Trading the condo for the convent

By  Adiat Junaid, Catholic Register Special
  • January 18, 2014

Moses saw a burning bush and heard a voice. Samuel heard his name called three times. Saul also heard the voice of God after having been struck and temporarily blinded by lightning. In the modern age a select few can echo these Old and New Testament stories of an unequivocal call to service from God. But for most, discerning God’s call is a much trickier business. This was the case for Jane Christmas.

And Then There Were Nuns is Christmas’ memoir of her struggle to discern whether what she thought was a persistent call to join a religious order was i ndeed her ultimate vocation.

Christmas’ story has a few seemingly u n c o n v e n tional wrinkles to make her quest particularly interesting. She was twice divorced, in her late 50s and engaged to be married for the third time to Colin, with whom she was in a six-year transatlantic relationship, when she sets off to determine whether she should heed what she describes as “the Voice Within” and commit herself to a nunnery instead.

Christmas sums up her dilemma as a choice between whether to “trade a condo for a convent? Colin for Christ?”

During her discernment Christmas discovers there’s even more at stake. A long buried trauma surfaces and must be confronted if she is to find peace.

The genesis of her quest began in her youth. Though the family went to church on Sundays, her upbringing was “not overly religious.” Raised in the Anglican tradition of her father, Christmas also attended Mass periodically with her Roman Catholic mother, so she was comfortable moving between both worlds. She’s also comfortable criticizing both worlds in her memoir.

The first inkling that she might want to become a nun came when she was a teenager. There was no great epiphany. Just a persistent call to faith that Christmas can’t explain and kept to herself until Colin popped the question.

Throughout the memoir Christmas is deeply divided. At times the idea of becoming a nun seems “thrilling” and “the most logical of actions.” At other times it has “a frisson of lunacy” to it.

There’s something of this duality in her writing style as well. Christmas’ brand of quirky humour is on full display here, but there is also pathos. Her voice is authentic, irreverent and evocative.

Her humour steers the story away from being too heavy, despite its weighty subject matter. But at times the humour veers into stereotype and seems a tad forced. There’s also an overuse of parenthesis that too often disrupts the flow of her writing which is strongest when she’s introspective and describing the landscape that accompanies her journey.

Christmas began her discernment by consulting nuns and former nuns. She says this didn’t offer much practical help: “Most were still spilling their pent-up rage against both the Church and cloistered life despite having left religious life 40 years earlier.”

The message seemed to be run from the life of a religious.

Despite these admonishments, Christmas pursues her quest beginning with a stay with the Anglican Sisters of St. John the Divine in Toronto.

One thing leads to another and Christmas’ discernment process takes over a year and has her journey to Quarr Abbey and St. Cecelia’s Abbey in the Isle of Wight and to the Order of the Holy Paraclete in Whitby, England.

Although her efforts at discernment are earnest, for two-thirds of the memoir Christmas dwells largely on the surface of things — characters she meets, descriptions of clothing, physical surroundings, work and historical background.

Perhaps this is to avoid the trauma. It’s only when Christmas finally begins to be truly honest with herself, grappling with her deeper issues and inner demons, that the memoir becomes a satisfying read.

Christmas’ time at the convents enables her to develop a realistic and nuanced sense of the cloistered life.

It transforms her and her stereotypical ideas about what it means to be a nun. Her respect and appreciation for religious communities is clear.

Faith is not for sissies, Christmas observes. In the absence of a road-to-Damascus experience neither is discernment. Christmas demonstrates that the rewards of the journey are worth the challenge.

(Junaid is a journalist and communications consultant based in Toronto.)

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