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Seeking Sanctuary

21 March 2014

Jane Christmas felt called to be a nun. But she had not reckoned on her trial period falling in Lent

"How bad can it be?" Jane Christmas out of the cloister

"How bad can it be?" Jane Christmas out of the cloister

LIKE most people, Lent, for me, was a time of resolutions. Make that second chances, because, like most people, my New Year's resolutions sputtered to failure by mid-January.

Lent was the reset button: the opportunity to make good on my failure by upping the ante with a few extra promises - usually to forgo chocolate and wine for 40 days and nights. I would gird my flabby self-control, and remind myself that God made me a type-A personality, and then I would storm into Lent as if it were a marathon. That was how I did Lent.

And then, one year, I spent it in a convent.

It was February 2011 when I arrived at the Order of the Holy Paraclete in Whitby, an Anglican convent of about 30 Sisters. I had come as an aspirant - a rather late-life aspirant, admittedly, but resolute none the less in my belief that God had called me to become a nun.

God's first call had come during my teens, when I was trying to square a religious vocation with my fondness for heavy metal music and leather trousers. Me - a nun? Is God messing with me? I could not explain my aspirations to be a nun, except that, whenever I thought about being one, the idea passed through me like an electric current, as if my heart's desire had made contact with a rogue cell residing in my DNA.

The other problem was my Aquarian spirit, which is hard-wired to resist orders - even God's. Being patient and persistent, God kept calling, and, as the decades ticked by, his "Be a nun" prodding felt like waterboarding. With two marriages, three grown children, and a dozen job-changes under my belt, I finally decided: Why not? How bad can it be?

THERE was a complication to all this: a marriage proposal from my boyfriend. Colin's proposal came at the exact moment that I was rehearsing in my mind how to tell him that I had decided to become a nun. Talk about awkward. I said "Yes" to Colin, but I could sense God standing to one side, arms crossed in a huff, muttering unkind things about me.

I was living in Canada at the time, and so, on the long flight from England to Toronto, I had a good think about things. I decided that I had to go with God. As much as I loved Colin, I felt that I loved God just a little bit more. Besides, I was in my mid-fifties, and the clock was running out on the time left to see if I was nun material. If I didn't do it then, I would regret not trying for the rest of my life.

As soon as I got home, I phoned Colin and broke off our engagement. He took it rather well for a guy who had been cuckolded by God. Maybe he was a little relieved. Maybe he was thinking: "What kind of a lunatic is she?" After all, who goes off to be a nun these days? What he said, however, was that if it was something I felt so strongly about, then I had no choice but to test it. He did not even ask for the ring back.

The Order of the Holy Paraclete was the last destination of my convent crawl. I had been to an Anglican convent in Toronto, the Sisterhood of St John the Divine; and two Roman Catholic communities on the Isle of Wight: St Cecilia's Abbey, and Quarr Abbey. St Benedict didn't think kindly about religious tyre-kickers like me; but, frankly, how else was I to know where I would fit?

I WAS a little frightened by the prospect of testing my vocation: fearful of not being deemed a worthy candidate; fearful of not being the sort of candidate a religious community would want. The draw to religious life, however, was irresistible. Something - I could not put my finger on it - about the Church had withered and died. I was bored and frustrated by it. My faith, however, was very much alive, and I felt a voracious craving for a more contemplative, Gregorian-chant-infused, no-frills tradition. A convent seemed like the logical sanctuary.

From a liturgical point of view, I could not have chosen a better time than Lent for this stage of my discernment. From a psychological point of view, it almost did me in.

When Ash Wednesday arrived, a nun at OHP drew me aside and said: "If you can survive Lent in a convent, you can survive anything." I had brushed off her comment with a cavalier chuckle of "No sweat, baby."

That attitude lasted until suppertime, when I discovered that the bun-and-tea menu from breakfast would be repeated at supper. Almost every night. Until Easter. At first, I was stoic, but by the second day I was ready to bale. This isn't Lent; this is the gulag! This is Scott's expedition to Antarctica!

As I sat on the edge of the bed in my cell that second night, shivering in the damp cold and whimpering for a hot-water bottle and a steak, my vocational aspirations wobbled. "A monk's life should always be like a Lenten observance," St Benedict once declared. No wonder his monks had tried to poison him.

EACH week felt heavier than the previous one. All vestiges of colour had been expunged from the convent's interior, leaving only the brown-grey incense-soaked walls, and the dark-oak prie-dieu for visual stimulation. It was like living in a sepia-tone photograph. Even the normally cheerful faces of the Sisters were drawn down.

That Lent, there was the Japanese tsunami, and the possibility of more disaster from its damaged nuclear power plant; the madness in Libya; the outbreak of civil war in Syria - so much death and destruction it was hard to know where to direct my prayers. We seemed to be onour knees constantly, inextricably bound to all the horrors in the world.

Unlike the secular world, a convent provides little chance of Lent relief: no flicking on the TV whenever you want, or surfing the net, or dulling the monotony with a chilled glass of white. By week four, I was privately referring to the Te Deum as "The Tedium", and the Nunc Dimittis as the "junk for dimwits".

The Psalms of David, whose sonnet-like eloquence was once so soothing, now sounded whiny, and I found myself wishing that David would "man up". Even the idea of Lent began to make me question whether it was a suitable expression of faith. Forty days and nights of moaning and deprivation? Why?

Quitting the convent was out of the question - a common symptom of type-A rigidity - and so the only option was to work through it. The nuns were my voiceless guides, and, following their example, I began to lean in to the silence rather than back away from it. Then things got messy.

EARLIER in my discernment journey, at a previous convent, a violent memory had erupted out of the deep silence within me - the memory of being raped 30 years earlier by a former colleague who had barged into my hotel room during a business trip. It felt like I had been murdered.

I had never reported the rape, not to family or friends, out of shame and humiliation. Instead, I internalised it, and what made it bearable was the fact that during the rape I had drifted into a sort of altered state, and imagined my hand reaching into my chest and pulling my soul out of my body.

An odd reaction, perhaps, but it was one of self-preservation: my soul was the only part of myself that I could save. The soul hung in the air, at arm's length above my head; and, while I was being raped, I did not take my eyes off it for a second. It was a small, golden orb, a little smaller than a tennis ball, on to which was superimposed a holographic face with hands that were pressed together in prayer.

In the days, weeks, years, and decades that passed, the shame of the rape never subsided. I thought that I had done an admirable job of suppressing it; but now, at the convent in Whitby, the rape memory reared up again, and became an entity, a third person intruding on my discernment.

This is what happens when you sit in in silence for long stretches: all the crap from your life rises to the surface, like fat does when you make soup. No matter how many times you skim it from the surface, there is more lurking beyond what is immediately visible.

GRADUALLY, it dawned on me that my reason for being called to the convent was less about becoming a nun and more about resolving the trauma of the rape - a trauma that I had not really noticed as I went about my busy life in those intervening decades.

The silence during that Lent was tyrannical, but, in a strange way, it allowed a catharsis to take place. To call it "healing" would be trite as well as false, because one doesn't ever heal from rape. But in the raw silence I was able to forgive myself: we type-As are our own harshest critics.

Why forgive myself? Because, in taking on shame, I had disordered my emotions. I had blamed myself for answering the banging on my hotel door; blamed myself for not raising an alarm. In the silence and the convents and the nuns I found an inner gentleness. I have Lent to thank for that.

Lent is the fragile season: the time, if we are brave enough, to be our most vulnerable, to sit in the dark, terrifying silence and trust that God is with us. That Lent, I emptied myself of the putrid toxicity of a festering shame, and filled up on doing nothing but trusting in something invisible but remarkably cogent.

I NEVER did become a nun, but it was a privilege to try. I chose Colin. I think he felt fairly chuffed about how it all ended, although he would never admit it. He is also aware that I did not give up God to be with him: God is with me for better and for worse.

As for Lent, it will never be the same. I prepare more consciously for it now, knowing that it will demand much of me in terms of unresolved emotions, and in terms of setting aside time to deal with those thoughts and emotions.

To flip that adage of Plato - or was it Socrates? - I guess that that is what they meant by the "examined life".

Jane Christmas is the author of And Then There Were Nuns, published by Lion Hudson at £8.99 (CT Bookshop £8.10); 978-0-745-95644-2.

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