1996 - The Cloister Walk
If ever there were a sub-genre that was perfectly suited to cozy January reading, it would have to be spiritual memoir. The turn of the year is a time of reflection for many (myself included) and reading about others' spiritual journies is a kind of ultimate reflection. This January, in particular, is one where many concerned citizens of the world are reflecting on religion, on what it means to be compassionate, tolerant, welcoming. Reflecting on why a nation founded on religious freedom is using an entire religion as a scapegoat. We would do well to take a minute to internalize this passage from The Cloister Walk:
"'The basis of community is not that we have all our personal needs met met here, or that we find all our best friends in the monastery,' I once heard a monk say. In fact, he added, his pastoral experience with married couples had taught him that such unreasonably high expectations of any institution, be it a marriage or a monastery, was often what led to disillusionment, and dissolution of the bond. 'What we have to struggle for, and to preserve, is a shared vision of the why.'" p. 22
The author, Kathleen Norris, joined a Benedictine monastery as an oblate, a type of non-residential yet exceptionally devoted member of the church. Not being Catholic myself, I was fascinated by her retellings of the lives of saints, various facets of monastery life, and in particular her characterizations of monks and nuns that are far from the stereotypical pious hermits. Instead, she emphasizes the value of communal life that is preserved in the Benedictine monastery. She describes how singing the psalms together changed her outlook:
"Internalizing the psalms in this way allows contemporary Benedictines to find personal relevance in this ancient poetry. Paradoxically it also frees them from the tyranny of individualized experience. [...] It counters our tendency to see individual experience as sufficient for formulating a vision of the world. [...]
But praying the psalms is often disconcerting for contemporary people who encounter Benedictine life: raised in a culture that idolizes individual experience, they find it difficult to recite a lament when they're in a good mood, or to sing a hymn of praise when they're in pain.
The communal recitation of the psalms works against this form of narcissism, the tendency in America to insist that everything be self-discovery." p. 100-101
This book is strange. It's not a chronological memoir or even a series of reflective essays. It's a collection of short chapters and long chapters, chapter groupings, and quotations from religious or other texts. The structure is more like a collection of poetry than a novel, which makes perfect sense when she reveals that she is a poet by profession. I love her explanation of why she became a poet.
One day, in fourth grade, I had an epiphany about the nature of numbers, and a peculiar taste of otherness--the unmistakable sense that I'd seen something that my teacher, and the other students, could not see. [...] In exasperation at some muddle I'd made with a math problem on the chalkboard, an experience that always terrified me, she grabbed my chalk, solved the problem, and said, in a sarcastic voice, 'You see, it's simple, as simple as two plus two is always four.'
And, without thinking, I said, 'That can't be.' Suddenly, I was sure that two plus two could not possibly always be four. And, of course, it isn't. In Boolean algebra, two plus two can be zero, in base three, two plus two is eleven. [...] I staggered away from my epiphany and went back to my seat, feeling certain of the truth of what I'd seen but also terribly confused.
[...] In a way, though, this experience had a positive side, as the beginning of my formation as a poet. Whenever definitions were given as absolutes, as always, I would have that familiar tingle--that can't be--and soon learned that I could focus on the fuzzy boundaries, where definitions give way to metaphor.
[...] I began to despise mathematics when I sensed that I was only getting part of the story, a dull, literal-minded version of what in fact was a great mystery, and I wonder if children don't begin to reject both poetry and religion for similar reasons, because the way both are taught takes the life out of them. If we teach children when they're young to reject epiphanies, then it's no wonder taht we end up with so many adults who are mathematically, poetically, and theologically illiterate." p. 58-60
This book is lyrical, deep without being overwhelming, and religious without even the faintest hint of evangelism. It is a fascinating dive into the mind of a poet oblate, a type of person I didn't even know existed until I read this book. These kinds of discoveries are what make me love reading. The recommendations below are similar to The Cloister Walk in very different ways.
- Dreaming Me by Janice Dean Willis
- Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen by Mary Sharratt
- Memoirs by Pablo Neruda
Dreaming Me is a memoir from a woman who, like Norris, found her religious calling later in life; in this case, Tibetan Buddhism. Next, Norris references Hildegard a couple of times in The Cloister Walk. The story is fascinating: Hildegard was deposited at a monastery as a child in they year 1106. She pushed back against the masochism and absurd rules of the church to find a fulfilling life of faith. Her story is recounted in Illuminations. Finally, Memoirs by Pablo Neruda is similar in a basic, but important, way: it is the memoir of a poet. Poets writing prose have an unparalleled ability to bring the past to life.
Keep turning the page,