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[Cloister Walk Review]

by Lorna Derksen

[cobblestone]WHEN 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.

[quote]During 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.

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