Shattering the Nunnery

Somewhere between here and Annwn

a part of me is cloistered

thinking already
about the spring flowers

as she paints another saintly visage.

In another life she has been drinking
the truth from a forbidden cup.

The saints no longer look the same:

their hands are red with blood and filled
with splinters and chips of stone
from shattered pagan idols.

The stained glass is blood stained.

Her voice catches on the songs and tears
as if upon nails – she SCREAMS

and the stained glass shatters.
The nunnery falls down.


This poem, which is based on a spirit-journey, signals my release from a malaise I have been calling ‘nun envy’. Although I realised Christianity was not for me when I experienced its dull and stuffy sermons and the patriarchal presence of the Christian God in my local C of E church as a Brownie at church parade a part of me has longed for learning and ritual and shared devotion in a religious community.

I have been deeply jealous of Christians because they have a system of support for people who have a sense of vocation. For those who are called to serve God there are ways of living by this calling. Vicars and priests receive an education and a salary for their work and nuns and monks lead lives of dedication to God based around prayer, manual labour, and artistic and intellectual pursuits without worrying how to pay for housing or food. When I hit thirty-five I realised that was the last chance I would have of becoming a Christian nun and living what looked the ideal life except for… the Christianity.

Of course, I decided against, because I did not want to betray my god to the God and saints of the religion that destroyed the pagan traditions and, in particular, demonised him and the Otherworld he rules.

Yet, still I kept yearning for what Christian monastics have. Researching local monasteries and abbeys. Finding myself drawn to Preston’s Carmelite monastery.


Visiting the Tabor Retreat Centre, which was once a Carmelite nunnery but is now run by the Xaverian Missionaries (this provides regular meditation classes, Lectio Divina, short courses and even a book club as well as retreats which I’d have loved to go to … if only I was Christian!).


Wanting to go back to the ruins of Fountains Abbey (which I visited every weekend when I worked at the Yorkshire Riding School) to sit and mourn something I will never have.

Fountains Abbey II
A strange impulse I believe may be rooted in a past life as a nun. A few years ago when I read in a biography about the ritual burial of Julian of Norwich – entombed like Christ to become his bride and an anchoress who would never see the outside world again I felt like I was being buried alive. As if I’d experienced something similar before. I flung the book into my wardrobe, slammed the door, and went for a walk feeling immensely grateful for my freedom to see trees and taste the fresh air.

I’ve always had a push-pull relationship with Christian mysticism, art, literature, and song. A yearning for its richness and beauty but a dislike of its unhealthy obsession with suffering and punishment.

As a consequence of years of learning about how nearly every splendid church and cathedral is based on the takeover (violent or non-violent) of a pagan sacred site; how nearly every haloed saint is associated with the defeat of a pagan mythic figure or with the slaughter or conversion of pagans; how the Christian tradition is founded on the death of paganism, it has finally lost its fusty-fingered hold on me.

Being an awenydd attempting to reweave the ways between Annwn and This-modern-world isn’t easy. But I think I will be able to do it better and more happily now my yearning for what Christians have and my nun envy is gone. From the ruins of the shattered nunnery may new shoots and tendrils grow.

Fountains Abbey


5 thoughts on “Shattering the Nunnery

  1. Liz Beth says:

    I definitely felt this envy leaving the Christian tradition. It’s impossible to describe the support of that community for people pursuing its goals. I tried to describe the loss of support and community to my therapist, and he steadfastly refused to engage with the idea that the Christian church is unique among modern institutions in its resources for participants. Building a network of pagan siblings has been rewarding, but painfully slow in comparison.

    • lornasmithers says:

      Thanks for sharing some of your story, Liz. Commendations on managing to walk way from the Christian tradition and beginning to build a network of pagan siblings. Not easy when there are so few of us and so far between and when our beliefs are so diverse (a sign of our freedom from hegemony although it sometimes makes building community more difficult). I’d be interested to hear more about your path and work.

  2. Ogden Fahey says:

    Rievaulx abbey is worth a visit too, its a pity Henry smashed it all up! Tho they do say they were corrupt, (not half so much as he was!) Montserrat is really worth a visit if you’re ever in Barcelona area, I’m not sure Christianity is a real religion tho, more of a cult of fantasy, ridiculously compromised over the years, almost a political movement, very interesting tho. I met a woman who studied theology at university level, but she wasn’t religious, presumably she had been when she went into it, or perhaps not, its just so curious how some people get right into it, while others find it so difficult to access. The way its evolved to indoctrinate people from every possible angle, its all so messed up IMO, its a beautiful thing too, & weird! I do think about it from time to time, but in this current age, it seems more ridiculous than ever. He died, then he rose again – no! He died, and rose again! No really! Yeah, ok, right! alrighty then! (La,la,la)

    Thing is, there’s so much beauty and art and so on in the world, and as a pal of mine pointed out, a lot of ideas which might have died out without it, (and perhaps many that wouldn’t have?) Bloody Romans! What have they ever done for us??

    Humans are such strange creatures! Thats my take on it, I’m really digging your writings ❤

  3. Greg says:

    I had always found monks and monasteries to be resonant of the mystique of the Middle Ages and they do continue to carry something of that mystique even when you get to know more about the social and political realities of medieval monastic life. This in spite of being put off by the aura of christanity. Similarly I find the polyphonic singing associated with christian worship very attractive and like to listen to it when performed well even though I don’t relate to what they singing about. It’s difficult to disassociate the spiritual form from the religious meaning, but I sometimes wonder if such forms would have developed under other circumstances, and with other associations?

    The dominant religion of the day will inevitably be in league with the dominant political structures, or at least assimilated by them. Finding religious community is quite another matter, and it’s true that the diverse nature of modern polytheism makes this difficult. Who is my brother and my sister? To ask that question is one thing, to know how to evaluate any answers quite another.

  4. syrbal-labrys says:

    Seeking as a teen, I was first drawn to Catholicism – I think for the very reasons you describe. It took over a dozen years to burn out the love of Catholic “high magic” in the mass and Marian aspects; privately I let it go and it was ten more years before I told my family. Talk about a fire that is tough to extinguish….

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