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The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris
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This review was originally published on my blog, ShouldaCouldaWouldaBooks.

In the early 1990s, Kathleen Norris spent nine months at the Benedictine monastery of St. John’s in Collegeville, Minnesota. She signed on, several years before the book begins, to become an “oblate” of the order. The word "oblate" comes from the old Latin for “offering”, but in reality has come to mean someone associated with the order who tries to live by their ideas as much as possible, while maintaining their secular life otherwise. As I understand it, this means living by the text of The Rule of St. Benedict, a ninety-six page volume that, as I understand it, is really the slimmest of all rulebooks for an order like theirs.

The monks live communally and share everything- food, living space, chores (it is written into the rules that not even the abbott is excused from kitchen duty, and the prioress of nuns herself washes bodies for burial). Many of them have jobs in the wider community as well, as teachers and counselors and nurses- but not all. Some serve the order itself- tending their farms, cleaning their abbeys, as liturgical directors, musicians, administrators. The Benedictines believe deeply in hospitality- the monastery is not considered complete without a guest or two staying with them. The most interesting of these principles, to me, however, was the order’s deep engagement and focus on the psalms. It is a first principle of their worship that they read the psalms straight through, at least some portion of it each day. When they reach the end, they start over again, month after month, year after year, until the verses become as familiar to them as breathing, until they occur to them unbidden, while out watching a sunset one evening, deep in the midst of depression, suddenly appearing and able to save them from themselves, with a seemingly spontaneous gift of praise (a beautiful gift of a thing that happens to Norris after she returns home to the bare plains of South Dakota after her stay with the monks).

The most obvious comparison for this book is Fermor’s A Time to Keep Silence, which I read last year. They are both writers who have chosen to live with and like monks for extended periods of time. They both have engaged with different orders and repeatedly returned to the Benedictines as the most human of the lot, the ones they consider their closest friends. They both use their time to inwardly reflect on who they are at the moment, and to get to know the monks and nuns they’re living with.** But what’s different is that Norris focuses far more on the texts that are at the center of life there, while Fermor is far more concerned with explaining the how the orders work to others and looking into their history, and, of course, with navel-gazing about his own inner transformations, minutely examining his emotions from one day to the next. Norris shares her life with us in glancing ways***, but never makes herself the point the way that Fermor does. There’s value in both, but I thought Norris’ book likely approached what it was like to live as a member of a monastic community far more than Fermor's did.

This book, therefore, is really about what engagement with literature, with pure words, as much as it is about religion. Norris is a poet, and approaches her time with the monks from that perspective. Each chapter is structured around a reading, a line, or a life of a saint she encounters while attending worship with the monks. The readings appropriately follow the wheel of the year, and the saint’s days and feast days that mark its change. She tells the tales of obscure saints we’d never otherwise hear of, attempts to genuinely engage with parts of the bible that others consider a drag (poor complaining, doleful Jerome), and looks hard at other bits that are generally politely excised from modern day worship (such as the really angry, vengeful, not-at-all admirable bits of the psalms), and reframe their meaning and purpose for what she calls a modern “literal minded” audience.

Indeed, one of her repeated insights is that we, as a society, have lost the knack of living metaphorically... (read the rest on the blog at:
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Reading Progress

January 26, 2015 – Shelved
January 26, 2015 – Shelved as: to-read
January 14, 2018 – Started Reading
January 15, 2018 – Shelved as: 20th-century-postwar-to-late
January 15, 2018 – Shelved as: examined-lives
January 15, 2018 – Shelved as: give-me-seven-years
January 15, 2018 – Shelved as: its-the-quiet-ones
January 15, 2018 – Shelved as: owned
January 15, 2018 – Shelved as: worlds-lost-dead-and-dying
January 15, 2018 – Finished Reading

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