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Posted July 8, 2004

Book: The Cloister Walk
Author: Kathleen Norris
River Head Book, New York, pp.385

An Excerpt from the Jacket:

Why would a married woman with a thoroughly Protestant background and often more doubt than faith be drawn to the ancient practice of monasticism, to a community of celibate men whose days are centered around a rigid schedule of prayer, work, and scripture? This is the question that poet Kathleen Norris asks us as, somewhat to her own surprise, she found herself on two extended residencies at St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota. Part record of her time among the Benedictines, part meditation on various aspects of monastic life. The Cloister Walk demonstrates, from the rare perspective of someone who is both an insider and outsider, how immersion in the cloistered world — its liturgy, its ritual, its sense of community — can impart meaning to everyday events and deepen our secular lives. In this stirring and lyrical work, the monastery, often considered archaic or otherworldly, becomes immediate, accessible, and relevant to us, no matter what our faith may be.

An Excerpt from the Book:

When Thomas Merton first encountered the Abbey of Gethsemani, where he was later to live as a monk, he wrote, “I had wondered what was holding the country together, what has been keeping the universe from cracking in pieces and falling apart. . . This is the only city in America — and it is by itself, in the wilderness . . .” A monastery is a city in the ancient meaning of the word, as “civitas,” a place which stands for human culture in the largest sense, and exists to serve the common good.

I have often had the odd feeling that the monastery is the real world, while the dog-eat-dog world that most people call “real” is in fact an artifice, an illusion that we cling to because it seems to be in our best interest to do so. The true city, the holy one, allows us, in the words of Paul Philibert, an alternative “vision of human relationships where beauty is more desirable than financial profit, friendship more precious than advantage, and solidarity in a common vision of human dignity more compelling than self-fulfillment.” a simple paraphrase of Dorotheus of Gaza — I’d much rather do things with others and have them come out wrong than do them by myself to make sure they come out right — demonstrates the distance between a monastic perspective and the modern American individualism that allows us to ignore a basic reality: human beings are remarkably dependent on one another.

A city is a place where the worst and best about humanity come to the fore, where we’re forced to be realistic enough to lock our doors even as we rejoice in being able to celebrate the greatest achievements of our culture. The Christian vision of heaven is of a city, the New Jerusalem, and Christian theology suggests that the Godhead itself is a kind of city, a community of three persons, or in the Benedictine Aidan Kavanagh’s words, “a collective being, with unity.” Kavanagh laments that in contemporary society the city’s sacred potential as a symbol of community has been “invested in sovereign individualism,” which allows us to retreat into a myopic unworldliness. “[Our] icon is not a city,” he writes in On Liturgical Theology, “whether of man or God, but the lone jogger running through suburbia, in order, we are told, to feel good about himself.”

Cities remind us that the desire to escape from the problems of other people by fleeing to a suburb, small town, or a monastery, for that matter, is an unholy thing, and ultimately self-defeating. We can no more escape from other people than we can escape from ourselves. As Basil the Great wrote to a friend after leaving the city of Caesarea in the fourth century, “I have abandoned my life in the town as the occasion of endless troubles, but I have not managed to get rid of myself.” Images of the city are impossible to avoid in the monastic choir, as scripture is full of them. You’re reminded, over and over, that in fact you have come here to be a part of the city of the living God, and you’re challenged to make something of it. Do you reflect Benedict’s belief that “the divine presence is everywhere? Do you work, as Jeremiah reminds us to do, for the welfare of the city to which God has sent you? Can you say, with Isaiah, “About Zion I will not be silent, about Jerusalem I will not rest, until her integrity shines out like the dawn, and her salvation flames like a torch”?

Table of Contents:

Sept. 3: Gregory the Great
St. John’s Abbey Liturgy schedule
The rule and me
Sept. 17: Hildegard of Bingen
Sept. 29: Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, Archangels
The difference
Sept: 30: Jerome
Oct. 1: Therese of the Child Jesus
Oct. 2: Guardian Angels
Jeremiah as writer: the necessary other
Nov. 1 and 2: All Saints, All Souls
Nov. 16: Gertrude the Great
Exile, homeland, and negative capability
New York City: the Trappist connection
Los Angeles: the O Antiphons
The Christmas music
Jan. 2: Basil the Great and Gregory of Nazianzus
The paradox of the psalms
Baptism of the Lord: a tale of intimacy
Jan. 10: Gregory of Nyssa
Feb. 2; Candlemas/Presentation of the Lord
Celibate passion
Feb. 10: Scholastica
God old sin
New Melleray Abbey liturgy schedule
Chicago: religion in America
The war on metaphor
Mar. 18: Mechtild of Magdeburg
April 2: Mary of Egypt
Saved by a Rockette: Easters I have known
Triduum: the three days
Triduum notes
Cinderella in Kalamazoo
The Virgin Martyrs: between “point vierge” and the “usual spring”
Minneapolis: cocktails with Simon Tugwell
A story with dragons: the Book of Revelation
May 15: Emily Dickinson
Maria Goretti: Cipher or saint?
Places and displacement: rattlesnakes in cyberspace
Learning to love: Benedictine women on celibacy and relationship
The cloister walk
The garden
The church and the sermon
June 9: Ephrem the Syrian
Small town Sunday morning
At last, her laundry’s done
Dreaming of trees
Monks and women
July 11: Benedict’s cave
A glorious robe
Women and the habit: a not-so-glorious dilemma
The Gregorian brain
Monastic park
Aug. 28: Augustine
The lands of sunrise and sunset
The nursing home on Sunday afternoon
One man’s life
“It’s a sweet life”
Coming and going: monastic rituals
“The rest of the community”
“The only city in America”