Saturday, February 9, 2013

Rereading "The Cloister Walk" at a Monastery

When I tell people I'm headed off to a monastery, I get a variety of responses.  For people who know me well, my sojourns to the world of monasticism is no surprise.  I'm sure that some of them are surprised that I come back.  Some people are fascinated and want to know more.  And I see a flicker of doubt in some eyes, as if the person is thinking, I thought Kristin was a sane, rational woman, but now I'm not so sure."

The book that launched me on this path was Kathleen Norris' The Cloister Walk, which I consumed many times as the twentieth century shifted to the twenty-first and implored my friends to read.

Let me amend that--I only implored the friends whom I thought would like the book.  Even then, I knew that monasticism was not for everyone.

I had already moved from the Charleston area to the tip of southeast Florida when I read it, but one of my South Carolina friends wrote to tell me that she went to Mepkin Abbey periodically, when she needed to get away for an afternoon or when she wanted to buy the eggs that the monks sold.  She proposed that we go on retreat there at some point.  I said yes, and a tradition began.

I've dipped in and out of The Cloister Walk in the last ten years, but I haven't read it cover to cover.  I took it with me to last week-end's trip to the monastery.

What a great experience!  Granted, Kathleen Norris' monastery is a different place than mine--a lot more monks, a lot less isolated.  But the monastic schedule is similar.

She writes essays that try to convey a sense of the schedule and a sense of the effect of the monastic practices.  It was very neat to read her essay about Vespers service and then go off to Vespers service.

I always succumb to a bit of romanticizing of the monastic life, and it's good to read her work to remember that these monks are humans, just like the rest of us.

And it's wonderful to read her essays about her efforts to integrate her spiritual tugs, her married life, and her domestic duties.  Again, I succumb to a bit of romanticizing, assuming that someone like Kathleen Norris has no problems with conflicting duties.  Her essays serve as a corrective.  It's no easier for her than for any of us.

I might feel frustrated because the demands of my administrative job keep me in an office for 40-60 hours a week.  She might feel fretful about money because she doesn't have my kind of job.

The Cloister Walk was published in 1996, which means Norris wrote it twenty years ago.  It still feels fresh and interesting, although some of the geopolitical events referenced, like the situation in Bosnia, have been sort of settled.

As we took walks on the monastery grounds and talked about our projects, my friend said that she felt that I had been taking steady steps staying always on the same path.  I feel like I've been zigging and zagging.  For example, I find it ironic that when I lived a half hour away from the monastery, I wouldn't have had the slightest interest in it--I was probably in the most agnostic phase of my life (my late 20's).  And now that I live 10 hours away, I yearn to make more frequent trips.

The Holy Spirit works in interesting ways indeed:  a book that I found in the library sparks a passion for monasticism which launches me to a monastery and friends on a regular basis.  It makes me wonder what seeds are being planted now.


rbarenblat said...

Oh, I love that book!

Judaism doesn't have a monastic tradition, but I get some of the same kinds of spiritual rejuvenation (that I read about in Norris' reports of visiting the monastery) when I go on retreat with my Jewish Renewal community. When I can spend a week in conscious community, praying three times a day, singing and meditating and connecting with God. It's not the same; the retreat community is an ad hoc community, we come together and then we disperse, so we don't have to deal with living with one another day-in and day-out the way that monastics do. But the experience for me of dipping into that kind of spiritual community, and entering into a space where everyone around me is praying 3x/day and is trying to live in a God-conscious way, feels a little bit like what Norris describes.

Kristin said...

I, too, have been part of religious communities that are temporarily living together (at retreats and such)--like you, I feel that I have a glimpse of the best aspect of communal living that monastics do so well (usually). It always makes me wonder what it would be like to immerse myself for a longer period of time.

It's probably what attracts me to seminary, come to think of it.