Monastic life through the power of words

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 April, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 April, 1998, 12:00am

The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris, Riverhead Books, $125 Kathleen Norris is a poet. Her book - a sort of diary of her two extended residencies at St John's Benedictine Abbey in Minnesota - is the story of a poet's experience of religion.

It ranges widely, discussing everything from the private lives of monks and the meaning of celibacy to murder and educational practice in the secular United States. But it remains, essentially, the story of a woman drawn to monastic Christianity by the power, not of The Word, but of words.

'My faith,' she writes, 'was non-existent, or at least deeply submerged, for so long a time, but liturgy pulled me back.' It is the moments at which this insight is uppermost in Norris' thoughts that her book is at its most satisfying and convincing.

She is attracted both by the soothing, mantra-like repetitions of the liturgy in monastic routine and by the poetic images of the psalms and biblical passages which make up such a large part of the canon. As a result, some of the finest and most sensitive passages of her book are those where she describes emotions unleashed by these essential elements of her immersion in monastery life.

Norris does not confine herself to poetics. Extensive discussions on the strengths, weaknesses and, above all, humanity of monks; of community spirit; and the hardships as well as the comforts of monastic life are often interesting and entertaining. Historical excursions into the world of the early women martyrs provide a valuable insight into the development of Christian traditions as well as valuable illuminations of human nature.

The monastery is a world few of us would dare inhabit. It is everything contemporary culture is not. Contemplation, patience, abstinence are not only alien to Hong Kong and North America, they are extremely tough even on the average monastic.

Norris exposes with delicacy just how hard it is for monks and nuns to overcome their doubts and human weaknesses, and experience the continuous 'conversion' Benedictine vows demand. But over and over again, she comes back to words, meaning, metaphor and the spirituality of liturgical reading.

She has joined the Benedictine Order as an 'oblate', which means 'offering' and originally referred to Jesus. But in the modern idiom, even among monks, it is translated as 'associate', which Norris does not feel conveys adequately 'the religious dimension of being an oblate'.

'No longer an offering,' she says, 'Jesus becomes the junior partner in a law firm.' It is crystalline gems like this, as much as the heart-warming tales of elderly monks and troubled nuns, which make this book such a rich source of intellectual and emotional stimulus even to the non-Christian, non-religious reader.

Some will not have patience for her - mercifully short and infrequent - self-indulgent descriptions of her depressions. But there is enough in her gentle, lucid prose, her homely stories of monastic life and her philosophical essays to make this a book well worth reading.