Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Confessions of a Pagan Nun

Confessions of a Pagan Nun
Author: Kate Horsley
Shambala, 2002
188 pages

How do I begin to describe this little gem of a book? Written in the form of an autobiography (supposedly from scrolls found and translated from Irish Gaelic) of a woman who was born into Ireland’s pre-Christian “pagan” society, apprenticed as a Druid priestess, and winds up as a nun in the abbey of St. Brigit at the dawn of the Christian era in Ireland.

Gwynneve is a literate woman, and her job at the abbey is to translate church documents from Latin and Greek. As she tells her life story, she is translating some works of Patrick, the man whom we know today as Ireland’s patron saint. We learn of her origins in a village far away and of her love for her mother, a kind woman who was the essence of feminine beauty and a sort of healer in the community; it was from her that Gwynneve learned about the healing powers of herbs and plants. We learn of Gwynneve’s apprenticeship with a Druid priest who was also her lover for many years, and of her losses.

Gwynneve’s firsthand experience of man’s inhumanity to man perplexes her, as she doesn’t understand how the Christians can have such a beautiful theology (she loves that Jesus Christ was all about love and helping the less fortunate), yet be so violent and extreme. The abbot at St. Brigit’s, for example . . . she witnesses him having wild sex in the church with another one of the nuns. So obsessed is he with his own guilt that he has himself castrated so that something like this will never happen again. Gwynneve doesn’t understand why Christians deny themselves the passions of the body – any why they would inflict pain on themselves to overcome it. After all, according to her culture and upbringing, pleasure is something to be celebrated.

So she’s caught between two worlds – the old pagan world and the new Christian world – and she doesn’t really belong in either, entirely. She finds herself drawn to St. Brigit (formerly a Druid goddess? Made a saint by the church in attempt to convert the locals?), yet she is also drawn to Jesus Christ’s messages of love and helping the less fortunate. But the Druids have lost their power now and the Christians are in control. The tide has turned. Forever.

They say the winners write the history books. What knowledge was lost in this transition of power? What power was lost by women as Ireland transitioned to a patriarchal religion? (Gwynneve’s life embodies the “death of the divine feminine” in so many ways.)

There’s just no way I can do justice to this small but powerful book. Reading it was like a dream. I was transported to 5th century Ireland. I was there. Wow. Yet it’s not an easy book to read and it may be way to slow (even boring) for some. I think that it helped that I’d been to Ireland before and knew a little about the historical part. OK, really a little. But at least I had some context, which I think will be helpful for anyone who reads this book.

Rating: 4 stars.