The late novelist George Moore often portrayed clerical themes in Irish life – generally with a good deal of irony. In A Story-Teller’s Holiday, he entertains his readers with a medieval folktale about temptation in a lively nunnery.

A very determined Mother Abbess, with a supporting cast of younger nuns, insists on helping an unsuspecting young travelling monk (Marban) to secure a future place in heaven. How? The sisters take turns sleeping next to young Marban as temptingly as they can manage. They do so purely for his spiritual wellbeing, of course.

Marban confesses to the Mother Abbess that the monastery he hails from has no nunnery closer than twenty miles away. The stunned Mother Abbess asks, “How do you be getting your temptation?”

Marban explains that sticking yourself in the way of temptations so that you’d get a prize for standing out against them used to be practised in his monastery in the Pyrenees long ago. Yet the Church had banned it. It seems lots of folk hadn’t been able to shove back the temptation quick enough to save their souls from danger.

The Abbess’s logic

The Mother Abbess scoffs,

Is there to be no thought for the ones that be striving to get a place up in heaven and they not having any longer the ways and means, temptation having been forbidden by the Church? ‘Tis a poor thing, I say, and a hard thing when the strongest are held back by the weakest, and the fine places in heaven are empty, there being no person to win them. … Our work in the world is the overcoming of the devil, and if we aren’t at it all our lives, what chance is there for us to get a place in heaven at all, to say nothing of a fine easy one?

George Moore, A Story-Teller’s Holiday, Liveright Publishing Corporation, New York, 1929, pp.102-103

In Moore’s bawdy tale, a parade of evermore enticing (and younger) nuns endeavour to inflame the passions of the uneasy Marban. The story turns tragic after young Marban falls in love with the final nun. The lovers leave the monastery together. The story ends just before they are apparently to be eaten by wolves. Moore’s narrator hypothesises that “an ecclesiastic unleashed the wolves” because “it would never do to allow a pair of lovers to go away to the Pyrenees to live happily in broken vows.” (p. 142)

Echo of an older sacrament?

Scholars report that the early Christian tradition of syneisaktism (sacred marriage) lingered on in Ireland long after the Church attempted to ban its apparent remnants, generally known by their labels of “agapetae” and “subintroductae”. (The formal suppression began at the Council of Elvira in the early fourth century.) For more, see Agapetae or Subintroductae.

Interestingly, at its heart, syneisaktism may have differed radically from the understanding of the Mother Abbess (and the Council). Syneisaktism arguably furnished a way for early Christian couples to use their sexual continence within an ongoing relationship synergistically, to overcome lustful cravings with a view to heightening spiritual awareness. (Somewhat like choosing to replace fast foods with whole foods to reduce cravings over time.) In fact it is entirely possible that syneisaktism originally arose from the same early Christian roots as the “Sacrament of the Bridal Chamber”. The latter appears in some ancient gospels unearthed less than a century ago (more in a moment).

In contrast, the Mother Abbess clearly assumes that her variation of the tradition calls for inflaming passions. (And the Council mentioned above apparently assumed that there was no way around the resulting steamy encounters…and inevitable scandal.) The key point is that the original strategy (syneisaktism) may have soothed passions, much as bonding behaviours do when used judiciously. In contrast, the adulterated version practiced by the Abbess deliberately heightened passions, partly by employing novel partners (the parade of nuns).

Collateral damage

The Mother Abbess sought to give clerics opportunities “to conquer themselves” during brief encounters. Yet this altered strategy also alienated men and women. It subtly persuaded them that they risked eternal punishment when they engaged in intimacy.

This is unfortunate. By carefully working together toward a common end employing some variation of the less challenging agapetae approach, couples could have benefited each other, eased their cravings, and come closer to their spiritual goal of improved spiritual clarity.

Again, it appears that the practice of overcoming lust by means of sexual continence within committed relationships may have been widespread among early Christians. As noted, the ancient gospels found at Nag Hammadi in the mid-20th century speak of a “Sacrament of the Bridal Chamber”. The Gospel of Philip suggests this sacrament allows couples to overcome lust.

Is Moore’s folktale about Irish nuns an artifact, however skewed, from very early in Christianity’s history? Loosely related versions of the practice, an apparent relative of syneisaktism, certainly lingered for centuries throughout Christendom.

One can’t help wondering whether even this bastardised practice hung on in Ireland and elsewhere in part because it offered monks and nuns the benefits of mutual comfort. Did it produce feelings of wholeness, or possibly even “holiness”, among clergy who engaged in it without mishap?

In many traditions, both throughout the centuries and today, adventurous lovers report these very benefits.

Of possible interest:

Catholic hierarchy meets Synergy