The Middle of the Pile: The Cloister Walk, by Kathleen Norris


Time on to-read: Years and years. I found it at a used book sale this summer.

Reason for not reading yet: As with any book that’s similarly concerned with spirituality, there’s a whole lot of “I’ve gotta wait until I’m in the right mood,” that goes on, thinking that you have to feel in a state of grace, or a state of neediness, to appreciate something like this.

Reason for finally picking up: New Year’s book resolution to recommit myself to challenges, and to ignore the voice that says that my mind isn’t good enough to read certain books right now. 

Verdict: Your mileage may greatly vary, but I got plenty from this slow walk amongst the cloisters.

In the early 1990s, Kathleen Norris spent nine months at the Benedictine monastery of St. John’s in Collegeville, Minnesota. She had signed on, several years beforehand, to become an “oblate” of the order. The word “oblate” comes from the old Latin for “offering”, but in reality has come to mean someone associated with the order who tries to live by their ideas as much as possible, while maintaining their secular life otherwise. As I understand it, this means living by the slim text of The Rule of St. Benedict, a ninety-six page volume that, as I understand it, is really the slimmest of all rulebooks for an order like theirs.

Prologue of Rule of St. Benedict

The monks live communally and share everything- food, living space, chores (it is written into the rules that not even the abbott is excused from kitchen duty, and the prioress of nuns herself washes bodies for burial). Many of them have jobs in the wider community as well, as teachers and counselors and nurses- but not all. Some serve the order itself- tending their farms, cleaning their abbeys, as liturgical directors, musicians, administrators. The Benedictines believe deeply in hospitality-the monastery is not considered complete without a guest or two staying with them. The most interesting of these principles, to me, however, was the order’s deep engagement and focus on the psalms. It is a first principle of their worship that they read the psalms straight through, at least some portion of it each day. When they reach the end, they start over again, month after month, year after year, until the verses become as familiar to them as breathing, until they occur to them unbidden, while out watching a sunset one evening, deep in the midst of depression, suddenly appearing and able to save them from themselves, with a seemingly spontaneous gift of praise (a beautiful gift of a thing that happens to Norris after she returns home to the bare plains of South Dakota after her stay with the monks).

The most obvious comparison for this book is Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time to Keep Silence, which I read last year. They are both writers who have chosen to live with and like monks for extended periods of time. They both have engaged with different orders and repeatedly returned to the Benedictines as the most human of the lot, the ones they consider their closest friends. They both use their time to inwardly reflect on who they are at the moment, and to get to know the monks and nuns they’re living with.** But what’s different is that Norris focuses far more on the religious texts that are at the center of life there, while Fermor is far more concerned with explaining the orders to others and looking into their history, and, of course, as with all Fermor, with navel-gazing about his own inner feelings from one moment to the next. Norris shares her life with us in glancing ways***, but never makes herself the point the way that Fermor does. There’s value in both, but I thought Norris’ book likely approached what it was like to live as a member of a monastic community far more than Fermor did.

Organ of St. John’s Abbey

This book, therefore, is really about what engagement with literature, with pure words, as much as it is about religion. Norris is a poet, and approaches her time with the monks from that perspective. Each chapter is structured around a reading, a line, or a life of a saint she encounters while attending worship with the monks. The readings appropriately follow the wheel of the year, and the saint’s days and feast days that mark its change. She tells the tales of obscure saints we’d never otherwise hear of, attempts to genuinely engage with parts of the bible that others consider a drag (poor complaining, doleful Jerome), and looks hard at other bits that are generally politely excised from modern day worship (such as the really angry, vengeful, not-at-all admirable bits of the psalms), and reframe their meaning and purpose for what she calls a modern “literal minded” audience.

Indeed, one of her repeated insights is that we, as a society, have lost the knack of living metaphorically. Not only has our religion abandoned it, we distrust it in our literature and reject as useless its expression, unless it is a lesson on how to deconstruct poems for the purposes of a test later. Of course, she would think this, as a poet. It personally took me a few tries to understand fully what she meant by this. I think I’ve maybe got some of it in the end though- she talks about how life without metaphor is unbearable to her. That may sound helplessly elitist, but I really don’t think it is. It’s just a poet’s way of saying what most of us feel the need to say: that there’s more than this, that there must be more than this. Life needs metaphor, that something more, to give it weight, to give us a sense that there is something more, to give us that hint of magic beyond the utilitarian that transforms us. It’s just that, as a poet, she finds it in words. And so, living in a community as dedicated to words as monks and nuns do, do the religious communities she interacts with. It explained a great deal to me about why I see so much religion in poetry, especially in the modern era. Their way of life, their priorities, being what Norris calls a “necessary other” outside the wheel of life- devoted to slow contemplation, epiphany, to the endless, repeated contemplation of words, often the same words, over and over again until they find new meaning in them. The older I get, the more I see that it is the daily rhythm of your life, how you allow your body and mind to experience the world, that matters more than your job title, or even the content of what you do each day, in making you the person that you are, so this really resonated with me.

The ancients spoke of masticating the words of scripture in order to fully digest them. Monastic “church” reflects a whole-body religion, still in touch with its orality, its music… I find it a blessing that monks still respect the slow way that words work on the human psyche. They take the time to sing, chant and read the psalms aloud, leaving plenty of room for silence, showing a respect for words that is remarkable.

In monastic life, this practice is called “lectio divina”, a holy reading that challenges each

Benedictine Psalter- Medieval, in the Oxford library.

listener to actively engage with the text. For the rest of us, isn’t it just like reading a personal classic, re-visiting a childhood tale that was magic for you? It’s about getting to know a text so deeply that you could recite lines by heart, and likely have interpreted it and re-interpreted it so many times that its almost as if a different person read it each time. It reminded me of that feeling I get reading Possession, Anna Karenina, Austen, Elizabeth von Armin. That feeling that you know this thing, you know it somewhere and can’t articulate it, but if you just listen to them say it over and over, you might get it somewhere. It’s why I read Mrs. Dalloway once through without understanding a word and then started all over again. Dedicated monastic life in the style of the Benedictines is just bibliophilia, made divine.

There are some parts of the text that are more grounded in the everyday. I found these parts of the book about evenly compelling and dated. There’s an absolutely fascinating chapter on the self-serving, propaganda-filled canonization of St. Maria Goretti in the 1950s that feels like it might have come straight out of a #metoo thinkpiece- its about rape culture and manipulation and forcing women to be something they never were, all in the interests of maintaining power and patriarchal authority (the chapter that follows about the purpose of “virgin martyr” stories in general is equally right on). There’s some wonderful parts where she acknowledges why some people see the word “Christian” as fake, hypocritical and harsh after the likes of Pat Robertson and Newt Gingrich in the ’90s using it for some pretty evil purposes (and slams their style of Christianity very effectively), but also some very ’90s moral panic about young girls dressing too provocatively and getting belly-button piercings too young right after it.  She favors ritual and ceremony in a way that I think a lot of us are starting to acknowledge makes a lot of sense (or at least I am- as an aid in mindfulness, keeping your priorities in order, and giving weight to time), but can also sometimes use this in sentimental rather than truthful ways, such as her sentimental peons to small town rural America, written in such a way that would send alarm bells ringing in the heads of many who have come to see it as a coded reference to conservatives’ nostalgia for a 1950s utopia that never existed.*

I’ve struggled in the past with really connecting with Serious Women Writers from the ’80s and ’90s.*** I get the cloistered, subversive, imaginative 19th century women, the early 20th century writers just breaking free in all sorts of ways big and small, the determined, caustic, laser-eyed women from the 50s. But with the, ’80s and ’90s writers,  I wasn’t able to see past how Serious indeed they seem to feel they need to be in order to to be taken, well, seriously. But of course I get why now, now that I’m older, what they lived through, what men made them go through every day, what academia must have been like, and that we’re finally talking about everything we’re talking about and men can’t make it go away. There’s a reason Margaret Atwood is popular again, and nobody’s brushing what she has to say under the rug anymore. It’s like the much older sister you weren’t quite ready to understand yet, and to love openly despite her flaws. Norris is one of their number, and I’m ready to love her, if not agree with her on every score.

One of my favorite lines from the book is when she’s talking about the difference between academics and poets, after a meeting with academics, where she feels her insights are rejected on every score:

Scholars speak with authority, and they must, as they are trying to convince the reader that they have a worthwhile point of view. On the other hand, poets speak with no authority but that which the reader is willing to grant them. Our task is not to convince, but to suggest, evoke, explore. And to a poet, which at its root means “maker”, is to be a maker of phenomena, speaking… only because the words are given to you.

She’s got at something there, I think, not only about poetry, but about anyone’s encounter with the divine. No list of rules in the book can make a religion, which is a whole way of life that relies on the authority the reader is willing to grant them- that’s faith. That’s a kind of faith, a “living poem”, as Norris says. Liturgy as poetic knowledge, religion as a metaphor that we make our own- the freedom of that…. I think a lot of people would show up for that, if only we could all be still and quiet enough, for long enough, to listen.



*I honestly think that this was a way of fighting the Contract for America folks by letting them see how much she was “one of them” and loved what they loved, so then she could say what she said about their version of Christianity. Establishing her cred so she could point out what Jesus was really about. And yes, genuinely trying to express what she finds valuable about living in a small community.

**(The humanizing stories they tell about both of them are the most wonderful parts of both books- Hey! Monks drink and swear! Nuns talk about sex, falling in love and masturbation on the regular to keep themselves honest. Hey, that abbott cracked a dirty joke! Did you know that monks argue about work vs. life balance too, and sometimes also have to treat themselves for depression, or go into therapy for being workaholics? And just lovely little lines like the story about monk who stopped wearing his habit while he traveled because, he said wryly, “I grow wearing of the so-called confessions of drunks who happened to be seated next to me”).

***A.S. Byatt excepted here- and to be honest, only Possession– that gorgeous thing that somehow manages to be commanding and passionate at the same time, and stared you down with its intelligence while never losing heart. What a feat that book is- I realize it over and over again.