There is a small monastery a few blocks away from my home and I always pass it with a certain amount of interest. What is it like, I wonder, to read Scripture, pray, and be holy day after day? Last summer a friend and I wandered around the empty grounds of the monastery, talking, and exploring the immense garden and paths. It is a well-kept and generous garden, and I wondered fleetingly, what if we came upon a monk working the earth? I suspect I wouldn’t have known what to do or say. With my knowledge of monks and monasteries limited to that afternoon walk and a few Hollywood movies, it was with interest that I stumbled upon Kathleen Norris’s book, The Cloister Walk.
Norris is a rather unlikely candidate to write with authority on monastic life. She is married, doubting, Presbyterian, and a poet who claims that she was surprised to find herself in a monastery. “Ten years ago, when I became a Benedictine oblate,” she writes in the Preface, “I knew two things: I didn’t feel ready to do it, but I had to act… I also had no idea where it would lead.” She takes the abbreviated monastic vows and commits to following the Rule of St. Benedict insofar as her life will allow. A few paragraphs later it is apparent that her decision to become an oblate shakes her life and world view. “Gradually my perspective on time had changed,” she says. “In our culture, time can seem like an enemy: it chews us up and spits us out with appalling ease. But the monastic perspective welcomes time as a gift from God, and seeks to put it to good use rather than allowing us to be used up by it.”
Page xiii and I was ready to take the abbreviated vows myself.
The tone of the book is refreshing: anything but pious, honestly searching for value in a broken world, and quietly reflective. Each chapter is a short reflection on life: the monks Norris came to know, the practice of reading the Psalms out loud every day, the lives of saints and martyrs, and, amazingly, how this relates to real life—marriage, career, friendships, suffering, and loss. Norris’s process of reflection illuminates the joys, follies, strengths, and weaknesses of modern culture and faith. She even manages to quietly dispel some myths without making me feel like a fool for half-believing Hollywood.
I especially enjoyed Norris’s reflection on the daily monastic tradition of reading the poetry of Scripture aloud. She explains the value of learning to listen. “Listen is the first word of St. Benedict’s Rule for monasteries, and listening for the eruptions of grace into one’s life—often from unlikely sources—is a ‘quality of attention’ that both monastic living and the practice of writing tend to cultivate… I should try telling my friends who have a hard time comprehending why I like to spend so much time going to church with Benedictines that I do so… to let the words work the earth of my heart. To sing, to read poetry aloud, and to have poetry and the wild stories of scripture read to me. To respond with others, in blessed silence. That is a far more accurate description of morning or evening prayer in a monastery than what most people conjure up.”
Norris has been criticized by other reviewers for including too many personal details in The Cloister Walk. Rather than finding this distracting, I found these personal tidbits essential to my appreciation of how the monastic tradition could be relevant and alive in postmodern America. If all the personal reflections were stripped out of the book, we would be left with a description of monastic life that has no bearing on how Norris or any of her readers choose to live. Perhaps this is why some object to the personal touch: because in opening herself to us and in sharing her response to Scripture and prayer, Norris asks us to respond as well. Her personal touch keeps The Cloister Walk from being a static description that requires nothing of a reader.
Unfortunately, Norris does get carried away in a few chapters on women. I was surprised by these chapters, which seem to smack of angry feminism, because they are out of place amidst the gentleness of the rest of the book. I think Norris forgot that the most successful form of persuasion is quiet and unobtrusive. All in all, however, these few tiresome chapters are a small part of the book.
It’s a book worthy of consideration. It’s a book best read slowly. Listen to her words and you may find your fault lines revealed, and your soul responding to an urge to cut through the crazed noise of our culture to commune with God through Scripture, poetry, and prayer.