Confessions of a Pagan Nun, a review

Confessions of a Pagan Nun, a novel by Kate Horsley

I have traveled back in time through the weaving of words, to sixth century Ireland, to a time of reluctant Christianization, when druids walked beside monks and the magic of the land was as much a gift of God as was eternal peace. For the past several nights, I have slept in the clochan beside Gwynneve, fortunate to read her stories, grateful to learn from her simple wisdom. If she had ever truly lived, she might be pleased to know her studies with Giannon the Druid, and her years in the Order of Saint Brigit, both have something to teach us in the twenty-first century, wisdom we’d be well to heed and take to heart. Closing the cover on the final pages of her tale, I avoided tears, that would fall not only for this fictional life, but for the truth that was written into her fiction.

We enter Gwynneve’s tale as she sits in her clochan, a beehive shaped nun’s cell made of stone, set into the harsh and windy landscape of the Irish countryside. It is the autumn of her years, which well matches the cold and rainy season in which she narrates her story. In honesty and completeness, her thoughts and memories flow from pen to parchment in the dim candlelight of night, and without resistance, we begin our journey into her world.

In the private dimness of her cell, while undertaking the task of transcribing the Epistle of Saint Patrick, Gwynneve begins to put to paper her own history. We learn immediately about Gwynneve’s family tribe – her tuath; about her mother Murrynn, and her passionate beauty, her wildness, and her independence that was quite natural for a woman of her time but in her was even more uncontained. Murrynn is an early inspiration for Gwynneve, and provides her with a foundation in earth centered religious beliefs, and the skills of herbalism and healing. In her mother, we see Gwynneve’s strong and deep knowledge of pagan ways that later moves like a quiet wave beneath her Christian faith, and that ultimately is used against her. And too, we first see the love of words in Murrynn’s delightful stories: “Words came from her mouth and dispelled my loneliness, even when she was not with me,” Gwynneve says of her mother. The power of words becomes tangible to Gwynneve, “I began then to know words as immortal things one could see and touch, each having a color and shape like a pebble that never suffers disease or death. I dreamed of bags of polished pebbles; each bag a story; each bag holding one precious jewel among the many pebbles or a dark, black stone that was death’s eye.”

Gwynneve’s love of words grows as she does, and truly becomes the focus of her life. “My father and sister and others in the tuath tried to teach me that I loved words too much, but what I loved was the freedom of words,” she tells us, and “Even a man in a cage can speak words, or if his tongue be cut out, hear them, or if his ears be filled with dirt, have them in his mind. In words he is free at least until he dies, and I do not know, nor did my mother, if a man has words after he is dead, other than what he has left behind in his writing, if he were literate.”

As a young girl who loves her mother’s stories and is fascinated by the first written markings she sees, Gwynneve determines to learn to understand and write these markings herself. She seeks the assistance of a druid, a sage person who will surely teach her, and at the Fair of Tailltenn, she indeed meets the druid Giannon.

Becoming the apprentice to Giannon the Druid is neither quick nor easy. Gwynneve is given a heady list of assignments that she must complete before full training will be offered, and she is warned away from Giannon by many who know him as difficult and cold. She does persist, through this sheer love of words and learning, and comes finally to be student, friend, and sometimes lover of the elusive and taciturn man.

Gwynneve’s journey from child to a woman “near the age of barrenness” is often painful, as human lives tend sometimes to be, and with her we witness the loss of family and friends, faith and hope. We also walk with her through forest, to fair, taking part in the merriment of jugglers, minstrels, and magicians. We find love with her, yearn for the spiritual, honor the scholarly; and we find our way beside her, to the convent of Saint Brigit in Kildare, from where she tells her tale. Through the retelling of her life, as she writes alone in her cold stone home, we become witnesses to her memories, and bearers of her unique history, and of the histories of those she knew and loved.

Events at the convent that occur as Gwynneve writes are also shared, and bring her tale firmly into the present, with beauty, mystery, and conflict. Though the interaction she shares with her fellow nuns and with the local laypeople is significant to her story as well as instrumental in what becomes of her, we learn only more about Gwynneve through these women and men.

Gwynneve’s narration is about the gift of people, or love; the gift of God, or gods; and the gift of the land. Gwynneve feels deeply the love and life within all things and all beings, and despite her constant declarations of ignorance, expresses true insight; despite her requests for forgiveness for blaspheming, she demonstrates instead a rare gift of true devotion to the sacred. Through her gentle narration, we cut through to the emotion within relationship, to the often-confused quest for God or the divine, and to the sincere yearning for meaning. The story then is not just that of Gwynneve or of those she loved, but of all of us, who see the holy close to us, as well as in faraway places.

This novel is considered to be a translation, as Gwynneve would be writing in her native Gaelic. Words that have no simple English translation remain in Gaelic. These Gaelic words, as well as the Latin phrases that Gwynneve uses often, feel right at home in her narration. Soon after she first uses the Gaelic “tuath,” which means tribe, or “bairgen,” which is a currant cake, we remember their meanings with ease, every time they are again referred to. These words and passages are footnoted generously, and at the end of the book is a glossary of Gaelic words and phrases Gwynneve has used, in case one does forget along the way.

There is nothing mundane about this book, even though Gwynneve makes me smile through such passages as “Many of us come from tuaths where only a fool or a dying man would push cheese away,” or “There is no better saint for this land than one who turns water to ale.” She tells of hardship, hunger, poverty, sickness, and injustice. These are all real pains of the physical world that she transforms, along with her more joyful and innocent experiences, into keen understanding. Through her exploration of the life she has lived, we transform too, and for as long as we allow her to stay with us, Gwynneve the pagan nun whispers to us the wisdom she isn’t yet aware she has written herself.

Originally published at Green Man Review

© Nellie Levine