The Cloister Walk
By Kathleen Norris
Riverhead Books, 304 pages, $23.95
I had read Norris’ previous book, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, and enjoyed the way she consistently unites the exalted and the mundane, finding manifestations of the holy in the most ordinary events and objects. In The Cloister Walk she identifies this view of the world with her vocation as a poet, developing at length her belief that the calling of the monk and the poet, the prophet and the poet, are similar as they reveal the mission of the “necessary other,” the one who recognizes the “transformative power hiding in the simplest things.” Prophets “make us look at the way things really are; they don’t allow us to deny our pain.” Poets express what people have “long desired to articulate but lack the words to do so.”
These insights are embedded in an autobiographical narrative that sometimes swept me along quite effectively and sometimes made me ask, “Why should I be interested in the details of her life, her little town in South Dakota, her marriage?” If I have to ask those questions I said to myself, this book is a failure, and I sat down to write an “on the one hand, and on the other hand” review. Something wouldn’t let me do it.
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.”
As a human being, of course, she doesn’t always manage to become invisible behind the words. But, true to her vocation as a “necessary other,” she does her best to “see things as they really are”; she makes the effort and takes the time to make fruitful connections between her own flawed perceptions and stormy emotional life and the lessons to be learned from Scripture, from the liturgy and discipline of monastic life, above all from the pursuit of what Gregory of Nyssa saw as “our lifelong task to find out what part of the divine image God has chosen to reveal in us . . . [to know] what our primary faults and temptations are, as well as our gifts-not that we might better ‘know ourselves,’ or in modern parlance, ‘feel good about ourselves,’ but in order that we might become instruments of divine grace for other people, and eventually return to God.”
Seen in this light, the personal revelations and the efforts to draw the reader into her life become part of Norris’ struggle to sanctify her life and put it in harmony with the insights gained from her intense engagement in liturgy and Scripture. A fascinating section on the prophet Jeremiah gives the flavor of the intensity of this experience. Norris relates her encounters with Jeremiah in an account of the Benedictine practice of lectio continuo, the reading aloud of the entire New Testament every year, the psalms in a continuous cycle throughout the year, other whole books of the Bible, a section at a time, at morning and evening prayer.
Listening to Jeremiah every morning from late September through mid-November “is one hell of a way to get your blood going in the morning: it puts caffeine to shame.” “On [some] days I became angry or was reduced to tears, perhaps a promising sign that something of Jeremiah’s grief had broken through my defenses.” She quotes a fellow listener as saying “most people have no idea what’s in the Bible, and they come unglued.” To Norris, “Coming unglued came to seem the point of listening to Jeremiah.”
She goes on to reflect on the prophet’s role as a mirror in which we see reflected the horror and violence, “the fault lines hidden beneath the comfortable surface of the worlds we invent for ourselves.” Passionate, bitter, angry, fearful, and grief-stricken as a prophet, a “necessary other,” Jeremiah also speaks out of a hope for justice, challenging those who hear him to reflect on the world around them and on the hidden places in their lives.
Norris does not take this message lightly. “The voice of Jeremiah is compelling, often on an overwhelmingly personal level. One morning, I was so worn out by the emotional roller coaster of Chapter 20 that after prayers I walked to my apartment and went back to bed.” She refers to “the months that we took his body blows” and says Jeremiah “led me into the heart of pain.” Through the pain Jeremiah brought her, Norris looked long and hard at her life and her calling, and “the liturgy became a place where the prophet . . . could help me understand my own life, my vocation as a poet. . . . The monastic liturgy plunges you into Scripture in such a way that, over time, the texts invite you to commune with them, and can come to serve as a mirror.” At the end of an excruciating process of self-examination, Norris is able to write, “In naming myself as a ‘necessary other,’ I finally accept the cross of myself, a burden I’ve carried ever since childhood, and felt so acutely in my teens. The cross of difference, of being outside, always other. But now, I am free to take it on.”
There is no aspect of the author’s life that escapes scrutiny in this book, and different readers will discover different aspects of Norris’ experience that correspond to some need, experience, or special interest of their own. It is illuminating to see Scripture through the eye of a poet, so alive and alert to image and metaphor. The spiritual geography of the author’s corner of the world in Lemmon, South Dakota, may make some readers more conscious of the opportunities for knowledge, growth, and doing God’s work that any environment provides, if they have the spirit to see it.
“Ora et labora, pray and work, is a Benedictine motto, and the monastic life aims to join the two. This perspective liberates prayer from God-talk; a well-tended garden, a well-made cabinet, a well-swept floor, can be a prayer.” What I appreciate most about The Cloister Walk is Norris’ unfailing recognition that nothing is too earthbound to be sacred. From the vivid, concrete images in the psalms through the touching descriptions of services in her local Presbyterian church, where the preacher starts his sermon by thanking God for last night’s rain, from the baking of bread to the consecration of the host, Kathleen Norris celebrates God’s presence in this world.
Molly Finn is a writer living in New York City.