Tuesday, 2 May 2017

And Then There Were Nuns by Jane Christmas: Book Review


A few weeks ago my husband, children and I were on a walk to the park. On the way, I thought I'd stop in at the library and see if there was anything good to read. I perused the stacks a bit, but it wasn't until I went up to the front desk to check out my children's books that I noticed the book I would choose. It beckoned to me from the front display, where the librarian puts new books that have just arrived.

The title is what first drew my attention -- the book is called And Then There Were Nuns, by Jane Christmas. On the front cover, as you can see, is an illustration of several nuns. All but one of the nuns are in casual, practical shoes -- but one stands out: her feet, positioned shyly and somewhat coyly, in bright red kitten heels.

My interest was piqued, to say the least, even before I read the back. Catholic I may be, but the knowledge I have of nuns comes pretty much straight out of The Sound of Music. Here's a brief description of the book taken from Amazon:

Just as Jane Christmas decides to enter a convent in mid-life to find out whether she is “nun material”, her long-term partner Colin, suddenly springs a marriage proposal on her. Determined not to let her monastic dreams be sidelined, Christmas puts her engagement on hold and embarks on an extraordinary year long adventure to four convents—one in Canada and three in the UK.

In these communities of cloistered nuns and monks, she shares—and at times chafes and rails against—the silent, simple existence she has sought all of her life. Christmas takes this spiritual quest seriously, but her story is full of the candid insights, humorous social faux pas, profane outbursts, and epiphanies that make her books so relatable and popular. And Then There Were Nuns offers a seldom-seen look inside modern cloistered life, and it is sure to ruffle more than a few starched collars among the ecclesiastical set.


I pulled a Belle (off of Beauty & the Beast, obviously) and dug into the fist few pages while I walked the rest of the way to the park to meet up with my family. I was slightly put off by the fact that Christmas had been married twice before -- and was engaged a third time -- and yet was also considering cloistered life. But her writing style was so warm and confidential -- it felt like she was a more religious Bridget Jones.

It took me awhile to get into this book, but once I did, I could not put it down. My five-year-old would say, "Wow, Mummy, you're really into that book!" Don't get me wrong, I'm definitely an interactive, playful mother, but there are plenty of times my kids look at me and see me with my nose in a book. Better than a cell phone, at least (I hope!). But I was really drawn into Christmas' adventures in religious life.

This book is a lesson in expecting the unexpected -- just when you get used to thinking that Christmas is going through a woman's type of midlife crisis and you warm to her witty observations and slightly sarcastic tone, she drops bombshells on you. She writes in heart-wrenching detail about the time she was callously raped by a cold-hearted colleague, about disturbing (and supernatural?) experiences at various houses of religion, and even recounts a vision of the Lord Jesus.

Christmas was raised in a mixed Anglican-Roman Catholic household, but her writing makes it clear that she feels more at home in the Anglican tradition (though it does seem to frustrate her at times). She's also quiet liberal, and is a passionate advocate of Anglican women priests and even LGBT priests, so as a Catholic that doesn't really align with my view of religion, but then again, I didn't select the book as something that would grow my faith in God or help me on my walk with Christ (although in a way, it did end up doing just that) -- I read lots of those books, but this time I just wanted a fun, fascinating read. And that's what I got.

Though I may not agree with Christmas' theology or her politics, I can't help but really admiring her and liking her. I think if I ever got to meet her in person she's the kind of lady I'd really like to be friends with. She seems like a good mother, a loving partner, a great friend, and a woman who is constantly striving to give God the centre place in her life. Christmas' walk with God might not look typical, but therein lies the beauty. If you're looking for a nice summer read, and need a break from the chic-lit rom-coms, this is definitely for you.

I think I'll wrap up this review by explaining to you the biggest take-away I got from the book: the value of silence. I'm not a person who is usually comfortable with silence (unless I'm trying to sleep). I often listen to podcasts or music, and I think some of it comes from being a slightly anxious person -- if I don't fill the silence, my brain will -- and sometimes that's a recipe for worry. However, Christmas explains why silence is such an important part of the nuns' and monks' lives. She could not -- and nor could I -- live with that kind of silence on a daily basis, but she did learn that silence is necessary to hear God. We often pray, and have inner dialogue with God, but how often do we just let him talk to us? On our own, sitting quietly, or even while doing things like kneading bread or folding laundry. Christmas inspired me to be more open to silence, and what it can do for my prayer life.

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