Magazine article Commonweal


Magazine article Commonweal


Article excerpt

The most interesting moment in Hugh Whitemore's The Best of Friends--a 1987 play about the friendship between George Bernard Shaw and Dame Laurentia McLachlan, a cloistered Benedictine at Stanbrook Abbey--comes about a third of the way through. Shaw, returning to England after a visit to the Holy Land, has gifted Laurentia a small stone from Bethlehem. He picked the stone himself; before he gave it to Laurentia, he also placed it in a small, specially commissioned silver reliquary.

Shouldn't the reliquary, a mutual friend inquires, be given "a brief inscription explaining its purpose and saying who it's from"? At this suggestion, Shaw explodes:

What the devil--saving your cloth--could we put on it? We couldn't put
our names on it--could we? That seems to me perfectly awful. "An
inscription explaining its purpose"! If we could explain its purpose,
we could explain the universe. I couldn't. Could you?... Dear Sister:
our fingerprints are on it, and Heaven knows whose footprints may be
on the stone. Isn't that enough?

Shaw angrily resists the idea that the reliquary he's given his friend is only an object like any other--at the same time, he doesn't really want to ascribe to it any particular meaning. Why, then, does it matter quite so much? He doesn't know; in a real sense, he doesn't want to.

The Best of Friends is drama, but Shaw's words are drawn almost verbatim from his correspondence with the real Dame Laurentia, as is almost all of the play's dialogue. You can read it, along with other letters they exchanged and accounts of visits Shaw paid to Stanbrook Abbey, in The Nun, the Infidel, and the Superman, a book about Laurentia's friendships written by a fellow nun there. Or you can pick up, if you are lucky enough to find it, the Masterpiece Theatre production of The Best of Friends starring Patrick McGoohan as Shaw, Dame Wendy Hiller as Laurentia, and Sir John Gielgud as Sydney Cockerell, director of the Fitzwilliam Museum and the "mutual friend" who elicits Shaw's scorn for asking about the reliquary.

Though hardly a household name, Laurentia maintained an active correspondence with many of her secular contemporaries in the world of letters. Her research played an important role in the restoration of Gregorian chant, and she even received a commendation from Pius X for it in 1904. (It was this work that led her to become friends with Sydney Cockerell, and subsequently with Shaw.) She was, as Shaw said, "the enclosed nun with an unenclosed mind."

It's her friendships, however--not her scholarship--that have received the most sustained attention since her death. This isn't too surprising; we are, after all, interested in the ability to maintain friendships across sharp differences and other obstacles (such as cloister grilles). Many of us disagree with people very dear to us on issues of the greatest importance; that Cockerell and Shaw, two atheists, could plausibly be described as "the best of friends" with a cloistered nun gives us hope.

But that friendship was more complicated--and for that reason more instructive--than any simple feelgood story. Shaw's description of his friend as having an "unenclosed mind," for example, is an interesting turn of phrase--clearly affectionate, but just as clearly backhanded. On what kind of terms, one wonders, did this friendship really exist?

Indeed, the further one reads about their friendship, the more one is not just impressed by the real depth of mutual affection that existed between them, but frustrated by Shaw's refusal to respect Laurentia's choice of life. His friendship with her was marked from the beginning by a kind of surprise that such a creature existed. After their first meeting, he was uninterested in seeing her again until he discovered that she had been in the convent for fifty years--as Laurentia admitted, "When he found that whatever I am is the result of my life here he was impressed. …

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