The Nun and the Dramatist: George Bernard Shaw to the Abbess of Stanbrook

At the time of her death in 1953, it was said of Dame Laurentia McLachlan, the ABBESS OF STANBROOK, that “she gave herself to everyone who needed her help; she was a person without frontiers.” In her hitherto unpublished correspondence with GEORGE BERNARD SHAW,a bitter and candid controversy arose between the Abbess and the Dramatist following the publication of his book, The Adventures of a Black Girl in Her Search for God. Their difference and their reconciliation are eloquently revealed in the letters which follow. This correspondence, the first portion of which appeared in the Atlantic for July, is edited by the nuns of Stanbrook and printed by kind permission of the present Abbess, the Public Trustee, and the Society of Authors; it will form part of a book, In a Great Tradition, to be published later.

TRAVELING in South Africa during the winter of 1931-1932, George Bernard Shaw and his wife were driving at high speed along a road at Knysna, Cape Province. G.B.S., being unfamiliar with the mechanism of the car, put his foot on the accelerator instead of the brake, turned to the left instead of the right, and after hurtling into the veldt finally succeeded in bringing the car to a standstill, but not before Mrs. Shaw had been seriously injured. During the month of her slow recovery from the dangerous illness which followed, Shaw wrote The Adventures of a Black Girl in Her Search for God.

This book has sometimes been regarded as a piece of clever buffoonery, a jeu d’esprit to while away hours of tedium. But was it? The moment was hardly one to indulge in tomfoolery. In consequence of an accident of which he was the cause, Bernard Shaw’s wife, to whom he was completely devoted, had been brought to death’s door. A man’s instinct in such a plight is not to jest but to pray. If one may conjecture from the outcome, it was precisely prayer to which he had recourse. Shaw being what he was, however, his fierce intellect asserted itself as the days passed, and he felt impelled to subject his Deity to analysis. The result is a fantasy somewhat after the manner of Swift, in which the central figure of the girl roving from place to place and encountering all kinds of things and people en route forms the main thread of the plot. It is not improbable that The Black Girl — suggested, one supposes, by his surroundings — is an allegory of his own soul. The following letter is in answer to one of expostulation from Dame Laurentia, who upon hearing of the theme had asked Shaw to indicate the lines he was pursuing: —

London, April 14, 1932
Your letter has given me a terrible fright. The story is absolutely blasphemous, as it goes beyond all the churches and all the gods. I forgot all about you, or I should never have dared. It is about a negro girl converted by a missionary, who takes her conversion very seriously and demands where she is to find God. “Seek and ye shall find Him” is the only direction she gets; so off she goes through the forest on her search, with her knobkerrie in her hand. Her search is only too successful. She finds the god of Abraham, and the god of Job; and I regret to say she disposes of both with her knobkerrie. She meets Ecclesiastes (Koheleth) the Preacher, who thinks that death reduces life to futility and warns her not to be righteous overmuch. She meets Micah, roaring like a dragon and denouncing the god of Abraham as a bloodthirsty impostor with his horrible sacrifices. She meets Pavlov, who assures her that there is no god, and that life is only a series of reflexes. She meets St. Peter carrying a cathedral on his shoulders. On her rushing to beg him to take care, as the weight, will break his back, he assures her that it is only a paper cathedral and goes off gaily with it; but presently several others come along with paper churches, mostly much smaller and uglier, who warn her against St. Peter until they begin throwing stones at one another and she has to run away to escape the fusillade. . . .

When the author reaches the New Testament and goes on with iconoclastic hammer to smash the Cross to pieces, reverence forbids quotation, for the profanation of divine names and ideas becomes revolting and unbearable. Yet the exposition of his New Testament exegesis in the same letter to Dame Laurentia ends on a curious note:-

The truth is, dear Sister Laurentia, I have finished with all these deities, who seem to me more or less grotesque signboards announcing that the Holy Ghost is lodged within, though It is there only as It is everywhere. [At this point he has carefully altered the small “i” of the original “it” in both places to a capital.] ... I do not cry “He saved others: himself he cannot save,” which is a fair taunt to a magician; I should say rather to the jeering crowd “He tried to save you, and you slew him; so now you can follow your pet Barabbas to the devil: only, as I am determined that you shall have no excuse in the hour of your ruin, I shall also point out the way to you, though you shall not catch me in your legal and ecclesiastical nets if I can help it.” And so on and so forth.
Perhaps I should not disturb the peace of Stanbrook with my turbulent spirit; but as I want you to go on praying for me I must in common honesty let you know what you are praying for. I have a vision of a novice innocently praying for that good man Bernard Shaw, and a scandalized Deity exclaiming “What! that old reprobate who lives at Whitehall Court, for whom purgatory is too good. Don’t dare mention him in my presence.”
The fact is, I have such an unruly imagination that I had better change the subject. I did not feel that your election could be more than a nominal change; for you could boss the establishment if you were only the scullery maid; and now that you are Abbess I feel comforted because you wont have to wash dishes as well as boss; and I wish you a wilful dominating interfering managing sort of Prioress so that you may henceforth have as little to do as possible except keep people’s souls clean, as you help to keep that of your erring and worldly BROTHER BERNARD

P.S. Shall I send you the story or not? It is very irreverent and iconoclastic but I don’t think you will think it fundamentally irreligious.

She demanded to see the book.

Two things emerge from a study of this curious fantasy and the correspondence between its author and Dame Laurentia to which it gave rise; possibly they are simply two facets of the same thing. Beneath the surface flummery and flippancy one has to recognize the story’s underlying seriousness, its acknowledgment of the reality and the accessibility of God. “Mere agnosticism,” Shaw declares in the Epilogue, “leads nowhere.” To regard G.B.S. as an atheist in the style of popular newspaper reports is, needless to say, sheer nonsense. He could not or would not, however, seek God in anything physical or symbolical. Even Christ Himself comes between God and Shaw, not indeed as He ought, in the sense of a bridge between God and man — the Way, the Truth, and the Life — but as an obstacle like some barbed-wire entanglement to be ruthlessly and impatiently removed at all costs. In his own chimerical deliverance of mankind from “supernatural superstition” therefore, Bernard Shaw sweeps away that full insight of mind and heart in the holy Scriptures where man reads the symbols of his own inner life presented by virtue of the mysterious analogy of matter and spirit. The result is a book scintillating with wit and fancy, and utterly devoid of wisdom and true imagination. The Irishman’s opinion that God is nothing more solid and satisfactory than an eternal but as yet unfulfilled purpose—“He’s not properly made and finished yet” — is hardly even a serious conjecture. It follows, therefore, that the outcome of all Shaw’s repudiations and destructions is a lifeless abstraction, a God hopelessly negative and remote with no apprehensible qualities whatever.

The second thing that emerges is that Bernard Shaw — like Milton and Bunyan in the same Puritan tradition — stoutly maintained that The Black Girl had been written as the result of inspiration, and he never, apparently, ceased to regard it otherwise than as directly inspired by the Almighty. “ I was inspired to write this tale when I was held up in Knysna for five weeks in the African summer and English winter of 1932. . . . And now the story being written, I proceed to speculate on what it means.” So runs the Epilogue, bearing out the author’s assertion, written on the flyleaf of the forty-two-page first proof of the book sent to Dame Laurentia in April, 1932: —

An Inspiration
Which came in response to the prayers of the nuns
of Stanbrook Abbey
in particular
to the prayers of his dear Sister Laurentia
Bernard Shaw

In all the ensuing correspondence, G.B.S. never deviated a hair’s breadth from his original position. He stubbornly persisted in his claim. It is characteristic for many who sternly reject any notion of the divine inspiration of the Scriptures to regard their own private visions and assumptions as being unassailable and infallible, and there is an exquisite irony in the fear Bernard Shaw later expresses of upsetting Dame Laurentia’s faith, while heartily assuring her of the impregnability of his own. Yet all this notwithstanding, a careful study of their dispute over the book may raise in the reader’s mind the pertinent question: Did Dame Laurentia really get to grips with the main problem? She censured and upbraided him, as indeed she had just cause to do, but did she ever fully grasp his point of view?

By nature neither of a speculative nor of a metaphysical turn of mind, she saw in the product of Shaw’s inspiration only a grotesque parody of the Christian truths she held most sacred. What may, however, have lain at the base of the misunderstanding is precisely the ambiguity of the word “inspiration.” In the first letter he ever wrote to her on the subject of St. Joan, Bernard Shaw had informed her that from the age of twenty-four he had proceeded to “purely mystical assumptions.” Rightly or wrongly, all mystics insist on the reality of their spiritual experiences; Shaw was therefore following in the tradition when he doggedly reiterated his conviction that he wrote The Black Girl as the result of direct inspiration. In face of so profoundly earnest a man, one would hesitate to deny that during those hours of intense anxiety and prayer he may have experienced some genuine tactus Dei, the divine touch between the soul and God so well-known to the mystics.

Where then, and why, did Bernard Shaw fail ? He failed because he attempted to analyze, record, and draw conclusions from an experience which, if real, necessarily surpassed the limits of human understanding. According to theologians, such contacts with the supernatural usually leave some permanent effect in the soul far below the plane of consciousness. Words in such circumstances, even at best, can only be a kind of algebraic symbol, and the trouble usually arises as it did in the case of The Black Girl, when the memory and inventive faculty of the human mind attempt an interpretation of the divine action. Those who have read them know how bewilderingly concrete, disconcerting, and contradictory the revelations of saints can prove. The advice of that sanest and most profound of all spiritual theologians, St. John of the Cross, is No admitir — reject them all, pay no attention to what are purely secondary matters which may easily lead to error and illusion.

No one was more keenly alive to the danger than Bernard Shaw himself. “I cannot too often repeat,” he asserts in the Epilogue to The Black Girl, “that I am as liable as anyone else to err in my interpretation, and that pioneer writers, like other pioneers, often mistake their destination as Columbus did. That is how they sometimes run away in pious horror from the conclusions to which their revelations manifestly lead. I hold, as firmly as St. Thomas Aquinas, that all truths, ancient or modern, are divinely inspired; but I know by observation and introspection that the instrument on which the inspiring force plays may be a very faulty one, and may even end like Bunyan in the Holy War, by making the most ridiculous nonsense of his message.”

The effect of the book on Dame Laurentia is difficult to describe. To the end of her life she could hardly bring herself to mention it. The open rejection of our Lord’s divinity and the mockery of the Crucifix by one whom she had come to regard as a dear friend filled her with grief and indignation; she felt utterly crushed and humiliated. It was all too clear to her that while his public insults to all that Christians hold most sacred would of necessity make many enemies, the book might easily gain a mastery over young and impressionable minds attracted by its levity and unable to pierce below the surface to the sound underlying ideas. In December, 1932, Shaw sent her the book in its final form, with an inscription which goes to prove that her letters during the course of the year had been such as to indicate that if it were published, he would no longer be persona grata at Stanbrook. The inscription runs: —

This black girl has broken out in spite of everything. I was afraid to present myself at Stanbrook in September.
Forgive me.

Dame Laurentia at once wrote to reprove G.B.S. in no measured terms for his blasphemous book. He was on a cruise round the world and her letter reached him in Siam. While still on the voyage he wrote a long and detailed reply in shorthand in his letter book. The sequel is best told by himself: —

June 29, 1933

4, Whitehall Court, London, S.W.1.

I have a wretched tale to tell, and can only hope that you will laugh at it.
I was ridiculously surprised at your reception of The Black Girl story, which I innocently took to be a valuable contribution to the purification of religion from horrible old Jewish superstitions; and even my callousness was pierced by finding that it had shocked and distressed you. On the ship going round the world I wrote you a long letter about it, but could not feel sure that it might not wound you again, and so tore it up.
Then I wrote you another, with the same result after a few days reflection. But at the third attempt I succeeded, or thought I did. It was a long letter: and as I had no typewriter to make it legible for you I wrote it in shorthand for the ship’s stenographer to transcribe. Alas, you never received it; for the next thing that happened was a ludicrous catastrophe.
On that ship were hundreds of foolish Canadians and American worshippers of my publicity. Publicity worship sets great store by relics. The notebook in which I had drafted your letter (and others) vanished from my deck chair; and the offer of a guinea to any steward who could find it for me had no result. Your letter is in the collection of some devoutly Shavian thief. Your only remedy is anathema and major excommunication like that which brought the Jackdaw of Rheims to its senses; and for this you are too kind-hearted. Our consolation must be that the thief probably cannot read shorthand; and if he (or she) calls in an expert it cannot be published without infringing my copyright, of which offence certain former legal proceedings of mine have established a wholesome dread in America. I will not try to reproduce the letter: the moment has passed for that. Besides, I am afraid of upsetting your faith, which is still entangled in those old stories which unluckily got scribbled up on the Rock of Ages before you landed there. So I must go delicately with you, though you need have no such tenderness with me; for you can knock all the story books in the world into a cocked hat without shaking an iota of my faith.
Now that I think of it, it was a venial sin to write me such a cruel letter, and I think you ought to impose on yourself the penance of reading The Black Girl once a month for a year. I have a sneaking hope that it might not seem so very wicked the tenth or eleventh time as you thought it at first. You must forgive its superficial levity. Why should the devil have all the fun as well as all the good tunes ?

It was typical of Shaw the intellectual aristocrat to overrate the intelligence of the average man. He expected his readers, many of whom were young and vulnerable, to recognize his determination to see truth face to face even though it should slay him; whereas all that most of them were likely to see was the frivolity and irresponsibility in which that determination was clothed. Nevertheless, he must have realized that, he was at grips with something greater than mere intellectual power when in July, 1933, he received this letter in reply: —

Thank you for your letter which explains your silence. The fate of your long letter is very sad, but if I may judge by the line you take in your last I fear it would not have given me much satisfaction.
The fact is our viewpoints are so divergent that the only comfort you could give me would be to withdraw The Black Girl from circulation and make a public act of reparation for the dishonour done in it to Almighty God. In spite of the book I still have such faith in your greatness of mind that I think you capable of such a noble act and I ask you to do what I should not dream of proposing to a smaller mind — suppress the book and retract its blasphemies. It must have done mischief in many minds and such an act would remedy the evil. I am thinking chiefly though of you and the harm you have done to your own soul by dishonouring your Maker. I have made myself responsible in some sense for that soul of yours and I hate to see you treating it so lightly. You do not realize how deeply you have outraged the feelings of those who like myself believe in God and in our Lord’s divinity. If you had written offensively of my father and mother you could not expect to be forgiven or received with any favour until you had made amends. Let me implore you to do this one thing and withdraw the book, even if you can’t bring yourself to imitate St. Augustine and the main great minds that have given their retractations to the world. You know how I value your friendship and how truly I have believed in you. Is this precious thing to be sacrificed by an episode that is unworthy of you? You must realize that there are things too sacred to be played with.
Do not be angry with me for writing like this — let me still be able
to sign myself your

From Malvern, conscious of his banishment, he sent an immediate reply together with a miniature one-act play purporting to be a celestial version of the quarrel. His obvious desire to conciliate gives no place, for all that, to apology or atonement. Gone is the familiar signature, yet there is a touching note of pleading and, as ever, the request for prayer which is the hallmark of a truly humble man.

July 24, 1933
You are the most unreasonable woman I ever knew. You want me to go out and collect 100,000 sold copies of The Black Girl, which have all been read and the mischief, if any, done; and then you want me to announce publicly that, my idea of God Almighty is the anti-vegetarian deity who, after trying to exterminate the human race by drowning it, was coaxed out of finishing the job by a gorgeous smell of roast meat. Laurentia: has it never occurred to you that I might possibly have a more exalted notion of divinity, and that I dont as a matter of fact believe that Noah’s deity ever existed or ever could exist? How could it possibly comfort you if I declared that I believed in him? It would simply horrify you. I know much better than you what you really believe. You think you believe the eighth chapter of Genesis; and I know you dont; if you did I would never speak to you again. You think you believe that Micah, when he wrote the eighth verse of his sixth chapter, was a liar and a blasphemer; but I know that you agree heartily with Micah, and that if you caught one of your nuns offering rams and calves and her first-born (if she had one) as a sacrifice to Jehovah you would have her out of the convent and into the nearest lunatic asylum before she could say Hail, Mary. You think you are a better Catholic than I; but my view of the Bible is the view of the Fathers of the Church; and yours is that of a Belfast Protestant to whom the Bible is a fetish and religion entirely irrational. You think you believe that God did not know what he was about when he made me and inspired me to write The Black Girl. For what happened was that when my wife was ill in Africa God came to me and said “These women in Worcester plague me night and day with their prayers for you. What are you good for, anyhow?” So I said I could write a bit but was good for nothing else. God said then “Take your pen and write what I shall put into your silly head.” When I had done so, I told you about it, thinking that you would be pleased, as it was the answer to your prayers. But you were not pleased at all, and peremptorily forbade me to publish it. So I went to God and said “The Abbess is displeased.” And God said “I am God; and I will not be trampled on by any Abbess that ever walked. GO and do as I have ordered you.” . . . “Well” I said “I suppose I must publish the book if you are determined that I shall; but it will get me into trouble with the Abbess; for she is an obstinate unreasonable woman who will never let me take her out in my car; and there is no use your going to have a talk with her; for you might as well talk to the wall unless you let her have everything all her own way just as they taught it to her when she was a child.” So I leave you to settle it with God and his Son as best you can; but you must go on praying for me, however surprising the results may be.
Your incorrigible

P.S. Cockerell’s friend Sir Emery Walker made a good end on Saturday — was apparently mending comfortably when he just gave a couple of gulps and died. . . . Walker was a most amiable man; but he had lived his life; and it was time for him to die.

And for me also; so do not be unkind to me.

We are here in Malvern as usual for the Festival, though I have no play in the bill this year. There is a miracle play, The Conversion of St. Paul to which you should come with all your nuns.

The above letter, like the book itself, shows the fastidious Manichee to whom animal flesh was abhorrent, so revolted by the sacrifices of the Old Testament as to be rendered completely blind to the idea of Divine education which underlies the whole history of the people of God. It seems hardly necessary to remark that Shaw was quite right to contrast the deities of Noah, Job, and Micah: he was quite wrong to look upon them as three different gods. He did not see the God of infinite mercy who, taking an incredibly stupid, obstinate, and savage people just as they were — He might have taken the intelligent and highly civilized Greeks or Chinese, but for our everlasting comfort did not — entered into fellowship and loving intercourse with them at different singes according to their several capacities, and patiently prepared them by slow degrees for the full spiritual revelation of the New Testament. Argument however, as Dame Laurentia was well aware, would have been useless. She therefore ignored the missive in complete silence.

The correspondence between the two over The Adventures of a Blank Girl had occupied nearly two years, and although G.B.S. paid his annual visit to Malvern, in his own words he never dared to show his face at Stanbrook. The deadlock might have continued indefinitely had not the Muse of Comedy intervened.

On September 6, 1934, Dame Laurentia kept her Golden Jubilee. To mark the event, Pope Pius XI sent her the Papal blessing, bestowing upon her at the same time the rare distinction of the Bene Merenti medal in recognition of her work for the Church. The decoration was presented after Pontifical High Mass by Archbishop Williams, a friend for whom she had the deepest veneration. In the course of a private conversation with the Archbishop on the same day, she told him of the breach in her friendship with Bernard Shaw, and asked his advice. Several influential friends had urged her to reconsider her attitude, and there were weighty reasons in favor of reconciliation.

Acting upon the Archbishop’s counsel, she dispatched without further token the charming jubilee card designed by two members of the community and printed from a wood block. It consisted of a buff-colored folder bearing on the outer cover the text from 2 Corinthians often applied to St. Laurence and so suited to his Stanbrook namesake — Hilarem datorem diligit Deus: God loveth a cheerful giver. The inner page was simply inscribed: —

In memory of Sept. 6 1884-1934. Dame Laurentia McLachlan Abbess of Stanbrook

When after some delay the card reached Bernard Shaw, he immediately read it as an announcement of her death, and promptly wrote a letter of condolence to the community.

London, October 3, 1934
Through some mislaying of my letters I have only just received the news of the death of Dame Laurentia McLachlan. I was in Malvern from the end of July until the 16th September and I never passed through Stanbrook without a really heartfelt pang because I might not call and see her as of old. But I had no knowledge of the state of her health and no suspicion that I should never see her again in this world.
There was a time when I was in such grace with her that she asked you all to pray for me; and I valued your prayers quite sincerely. But we never know exactly how our prayers will be answered; and their effect on me was that when my wife was lying dangerously ill in Africa through an accident I wrote a little book which, to my grief, shocked Dame Laurentia so deeply that I did not dare to show my face at the Abbey until I was forgiven. She has, I am sure, forgiven me now; but I wish she could tell me so. In the outside world from which you have escaped it is necessary to shock people violently to make them think seriously about religion; and my ways were too rough. But that was how I was inspired.
I have no right to your prayers; but if I should perhaps be remembered occasionally by those of you who remember my old visits I should be none the worse for them, and very grateful. Faithfully,

By return of post, he received a short note from his departed friend granting him permission to call upon her once more. Having committed what he described to Sydney Cockerell as “a super howler,”he had to extricate himself with grace, which he did in the following letter: —

October 7, 1934
Laurentia! Alive!!
Is this a way to trifle with a man’s most sacred feelings?
I cannot express myself. I renounce all the beliefs I have left. I thought you were in heaven, happy and blessed. And you were only laughing at me!
It is your revenge for that Black Girl.
Oh Laurentia Laurentia, Laurentia, how could you.
I weep tears of blood.

For two years, and those the years following upon her election as Abbess, Dame Laurentia’s letters had been stern and had made no secret of her deep displeasure. She had given indubitable proof — and was to give it again — that it was friendship, not adulation, she had to offer. It is a tribute to Bernard Shaw’s regard for her, as well as to his essential greatness and humility, that when the storm had subsided, their friendship was resumed with all the old esteem.

Within a few weeks of the reconciliation he was taking immediate steps to protect the inviolability of her enclosure and shelter her name from publicity. Toward the end of 1934, a certain lecturer circulated a rumor that as a result of a protest from the Abbess of Stanbrook, Bernard Shaw had decided to cut out parts of the Epilogue to St. Joan in a revised edition. Dame Laurentia was of the opinion that the Epilogue contained the very pith of the play and had agreed with the author when, in defiance of those who persisted that it spoiled the drama, he had stated his resolute determination not to alter a word of it. The stupid untruth, however, was reported first in an English weekly newspaper, repeated a few days later in a Worcester paper, and then spread abroad. Dame Laurentia at once feared that Bernard Shaw would break out into a denial which would call attention to her in a still more public manner, and wrote to him at once to beg him to respect her wish to avoid press notices.

It has been constantly objected against G.B.S. that he was an inveterate self-advertiser and never so happy as when in the limelight. Of the playwright so often in the public eye that may or may not have been true: of the friend with quick and lasting loyalties it was utterly false.

January 25, 1935
Sacrilege! I am horrified. I know of course, that any public contradiction would just increase the publicity a hundredfold; and it is the publicity that is such an abominable desecration of your seclusion. But ... I must stop him if I can. I have failed to find either his address or that of the . . . Society, I am therefore writing to the Mother Superior . . . asking her to give me Mr. —’s address. If I can get it I will write a private letter to him and will, I hope, prevent his repeating the story in the course of his lectures. I will keep you au courant. . . .

From that moment newspaper reports automatically ceased and he saw to it that their names were never again associated in public.

In her letter acquainting him with the current rumors, Dame Laurentia had made inquiries about his latest book. He forthwith sent her a proof of The Simpleton of the Unexpected Isles, inscribed “To Sister Laurentia from her erring Brother Bernard. Jan. 25, 1935,” with the remark: “Since you ask about my latest play I risk the last remnant of your regard for me by sending you a copy. If only you can get over the first shock of its profanity you may find some tiny spark of divinity in it. You may ask why I write such things. I dont know: I have to. The devil has me by one hand and the Blessed Virgin by the other.”

It was barely three months since their mutual peace treaty, yet she straightway rose again to the attack with an undiminished energy which gave proof that she was not prepared to yield a single inch of the ground on which her feet were so firmly planted. It is generally admitted that Bernard Shaw had completed his finest and really enduring work prior to 1930; few of his friends can have told him so in language so forthright as the following:

Feb. 7, 1935
I have been waiting till I could write at leisure about your letter and the “Simpleton.”You are quite right in believing that I should discover divinity under the profanity, and with very much I am in full sympathy, and heartily amused. Is it necessary though to be so offensively profane when satirising vice and the British Empire? Need you use words of Scripture? It seems to me you could be quite as convincing without wounding the reasonable susceptibilities of those who believe in God with their whole hearts as I suspect you yourself do. I see the play is unpublished and I hope it will remain so, for I cannot believe you would do right in releasing it as it is. Whatever happens you absolutely must omit the allusion to the Immaculate Mother on p. 12. You know, as well as I do, that we do not worship her as God.
It is annoying that when you could do and have done so much that is splendid you should devote yourself now to such mischievous things. I do ask you why you do such things and you have given me the answer you have to. Don’t you think the devil has had a good innings and that the Blessed Virgin might be given a turn? I simply hate to think after all the fine stuff you have written that these later things should appear. However you may parody the Day of Judgement you know the particular one for each of us can’t be very far off and, my dear Brother Bernard, you will not be able to plead ignorance as the excuse of the evil that your books may do. You surely don’t want to supply the devil with ammunition. But this you do by producing what might be harmless to strong minds but is almost certainly dangerous for weak ones. It makes me think of the danger of stupid people reading St. Thomas Aquinas. They carry away with them all sorts of heresies propounded by him in his objections and forget his clear statements of dogma. Well, what about saying a Hail Mary (do you know it?) and asking Our Lady to take you by both hands? You would never regret it, I assure you, and she would hand you over to her Son who has the answer to all riddles, and who asks us to be like little children with regard to God. You know you have my daily prayers and I am sure you are aware that the end of such prayers is that you should be gathered into “the unity of all living souls in the Catholic Kingdom of God and His Church.”

His reply was hardly a defense so much as a remarkable self-revelation. With the skill born of lifelong controversy, he carried the war straight into the opposing camp and with characteristic audacity accused the Abbess of Stanbrook of being both unspiritual and anti-Catholic. He next proceeded to argue the claims of our Lady of Everywhere versus our Lady of Somewhere in a thesis by no means so extravagant as may appear at first sight. For there are deep affinities underlying all the great religious systems of mankind, and while in false systems there is a corrupt mixture of truth and error, there is also a foreshadowing of the historical revelation of Christianity. Bernard Shaw was consequently right in recognizing in the Oriental shrines the Woman who stands at the very heart of the world. But one cannot help a suspicion that he was tinged with the ancient heresy that would have made her not merely Mother of God (which he does not seem to admit) but actually divine — one more Person to the Godhead. Or does he look upon her as just another way of regarding God as Mother and not Father?

The letter leaves one last query in the reader’s mind. Was Shaw’s worship of our Lady possibly the natural revenge of all the human feelings he so ruthlessly tried to eliminate from his consideration of God? Whatever the key to the riddle, at least his avowal undeniably breathes a pure and sublime veneration for her who is “Lo here! lo there! — ah me, lo everywhere!”

Union-Castle Line
M.V.Llangibby Castle
On the Equator. 82° in the shade. On the East, coast of Africa. April 12, 1935.

You are a puzzle to me with your unexpected rages. I ask myself, since I know that one becomes eminent in the Church through capacity for business more easily than by capacity for religion. “Can Laurentia be a completely irreligious (or areligious) managing woman who becomes boss in a convent exactly as she would become boss in a castle or in a laundry ?”
McLachlan ? That suggests a clan of Covenanters to whom the worship of the B.V.M. is a damnable idolatry to be wiped out with claymore and faggot, Has Laurentia got that in her blood? If not, why in the name of all the saints does she fly out at me when I devoutly insist that the Godhead must contain the Mother as well as the Father?
Or is it merely personal? So many women hate their mothers (serve them right, mostly!) and see red when the cult of maternity arises.
You want me, as if it were a sort of penance, to say a lot of Hail Maries. But I am always saying Hail, Mary! on my travels. Of course I don’t say it in that artificial form which means nothing. I say it in my own natural and sincere way when She turns up in the temples and tombs of Egypt and among the gods of Hindustan — Hallo, Mary! For you really cannot get away from Her. She has many names in the guide books, and many disguises. But She never takes me in. She favors Brother Bernardo with special revelations and smiles at his delighted “Hallo, Mary!” When I write a play like The Simpleton and have to deal with divinity in it She jogs my elbow at the right moment and whispers “Now Brother B. don’t forget me.” And I don’t. But then you come along in a fury and cry “ How dare you? Cut all this stuff out, and say fifty Hail Maries.”
Which am I to obey? Our Lady of Stanbrook or Our Lady of Everywhere?
When you are old, as I am, these things will clear up and become real to you. I wonder whether, if Raphael had lived to be old like Michael Angelo, he would have given us something less absurd than the highly respectable Italian farmers’ daughters he imposed so smugly on the world as visions of the B.V.M. Never have I stood before one of his Madonnas and exclaimed “Hallo, Mary.” Raphael made the adoration of the Mother impossible; but his view was so frankly and nicely human and fleshly and kindly that in the Dresden Madonna he produced for all time the ideal wet nurse, healthy, comely, and completely brainless.
On the other hand there is the giantess-goddess of Cimabue with her magnetic stare, a much deeper conception, but with just a little too much of the image and too little reality to be as approachable as the Egyptian goddesses of the great period.
In short, the Christian Maries are all failures. This suggests that the Jains were right in excluding God from their ritual as beyond human power to conceive or portray. At least that is their theory; but in practice they have in their shrines images of extraordinary beauty and purity of design who throw you into an ecstasy of prayer and a trance of peace when they look at you, as no Christian iconography can.
I said to the pundit who showed me round “Those images are surely gods, are they not?” “Not at all” he said, “they are statues of certain very wise men of the Jains.” This was obvious nonsense; so I pointed out that a man kneeling in the shrine (having first washed himself from head to foot) was clearly praying to a god. “Pooh!” said the pundit with enormous contempt, “he is only a heathen idolator.”
It is in these temples that you escape from the frightful parochiality of our little sects of Protestants and Catholics, and recognize the idea of God everywhere, and understand how the people who struggled hardest to establish the unity of God made the greatest number of fantastically different images of it, producing on us the effect of a crude polytheism.
Then comes the effort to humanize these images. The archaic Minerva becomes the very handsome and natural Venus of Milo. The Cimabue colossus becomes the wet nurse. Bellini’s favorite model becomes as well known to us in her blue hood as any popular actress. Leonardo, Michael Angelo, Correggio (once, in the dome in Parma) lift these leading ladies, these stars of the studio, for a moment out of the hopelessly common; but on the whole, wisdom is with the Jains.
I have been getting into trouble by backing up a proposal to give Christ’s Cathedral in Dublin to the Catholics, leaving St. Patrick’s to the Protestants. The two cathedrals are in a poor neighborhood within a stone’s throw of one another. St. Patrick’s was restored by Guinness the brewer, Christ’s by Roe the distiller. The drunkenness of the poor Catholics paid for both: why should they not have at least one?
But my own individual opinion is that cathedrals should be for all men, and not for this or that sect. By this time we have passed the equator, and it is time for me to stop blaspheming.
Bless you, dear Laurentia. G. BERNARD SHAW

Their second duel left not the slightest trace of resentment on either side. Within a few months Dame Laurentia, who had been very ill that year, was welcoming G.B.S. at Stanbrook and giving proof once more of how much she valued “the friendship of this great and dear man” as she put it. The letter he wrote just after his visit in 1935 suggests in its air of gay insouciance something of their mutual sympathy and complete understanding.

Malvern, August 30, 1935
You cannot imagine how delighted I was to find you shining all your radiance before the cloud of illness came upon you. If ever I write an opera libretto, it will be rather like Die Zauberflöte; but I shall call it The Merry Abbess.
As I drove back here it was a magically lovely evening, or seemed so to me. I felt ever so much the better for your blessing. There are some people who, like Judas Iscariot, have to be damned as a matter of heavenly business; . . . but if I try to sneak into paradise behind you they will be too glad to see you to notice me. . . .
I promised to send that handsome young Dom Basil a book, and have actually bought it for him; but for the moment I have mislaid the address he gave me. It will turn up presently.
Always your

He continued to send autographed copies of books, and from this time onwards his always vivacious letters are pervaded with an attractive note of gentle serenity. In 1944 he dispatched his latest production, Everybody’s Political What’s What? with this letter written on the title-page_ —

Ayot Saint Laurence, September 4, 1944
I hope this will not arrive late for your Diamond Jubilee tomorrow. It is too late for mine by twenty years; I was eightyeight last month but one. The saint who called me to the religious life when I was eighteen was Shelley.
But you have lived the religious life: I have only talked and written about it.
You ask me how I am. I must reply, the better for your prayers; for, deaf, and doddering and dotty as I inevitably am at my age, I am astonishingly well, much weller than I was a year ago.
Look at my portrait: it was taken this year. You would still know me if you met me. I wish you could. I count my days at Stanbrook among my happiest.