Lambs of God, by the Australian novelist Marele Day, is the most ingeniously religious novel I have read in a long, long time. I say ingenious because not only does everything about it from title to characters to setting bespeak a world of faith, but nearly everything subtly interconnects in a way that both explains and tests that world. Its web of religious symbolism and allusion is complex and anything but obvious, and thus extremely satisfying to the reader.
In 1940 another Australian writer, Martin Boyd, published a peculiar novel, Nuns in Jeopardy, which this one somewhat resembles in peculiarity. The three nuns of Lambs of God are also in jeopardy, one that is at once internal and external.
They are Iphigenia, Margarita, and Carla, and aside from their flock of sheep they are the sole inhabitants of a rundown monastery on a remote, unnamed island, apparently off the coast of Britain. The world and the church have forgotten them. They live a round of prayer, storytelling, sheepherding, shearing, and knitting. Their personal lives as well as their liturgical life have become rather loopy, though not necessarily any less profoundly religious.
They and their flock are virtually one, and both are in many senses lambs of God. The three believe that the souls of the island's deceased nuns have entered the sheep's bodies. The slaughtering of a lamb is part of their religious ritual, and its blood becomes like that of Christ, the Lamb of God. They live with the sheep, and when it is cold they sleep with them.
When shearing, Margarita would become "one with the sheep, with all of Creation, with the growing grass, the growing wool, the growing hair, the nurturing, benign Beneficence." When Iphigenia lay down with Teresa, a sheep whose lamb recently was sacrificed, "Teresa took this lamb unto herself."This peaceful, peculiar existence is shattered by the sudden appearance of a priest, Father Ignatius. Eager to rise in the church, he has been sent by the bishop to assess the possibility of converting what the diocese believes to be uninhabited church property into a resort for the rich.
Though young rather than middle-aged, Ignatius recalls another ambitious and worldly fictional priest, J.F. Powers's Father Urban, who also thought he could serve God by accommodating Mammon. "There were no problems that money could not solve," Ignatius believes. He is of course surprised by the nuns' inhabitation of the island, which he sees as "a criminal waste of real estate. . . . The rich too needed spiritual sustenance, a place of retreat."The nuns are just as surprised to see him. Moreover, they are frightened, and, not to put too fine a point on it, they take him prisoner, at the instigation of Iphigenia, the de facto leader. "He might leave [the island]," Iphigenia thinks, "but he wouldn't leave them alone."Ignatius's captivity and inability to escape (they plaster him up like a mummy) are two of several unbelievable elements in this novel that you will have to surmount with a leap of faith. It's easily made. Anyway, at this point the tension kicks up several notches and the book becomes a kind of suspense thriller: Will Ignatius get away? What will the nuns do with him? What will become of them?The captivity serves an artistic purpose. Under its pressure, aspects of Ignatius are revealed that are not pleasing to him. A man of refined habits, he is reduced to the animal-like shoveling-in of food he had despised in the nuns. "He had never imagined . . . that he and the unfortunate belonged to the same species."Even more troubling things, about which it would not be fair to get too specific, are revealed about the nuns. Margarita's past hides a terrifying secret, and Iphigenia's a shocking one. Hers involves Carla, the youngest nun, a dreamy, nearly simple-minded woman obsessed with indistinct carnal thoughts.
Nor would it be fair to tell the island's fate. Suffice it to say that it involves Iphigenia's clumsy use of Ignatius's cell phone and the author's clever use of Iphigenia's past.
It is not unfair, given the spiritual nature of the novel, to reveal that the priest and nuns reconcile and become, for a moment, a real religious community. There is a tender, moving Easter vigil, presided over by Ignatius. "For the first time as a priest, for the first time ever, he understood the meaning of resurrection, the eternal renewal of life."