Friday, June 11, 2010

The Cloister Walk

By Kathleen Norris
New York, Riverhead Books, 1996

Week 24     Spiritual

The Cloister Walk is a series of essays written by poet and theologian Kathleen Norris during a two-year period that she spent as an associate of sorts (an oblate) at St. John’s Abbey in western Minnesota. She is a Protestant seeking to find her soul at this quiet, sacred place. She learns that “Religion is about saving lives,” and in the process or living and working, she is saving her own life.

Among other things, the book is a meditation on the various saints whose days are observed by the monks at the abbey. She notes: “I hadn’t thought much about the saints; they seemed a Catholic thing, impossibly holy people. But I was learning to see them as witnesses to our limitations and God’s vast possibilities (as well as sense of humor) as Christian theology torn from the page and brought to life.”
The book also includes essays written about scripture read during the services at the abbey, the relationships she develops during this time, speaking engagements she has, and family matters she has to attend to. She finds the regularity as well as the ordinariness of the monastic life appealing, and finds the monks and nuns delightful, intelligent members of the community she embraces. “The Benedictines, more than any other people I know, insist that there is time in each day for prayer, for work, for study, and for play.”

Throughout the book, we get a glimpse of a poet at work, the thought processes as well as the struggles that plague her during this time. Amidst it all, she reveals the Holy Spirit at work in her life, how the scripture illuminates her search for meaning, and how her life slowly begins to change its course as she works, prays, and learns in this monastic environment. She finds that the prophets and the poets have much in common; both look at the scripture and interpret it for the world, in ways that are unique.

Reviewer Molly Finn seems to say it best: “Thirty pages or so into my second reading, I discovered what is remarkable about The Cloister Walk. The entire book is a prayer. One of Norris' definitions of prayer is ‘being ourselves before God.’ In this book Kathleen Norris opens herself to receive the word of God and to send it forth into the world. This is what she learned as a lector in the Benedictine monastery where she stayed: ‘The liturgy of the Word is prayer. You pray the Scriptures with, and for, the people assembled, and the words go out to them, touching them in ways only God can imagine. The words are all that matter, and you send them out as prayer, hoping to become invisible behind them.’" .

One thing I learned as I read this book is that it is better to read it in small doses. Because I felt compelled to read this book within one week, and it is extremely dense and deep, I got bored with some of the chapters, which I think if I had been reading a chapter a day, would not have happened. Norris has many interesting things to say, and I wanted to pay attention and learn from her. It was just too much for one week.

The most amazing part of my having read this book this week is that I am in Duluth, Minnesota, helping my mother transition to hospice care in this her 91st year. My mother is at the Benedictine Health Center, a nursing home on the campus of the College of St. Scholastica. I am staying at a student apartment, comfortable but spartan, and I have to walk past the chapel and the monastery to get to my mother. The setting has given me a sense of place for The Cloister Walk and how Norris must have been feeling as she wrote this book. I am away from husband and children, but connected in intimate ways with Mother, with her nurses and caregivers. Before I leave on Sunday, I plan to walk through the monastery and chapel to complete my journey with Kathleen Norris. On a side note I learned through this book that St. Benedict was the brother of St. Scholastica. That was an aha moment for me, the thorough Protestant that I am.

Do I recommend this book? Perhaps, if you are ready for dense, meaty religious fare. I found the chapters on Jeremiah, the Psalms and the chapter on reading the New Testament all the way through every year to be especially useful to me personally. I do have to say that I skipped over some of the chapters that I didn’t enjoy, but in a book of essays, that is truly possible. There is no plot that is missing. I particularly valued the emphasis placed on liturgy; the older I become, the more I seem to value the sense of order that liturgy gives me. By dwelling on the liturgy, I can find myself pulled through the worship experience and come out on the other side personally fulfilled and in touch with the holy.

An interview with Kathleen Norris about her newest book, Acedia and Me, in the Sojourners magazine:

No comments: