CWA contributor Jane Christmas published her memoir, And Then There Were Nuns, in 2013. In the interval, I have been searching for the perfect reviewer. Found one. Both author and reviewer live abroad: Jane Christmas lives in England, and Isabel Huggan lives in France.
Review of And Then There Were Nuns (Greystone Books, Canada & Lion Books, England, 2013)
by Jane Christmas
Reviewed by Isabel Huggan
In this agreeably thought-provoking memoir, Jane Christmas takes readers through her heartfelt consideration: whether to be a nun or whether to marry the man who has finally proposed to her after six years.
“A call to be a nun. Really? Even though I had gone over this a million times, the idea had a frisson of lunacy to it; at other times it seemed like the most logical of actions. Yes, be a nun. Why not? And then the other side of my brain would kick in with Oh c’mon! Are you really going to trade a condo for a convent? Colin for Christ?”
It takes skill to manage smooth inclusion of details (setting, character and historical background), ironic remarks and self-deprecating humour, alongside serious spiritual exploration and painful personal disclosure. However, Jane is an expert at candid divulgence (see What the Psychic Told the Pilgrim and The Pelee Project) and creates an easy ambiance, recounting the spiritual search she felt compelled to make before settling down to marry for the third time.
Although written in chronological “what’s going to happen next” format – following Jane through several months of monastic life – readers will sense that she’ll choose Colin (the English policeman met on the Camino), for the memoir is written and packaged in a jolly fashion, indicating it has not been written by a cloistered nun but rather by someone who came close to the fire, warmed her hands at the blaze of communal living and then turned back to the man who had – amazingly – supported her exploration. Talk about love!
Jane writes frankly of her fears (“At the door of the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine…I got a sudden case of the willies. What the hell am I doing here?”) and the flaws she encounters in various places and people, as she finds that her ideal vision is a far cry from reality. What makes the memoir so readable is the fluid grace of her prose and the way she transmits her experience with insight and generosity. In addition, she integrates into her own story fascinating historical information about religious orders, saints, and the role of the church.
Although since childhood she has been an observant Anglican, her faith does not prevent her from being irreverent. She has a light touch – honed over years of journalistic work, column writing, and earlier memoirs – which has the surprising quality of indicating depth even as she is making you laugh. If it’s possible to romp through a nunnery, then Jane Christmas leads the parade. She’s serious, too – for example, about the benefits of silence and the importance of prayer:
Being in a place … where prayer was not just a way of life but was the life, began to change the way I prayed. My prayers became less of a laundry list of thanks and requests, and more of an encounter…. Praying sometimes left me empty or weak or ravenous. And sometimes it left me speechless and frightened of the world…. But it was always a profound experience to pray with the nuns. When we prayed together, I could feel the energy coalescing and being transmitted into the universe like telepathic waves.
Jane contrasts convents with a male monastery she also visits, and describes the differences she feels between the Anglican and Roman Catholic convents (where she does not feel welcome). As the book comes to a close, she vents her anger about what has been the historical inequality of women within the Anglican fold.
Of the many colourful threads woven into the memoir, two are dominant. One is Jane’s search for serenity (which is, by necessity in a convent, tied to absolute obedience: it is not for nothing that an Order is called an “order”). In the final section, describing three months in the cloistered Order of the Holy Paraclete in Whitby (UK), her reaction to the harsh deprivations of Lent are a deciding factor as she chooses life with Colin. (You almost want to shout Hallelujah.)
The second thread running through is her memory of a rape, a brutal event about which she kept silent – as so many women do, fearful of repercussions if they speak out. Still infused with guilt, because she neither fought back nor reported it, she longs for forgiveness: not until a wise old priest suggests that God has already forgiven her and she must forgive herself, does she finally rise out of despair.
The prose flows so smoothly that she gets away with broad generalizations. For example: “Nuns have extraordinarily beautiful hands.” (ALL nuns? Really?) Or this one: “There’s a natural inclination as you age to draw toward the spiritual.” My experience would suggest that 90% of my friends (in their 60s or 70s) have abandoned any pretense of spiritual practice. Some, like Jane, in search of deeper meaning, may follow Buddhist teachings or meditate, or have made environmental or social concerns their new religion, but those who are still looking for closer union with God are rare. Nevertheless, these small quibbles do not spoil the pleasure of accompanying Jane on her unique trajectory.
Full disclosure: I met Jane Christmas a decade ago when she was a participant in my summer workshop at the Humber School for Writers, but regretfully, our paths have not crossed again. Also I admit to having had a similar yen for convent life as Jane describes. In the search for a spiritual life, many of us cast about vigorously for some well defined “place”… only to discover that the place is within us. As it happens, I have a friend who is a nun here in France, and I often visit (see my essay “A Curious Habit” in Brick magazine, Summer 2009). Thus, all Jane writes – about the rhythm of daily offices and the peacefulness of a God-centred existence – was familiar; and I can attest that she described everything with tender accuracy.
Isabel Huggan is known primarily for her short stories (The Elizabeth Stories and You Never Know), and for her memoir Belonging: Home Away from Home, winner of the Charles Taylor Prize for literary non-fiction. However she is also an essayist (Brick magazine and The New Quarterly), and a poet: one of her poems is included in Best Canadian Poetry 2014. She continues to live in the south of France, where she manages a retreat for individual writers/artists in her old stone barn.
(Read more about her retreat at Le Mas Blanc.)
© Isabel Huggan
Left: ruins of Whitby Abbey, Whitby, North Yorkshire (J Christmas)
Top: Convent, Order of the Holy Paracelete, Whitby, North Yorkshire