Confessions of a Pagan Nun: A Novel by Kate Horsley (Boston: Shambhala, 2001. 208 pp)

Kate Horsley is an award-winning novelist and poet who writes about the untold lives of people who lived during times of dramatic historical upheaval. She teaches English at Central New Mexico Community College.

Tracing History

I know it is a pretty obvious statement but have you considered the differences between modern life and those of our ancestors. Obviously, from a technological perspective, life is irreversibly different; shelter to transportation, nutrition to wellness—every aspect of life carries little to no resemblance to the lives of people 100 years ago, let alone those living much earlier in our shared history.

Interestingly, consider the advancement of Christianity. Over the last 2,000 years, the religion has faced numerous intellectual battles over the definition of Christianity. These arguments have often turned physical. Many well-intentioned people have paid for their beliefs with the ultimate cost: their life. From early theological battles over the person of Jesus to contention over the church as an institution during the Reformation, Christianity’s history is contentious and bloody.

These days, Christians of different stripes certainly disagree, but nobody faces execution over diverse theological opinions.

With these vast differences between present and past in mind, Kate Horsely’s Confessions of a Pagan Nun offers an intriguing look at theological discourse during its early adoption years in the British Isles.

Confessions of a Pagan Nun

Confessions of a Pagan Nun unfurls in a diary format. The author of these entries, Gwynneve, is a sixth-century Irish nun who transcribes the writings of Augustine and Patrick.

“I live and work most days and nights in my clochan with one waxen candle to light the parchment. I labor like an insect beneath its mud dome transcribing scripture, since I am one of a few nuns who are literate” (1).

However, in her spare time, she secretly composes her own history.

Gwynneve grew up in a Pagan village. Her autonomous mother taught her the value of medicinal herbs, a skill set she continues to utilize in secret at her convent.

“In truth, I have done this, for there are valuable energies in these plants, and though I sound like a Pelagian, I say that these plants were made by God and must therefore be useful” (124).

While growing up, Gwynneve encountered an imitable druid teacher named Giannon. Enamored, Gwynneve pledges her affection to him becoming his apprentice. Under Giannon’s guidance, Gwynneve discovers the magic of the written language and first becomes acquainted with Christianity. While intrigued by its principles, the way competing Christian factions treat each other disassociates her.

While she tells her life story and how she became a nun, Gwynneve interrupts her confession to discuss the tense circumstances surrounding the convent. Ever since a dying infant was left on the convent’s doorstep, strange things have occurred.

Making matters worse, the company Gwynneve keeps at the convent holds much discord. Whether other sisters or the ruling abbot, the Christians around her are nasty. Consider this confession:

“That Christ fed fish and bread to the poor and spoke to the outcast whore makes me want his company on this dark night. The world is full of immortals but sorely lacking in kindness” (155).

Ultimately, Gwynneve struggles to find connection between the words of Christ and the actions of those around her. She ponders,

“I had thought that the love of Christ would make us kinder and less likely to smash skulls. But now I see that we will be asked to smash skulls for Christ” (179).

The History of Power Struggles

This quote lies at the foundation of Confessions of a Pagan Nun. In a constant struggle for power between rival factions and pagan rites, the Christian leaders in this book represent all that is nasty in the world. Considering the stark and brutal history of heretical thought, Horsley’s insight into Sixth Century Christianity is a scary reminder of our past. Too often, Wars are fought over an idea.

Therefore, may we continue to pursue dialogue among our discord.

In all, Confessions of a Pagan Nun was not the best read. It felt accurate to its historical framework, but the narrative felt a little slow. Even as a slim book, the story never felt like it found purchase. While these results are partially attributed to the diary style of writing, Dracula contains a similar style and its narrative is riveting. In the end, I appreciate Horsley’s thesis behind the book but I find it difficult to recommend Confessions of a Pagan Nun.

Verdict: 2 out of 5

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