New Book: Nun on Fire by Philomene Long

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Reviewed by Jim Smith

Have you ever wondered what goes on behind the walls of a convent? The answer might surprise you.

Now we have a day-to-day look, thanks to Pegarty Long’s publication of her late twin sister’s Memoirs of a Nun On Fire. Before becoming Venice’s poet laureate, Philomene Long spent five years as a novice and a full-fledged nun in a convent located in the Santa Monica mountains. She went over the wall one night, in part due to the allure of Venice of the Beats, and never looked back. She did leave us with this inspired description of her time on the inside.

Up until now, Long has been known mainly for her haunting poetry. We now know that she was an accomplished writer of prose. Her factual, and hilarious, description of nunnery reads like a novel. The 18 chapters are broken up into nun-sized morsels with titles like: “Last Passionate Kiss on the Convent Steps,” “I was Elvis Presley’s First Hound Dog,” “I Set the Convent on Fire,” “God’s Worm,” “I Am a Beat Nun,” “Hermann Goering in a Nun’s Habit,” “The Zen Slap.”

For the first time in print (is that true?), it is disclosed that nuns routinely self-flagellate. What the Da Vinci Code novel and film implied was an aberration, was actually common practice in at least one convent. Apparently, the Roman Catholic Church denies that it is part of its practice.

In a response to the portrayal of self-flagellation in the Da Vinci Code, an official of the Opus Dei Catholic sect had this to say: “The Da Vinci Code makes it appear that Opus Dei members practice bloody mortifications. In fact, though history indicates that some Catholic saints have done so, Opus Dei members do not do this.” By implication, this influential group is denying widespread use or endorsement of self-flagellation in the Church.

Long’s disclosure of required self-flagellation within the last 50 years ago in a typical nunnery, “The Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet’s Convent,” may have uncovered a secret akin to the downgrading of Mary Magdalene by the Church or the sexual abuse of alter boys.

At the least, it raises some questions. Is self-flagellation an approved, or required, practice for nuns, monks and priests? If not, when did it stop?

Long says the instrument is called the “discipline.” She describes it as “a very narrow steel chain, about a foot and a half long…at the bottom there is a knob with many little chains, each with a small ball at the tip.” In her convent, it is the “Saturday night special,” to be used after prayers on that evening. This was no optional diversion for young nuns, but an integral and required part of convent life.

While Long devotes a good number of pages to this fearsome instrument, most of the book is much lighter. Philomene Long was not going to abandon her humorous way of dealing with the world simply because she had become a nun.

According to Pegarty Long, her sister began working on the book shortly after she left the convent. Parts of it have appeared in print through the years but this is the first unabridged and unexpurgated edition.

Philomene Long died in 2007 after a life spent as a Venice poet (except for this interlude as a nun). However, it remained for Pegarty Long to edit and publish much of her work. In August 2010, she published The Collected Poems of Philomene Long. This was followed last April by The Selected Poems and Prose of John Thomas. Thomas, a major poet in his own right, was Philomene Long’s husband until his death in 2002.

 

A book launching for Memoirs of a Nun on Fire was held Aug. 13 at Beyond Baroque. Members of the Beat Literati from throughout Southern California and beyond attended, and many of them read excerpts from the book. Readers included Hillary Kaye, Harry Northup, Jim Smith, Holly Prado, Virom Coppola, Pegarty Long, Mariana Dietl, S.A. Griffin and Michael C. Ford.

There is still a treasure trove of poetry and prose from Long and Thomas waiting to be mined and published. Pegarty Long can be encouraged in her editing and publishing work if everyone reading this review buys a copy of this throughly entertaining book, Memoirs of a Nun on Fire.

The book can be purchased at the Beyond Baroque bookstore or on-line from Raven Publications at: http://bit.ly/qs33Vk