The Cloister Walk Analysis

The Cloister Walk (Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In her preface, Kathleen Norris writes that THE CLOISTER WALK resulted from her “immersion into a liturgical world,” intervals of study that were to comprise one year but which, for her, took nearly three. This period corresponded to her preparation to become a Benedictine oblate, a lay member of the fifteen-hundred-year-old order of monks founded by St. Benedict, and the time of her residence at Saint John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minnesota. The author structures her book as though this period of time covered one liturgical year, beginning with September 3, the feast day of Saint Gregory the Great, and concluding near the end of August with “Night,” a short meditation on Compline, the official night prayer of the Church. Although a practicing Presbyterian, Norris explores through seventy-five short chapters her affinity as a poet to the Catholic monastic tradition, the mystery of her spiritual journey, as well as reflections on the relevance of Scripture and the lives of various saints to contemporary society. Interlacing chapters on monastic practice and tradition, autobiographical detail, and commentary on Scripture and the saints allows Norris to capture the rhythm of church seasons, creating thereby a sense of time counter to the hurried pace of American life.

Although some Catholic readers may find familiar explanations here, this book will appeal to any audience interested in the monastic tradition and the process of spiritual formation. Norris is successful at debunking many of the myths about monasteries and vowed religious persons. She is equally adept at showing the beauty and meaning of religious practices, such as the chanting of the Psalms and the oral reading of the Bible.

Sources for Further Study

America. CLXXV, August 31, 1996, p. 29.

The Christian Century. CXIII, October 9, 1996, p. 940.

The Christian Science Monitor. May 30, 1996, p. 14.

Commonweal. CXXIII, May 17, 1996, p. 26.

Cross Currents. XLVI, Fall, 1996, p. 403.

First Things. December, 1996, p. 30.

Library Journal. CXXI, March 15, 1996, p. 76.

Los Angeles Times. May 21, 1996, p. E1.

The New York Times Book Review. CI, May 5, 1996, p. 12.

The New Yorker. LXXII, June 17, 1996, p. 100.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, February 26, 1996, p. 95.

Sojourners. XXV, November, 1996, p. 56.

The Women’s Review of Books. XIV, November, 1996, p. 26.

The Cloister Walk (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In her preface, Kathleen Norris writes that “The Cloister Walk is a result of . . . [her] immersion into a liturgical world,” of various intervals of study that were to comprise one year but which, for her, took nearly three. This period corresponded to her preparation to become a Benedictine oblate, a lay member of the fifteen-hundred-year-old order of monks founded by St. Benedict, and the time of her residence at Saint John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minnesota. The author structures her book as if this period of time covered one liturgical year, beginning with September 3, the feast day of Saint Gregory the Great, and concluding near the end of August with “Night,” a short meditation on Compline, the official night prayer of the Church. Although a practicing Presbyterian, Norris explores through seventy-five short chapters her affinity as a poet to the Catholic monastic tradition, the mystery of her spiritual journey, as well as her reflections on the relevance of Scripture and the lives of various saints to contemporary society. Interlacing chapters on monastic practice and tradition, autobiographical detail, and commentary on Scripture and the saints allows Norris to capture the rhythm of church seasons, thus creating a sense of time counter to the hurried pace of American life. The only flaw in The Cloister Walk is the occasional repetition of information, a result of the individual essays having been written at different times and published separately before compilation in one collection.

One of the central themes in The Cloister Walk is the relevance of Norris’ experiences at St. John’s Abbey to contemporary life, primarily her own but also the reader’s. The people Norris met in the monastery were not escapists, but those who had deliberately chosen a simple life incurring confrontation with spiritual issues many seek to avoid. Practices such as the chanting of the Psalms from Scripture, even when these strongly reflect the militaristic and patriarchal culture of ancient Israel, become a means of transcendence for Norris, as she is able to find parallels between the subjects of the psalmist and her own moods as well as the conditions of life for the poor and disenfranchised in contemporary America. Norris writes of finding herself “immersed in poetry” during the chanting, an experience that fed her writing, as the book attests. The images of the Psalms, as she notes, are sensuous and earthy, not theological, thus close to contemporary poetry. Using extensive examples from the lives of the Benedictine sisters and monks she has known, Norris also demonstrates the healing function of the chanting.

Other chapters in The Cloister Walk offer commentary on readings from the prophet Jeremiah and the Book of Revelation. The former discussion leads Norris from an analysis of the communal method of lectio divina, a type of meditation based on close reading of Scripture—achieved in the monastery through oral reading of religious texts at meals—to the prophetic role of the contemporary poet. Norris’ chapter on the Apocalypse becomes not so much a reading of Revelations as an insightful commentary on language and the use of metaphor. Finding hope in the reading of visionary literature, Norris points out that the word apocalypse, often misunderstood as meaning destruction, suggests, in fact, enlightenment and, thereby, hope. Just as listening to the Psalms immersed the writer in poetry, listening to the Book of Revelation immersed her in metaphor. Here Norris contends that those who misunderstand the Book of Revelation err by reading too literally. Fundamentalists try to control metaphor “with literal interpretations of prophetic and apocalyptic texts that deny the import of its metaphorical language,” Norris maintains, while liberals try “to eliminate metaphoric images of plagues, punishment, the heavenly courts, martyrdom, and even the cross—that might be deemed offensive, depressing, or judgmental.”

Applying her poet’s awareness of language and rhythm to the reading of the Bible is one of the strong features of The Cloister Walk. Norris’ comments also contain both blunt humor and subtle beauty. “Listening to Jeremiah,” she writes, “is one hell of a way to get the blood going in the morning; it puts caffeine to shame.” While Saint Jerome, whose feast day is September 30, “may have been one of the most irascible people who ever lived,” the poets Louise Bogan, Anne Sexton, and John Berryman, all of whom longed for faith, are remembered tenderly on November 1 and 2, the feasts of all saints and all souls. Norris writes poetically after recounting their painful spiritual journeys: “They told it well, but darkly. Now the feasts wheel round, in the dark of the year. All Saints, All Souls, all song and story.” In one chapter entitled...

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