And Then There Were Nuns: Adventures in a Cloistered Life
© 2013 Jane Christmas
When Jane Christmas’ boyfriend proposed to her, she gave him the most obvious reply: she said she wanted to join a nunnery. It wasn’t that he had driven her to the cloister; she had been tempted by it for most of her life, but it wasn’t until her beau was down on bended knee that she realized it was now or never. And so she spent the better part of a year living in monastic communities, with nuns and monks alike, in Canada and in Britain, while her extraordinarily long-suffering fiance kept in contact by letter. And Then Were Nuns is a slightly humorous account of an endeavor seriously undertaken: to see if the author truly felt called to be a nun. The result for readers is a look into a world normally out of mind, and an exploration of the value of a monastic life to the religiously-inclined.
Religious orders are the Anglican church’s best-kept secret, Christmas writes, and that’s probably the case, for whoever associates nuns with the Church of England? Nuns are black-habited sisters stalking the halls of private schools or hospitals, thumping children with rulers or humorlessly flipping protesting hospital patients on their backsides to administer shots in their hinterlands. But the Anglican church does have religious orders, male and female, throughout the world, and Christmas begins by spending four weeks at a convent in Toronto, where she’s treated as if she’s on retreat. The initial bit of self-examination unlocks some inner demons, and before making a decision whether to marry her finance or Jesus, she decided a more intensive sojourn is in order, a multi-month stay at a convent in Britain. As she travels there, she stays with nuns and monks at two religious communities on the Isle of Wight, flirting with the Catholic church before an indignant mother informs her that no she bloody well can not join the Romans and become a nun with three marriages to her name. Her experiences there affirm her association with the Church of England, however theologically indecisive and socially regressive it might be. Eventually Jane realizes this time spent living among religious orders wasn’t meant so much to help her make a decision about becoming a nun as to face down a harrowing sexual episode years before.
Christmas has a reputation as a humorist, and Then There Were Nuns combines serious introspection and discussion about the spiritual and material value of the nuns’ work with wry reflections. Awed and nervous by the exploration she’s undertaken, Christmas sometimes escapes the intensity with jokes to herself. This isn’t a laughing trip through the world of intentional religious communities, however; she is a woman on a mission. Eventually the mission bears fruit, if not exactly in the way she would have predicted; always a seeker of the simple, quiet life, Christmas is drawn to the convent for its freedom from outside distraction, constant exhortations to spiritual mindfulness, and above all — meaningful work. The monotony of everyday experience, however, and the inviting presence of her children and would-be spouse outside, diminish the allure. She finds her path, however, and for the religiously-inclined or spiritually-interested reader, And Then There Were Nuns will prove informative and engaging; it is a humanizing look at people who seem to have an otherworldly existence.