Jane Christmas is a Canadian writer living in England. Her recent memoir, And Then There Were Nuns: Adventures in a Cloistered Life is a fall 2013 publication with Greystone Books. Christmas has written several travel memoirs, including the 2002 The Pelee Project: One Woman’s Escape from Urban Madness. It was followed by What the Psychic Told the Pilgrim: A Mid-Life Misadventure on Spain’s Camino de Santiago de Compostela (Greystone Books, 2007), and Incontinent on the Continent: My Mother, her Walker, and our Grand Tour of Italy (Greystone Books, 2009).
- Why did you leave your desk?
One of the constant what-ifs in my life – a longing ever since I was a teenager – involved exploring a religious vocation as a nun. It probably sounds totally crazy to people – at times it seemed crazy to me – but the urge just never went away. Finally I decided that it was time to check it out. My kids were grown-up and I had no one depending on me financially, so the road was open. I don’t present as a traditionally spiritual person: I love heavy metal music, shoes, make-up, bangles, that sort of thing. Suddenly all that stuff dropped away and I began to crave Gregorian chant, prayer, solitude, and simplicity. I took early retirement from my job, and went off to explore becoming a nun. All this was slightly complicated by the fact that my partner of six years – whom I had not yet told of my plans – proposed marriage.
- When and where did you go?
I thought about it seriously during the winter of 2010, and by that summer, I was enrolled in a program for a month with the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine at its motherhouse in Toronto. It’s the only active order of Anglican nuns in Canada. It was fantastic: intellectually stimulating and challenging. As I drew deeper into that life I wanted to keep going: the following January I spent two weeks on the Isle of Wight with two Roman Catholic communities (at Quarr Abbey and at St. Cecilia’s Abbey), and from there I headed north to Whitby in North Yorkshire to the Order of the Holy Paraclete (Anglican community) where I spent three months. During that intense period I had some extraordinary experiences. From the time that I began to seriously consider entering the sisterhood until I left my final convent, this period was close to a year and a half.
- What colour or odour do you remember?
I remember very clearly – it was almost like an epiphany – sitting on a bench in York, killing time until I had to catch a bus back to the Whitby convent. It was a sunny and unseasonably warm March day in the midst of Lent. When you are in a convent strict observance of the 40 days of Lent is like an athletic challenge; it requires discipline and temperance. Trust me, it’s nothing like how it’s done in secular life when you give up chocolate or wine for 40 days. In a convent, deprivation and sacrifice are all around you. It is punishing. So by the middle of March that year I felt as if I had been living in a sepia photograph because all colour, all joy, had been stripped from the convent to focus the mind on one’s inner desert. That day in York, however, I was suddenly aware of a kaleidoscope of colour all around me – scarlet, fuschia, sapphire, forest green – on the clothing of the children running in the square; the almost blinding glint of silver reflecting off the café tables; potted flowers of brilliant yellow; the heady array of pre-Easter pastel colours in the shop window displays. Everything was vivid and gorgeous, and the sight, the very visual stimulation it generated within me, almost took my breath away.
- Did you meet anyone?
I met fascinating people, people who in my busy secular life I would have prejudged based on their appearance, their age, their quiet personality; and who turned out to be beautiful people with very accomplished, interesting lives. I also met a very frightening person, the only person I’ve ever met who scared the hell out of me. I discovered him masturbating against the walls of a monastery I was staying at, and when he turned to face me he had a soulless, diabolical hunger in his eyes. The sight of him sent a pang of fear, like an electric shock, right through me. I was on my way to church and he followed me in. Throughout the service he kept his eyes locked on me, edging closer and closer to me. I honestly thought he was going to kill me. He was like one of those dementors in the Harry Potter books whose presence sucks the life out of you and makes you want to surrender to death. Normally I’m not rattled by bizarre people, but this guy had a grip on me that was almost supernatural.
- What was the best and worst part of your sojourn?
Because I basically knew no one when I was on this journey, I was more open to people. Normally I am very sensitive to people’s behaviour, and perhaps a bit too quick off the mark in terms of judging them. This time I was a bit more relaxed, and when someone did set me off I would sit and ponder what they had stirred up in me to create my over-reaction. I began to see God in everyone I met, which was quite a revelation. It is so easy to discard people as being useless or irritating. Impatience often prevents me from truly getting to know someone on a deeper level and discovering how kind or how insightful that person is. So the best part was the friendships made along the way: a heaping handful of nuns and a monk are now among my dearest pals.
The worst part was the loneliness. I consider myself a loner, but after a few months in a convent the solitude and emotional isolation got to me. It was painful.
- Is there anything else you would like to tell us?
The day after I delivered the manuscript of And Then There Were Nuns: Adventures in a Cloistered Life, my Canadian publisher (Greystone Books) filed for bankruptcy protection. Normally, I would have hit the roof, but I didn’t freak out this time: my faith had taught me that things happen for a reason and eventually things do work out. Greystone found a new buyer and my book was back on schedule. I used to get pretty intense about things not working out; I’ve become more Zen-like as a result of my convent crawl. Plus, it’s all about timing, isn’t it? The delay allowed my agent to shop the manuscript internationally and we ended up securing a UK publisher.
Her book And Then There Were Nuns: Adventures in a Cloistered Life will be published in the UK in February 2014 by Lion Hudson. The e-book will be released simultaneously in Canada and the UK in September 2013.
- A revelatory interview with Jane Christmas (nationalpost.com)
- Jane Christmas, “What Does it Mean to Be a Modern-Day Nun?” in The Telegraph, 12 May 2014 (telegraph.co.uk)
- Cloisters (timothyselvage.wordpress.com)
- the Grey Nuns move (montrealgazette.com archives)
- review of What the Psychic in Q&Q (quillandquire.com
- review of Incontinent (globeandmail.com)
- Jane Christmas’s site (janechristmas.ca)