BENEDICT WROTE the Rule for his sixth-century community, he could
never have imagined that 1500 years later his image of communal living
would still be relevant. Those of us living in the 21st century might
similarly be perplexed about the application of an ancient hermit's
musings to our contemporary lives. In The Cloister Walk, Kathleen
Norris describes her participation at a Benedictine monastery and illustrates
how very relevant the Benedictine way is to our own questions of how
to live soulfully with others.
Norris' authority as a writer of Benedictine ways comes through various
paths. The Cloister Walk describes her nine-month stay at the
St. John's Abbey in Minnesota where she is an oblate, one who has offered
herself to God. As a freelance writer she has interviewed monks and
nuns on a variety of topics, and has researched the classical writings
which inform Benedictine practice. As a Protestant she had only recently
returned to her religious roots when she sought solace from vocational
tensions in the discipline and rhythm of the liturgy. And as a poet,
Norris is open to the wonder of the monastic liturgy that "plunges
you into scripture in such a way that, over time, the texts invite you
to commune with them, and can come to serve as a mirror."
The mirror that Norris holds before us in The Cloister Walk is
a prophetic one. Early on, Norris parallels the role of poet and prophet;
both are the "necessary other," called to "reveal the
fault lines hidden beneath the comfortable surface of the worlds we
invent for ourselves." Beneath the surface of our secular lives,
full of choice and opportunity, lie untethered longings, a lack of direction
and loneliness. Norris, the poet prophet, speaks the paradox to our
modern, post-enlightenment lives that we have much to learn by submitting
to centuries-old monastic traditions and teachings.
the fall liturgy, the prophet Jeremiah calls out, "Stop wearing
out your shoes." And those of us who easily roam from one distraction
to another are reminded of the need to settle down and become connected
to a place, a tradition. Most young adults love the freedom gained from
losing the shackles of structure imposed by school, parents or religious
authority. Tradition, however, suggests that true freedom is found not
in keeping all our options open, but in responding to the call of inner
authenticity. For monastics, the call to communal living removes surface
choices, but deepens the freedom to learn one's intended path. Norris
describes the shock of one monk upon being freed from the concerns of
getting the right car, the right job and the right girlfriend. He spent
years refocusing his concerns to learn who God wanted him to be. Similarly,
we are invited to ask, "What would I find in my own heart if the
noise of the world was silenced?"
One of the most difficult aspects of entering the monastery is adjusting
to community life. People who come, one Benedictine sister related,
have no sense of what it means to live communally. Similarly, we hear
that one of our greatest problems as individuals in society is loneliness.
Benedict wrote that the purpose of individual growth is to share with
others, recognizing the importance of learning honesty, trust and a
communal focus within the company of others. Although our culture can
be bent on acknowledging individual success and worth, The Cloister
Walk illustrates in various ways the value of being part of a community.
Norris' many descriptions of feasts and celebrations, both monastic
and secular, kindle our desire to share our lives with community. Even
the comparison of communal life to a rock tumbler, suggesting the benefit
of having the sharp edges worn away through relationship and accountability,
draws one toward community. But the reflection that had the greatest
impact on me regarding community life was that of the cemetery walk
where Norris was introduced to "the rest of the community"
as an accompanying monk told stories of the deceased. As Benedict knew
1500 years ago, our lives are bound up in each others'; learning to
live with each other matters.