Book Review:
Confessions of a Pagan Nun

The cover of Confessions of a Pagan Nun by Kate Horsley is arresting for someone like me — a romantic who is entranced by the mystery and ideals of early monastic life. It shows a clochan, a beehive-shaped rock hut set beside a small stream and barren, rocky hills in the distance. Built of dry rocks with corbel stones near its crown, these huts were used by early Christian monks.

Confessions of a Pagan NunFollowers of Saint Patrick built clochans in the southwestern part of Ireland, though they appear in different contexts around the world. They are often found in clusters, such as the monastery on Skellig Michael off the Irish coast. Each houses an individual monk and together they formed small communities that were precursors to the medieval monastery.

There would have been nothing romantic about living in a clochan, as Kate Horsley depicts in Confessions, though we are intrigued with her remarkable character, Gwynneve, a sixth-century nun who is part of the monastery of St. Brigit. She is cloistered in her stone cell and, by the light of “a single waxen candle,” secretly records the memories of her pagan past. Her official role at the monastery is transcribing the writings of St. Augustine and St. Patrick, though for much of her life, she was a druid and apparently one of the few remaining druids in Ireland before Christianization wiped them out. Her love of the written word inspires her to record her own experience in this troubled time and she reveals the tensions between the ancient secular and dawning Christian worlds.

Clash and demise of great ideas

This is a remarkable book, published in 2001 by Buddhist book publisher Shambhala Publications, and one deserving of a wider mainstream audience which was perhaps denied by the narrower, more specialized market of Shambhala. With scholarly attention to detail, Horsley takes what shreds of information that exist of this time period and augments it with detail, colour and believability. It is a thought-provoking meditation on the clash and demise of great ideas and a compelling tribute to the power of language. Horsely’s prose is crystal clear, sharp and poetic, and gives voice to a time that is silent and mysterious.

Horsley is an English and creative writing instructor at a college in Albuquerque, New Mexico and the author of six historical novels. She was born in Virginia and holds a PhD in American Studies. Three of her novels are set in 19th century New Mexico. Confessions of a Pagan Nun and 2005′s The Changeling are set in early Ireland. How does she make the connection between the native cultures of New Mexico and pre-Christian Ireland?

“I saw a lot of connections between tribal life and pre-Christian Ireland and I felt more of a right as a non-Native American to write about Irish tribal history than I did to write about Native American tribal history,” Horsley says in an interview published shortly after the appearance of Confessions.

At the time of writing, Gwynneve is an older woman, “near the age of barrenness, when a woman’s womb becomes useless and hairs sprout on the chin.” She has lost her mother and husband, both of whom attached themselves to a spiritual view of the natural world, the ways of the Druids. Gwynneve has now adopted some of the precepts of Christianity but she can’t accept this view in its entirety. Much of her memoir is a depiction of the ways in which she is not a nun, and more of a pagan. Her “confessions” have the veil of secrecy, and a “translator’s note” at the beginning of the book suggest that the scroll has been unearthed and now translated from the original Gaelic.

I find this perspective fascinating, as Gwynneve’s narrative explores the meeting point of the ancient pagan ways and the advent of Christianity. Her stories of life growing up in a túath (a clan or settlement in rural Ireland) are told with a mixture of love and appreciation for the old ways combined with frank admission of the suffering the people endured. The near starvation, the long, hard work required just to put one meagre meal on the table, the squalid living conditions. The Christian monks, referred to as the “tonsured men,” arrive in the túath with advanced tools, new husbandry methods and stronger breeds of animals and plants. They also bring the promise of a world without suffering that is attainable by anyone who devotes themselves to the teachings of “the hero” Jesus Christ.

Silencing the Pagan Voice

As the chieftains of the túaths adopt the technological advances of the monks along with their Christian beliefs, Gwynneve mourns the disappearance of the redeeming qualities of the old ways — the mystery and spirit of nature, the harmony between the people and the forests and the harmony between the people, themselves. Gwynneve knows the world is forever changed and her narrative marches inexorably towards the final silencing of the pagan voice.

Gwynneve’s recollections — the way of life in the túaths, her early attachment to her mother and her partnership and marriage to her druid husband, Giannon — are punctuated with “interruptions,” brief pictures detailing developments at St. Brigit’s abbey. A picture of Gwynneve emerges by the end of the novel as a spirited and scholarly woman, empathic and motherly (with a gift for ministering to those on the deathbed), and clever with language and words. She lives a remarkable life that is touched with sadness and loneliness.

Her writing is fueled by a desire to memorialize her life, to record the cultural changes taking place around her and and to soothe her troubled mind — when she is not transcribing, an “agitation” overtakes her and she lingers in a “netherworld between thought and bestial images,” she says in her opening Declaration.

The relentless thoughts about what I have witnessed and heard find some peace when I turn them into marks on parchment. I cannot keep silent about some occurrences and observations, nor in fact would it be proper to do so. It is a holy duty to know the truth and tell it.

Gwynneve’s writings are often heretical by her own admission, and it would have been unthinkable for a religious scribe to indulge in personal reflection of this sort. As we read her “secret” writings, we become complicit in her heresies, co-conspirators against the troubled abbot of the monastery and the sinister Sister Aillenn, and we share in Gwynneve’s tragedy as the world closes in around her.

We are introduced to Gwynneve’s world view through stories of her mother, not a druid, but an independent woman — powerful in her own right — who is gifted in the use of plants and herbs for healing purposes. Gwynneve follows her into the forest on harvesting missions and listens as her mother tells of the spirits in nature, how the ponds “listened to wishes and tried to fulfill them by saying certain words in their dark waters.” Her mother is also active in a regional council of women and goes with her to the annual Fair of Tailtenn. “As I followed my mother to these places, I kept my eye on her black hair draping her shoulders … I was afraid of losing her in the deep woods…” Her father, on the other hand, is inconsequential: “I did not want to anger my father, I wanted to please him in order to elevate myself in my mother’s eyes.”

Passion for the Power of Words

Murrynn’s stories and her wit spark an enduring passion for words in Gwynneve, their power and their ability to carry the truth. This passion is further inflamed when she meets Giannon, the druid who is “master of words and histories.” Following a brief encounter with him, Gwynneve, then in her teens, has a sexual dream about him. She asks her mother about his powers, who responds, humorously, that “his greatest power was to dispel merriment in others.” But she goes on to explain that he could also “take words out of people’s mouths and turn them into marks that he puts on stones or leather as a man makes a diagram of his home in the dirt with a stick.”

She said that he could then read these marks at a later time; these marks could be read by another man even years after the one who made them was dead … This began the period of my life which I call the Breathless Times, in which I connected the power of conquering death by using these marks with my desire to take my cloak off and lie down beside Giannon. I felt the possibility of transcendence using both my body and my mind, not yet understanding the concept of a soul as something that needed the intercession of a Christian priest.

Gwynneve’s magnetic pull to Giannon is hardly reciprocated. He is remote, aloof. She approaches him to be his student and then he disappears for six months with no answer for her. When she finds him again, he gives her a scroll and teaches her the first line, which, translated from the Gaelic, reads: “Christ is more knowledgeable than any druid.” Gwynneve is undaunted and learns to read the scroll in his absence.

I recognized the nature of my own emotion concerning Giannon the Druid. The fertility of the woods seemed related to my own body’s texture. I had the notion that if Giannon and I had our bodies opened by a warrior’s blade, sweet black earth and deep red petals would fall out, instead of blood and organs.

They spend the next 10 years living together in his hut and traveling the land, fulfilling the roles druids occupied at this time. While little is known of the druids, Horsley portrays them as a class strikingly similar to the monks of the Christian era, combining the duties of priest, judge, scholar and teacher. They are welcomed into the túaths as purveyors of the truth, bringers of news, mediators and intercessors with nature. Giannon, however, is not respected by his druid peers because he stubbornly holds to his penchant for blunt truthfulness and offends the chieftains of various túaths with his “satires.” He also offends the monks.

Fighting the tricks of the Christians

As the pagan communities adopt the advances of the monks and their promise of an afterlife without suffering, the Druids’ influence dwindles. Some resort to spell-casting and playing magic — “performing tricks had become more important than telling the truth, because the druids, desperate to fight the tricks of the Christians, had become gleemen.” Not Giannon, who finds to his sadness, that he cannot compete.

Gwynneve, at the time of her writing, thinks she has found a common ground:

Rather than seeing a contest between druid and Christian, I see a kinship between stone chapel and stone circle. One encloses and protects the spirit; the other exposes it and joins it with the elements. In both these places we conjure the powers that affect and transcend us. We remind ourselves, in both places, that we need oats and milk, but we also need what we cannot see or put in our food bowls.

Giannon’s unwillingness to please those in power lands him trouble. He insults and embarrasses another chieftain, undercutting his authority with his people. Shortly after, a group of monks or druids (it is not clear which) abduct Giannon and take him off to a fate unknown to Gwynneve. Having lost her soul mate, she is devastated, lonely. She tries to erase her identity as she is shunned because of her association with him. After a long period of aimlessness, she finds her way to St. Brigit’s Abbey where she is welcomed for her scribing skills.

Gwynneve meets her demise when she is wrongly cast as the defacer of the grave of an unbaptized baby. She locks horns with another nun, Sister Aillenn, who is involved in a tortured sexual relationship with the abbot of the monastery. Aillenn is delusional; she wails and screams around the abbey, seeing visions, mutilating herself. Gwynneve at first cares for her, salving her self-inflicted wounds with healing potions that are considered subversive in the abbey. But when she tells her of her knowledge of the carnal relationship with the abbot, Aillenn distances herself from Gwynneve and, in league with the abbot, she manages to criminalize her, branding her as a witch.

Giannon makes a brief appearance at the end of Confessions. He has had his tongue cut out by his captors and appears at the monastery wearing monk habits and becomes a gardener.

We are left with the idea that the silencing of Gwynneve and Giannon, is also the silencing of the pagan world in Ireland. The pagan spirit evident in the forest and streams that also moves through the human spirit is bluntly replaced by the church, which becomes the intercessor to the human soul.

St. Brigit: Pagan Goddess or Christian Saint?

St. BrigitBut the lines between the two spiritual views is blurry at best, even to Gwynneve and Giannon. Gwynneve’s death bears resemblances to the suffering and martyrdom of a Christian saint as she is paraded through the village to the stunned silence of the citizens. And even the Abbey’s patron saint, Brigit, was also known as a pagan goddess of healing and inspiration, craftsmanship and poetry, which the Irish considered the flame of knowledge. The story of her conversion to Christianity may have been partially or entirely a fiction, created by the early Christians in order to convert the Irish.

The Christians are just more blunt, and, I suppose, ruthless. Sister Aillenn becomes mother of the nuns and the abbot castrates himself to absolve himself of sin. The two former lovers are then united in ridding the monastic community of a nun who dares question the authority with her knowledge of their carnal sins.

Gwynneve knows she is in a power struggle. Her world has collapsed. She has spoken the truth to the abbot and Sister Aillenn, and all she has left is her silence. And in this struggle between power and truth, power prevails … at least for a time. Gwynneve is marched through the neighbouring village, then pushed into a well where she drowns.

Gwynneve’s last words speak her truth:

Let all who read this know that I am no witch. Let all who read this beware of Christians and druids who claim to put words to that which cannot be named. Use words to please, instruct, to soothe. Then stop speaking.

Giannon’s reportage of the events following Gwynneve’s death make a case for her martyrdom and sainthood — the question is: for the Christians or the pagans?

It should be known that all who go to this well add their tears to its waters. It should be known that all who call out Gwynneve’s name beg for forgiveness and for help in understanding and overcoming suffering. The answer is always silence.

Check out Kate Horsley’s books at Amazon.

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