In The Cloister Walk, Kathleen Norris shares her experience living with the Benedictines of St. John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minnesota, for a liturgical year. As she reflects on her stay she simultaneously readdresses thorny religious practices and symbols. Kathleen Norris is intimate and open, speaking as wisely as the fourth century monks she cherishes and often quotes. She takes on celibacy, virgin martyrs and the Book of Revelation and asks us to consider metaphor as the central trope for understanding what is at the heart of all things religious. Her goal, it seems, beyond giving us a glimpse into the life of “praying without ceasing,” as St. Paul the apostle advised, is to step through the thicket of words and symbols that is Christianity, careful not to trample through the sacred, as she sifts through symbolism and rules that have been, in many cases, wrongly used, or misappropriated. She points out the weakness in religious fundamentalism, liberalism and modernism as they relate to the Bible. She is careful in her criticism, but not blind to the effort it takes to build communities of faith. She is a poet, and her readings are naturally shaped by her discipline. Her writing, though, is not meant to make poetry into a religion, or vice versa, but to shed light on the inseparability of both poetry and religion (something, I believe, is true for science and religion as well).
Reading the The Cloister Walk after reading other books on religious life by Kathleen Norris, namely, Dakota, Amazing Grace, and Acedia & Me, gave me a different perspective on Norris’s path from poet to Oblate and author of religious books. I had thought, perhaps like Norris, that she was moving through the either/or world of the secular career. The Cloister Walk, however, reveals light as both particle and wave as she sees beyond the boundaries of discipline and finds both the poet and the religious united. Poetry, her first discipline, honed in the North East, Vermont and New York City, leads her to her ancestral home in rural South Dakota, where she takes up residence in her grandmother’s house. It is on the plains where she deepens her religious faith by becoming a Benedictine Oblate.
“I had just experienced a healing, a joining together of what had been pulled apart in me for many years, when I thought I had to choose between literature [sic] and religion. It was my encounter with the Benedictines, after I had apprenticed as a writer for many years, that taught me otherwise. Much to my surprise, their daily liturgy and lectio [sic] profoundly intensified my sense of metaphor as essential to our capacity to hope, and to dream (not to mention to transcend the banalities of the Barney song). And it was free for the asking.” (220)
Her final reckoning is, of all places, in her chapter on the Book of Revelation. There she writes beautifully of the necessity of metaphor and warns us of the dangers of fundamentalist literalism and liberal politeness.
“The Book of Revelation confronts our literalism by assaulting our fear of metaphor head-on, defying our denial of whatever is unpleasant or uncontrollable. As a writer, I know how unpleasant, even scary, metaphor can be. It doesn’t surprise me that people try to control it in whatever way they can, the fundamentalists with literal interpretations of prophetic and apocalyptic texts that deny the import of its metaphorical language, the liberals by attempting to eliminate metaphoric images of plague, punishment, the heavenly courts, martyrdom, and even the cross — that might be deemed offensive, depressing, or judgmental.” (212)
Norris’s sense of justice is evident in how she thinks about the meaning of words. She is not determined to render new definitions or junk a word because it has been misused, but rather she approaches all words with reverence and seeks to understand their religious purpose, which she sees as moving, or at least trying to move, toward that which is good. Only a poet could excavate the wounded body of religion and find it still has a pulse; it still beats to a beauty that is not dark and damning, but hopeful. And, she does this with the word apocalypse. Amazing!
“We often use the word ‘apocalypse’ to mean catastrophic destruction and cosmic upheaval is evoked in Daniel, in the Book of Revelation, and several gospel passages, in images of earthquake, fire, and plague, of the sun and moon darkening, the sea turning to blood, and stars falling from the sky. But destruction is not what the word ‘apocalypse’ means, and it is certainly not the heart of its message, which is hope for those on the losing end.” (213)
She reminds us that when we feel uncomfortable by language we need to pay attention to what is going on:
“Like prophetic language, images of apocalypse are meant to make us uncomfortable. That is their value to us, especially in a culture that has come to worship comfort. Using an apocalyptic lens, one might say that the desolation of a slum reveals who we are as a nation, a people, far better than the gleaming stores of a shopping mall. We are forced to look at what remains when pretense, including our pretense to affluence, is taken away.” (214).
Norris restores, one might say, our duty to read responsibly and gives us the gift of the apocalypse. This is not to say, however, we are free to shout “bring on the end of the world,” but rather, we are free from being afraid to read the Book of Revelation. We are free to understand it as light and hope, and as a call to act with responsibility toward the world; to continue working towards the end… not the end of the world; but the end of ‘end of world’ fantasies which seek to exclude rather than include. The Cloister Walk frees us from an overwhelming sense of fear. Kathleen Norris works to irrigate the dry land that has become the doomsday interpretations of the biblical word.
It becomes clear as we work through Norris’s book, that we do not necessarily need new words, new symbols, but in many instances what we need is to awake and take a look at ourselves and our world. And, this it seems, is what Kathleen Norris achieves in her book. She looks at the world of the monastery; she looks at her past and the worlds she knew; she pulls it all together and finds poetry, literature and religion are not separate, and in fact, in order to come fully to religion one will need a sense of the poetic.
“Dragons within, dragons without. Evil so pervasive that only the poetry of the apocalypse can imagine its defeat. And to do that it takes us to the limits of metaphor, of human sense, the limits of imagining and understanding. It pushes against all our boundaries and suggests that the end of our control — our ideologies, our plans, our competence, our expertise, our professionalism, our power — is the beginning of God’s reign. It asks us to believe that only the good remains, at the end, and directs us toward carefully tending it here and now.” (220)
The Benedictine way of life is founded upon The Rule of St. Benedict, a concise book that outlines how a monk is to live. The Psalms provide the structure for the Benedictine. Kathleen Norris upholds the Psalms as prayer, poetry and absolutely relevant to our time. She gently entreats us to read them and hear the world lament and sing praise. It is not only the poetry of the psalms that seduce; it is the way in which they surprise us.
“The psalms remind us that the way we judge each other, with harsh words and acts of vengeance, constitutes injustice, and they remind us that it is the powerless in society who are overwhelmed when injustice becomes institutionalized. Psalm 35, like many psalms, laments God’s absence in our unjust world, even to the point of crying, “How long, O Lord, will you look on?” (v. 17). I take an odd comfort in recognizing that the ending of Psalm 12 is as relevant now as when it was written thousands of years ago: ‘Protect us forever from this generation / [for] … the worthless are praised to the skies’ (vv.7-8).” 94
At one time I thought the psalms were too violent to read. I did not understand what they were meant to do. I began chanting the psalms after reading Cynthia Bourgeault, and felt the power not only of chanting, but of the words of the psalmist. The violence in the psalms is not gratuitous violence; it serves as a reflection. As Norris writes:
“But the relentless realism of the psalms is not depressing in the way that television news can be, although many of the same events are reported: massacres, injustices to those who have no one to defend them, people tried in public by malicious tongues. As a book of praises, meant to be sung, the Psalter contains a hope that ‘human interest’ stories tacked on to the end of a news broadcast cannot provide. The psalms mirror our world but do not allow us to become voyeurs. In a nation unwilling to look at its own violence, they force us to recognize our part in it. They make us reexamine our values. (102-103)
We live in a world where we truly believe we can google something and come up with an answer, or watch a morning show and replace our own responsibility to think with the thoughts of the animated image on the screen. Search engines and television talkshows and news have become our shadows on the cave wall. We google; we find something that resembles an answer, and we move on without giving thought to sources and prejudices. We have forgotten how to sit with questions; forgotten how to give thought to our positions; forgotten, perhaps, how to give without receiving.
“If the psalm doesn’t offer an answer, it allows us to dwell on the question.” (104)
I think the best way to describe Kathleen Norris’s work is to say she listens. She is an exceptional listener who reads everything and listens to the words and draws out meaning that was always there, but had been obscured or rendered silent. Her work sings and praises God, but it is not preachy, judgmental or far-flung.
The Cloister Walk is structured as a partial memoir of her time spent in a Benedictine monastery, and also as memory of her life and what surfaces as important and relevant to her.
It could be said, Kathleen Norris’s journey is a metaphor of the false duality that is often understood when thinking city and rural or poet and religious. She realizes in the end that there was no choice to be made; literature and religion are woven together; her life, cured in the city, is shaped in the rural, and becomes a way of being in the world.
So, one point, though. Norris quotes from many sources, but The Cloister Walk does not have an index or a list of works cited — somewhat frustrating if you are interested in doing further reading based on her citations.
The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris, 384 pages.
Riverhead Books, New York, 1996.
Here is a list of authors (and sometimes texts) cited. They are listed as they appear in the book. You will notice the balance of poets, theologians and writers.
Paul Philibert, Seeing and Believing
Ephrem the Syrian — theologian of the early church
*Abba Poeman in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers
*Gregory The Great — The Homily of Gregory the Great
The Rule of St. Benedict written in the sixth century
Hildegard of Bingen
Thérèse of the Child of Jesus
Walter Brueggeman, Lutheran theologian, books: Hopeful Imagination, Israel’s Praise
Lewis Thomas, Biologist
John Cobb, Theologian
Denise Levertov, poet
*Emily Dickinson, poet
Monastic women: Scholastica, Walburga, Hildegard, Mechtild, Gertrude, Lioba, Julian, Hilda (52).
*Eavan Boland, Object Lessons
*John Keats, Poet
*Gail Ramshaw, liturgical scholar
Aidan Kavanagh, liturgical scholar
Flannery O’Connor, writer
Martin Buber, Jewish scholar and theologian
Maxine Kumin, poet
John V. Taylor, Anglican bishop
Amma Syncletica, a desert monastic of 4th century Egypt
Basil the Great, late 4th century
Gregory of Nazianzus, late 4th century
Athanasius, 4th century monk
C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms
Robert Cole, The Spiritual Life of Children
Gregory of Nyssa
*Karl Rahner, Prayers for Meditation
St. Francis de Sales, Treatise on the Love of God
Uta Ranke-Heinmann, feminist theologian
*Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander
*Pseudo-Macarius, 4th century monk
Evagrius of Pontus, 4th century monk
John Climacus, 7th century monk of Sinai, The Ladder of Divine Ascent
Douglas Burton-Christie, scholar of the early monks
Evelyn Waugh, The Seven Deadly Sins
Kallistos Ware, Orthodox Monk
Diane Glancy, poet
Mary of Egypt, 5th century hermit in the desert
Oscar Wilde, De Profundis
Bernard of Clairvaux
Andrea Dworkin, Intercourse
Gail Paterson Corrington, Women in Early Christianity
Eric Partridge, Origins
Francine Cardman, scholar of the early church
Agnes Smith Lewis, writer in 1900 writing about Syrian virgin martyrs
Mark Danner, book about a massacre that occurred in December of 1981 in El Salvador
Simon Tugwell, Ways of Imperfection
Anna Akhmatova, Russian poet
Teilhard de Chardin, Jesuit priest, writer
Czeslaw Milosz, poet
*O.S.B. Gertrude of Helfta: Revelations of Divine Love
*Dolores Dufner, O.S.B. The Word of God
Sally Cline, Women, Passion and Celibacy
*William Butler Yeats
Dorotheus of Gaza
Sebastian Brock, scholar
John Cassian, monk
Brave Buffalo, Sioux, By The Power of Their Dreams
Willa Cather, My Antonia
Theodore of Cyrrhus, A History of the Monks of Syria
Palladius’s The Lausiac History, 5th century compilation of monastic stories
Teresa of Ávila
Peter Levi, The Frontiers of Paradise
Esther deWaal, Seeking God
Frank O’Hara, poet
Sherwin Nuland, How We Die