Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Book Review: The Cloister Walk

The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris

Kathleen Norris is by nature a poet. This book is a memoir of her time within monasteries and as a Benedictine oblate. (I didn't even know a non-Catholic could become an oblate.) She provides a context and description of monastic life in the modern world. As a Protestant, she offers surprising insight into a predominantly Catholic world.

She writes of nearly every aspect of monastic life, including celibacy.
With someone who is practicing celibacy well, we may sense that we're being listened to in a refreshingly deep way. And this is the purpose of celibacy, not to attain some impossibly cerebral goal mistakenly conceived as "holiness" but to make oneself available to others, body and soul. Celibacy, simply put, is a form of ministry--not an achievement one can put on a  résumé but a subtle form of service to others. In theological terms, one dedicates one's sexuality to God through Jesus Christ, a concept and a terminology I find extremely hard to grasp. All I can do is to catch a glimpse of people who are doing it, incarnating celibacy in a mysterious, pleasing, and gracious way.
In a society where celibacy is held is such low regard, it's refreshing to read someone contemplating it for its virtue alone. It's a difficult concept to understand, even for those who try to maintain a celibate life before marriage rather than within a monastery, and is worth our attention.

There is an insightful chapter on Maria Goretti and other virgin martyrs. For those unfamiliar with the story, Maria was a young girl living with her mother in a household with another man and his son. The son wanted to become intimate with Maria. After many rebuffs, he fatally stabbed her in a vicious attack. She is often revered as a girl willing to die rather than "sin," but I refuse to share that aspect with my children, ever. First of all, I am saddened that Maria's poor mother was unable to protect her daughter from the crime, despite her knowledge of the son's intentions. If any of my children came to me with concerns like this, and I hope they would under the circumstances, I have the power to act on those concerns. Though they are probably too young to understand the story at all (and we'll be skipping it in the book of saints my son will be reading in fourth and fifth grade), I will not tell my daughters it is better to die than to be a victim of rape.

The story of St. Maria Goretti is a powerful one. It is a tremendous story of forgiveness and redemption. Maria forgave her attacker before her death and, as the story goes, appeared to him in his prison cell leading to his conversion. It is also a reminder of our duty to the poor and disenfranchised to prevent the circumstances that put Maria in harm's way.

Ms. Norris is one of the few people I have seen who sees through the typical virgin martyr stories to something that can lead us in the modern world to a greater faith.

She shares many discussions with those in monastic life, both nuns and monks, and muses about how their choices and experiences could influence our own thoughts, lives, and actions. On contemplating why someone would leave a world of options and choices to enter a monastery, a life of scarcity or choosing poverty, she wonders:
What would I find in my own heart if the noise of the world were silenced? Who would I be? Who will I be, when loss or crisis or the depredations of time take away the trappings of success, of self-importance, even personality itself?
I have recently come to a point in my life when the idea of a silent retreat or an individual retreat at an abbey as she describes seems heavenly. I admit this is not so much a result of a better prayer life, but of the realization of the complete lack of silence in a home full of four children. Even so, her descriptions of the benefits she has experienced living with Benedictines and learning their way of life is inspiring.
It is the aim of contemplative living, at least in the Christian mode, that you learn to recognize a blessing when you see one, and are able to respond to it with words that God has given you. Yes, in response to that wildly colorful yet peaceful sky; yes, I could say back to God, with a line from Psalm 65: "The lands of sunrise and sunset you fill with joy."

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