Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Book Review: The Cloister Walk

A Book You Can Buy From Me

Book Title: The Cloister Walk

Author: Kathleen Norris

Publisher: Riverhead (Berkley)

Date: 1996

ISBN: 1573225843

Quote: "A married woman such as myself...who makes frequent visits to a monastery, will follow the Rule in a far different way than the men and women who commit their lives entirely to a monastic community."

By now the story of Kathleen Norris's life has developed far enough for more of it to be told: Ex-Protestant poet, married to ex-Catholic poet, go into blocked states when he becomes badly depressed. Not just "Highly Sensitive" to a low-energy mood, which is the kind of "depression" all creative types share (and needs no cure but time), but dangerously depressed, as a symptom of a disease. In David Dwyer's case, the disease was cancer. Several medical interventions were needed to prolong his life, and during these interventions Kathleen Norris stayed at a convent near the hospital, bonded with nuns, reaffirmed her own (Presbyterian) faith...wrote five very successful, and excellent, books of Christian nonfiction...was asked to preach regularly in her church...took a vow of "oblation," or committed association, with her friends the nuns...and, in order to write this book, spent a year taking coeducational classes at a monastery, where she and other women were long-term guests or part-time residents, eating and praying with the monks. Only after Dwyer died, when writing about how ill he'd been wouldn't discourage him and aggravate his illness, could Norris explain exactly why she kept hanging around these monasteries.

This was possible since, as Norris had explained, Benedictine monks and nuns are neither silent nor cloistered; their vows involve active ministry to people of both sexes and all conditions...and they don't even have to be Catholic. The Cloister Walk is the one of her pentalogy that reports most about the monks and nuns.

It sold well because there was a wave of interest in monastic people in the 1990s. An album of traditional chants (in Latin) outsold several pop albums for several weeks. Ironically, while Norris's nun friends didn't wear traditional robes and sandals, or even the closed-toed T-strapped shoes called "monk shoes," fashion designers even identified monks' traditional gear as a source of inspiration for women's clothes...they couldn't go on hailing Barbara Bush's and Sarah Ferguson's look as "new," or futilely trying to market D.C. streetcorner women's working uniform as the "new" alternative, any longer I suppose. Pundits debated what this interest in the monastic life was all about. Norris has some valid insights into it, when it was serious. For most people it wasn't serious, and my insight is that, as the largest age group in America entered middle age and started considering the prospect of losing our money and family lives, we did feel some--passing--interest in reading about people who'd chosen not to have money or family lives in the first place.

Do nuns feel exploited, having taken vows of poverty in the service of what's actually a super-rich global corporation? Apparently not; Benedictine vows require a comfortable degree of poverty, more simplicity than real poverty, which nuns from really poor backgrounds experience as luxury. Nuns and monks take vows not to accumulate big bank accounts and to direct the profits of their work back into the church and its charities, but its charities allow for the nuns and monks to be well fed and comfortably housed, and to buy whatever they need for their work.

Do they feel "weird" or uncomfortable in those habits? No; the robes are quite comfortable, and since the 1960s they've been free to wear anything they find useful over, under, or instead of robes.

Are they all repressed homosexuals? Definitely not. Some are asexual or postsexual. Some take vows of abstinence from homosexual activity, and some from heterosexual activity...but none of them seems to be repressing any awareness of what they're abstaining from. Several tell Norris that they've "fallen in love," and suspect that most of their "brothers and sisters" have too. Like other Christians whose vows are to practice fidelity within marriage or abstinence before (or after) marriage, they have a choice about continuing to see the people they can't sleep with, strictly as friends, or avoiding them. At least the monasteries offer plenty of help and guidance for those who need such.

Does "sup-pressing, then, if they're not re-pressing" sexual feelings make them emotionally uptight, vulnerable to expressing their sexuality in the form of sadistic cruelty to each other or to their students? Some monks and nuns admit they've known people like that, but there's room for suspicion these individuals would have been abusive partners if they'd been married too; anyone who's worked with children knows that cruelty, as a reaction to frustration, appears at least ten years before sexuality. Obviously Norris's friends wouldn't be mean, grumpy, unlikable people. In fact the monks and nuns she knows seem the sort of nice, quiet, creative, ethical, and compassionate people any poet would choose as friends...but there are other people, reported in every monastic community, whom one describes as "just supremely strange." (A few monks and nuns even receive psychiatric treatment, just like other medical treatment.) They describe a positive effort to express their suppressed sexuality in the form of compassionate love.

When The Cloister Walk was still a bestseller, my husband and I read it together as a curiosity about the strange ways people meet and bond, out in rural South Dakota where the population is too sparse for people who wouldn't normally see each other to avoid doing so. I had no idea that, ten years later, I'd be rereading it in a mood of solidarity with another cancer widow. Nor did I anticipate that, as a cancer widow, I'd meet people who would exclaim in exasperation with my lifestyle that "You are a nun." And in fact the biggest difference between my life and the lives of the employed, mostly academic, rural-living, simplicity-loving, continent heterosexual middle-aged nuns Norris knew best does seem to be that my home isn't being maintained by a big, rich church.

Other nuns? That irksome "get me out of this hen coop" feeling that sets in when women spend too much time too close together, however much we love one another, however closely we're related? I now cherish a copy of The Cloister Walk as a reminder that other women, even women who are (if it's possible) more thoroughly introverted than I am, manage to work through that feeling...because I have this widowed mother, who's still able to work and even in demand, right now, but the day is sure to come...

In addition to satisfying most readers' curiosity and providing other readers inspiration, Norris also indulges in some poetic prose--a few, not enough to suit me, of the landscapes she word-painted so well in Dakota. And she works through some feelings about some of the "Catholic Things" that are most problematic for Protestants, like St. Jerome, who actually liked women but wrote some wonderfully obnoxious things about women by way of encouragement to young monks (the heterosexual ones):

"Jerome's own character was notoriously difficult...a man 'of pronounced ascetical views'...on the virtues...of sleeping on cold floors, full of groans and tears. Who wouldn't cry? The hymn we sing in Jerome's honor is a pleasant, generic hymn in praise of the saints, entitled 'Who Are These Like Stars Appearing,' and it amuses me greatly to envision Jerome...shining like a star, and hating every minute of it."

And like how religious people can stand all that worship...she finds that "going to church" has been made more problematic for some secular people than it is for religious people:

"I learned that when you go to church, several times a day, every day, there is no way you can 'do it right.' You are not always going to sit up wear your best clothes...You...find that the psalms do not deny your true feelings but allow you to reflect on them."

Even the reactions to tribal wars that appear in some of the Psalms:

"Anger is one honest reaction to the cost of pain, and the psalms are full of anger...In recent years, some Benedictine...communities have begun censoring the harshest...'cursing psalms' from their public worship. But one sister...said...'[S]omething is not right. The human experience is of violence, and the psalms reflect our experience of the world.'..But all-American optimism, largely a middle-class and Protestant phenomenon, doesn't want to know this world. We want to conquer evil by being nice, and nice people don't want to soil their white gloves...[O]ne grandmother explained [to a grandchild] that she had to study a poem about being angry, and it might help to read it aloud. But soon after she'd entered the catalogue of curses--'Let their children be wanderers and beggars / driven from the ruins of their home. / Let creditors seize all their goods...' [Ps. 109:10-11]--the child cried out, 'Oh, stop! Stop! He's just a college kid!' The daily praying of the psalms helps monastic people to live with them in a balanced and realistic way, appreciating their hyperbole without taking it as prescriptive."

Not your ordinary book of pious thoughts, The Cloister Walk was written for people who want to learn something new every day, by one of us, and it may continue to illuminate our intellectual, spiritual, and domestic "walk" through life for a good long time. It's recommended to anyone who doesn't already have it.

Popularity has kept the price nice and low: $5 for a clean copy, $5 for shipping, and you can probably haggle down to fifty or even forty cents for the cleaned copy I'm putting up for sale here in Gate City. E-mail to buy it from me, and Norris, or her convent or other designated charity, gets $1. (Yes, you can click on the ISBN link above to buy it cheaper on Amazon, but Norris won't get a payment that way.)