And Then There Were Nuns
Adventures in A Cloistered LifeBook - 2013
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There comes a time for many of us when the thought of joining a convent or a monastery sounds like a great idea. Peace and quiet, we think, leaving the rat race to focus on the inner life, how wonderful! This book reveals what happened when Canadian writer Jane Christmas, newly engaged but also wanting to explore her lifelong urging toward the contemplative life, tested out this idea for real.
At the same time that her longtime English partner finally proposes, she is looking into steps toward becoming a nun. So she and her fiancé decide that they will delay their engagement, giving her a year to live in four different convents and examine her possible calling. She admits it's an unusual situation.
Christmas is a wonderful writer, entertaining, funny, self-deprecating and yet not cynical or worried about stating her spiritual affinities. She starts her year living first with the Sisters of St. John the Divine in Toronto, at a special program for “Women at a Crossroads”. Through them she makes connections with an Anglican convent in Whitby, England, where she plans to spend 3 months -- and yes, there are Anglican nuns! In between she spends a week each as a guest at an English monastery and Catholic convent. Her experiences at each location are varying, some good, some not very good at all. But she sees things, notices details, and works hard to discern if this life is the one for her or not.
Through depictions of individual sisters, Christmas illuminates the life of modern nuns. She is able to report on her experience wryly and with humour, but without any mean edge to her tale. She is drawn to this lifestyle and respects nearly all of those who chose it. It's not only about her personal experiences though; she fills the narrative with facts about church history and church architecture, or, for example, a very interesting point about church music: when Vatican II discouraged traditional chanting, monks and nuns started getting sick more often. The daily chant was a healthy physical practice that was necessary for their wellness.
While acknowledging the draw of a quiet, cloistered life, Christmas also reveals the reality of the rigid schedule and hard work that makes up a nun's life. As she shares the daily round of the various places she stays, it is clear that to become a nun one would have to be utterly committed. She is able to describe her fascination with this life lovingly and without any ironic detachment. It's a fresh eye on a kind of spirituality that is often mocked or treated superficially. This book is a quick, absorbing read that will appeal to those curious about nuns beyond our cultural cliches, or those interested in the wider search for a spiritual life.
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