Cloistered in a stone cell at the monastery of Saint Brigit, a sixth-century Irish nun secretly records the memories of her Pagan youth, interrupting her assigned task of transcribing Augustine and Patrick. She also writes of her fiercely independent mother, whose skill with healing plants and inner strength she inherited. She writes of her druid teacher, the brusque but magnetic Giannon, who first introduced her to the mysteries of written language. But disturbing events at the cloister keep intervening. As the monastery is rent by vague and fantastic accusations, Gwynneve's words become the one force that can save her from annihilation.
Born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1952, Kate Horsley Parker, the youngest of five children, loved to read. Her mother, Alice Horsley Parker, inspired that love, which is part of the reason that she chose to write under her mother’s maiden name. In her mother’s world, young women were to be educated and refined and passionate. While in a private girl’s school in Virginia during the sixties, Horsley protested against the Vietnam War and worked in the Civil Rights movement. And then she went off to college and off to Paris for summer school. Every event in life was marked by a book, an almost prophetic glimpse into what would become a passion. After reading a book by Alan Watts, Horsley’s flirtation with Zen Buddhism became a lifelong fling. Flying to Paris, she read Black Elk Speaks, one of several works on or by Native Americans that inspired her to move to the West. It was her Masters Thesis work on Laguna Pueblo writer Leslie Silko that propelled her to travel to New Mexico where she has lived since 1977. She got a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of New Mexico. The research she did on women in the American West inspired her to make novels out of the dimly known but awesome lives of ordinary people in extraordinary times. Horsley has been teaching college English in New Mexico for over twenty years and is involved in hospice work.
Horsley dedicated her first published novel to her mother, and the other five to her son Aaron, who died at the age of eighteen in 2000.
After I finished this rather grim tale, I wondered why anyone became a Christian. The leaders were so awful and full of rules that I would never want to join. The pagans seemed to be having a great time and why they would want to give that up for hair shirts, hard work, and little food is beyond me.
This book is set after St. Patrick's death and centers around a pagan woman who slowly converts to Christianity and becomes a Catholic nun. When I first started reading about early Irish history, it seemed like women had equal rights. St. Patrick named women as monks and was inclusive. It's after his death that the anti-women movement starts. I have noticed this about major religions. The people who start it love and admire women such as Jesus and Mohammad. Jesus had Mary Magdalene and Mohammad had Fatima. It's their successors who start to change the message and start restricting people's freedom.
The life was hard in Ireland at this time and the poverty is astounding. There is some magic realism to spice things up. Make no mistake. This is a grim story about a woman struggling in difficult times. The injustices are hard to swallow but it's interesting to learn about the times.
Have you ever wondered how people can put a bowl of milk under the sink for the kitchen fairies then leave for church? This book describes so well what it must be like to fit something completely foreign into your life and how one would have to make sense of it. It is truly a beautifully written work with an amazing way of helping one understand what it must have been like to try to take on this new fangled thing called Christianity. This is my all-time favorite book.
This is a prime example of why a book shouldn't be judged by its cover. Although, the ridiculous title should have made me a bit suspicious. I was fully seduced by the picture of the clochan amidst the greenery of Ireland.
I'll be quick with my criticism. The whole story was one gaping anachronism after another. There wasn't a single character that felt authentic...everyone was a one (maybe two) dimensional mouthpiece for the author's philosophical convictions. The ironic thing is, I tend to agree with the author on many points, but as a work of fiction, I was so utterly turned off by the message and themes she was working with due to the elementary and blatant writing devices used to express them.
It was a short-enough read that I felt like I had to finish it. My main motivation was to see just how bad the writing would get. Bad. I was bored to tears.
This is a vicious review, but there are few things that bother me more than hack writing getting published. I remember when this book came out and had a very strong marketing campaign behind it. I wanted to read it then and never got around to it. I want to go back and see if the NYT reviewed it.
I hope I have more positive things to say about the next book I read.
Beautifully written, every line is like poetry. It's romantic without being cheesy and mourns for the lost celtic culture. The relationship between the main character and her love is portrayed tenderly and innocently, just like ones first love can be.I think this is the kind of story we don't hear about...the casualties of when one culture invades another.
Words can not express how much I love this novel, the beauty of it astonished me. I simply could NOT put it down.
This book is a pretty neat novel. It takes place just under 500 years after Christ and is written by one of the very few literate nuns of the time period who should be transcribing sacred texts, but is instead writing of her childhood before the Christians began their persecution of the pagans in Ireland.
There are some GREAT quotes. For example:
"Rather than seeing a contest between druid and Christian, I see a kinship between sone chapel and stone circle. One encloses and protects the sprit; the other exposes it and joins it with the elements. In both of 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."
"It is no mystery that the Pelagians - those Christians who taught that all things are part of God and therefore good - found an easy welcome in this land where each twig is divine...Even now, like the Pelagians, I do not understand a jealous God for if He made all things, then any form of worship that protects His creations and is not destructive or cruel to them must please Him."
"I still lack understanding of [St Augustine's] complaints against Pelagius, whose followers I knew many years ago. Is it not possible that a man may speak to God directly? Is it not possible that all that we see around us, being created by God, should be considered holy? Is it not possible that instead of original sin there is original grace?"
But it was dark and conflicted with a weak plot. Good for a rainy afternoon read, but don't expect rainbows and sunshine!!
What a tragic story! If you want an example of how Christianity transformed native populations, then read this book.
synopsis: Gwynneve is a nun who lives in a small stone cell at the monastery of St. Brigit, a formerly pagan goddess turned Saint at the behest of St. Patrick. Brigit has the ability to read and write and her task at the monastery is to transcribe the writings of St. Patrick & St. Augustine. She takes time, however, in between her task to set forth the details of her old life prior to the monastery, in which she lived among the native tribes of what is now Ireland with her family. She also tells of her desire to become a druid and her time with the Druid Giannon, who knows that the coming of the Christians means the death of the old ways. The story is truly about how the old peoples had to adapt to the new Christianity; how the Christians were able to take over through vague promises, threats, showing the natives new ways to cultivate & increase their productivity, etc. It tells about the diminishing power of what were once revered healers (the Druids) in the face of promises of no pain & death in the afterlife.
The writing is very well paced; it is almost poetic. Dialogue is kept to a minimum since we are reading the memoirs of Gwynnevethe.
A very fine book; one that I know I'll want to read again. I recommend it. People who are interested in the effects of Christianity on indigenous populations will probably enjoy this one.
Kate Horsley begins with a well-crafted Translator’s Note to acquaint you with her subject matter, then she deftly drops you into the world of the Middle Ages and the advent of Christianity to the pagan residents of sixth century Ireland. Confessions of a Pagan Nun takes you on a spiritual journey through the eyes of Gwynneve, a young girl nurtured by her mother, then cast adrift to find her way in a man’s world with her sole talent her gift of writing. Ms. Horsley blends the history of this era with old Gaelic language and the strange newness of the Christian philosophy to bring us a story that’s moving and deeply heartfelt. I ached for Gwynneve as I read her journal, joined her on her quest to find meaning in her life, and wept with her when her world failed to support her. This tiny book is a beautiful inward and outward view to a time we can only imagine.
I started this book with little expectation and the story story ended up being quite captivating. The beginning was some what boring but afterwards it was a real page-turner. The protagonist is Gwynneve tells the story of her life, a woman raised pagan,trained as a druid and "converted" to a Christianity.
The underlying theme deals with questions about the meaning and origin of faith as Gwynneve struggles to understand the two dominant belief systems of her lifetime. The end of the story is so moving. I was outraged and saddened. A book worth reading. Loved the use of language:clear and humble.
This book is full of sorrow & truth. The sorrow of real life & of the Catholic church & of human frailty. I am a pagan born & raised, I went into the Catholic Church & found power misused & ashes. I am sadder & wiser for this knowledge, yet still in the church because of the beauty & glory I do find there.
Brought this home from library with high expectations but was disappointed. I have visited all the major historic religious sites in Ireland and made a month of it. I am not without interest in the origins of Christianity as lived in ancient Ireland. It is a fascinating topic, but this book is deadly in its presentation and pace. Poor Gwynneve (nun of the title).
Random paragraph from book: "Then the woman began to weep and came to the orange-bearded man and pounded on his chest. She wailed leaning back so that the hood fell off and showed in the firelight her bare and welted head. The man could not stop her fit, and she began to scream, 'We are lost! We are lost!' And I was chilled with cold bumps on my skin, though Giannon stared into the fire, musing quietly to himself. The old man's head shook and his eyes were wide as he stared helplessly at the legs of the table."
...and Giannon was the representative Druid in the tale. Well, I do prefer my Druids lively!
This book is beautifully written and really captured me in its story. It's a sad story, so in that sense it was hard to read, it was just one loss and unfulfilled hope after another, but it's such an honest book, so true to the human experience, so poetic in its language, that in the end it leaves you feeling somehow more alive. This is absolutely something any sensitive human being should read, or at least, something such a person would likely get a lot out of. And as a former Catholic, I can relate a great deal to much the story's "pagan nun" has to say.
Great book! Although I read a page of the book the day I got it, I actually read it in two short sessions. I loved this book and can not understand why it took over 10 years for me to finally get around to reading it. The story was written as if it were secret writings of an Irish nun. The story weaves in and out of her pagan upbringing and her studies as a druid apprentice with her life cloistered away at St. Brigit's convent. The story tells of the early years of Christianity and how locals may have felt about the conversion of the Irish people by St. Patrick's church. The pages of this book are now stained in yellow highlighter. Hardy three pages went by without my underlining yet another passage. I love this book, I will always love this book, and I can hardly wait to read it again....even if the last few pages left me in tears. Confessions of a Pagan Nun was a simply beautiful book and well worth the short amount of time it took to read it.
Some of my favorite quotes from the book:
It conjures sadness in me even now to remember those days, for I had hopes that were never made solid but which always seemed sweet. pg.87
He said powerful words, as destructive as his satires. They entered me like spirit blades because I loved the mouth from which the words came and the tongue that moved to say them. I loved the eyes and knew the soul behind them. I loved the hands that could make people and histories and beauty appear on a piece of parchment. pg. 88
Power does not willingly give up its place to truth, though I thought it would. I did not understand. pg. 165
...still addicted to my belief that any man will finally honor the truth and reward integrity. Did it not occur to me that for a man to recognize and reward integrity he must first have it himself? pg. 171
It is noble to pity a man who is cruel because he is weak, but it is idiotic and dangerous to allow him to have power. pg. 173
Kate Horsley’s Confessions of a Pagan Nun was recommended to me by a friend. It’s an interesting story. Set in the years during which Ireland was becoming Christianized, but still under the influence of native Celtic religion, the tale is told by Gwynn, an unbaptized nun. She tells her life’s story as a woman drawn to become a Druid, but caught in the crossfire of a new religion that privileged the wealthy, the powerful, and the merciless. She became a nun, while continuing to explore what life would and should mean in such circumstances.
I won’t put any spoilers here. As I mentioned in my blog post on the book (Sects and Violence in the Ancient World) I thought it odd that a novel was published by Shambhala. The reason, it seems most likely, is that it is contemplative and seeks to point out the wisdom of a woman in an age when men are taking over. The language is descriptive and includes quite a few Gaelic words, along with a small glossary.
I’ve not read any of Horsley’s other novels, so it’s difficult to compare this with her other work. The story is compelling and clearly well researched. Novels that deal with religious issues often run up against issues of believability. There’s nothing supernatural here. It is an honest tale told honestly. Women weren’t treated well by early Christians, and, in many parts of the world still aren’t. This is a story that will make you think.
I still love the power of words. They dispel my loneliness.
Kate Horsley uses the journey of language to create a tale of Druids, the coming of Christianity, and the loss of nature/innocence in this historical fiction read (sixth-century Ireland). It is a time of transition, as the Druids give way to the worship of Saint Patrick and Saint Brigit. Towards the end, we see the monastic movement take over, as male abbots use control to eliminate female pagans.
The chieftains who used to know the earth as their wife now use her as a mistress.
Each chapter alternates from past remembrances of the heroine (Gwynneve) and her love of nature to her present circumstances in a female cloister. The descriptions of her pagan life were, to me, rather mesmerizing. The 'barbarians' are closer to nature, more respectful of wildlife, trees, rivers, and themselves. As she discovers the foreigners (Christian missionaries), she learns that they have little love of the land, except to use it to gain power. Always wondering how a new religion could so quickly overwhelm ancient beliefs, Gwynneve describes how the priests teach land clearance and better crop yields to win tribes to their power.
Power does not willingly give up its place to truth.
In the alternate chapters, the story revolves around the sisters in the cloister who combine old Druid ways with a yearning to know more about the one God. But as the Christians infiltrate the Irish clans, abbots take over the sisterhoods and turn them into male-dominated monasteries. Reading rather like a modern tale of corporate life, the men in power manipulate the women below the glass ceiling to achieve their goals. Queen Bee women do not hesitate to sacrifice their fellow females.
The wind whips the world outside as though to strike at a beast who will not carry its burden.
I enjoyed this book, perhaps because I had little intel on Druids and especially Pelagians (the libertarians of their time). Changed my Augustinian views a bit. If the author were more strident this would have been a soapbox slog, but instead it was a fey re-telling of perhaps the most important period in Irish history, as the island embraced its first Christian King. There are also highlighted Gaelic words plus a glossary of the definitions at the end.
The answer is always silence.
Book Season = Winter (in Ireland, the gods still whisper on your shoulders)
Thank God I finally remembered the name of this book. I've spent the past month trying to recall the title - or enough key words for a google search - which is strange because the crazy title is what drew me in the first place. This was another random selection from the eclectic collection of the Ketchum Community Library (which is privately funded, so donated books abound).
Moving along, This is not The Great American Novel...or The Great Irish Novel...or whatever. The characters aren't very strong and the narrative reads like a past-life regression, but Kate Horsley uses them to illustrate how pagans came to be Christians, or rather, how the Church pulled it off. I find accounts of Early Christianity FASCINATING, so it's no wonder this story stuck with me. The Pagan Nun has interesting ideas on God and sexual relations and it makes me wonder how much of it is based on real Celtic history. Some authors get New-Age idealistic hippie fantasies confused with actual Pagan History. But seriously, I'd love to know if Confessions of a Pagan Nun has any plausibility. Anyone?
This is an incredibly understated and beautiful book. The writing may not have the bells and whistles we might think of as signifying "excellent writing," such as soaring lyricism or deeply hidden intertexuality (as far as I can tell, at any rate), but it's clean language manages to tell a story that is both profound and simultaneously honest. This is really quite a feat, and certainly qualifies it as "excellent." Besides the story it tells, this is a novel about questions. You will not close the cover when you finish it thinking you have learned some great and tidy moral or lesson. You will, instead, find yourself caught in the crossfire of very difficult questions about belief, about power, about culture, and about being alive. I don't make book recommendations very often, but will be recommending this book to several of my friends. I read it over two evenings. It is a small book and is well worth the time it takes to read it.
Outstanding writing. Well researched. This Pagan nun is a healer and lover of words. She sees much cruelty at the hands of the monks. Getting your head around how this can be reconciled with the stories and goodness of Jesus is not only impossible for me, but for her? When she finally admits there is no good in the abbot and his monks, they have discerned her intelligence and respect she is given. No one is allowed any power but them, especially not a woman. This takes place in 500 AD. Now tell me how this is different today within the Catholic Church? Interesting how Druid women's powers were taken away when they were forced into Christianity.
A nun from Ireland in the 6th century writes about her Pagan youth! Based on the writings of Gwynneve in her native Gaelic, this translation is fascinating and offered me a glimpse into a world that many of my ancestors lived and died in. The entrance of Christianity and the slow death of the druids of Ireland are something that intrigues me greatly. To read the text of a woman who existed during that time period is awe-inspiring.
With a look at the early Catholic influence on pagan Ireland, this book piqued my interest and quickly became highly captivating. The author explored human suffering, the consolation of kindness, and the corruption of the church in ways that felt incredibly real and tangible to today's time. Definitely recommend if you're a fan of literary historical fiction!
Beautifully written but heartbreaking tale that illustrates how the evils of human nature, disguised as organized religion, seeks to obliterate the spiritual aspects of the natural world in favor of their invisible tyrant in the sky. My heart broke for Gwynn and even for Giannon. Gwynn, a pagan Druid living as a Catholic nun in Ireland, is caught up in a whirlwind of disaster, the outcome of which we pagans know all too well. This book touched my heart. Even though it is fiction, it was based on the author’s research and reads like non-fiction. Warning: it will break your heart.
I am fascinated by a story of a historical Slavic queen and her loyal female warriors who lived a couple of centuries after the time in this novel. When the Roman Christians showed up and began converting these Slavs, primarily the men, the results were an atrocious battle in which men slaughtered the women warriors, the dissenting queen was deposed by her mate, and the people of the land became Christian. All I turned up in my research about the events were accounts and stories by men belittling the battle and demeaning the women.
I always wondered how the monks operated in order to bring about this dramatic change. Kate Horsley has brilliant insight into the cultural and power shift in Ireland in the sixth century. And the philosophies and tactics of the Christians then are not so different from those used against POC and all women since that time. This book was enlightening, but also enjoyable. Gwynneve is one of my favorite heroines of all my reading.
As I understand it, the Druids left no written documents. If they had, if any one of them had, it might have looked like this small book. Or not. Whether or not it is historically accurate, Gwynneve has a compelling voice as she tells the story of her pagan childhood and her reluctant, ambiguous, conversion to Christianity.
It’s been a very long time since I read The Confessions of St. Augustine, but the scribe, Sister Gwynneve, had read them. She is, to some extent, modeling her confessions on his work. Much more, Kate Horsley is drawing on her own Buddhist faith, which is surprisingly similar to pagan Druidism in this interpretation. I’m not criticizing, or even disagreeing with her depiction of early Christians in Ireland. Sister Gwynneve is a character placed in a time of major changes and her story is completely plausible. The Christians are not heroic characters. There is a certain agenda in this fictional memoir. Sister Gwynne is seduced by the promise of literacy, more stories, and the greater knowledge of the Christians. But, she is troubled by the fanaticism, the religious persecution, the sexual repression, and the oppression of women. It becomes a very depressing story.
There’s good food for thought in Sister Gwynneve’s rambling confession. I found myself wanting to highlight over and over again.
“It is noble to pity a man who is cruel because he is weak, but it is idiotic and dangerous to allow him to have power.”
“Power does not willingly give up its place to truth.”
“Teaching is a sacred art ……. The teacher, the bard, the singer of tales is a freer of men's minds and bodies, especially when he roams without allegiance to one chieftain or another. But he is also a danger to the masters if he insists upon telling the truth. The truth will inevitably cause tremors in those who cling to power without honoring justice.”
“I would live in a world of Christ-like humans, but not one full of Christians, may God forgive me.”
I have very mixed feelings regarding this novel. This was chosen for a group book read, but the group disappeared right after I started reading it. I had read enough that I decided to continue, even though I would never have chosen to read this on my own.
The prose is beautiful. The MC is okay, though most of the secondary characters are rather two-dimensional. There's not a very strong plot and the outcome is rather predictable.
The theme of the novel can be rather thought-provoking, if one allows it to be. What must it have been like to live in a time period of great upheaval brought about by Christians moving in and forcing out Pagan spirituality. Through the MC's eyes we see the positive and negative aspects, not only of the Christians coming into these lands, but of the Pagan belief system, also. On the one hand, there was less warring between the small villages and better forms of farming made for better lives. On the other hand, women were being taught to hate themselves and the land was being recklessly destroyed. "Self-hatred seems to me an evil thing in itself rather than an antidote to evil. If we practice self-hatred, then the sacrifice we make of ourselves and our lives is not sacred..."
The theme of religion vs. spirituality runs deep throughout the book. As the MC attempts to embrace Christianity, interweaving it with her Druid/Pagan beliefs, she found the Christians continual denouncement of any other belief system confusing. "Even now I do not understand a jealous God, for if He made all things, than any form of worship that protects His creations and is not destructive or cruel to them must please Him."
I found many other thoughts in this novel thought-provoking, but will leave them where they are, or this could become a new novelette. One thought I came away with was this book could be used as a good argument for atheism. Even though the spiritual paths described in the book have some good aspects, the underbelly of the practices aren't quite so pretty.
I was agreeably surprised by the tone and maturity of this book. I learned about the Druids, their magic, Ireland, and the respect for the earth, the Great Mother honored through Brigid, later recuperated by Christians as a Saint. I was particularly interested to learn about the transition between Paganism and Christianity, the invasion, the separation between spirit and nature, and what was considered blasphemy, like saying that you had a direct connection with the divine, instead of going to a Roman Catholic Church. The misunderstandings, torments of the soul and of the flesh in the name of a new God that despised the body, followed by castration, virginity belts, flagellation, sublimation, heresies, not mentioning women, being robbed of power over their bodies, faith, at the mercy of judgemental men, who used Jesus in their dogmatic campains to better subjugate and manipulate are astounding affirmations that can only make me realize the horrors of blind faith. For those who want to know the truth about men-made religions, and reconnect with their authentic soul, you can hear directly from erudite Gwynneve, writing about her apprenticeship with her independent and strong mother, -- a medicine woman who knows the use of wild herbs, and with a magnetic druid teacher, Giannon, lover at times, but always on her mind, as an example of courage and integrity to live.
This book has been sitting on my tbr pile for a couple of years. A friend warned me that it was quite depressing, so I have put off reading this fictional account of an Irish Druidess turned Nun of Saint Brigit.
Once again I find myself wishing to go back and read historical accounts of our past. In this case, an account of Ireland just near the time of Saint Patrick and the conversion of the Irish to Christianity. I also wish to learn a bit more about the battle between the Pelagians and the Roman Catholic Church.
The account is presented well, although the writing is some times tedious (and you find yourself often wishing she would stop apologizing for being ignorant because Gwyneve is anything but). You also often find yourself wondering at her choices and wishing she had turned right when she had turned left. But Gwyneve is a brillant women during a time when women were rapidly watching their power and freedome be destroyed at the hands of foreigners and friends.
Ultimately, yes the book was depressing. However, it is a book worth reading. It illustrates well the confusion of those who had a new god introduced to their land and their desire to maintain what they believed with the safety of converting to the new religion.
Confessions of a Pagan Nun does not read like a medieval text, as the prose has a lot more life to it, and it definitely lacks in the depth of description that monks and nuns of the Middle Ages felt someone needed to know about, and yet the book certainly has a dryness and lethargy that some medieval texts have.
The result is a book that may well not be everyone’s cup of tea. What is interesting is the degree to which the author has gone to make the book seem like a real nun’s chronicle of her life as a former druid, to the extent that original Latin and Gaelic words are used, thankfully translated with footnotes, as well as a glossary providing aids to those who become lost.
The thesis of the novel is that the druidic religion was something special: “God forgive me, I do not wish to see the extinction of these old ways of knowing for I do believe that there is still value in acknowledging the spirit in a tree and understanding how to disarm an enemy with words.” Here is a lesson that everyone can learn from.
Originally published on May 13th 2002.
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A short novel and a quick read. It takes the form of a personal confession, penned on the sly, by Gwynneve, a woman raised as a pagan but now living as a Christian nun, one of 19 guardians of St. Brigit’s flame in the turbulent days when Christianity is taking firm hold and overthrowing the old ways in Ireland. The two people she loved best--her mother and her druidic teacher/lover--taught her the ancient stories, healing ways, and traditions, but as someone whose own precious literacy was hard won, she’s also seduced by the Christians’ veneration for the written word. She seems happy, or at least content, to do her part in the convent and go on respecting both the old and new religions. Then things begin to get bad when a peasant woman leaves a dying infant at the convent, and at about the same time a new, possibly deranged, young nun joins the tiny order and accuses Gwynneve of demonic possession. I honestly don’t know how historically accurate the book was, but it was an interesting story, and I enjoyed it quite a lot.