And Then There Were Nuns: / Jane Christmas
Vancouver: Greystone, c2013.
What a delight this book was! It's the story of Canadian writer Jane Christmas, newly engaged but also wanting to explore her lifelong urging toward the contemplative life.
So she and her fiancé decide that they will delay their engagement, giving her a year to live in various convents and examine her possible calling. She admits it's an unusual situation.
She is a wonderful writer, entertaining, self-deprecating and yet not cynical or worried about stating her spiritual affinities. She spends 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 -- yes, there are Anglican nuns, something that she mentions comes as a surprise to most people.. In between she spends a week each as a guest at an English monastery and Catholic convent. Her experiences at each are varying, some good, some not very good. But she sees things, notices details, and works hard to discern if this life is the one for her or not.
There's lots to learn about the life of modern nuns, or sisters, as they are also called. Christmas 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 those who choose it, for the most part. I found it an illuminating read, full of little facts about church history and church architecture, for example, and also a very interesting point about music. She states that the history of chant goes back a long way in monasteries and convents, and after Vatican II, when it was discouraged, many nuns and monks began getting sick. She goes on to say that chant uses all the vocal frequencies, essentially "tuning" the human body to health, and suggests that the halt of its use may have been partly to blame for the rash of illnesses noticed at that time. This is an interesting idea, though there is no hard research to back it up...but the fact of chant and vocal register is supported by research. I've seen a fair number of articles lately about singing being good for you; chant fits right in.
While I understand the draw of a quiet, cloistered life, the rigid schedule and hard work of a nun's life would be too much for me. Christmas shares the daily round of the various places she stays, and it is clear that to become a nun one would have to be utterly committed. It's a fascinating life, and she is able to describe it lovingly and without any ironic detachment. At times her spiritual experiences made me raise an eyebrow, but overall I found this a great read. It's a fresh eye on a kind of spirituality that is often mocked or treated superficially. It was a quick, absorbing read and I truly enjoyed it.