August 02, 2005

Catching up #3: The cloister walk

For FP this year we will be reading most of Kathleen Norris' The cloister walk. I'm really pleased that it got into the list; it is about so many different things I can't even decide what I most want to talk about. Kathleen Norris, though herself a Presbyterian, spent a lot of time in and around Benedictine monasteries, interacting with monks and nuns and praying their songs; this book is a bloggy sort of memoir on the experience.

For the Catholics in the crowd, there is a lot of material on the personal history of the Church. Real people, some later sainted, some not, living real lives with real struggles.

For the poets in the crowd, Norris discusses the relationship of poetry and metaphor to liturgy and truth.

She writes about the similarities between communal monastic life and communal small-town life.

She writes about feminism in and in reaction to Christianity.

She writes about the roles of sexuality and celibacy in a monastic community.

And I think her most important contribution in this book, to our course if not to the world at large, is the pervasive idea throughout that religion can be a radical way of life. One can find people on both sides of the debate who would agree that religion encourages a mindless complacency, one side concluding that mindless complacency is therefore good, and the other that religion is therefore bad. Norris casts a plague on both their houses: that wouldn't be good, but that's not what religion is, or at least not what it can be. Religion is in the stories that reflect our human condition and help us get a handle on ourselves. The psalms are a constantly recurring element of the book; she points out that many of them seem at first blush to be very un-Christian---angry, vengeful, even cursing. What they are is human; and we can all relate to the emotional content therein, even as we rework our thoughts into a prayer that we can rise above the temptations.

Catholic or not, I think everyone that claims to spend time thinking about religion ought to read this book. I can't possibly do justice to Norris's thesis in a blog post; I can't even summarise it well, because she is a writer and a poet who spent years carefully fabricating a text that teases around the edges of a lot of ideas that are, in a phrase coined by my friend Jonathan, "only approximately effable".

"I sometimes get in trouble when I refer to the Incarnation as the ultimate metaphor, daring to yoke the human and the divine. To a literalist, I have just said that the Incarnation isn't 'real'. As a poet, I think I've said that it is reality at its most alive; it *is* the new creation." --Kathleen Norris

Posted by blahedo at 2:34am on 2 Aug 2005
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