NORRIS, Kathleen, The Cloister Walk. New York: Riverhead Books, 1996

by Robert Brow   (

I am not tempted to monasticism. My mind is analytic, obsessed with Model Theology. Why then would I read an account of a journalist and a poet, a woman with two children, married to a journalist husband (obviously very patient with her), and with no previous religious formation, finding faith in an all male Benedictine monastery?

A simple answer is that the Cloister Walk was lent to me by Donna Timpson. I don't think she was suggesting I should leave Mollie and become a monk. But she must have thought the book was good for creative writers and preachers. Which it certainly is.

Kathleen Norris is never afraid of metaphors, and the stronger the better. I realized I too quickly forget my need of the metaphorical.. "If you're looking for a belief in the power of words to change things, to come alive and make a path for you to walk on, you're better off with poets these days than with Christians" (154, ouch). I hope I never pray "Our Father, who is our deepest reality" (156).

The book is a necklace of eighty pearls as she goes wide-eyed into her first encounters with Gregory the Great, Benedict of Nusia, Hildegard of Bingen, Jerome (one of the most irascible people who ever lived), and other saints I had never even heard of. Who on earth were Mary of Egypt who counseled teen-aged prostitutes, Gertrude the Great, St. Therese of Lisieux the Carmelite (a contemporary of Emily Dickenson)? Do you know about the Rule, the Triduum, Acedia, and the O Antiphons?

Here is a sample of her style. "Listening to Jeremiah is one hell of a way to get your blood going in the morning; it puts caffeine to shame" (31). And she observes the monks hearing themselves compared to "a camel in heat, loudly sniffing the wind, making directionless tracks in the sand" (33, based on a reading of Jeremiah 2:23-24).

There is a really superb chapter on "The Paradox of the Psalms." Hearing them read through again and again freed her from the belief that "one had to be dressed up, both outwardly and inwardly, to meet God" (90). And she came to rejoice in "rivers clap their hands, hills dance like yearling sheep." I won't become a Benedictine who reads them through every three or four weeks, but it makes me want to engage with the psalms again.

She discovered that the Benedictines delight in lectio divina (spiritual reading) but they "seldom make big noises about being Christians. Though they live with the Bible more intimately than most people, they don't thump on it, or with it, the way gorillas thump on their chests to remind everyone within earshot of who they are" (115, Good Lord deliver me).

There are two great chapters on "Celibate Passion" (116) and "Learning to Love: Benedictine Women on Celibacy and Relationship" (249). Celibacy teaches us a lot about infatuation, marriage, friendship, paying attention to the unattractive, loneliness, hospitality.

I don't believe repentance is a matter of feeling bad about and digging up all our sins. It is a turning in a new direction. And Kathleen Norris explains why. "It opens to us the idea of change" (165).

When Kathleen Norris was a child she had liked "any story with a dragon in it." So she didn't have the problem most of us have when she joined in reading straight through the Book of Revelation at morning prayer. And she pointed out that "Revelation was Emily Dickinson's favorite book of the Bible for a good reason. 'Uncovering' and 'revealing' appeals to poets; it's the reason we write" (211).

And there is a very moving chapter on "The Rest of Community" (373). She tells the story of the monk who was in charge of training her as an oblate. He said "It is time for you to meet the rest of the community." They walked to the cemetery, and "as we passed each grave he told me stories about the deceased. Having been at the monastery for over sixty years, he's known nearly everyone buried there."

That does not happen any more in our big cities. Nobody will walk round the Kingston Cataraqui Cemetery to tell stories about me or anyone else. That is perhaps why I write on my web site about friends who move on ahead of me: Marg Hall, Alan Norrish, Dennis Clark, Tony Tyndale, Kay Mein, Al Timpson the caring school principal husband of Donna who lent me this book.

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