smelling of vomit and stale beer. The rosary forms the chain of the book, moments progressing as rapidly as some pass from bead to bead. Godden explains the title in a brief note at the beginning of the novel. “A rosary has fifteen ‘decades’ — ten beads in each — of which five decades are the ‘sorrowful’ ones, five ‘joyous’ and five ‘glorious.’ The Sisters of Bethanie wear the full rosary, which has three strands, one for each ‘mood.’” The genius of the novel is that it shows that despite the suffering in life, with Christ there is cause for greater joy. For those who let down their guard, the drafts of darkness, sin, and pain give way to floods of light and peace.
Godden introduces us to souls who want to be healed, and cannot quite manage, and those who, against all odds, have been transformed by God’s grace. The novel might be a fictional story, but its narrative is true. Let Godden show you in these penned glimpses of sorrow and joy, the contest of Christian life, the very way of salvation.
Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy. Cluny Media. 2021. Paperback, 250 pp. ISBN: 978-1952826481. Available new, here.