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The Cloister Walk

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Why would a married woman with a thoroughly Protestant background and often more doubt than faith be drawn to the ancient practice of monasticism, to a community of celibate men whose days are centered around a rigid schedule of prayer, work, and scripture? This is the question that poet Kathleen Norris asks us as, somewhat to her own surprise, she found herself on two extended residencies at St. John's Abbey in Minnesota. Part record of her time among the Benedictines, part meditation on various aspects of monastic life, The Cloister Walk demonstrates, from the rare perspective of someone who is both an insider and outsider, how immersion in the cloistered world -- its liturgy, its ritual, its sense of community -- can impart meaning to everyday events and deepen our secular lives. In this stirring and lyrical work, the monastery, often considered archaic or otherworldly, becomes immediate, accessible, and relevant to us, no matter what our faith may be.

* A New York Times bestseller for 23 weeks
* A New York Times Notable Book of the Year

385 pages, Paperback

First published April 2, 1996

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About the author

Kathleen Norris

211 books412 followers
Kathleen Norris was born on July 27, 1947 in Washington, D.C. She grew up in Honolulu, Hawaii, as well as on her maternal grandparents’ farm in Lemmon, South Dakota.

Her sheltered upbringing left her unprepared for the world she encountered when she began attending Bennington College in Vermont. At first shocked by the unconventionality surrounding her, Norris took refuge in poetry.

After she graduated in 1969, she moved to New York City where she joined the arts scene, associated with members of the avant-garde movement including Andy Warhol, and worked for the American Academy of Poets.

In 1974, her grandmother died leaving Norris the family farm in South Dakota, and she and her future husband, the poet David Dwyer, decided to temporarily relocate there until arrangements to rent or sell the property could be made. Instead, they ended up remaining in South Dakota for the next 25 years.

Soon after moving to the rural prairie, Norris developed a relationship with the nearby Benedictine abbey, which led to her eventually becoming an oblate.

In 2000, Norris and her husband traded their farmhouse on the Great Plains for a condo in Honolulu, Hawaii, so that Norris could help care for her aging parents after her husband’s own failing health no longer permitted him to travel. Her father died in 2002, and her husband died the following year in 2003.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 489 reviews
Profile Image for Kelly.
889 reviews4,124 followers
January 16, 2018
This review was originally published on my blog, ShouldaCouldaWouldaBooks.

In the early 1990s, Kathleen Norris spent nine months at the Benedictine monastery of St. John’s in Collegeville, Minnesota. She signed on, several years before the book begins, 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 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.

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 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 texts that are at the center of life there, while Fermor is far more concerned with explaining the how the orders work to others and looking into their history, and, of course, with navel-gazing about his own inner transformations, minutely examining his emotions from one day 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's did.

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... (read the rest on the blog at: https://shouldacouldawouldabooks.com/...)
Profile Image for Rebecca.
3,675 reviews2,667 followers
October 27, 2016
(4.5) Like Amazing Grace, this is an impressively all-encompassing and eloquent set of essays on how faith intersects with everyday life. In particular, the book draws lessons from the time Norris spent as a Benedictine oblate. From this experience she learned the benefits as well as the drawbacks of solitude and communal living. She also considers the place that celibacy and monastic living might still have in modern life: “The fact that Christian monastics, men and women both, have been singing such gentle hymns at dusk for seventeen hundred years makes me realize that ceremony and tradition, things I’ve been raised to distrust as largely irrelevant, can be food for the soul.”

Sometimes her topics are drawn from the liturgical year: feast days, patron saints and martyrs, chosen scriptures, and wisdom from the Desert Fathers or other spiritual gurus (Emily Dickinson is among her favorites). Other times she simply reflects on her own life: the blessings and challenges of being a freelance poet and lay theologian; the daily discipline involved in marriage, keeping a house and gardening; and childhood memories from Virginia, Illinois and Hawaii.

These are disparate pieces rather than a straightforward narrative. I read two or three at a time over a period of several weeks and found them to be a very peaceful way to start or break up the day. My favorite individual essay is “Dreaming of Trees”: contrasting the treelessness of her adopted Dakotas with the other landscapes she’s known, Norris wonders how to cultivate simplicity of spirit: “What would I find in my own heart if the noise of the world were silenced? Who would I be? Who will I be, when loss or crisis or the depredations of time take away the trappings of success, of self-importance, even personality itself?”

There are profound lines on nearly every page, but here are a few of my favorite passages:
“The hard work of writing has taught me that in matters of the heart, such as writing, or faith, there is no right or wrong way to do it, but only the way of your life. Just paying attention will teach you what bears fruit and what doesn’t. But it will be necessary to revise—to doodle, scratch out, erase, even make a mess of things—in order to make it come out right.”

“if the scriptures don’t sometimes pierce us like a sword, we’re not paying close enough attention.”

“if you’re looking for a belief in the power of words to change things, to come alive and make a path for you to walk on, you’re better off with poets these days than with Christians.”

“we exist for each other, and when we’re at a low ebb, sometimes just to see the goodness radiating from another can be all we need in order to rediscover it in ourselves.”
Profile Image for booklady.
2,325 reviews65 followers
October 14, 2008
Read this book many years ago but I can't recall exactly how many. I'm 99% sure it was in the late '90's. In any event, I was still so ignorant about my own Catholic heritage at that point I hadn't even heard of The Rule of St. Benedict,* which I promptly went out, bought and read from cover-to-cover. (Now I have three -- or four -- copies of it!) When I think of a good 'rule of life' I think of St. Benedict's Rule and I am grateful to this Protestant woman for teaching me about it!

The Cloister Walk -- as best as I can remember it -- is a collection of essays written by Kathleen Norris about her discovery of and journey with The Rule of St. Benedict and the monks of a Benedictine Abbey in Minnesota. It is a very quiet, meditative book which touched me deeply when I read it--much like Thomas Merton's Seven Storey Mountain. I pray that it isn't just a desire for escapism, but a real hungering after that 'still, small voice' which can only be heard when one voluntarily abandons the outer world for the quiet and peace of inner communion with Him.

A beautiful book, partly biographical, deeply reflective and very spiritual. Highly recommended!

Sadly I gave away my original copy of this book...so I need to get another! This is a book worth owning!

* Even though I was in my early forties at the time and a cradle Catholic product of 12 years of parochial schools.
Profile Image for Leila.
442 reviews212 followers
December 10, 2017
This book is not an easy read but is beautifully written. It is definitely not for everyone. I have been quietly reading it over the last two months. It is the author's own "walk" through the male monastic life and in particular the Benedictines. She looks at the relevance of their ordered life, their community living, their ritual devotion to prayer... to society today. It is of interest to me because of my own connections and impressions of the Benedictine's and their openness to the world outside of their monastic life situated in York many years ago.

Profile Image for Magda.
1,165 reviews32 followers
September 12, 2007
I was rather uneasy with this book, although I did manage to struggle through to the end.

There were a few definite mentions of Orthodox Christianity when referring to "ancient" saints, but everything else was the black-and-white Protestant/Catholic divide. I don't know about many Protestant monastic communities, but there are several Orthodox monasteries in the United States. While I stop short of insisting she be completely inclusive, I thought it odd that Orthodoxy was relegated to antiquity, but for a few brief mentions.

She seemed like a very scatter-brained art teacher, waving her arms with flowy sleeves and talking about the Poetry of Creation.

But she didn't really talk about Christ, or God, much. That mostly clinched the "I don't like this book" feeling. Granted, it's a difficult subject to write about well, but she kept approaching it, and she's already set the scope of the book as "Benedictine monastic experience" and then ... nothing of any depth for me.

I feel kinda bad, like I'm giving a harsh critique to a fifth-grader's poem about his dog who died. Oh, well.
Profile Image for Claire.
Author 3 books183 followers
March 20, 2007
This book changed my life.

It's hard to explain. You really have to read it. (Based on my experience, it helps to be a Catholic who loves books.)

Kathleen Norris is a poet and has a poet's perspective on Catholicism and the ways of Benedictine monks. But she's also a Protestant, with a refreshingly level-headed outsider's perspective on the seemingly impenetrable world inside a monastery. The monks and nuns she describes are real, honest, witty and faithful people, with great stories and a passion for their religion that seems very accessible.

My favorite of the chapters in the book are her essays on Catholic women saints (one on St. Maria Goretti and 1950's American Catholic misogyny, and one on the virgin martyrs). They're very frank about the problems in the way the church has treated women and how Catholic women of faith, including nuns, have struggled with that over the years. Very fresh, compelling stuff.
Profile Image for Ali.
26 reviews2 followers
June 25, 2017
I love Kathleen Norris and all she synthesizes here. Chipped away at this before bed for a long time. Wanted to start it again when I got to the end. For me, the poet as theologian sure hits the spot.
Profile Image for Cheryl.
998 reviews97 followers
May 15, 2015
One of my all time favorite quotes by this author from another book:
"This is my spiritual geography, the place where I have wrestled my story out of the circumstances of landscape and inheritance. The word "geography" derives from the Greek words of earth and writing."

This was so disappointing. It is not about a spiritual journey as far as I could tell. It is a dry, boring,factual account of the readings they did, why they are meaningful to her, and what being a monk means in this day and age. They make jokes! They watch TV! Or maybe just the nuns do. Oh and they make better friends because they are celibate. Trying to convince us listening to someone yell at us with fire and brimstone and insulting our hearts and intelligence as a way to know God is my least favorite thing in the world.

I just did not connect to this book and I didn't find it lyrically written. No luminous, glowing prose. None. At all. It jumps around in a very confused way, and she spends quite a bit of time on her fellowship group, who are academics and their distrust of her, as a poet with no letters behind her name. That was a strange and dissonant aspect of the book.
Profile Image for Kristi  Siegel.
192 reviews596 followers
December 22, 2009
The Cloister Walk offers “food” for the soul at a time when many of us are hungry. Norris’s book chronicles her experiences as a lay oblate at St. John's Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Collegeville, Minnesota. What makes this book fresh, wonderful, surprising, and completely relevant to people of all faiths (or non-faith) is that Norris is not—-as one would anticipate—-a Catholic, but rather a Protestant filled with spiritual doubt.

When I first read The Cloister Walk and Dakota (also by Kathleen Norris), the evocative prose reminded me of writing by other women, such as Annie Dillard, Greta Ehrlich, or Nancy Mairs, that I’ve also enjoyed. A critic from Commonweal, Lawrence S. Cunningham, makes the same observation:
It is one of the graces of our time that the best of our contemporary spiritual writers are women who are also poets. We have thus been blessed by the writings of, among others, Nancy Mairs, Patricia Hampl, Annie Dillard, and Denise Levertov. Gifted with the power of language and disinclined to get mired down in petty ecclesiastical squabbles or sidetracked by the banality that often passes for spirituality, they, like the householder of the gospel, bring forth ‘old things and new.’ Among that number one must include, conspicuously, Kathleen Norris who can bring alive the old desert fathers and mothers, the saints of the calendar, the idiosyncrasies of community life, the travails of small-town living, the joys and pains of marriage and old age.
Profile Image for Lynn Horton.
372 reviews42 followers
December 29, 2018
(This book extols a distinctively Christian worldview. Forewarned is forearmed.)

I read this every year, in December/January. It focuses me, stripping away some of the materialism that's built up in my life in the previous twelve months. It reminds me of my priorities in dealing with other humans, encouraging me to be patient and kind. I first read this in 1997, during a Christmas break at my old ranch high (10,000-plus feet) in the Colorado Rockies. Even though I wasn't surrounded by Benedictine monks—as Norris is—but was immersed in young children with cases of cabin fever as the snow flew, The Cloister Walk was like a cozy sweater, warming and peaceful. And Norris' voice is as clear now, thirty years later, as it was then.

Obviously, a favorite.
48 reviews2 followers
June 7, 2007
Norris is introducing us, one by one, to the core religious aspects of Christianity as she comes to know and understand them. We explore every key dimension of monastic life with her: Why celebacy; why community; why Scripture reading; why choir and music; why poverty; why we are not perfect. I think, like many people, I expected this book to be a straighforward description, something like, "This was my year in the monastery. We ate beans and prayed, blah, blah, blah..." However, we as readers receive something much more wonderful, rare, and important. While we DO receive a description of monastery life, we experience it as Norris's personal spiritual journey -- all her revelations, confusions, doubts and certainties. Essentially, we see what happens to her FAITH. What a brave and miraculous thing to show to strangers! And much more holy. After all, the material aspects are not what matter to Holy People, or poets (which is what Norris is first and foremost).

As much as I enjoyed this book, at times I found it difficult to get through it. It is not the most entertaining read, but rather something for contemplation. You need not be religious, but you must be poetic and spiritual. For the down times, I gave it only four stars.
Profile Image for Traci Rhoades.
Author 3 books90 followers
July 26, 2020
Powerful, personal. What a collection of timeless stories ranging from scripture to desert fathers to medieval times to present day. The author writes of finding her best church again, and being able to bring her best self back to her own small town church as a result.
Profile Image for Amy Neftzger.
Author 13 books173 followers
February 28, 2015
This is a book that I thought I could read straight though and move on to the next novel on my TBR list, but it wasn't that simple. Norris has the poet's eye for insight and the material written here includes some beautifully written prose with keen observations on life and humanity. The reflective nature of the book caused me to pause between sections to let her stories and observations sink in. While she writes about monastic life, she doesn't romanticize it. Instead, we're drawn to examine our own rituals and religious practices through new eyes that add meaning and significance.

If you're a fan of authors such as Thomas Merton I recommend giving this book a slow and thoughtful read.
Profile Image for Suzanne.
476 reviews1 follower
July 22, 2008
Recently reread after completing In This House of Brede. Norris is a married Protestant poet and a Benedictine oblate. As a poet and a Benedictine she is drawn to the Psalms in the Bible and their poetic imagery. This book is about the time she spent studying at a Benedictine monastery in the 1990's. Sadly, I find her prose uninspiring. I didn't "feel" the joy that comes through the pages of Merton and Godden. It just seemed forced to me.
Profile Image for Angelo.
15 reviews1 follower
March 29, 2013
I remember this book from when I first started working at Politics and Prose. This was one of the big, non-fiction best-sellers in the store. I remember, in particular, Kathleen Norris coming to speak and sign at the store. It was a very interesting event. I was intrigued by the subject matter and I loved the cover (I have always loved this picture of trees). At the time I was living with my ex and kids in an apartment at Bishop's Gate - an old Church and oblates' residence that had been turned into apartments. Our apartment was the former priests' residence. I kept thinking it would be apt to read The Cloister Walk there since its subject matter was, in essence, the spirit of the building I was in. But I never did pick it up.

Now, many years and a marriage later, I find The Cloister Walk, in pristine condition, in a used bookstore. So this time I don't pass. And I am more than pleased. It is as beautiful and peace giving as I expected it to be. Norris is excellent not just at exploring the lives of the Benedictines, both current and historical, but her own life, and therefor our lives, as well. Her questions are the questions that any self-reflective human being should ask. The stories she relates are ones that touch us because they are so near to us at heart. Maybe this was the right time for me to read this book but I really think that anytime is the right time to read this book. A true revelation.

If you like this book please support independent bookstores by ordering on Indie Bound: http://www.indiebound.org/book/978157...
Profile Image for Rita Quillen.
Author 11 books59 followers
December 29, 2013
This book moved me in a way few books do...and I guess it's because it was like very few books I've ever read. It's such a raw, open, personal book, but the writing and the sensibility of it are just exquisite.
Profile Image for Theresa.
454 reviews7 followers
August 13, 2020
Warning: more personal essay than review.

The Cloister Walk as My Guide: Skidding between Catholics and Catholicism
(I use the capital G when I’m writing about Norris’s ideas, and the small g when I’m communicating my ideas about god. For Norris god is spelt with a capital G.)

Not for myself, but for others, I understand the purposes of prayer in praise of god, and ritual prayer, like saying the rosary. But I don’t understand praying for life events to turn out well. For I don’t believe prayer in any way will determine outcomes.

I’ve had a long and combative relationship with Catholicism. Reading The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris, published in 1996, brought back rich and dynamic memories.

Kathleen Norris’s husband said, “I-survived-Catholic-school-and-won’t-go-near-a-Mass-ever-again.”

I’ve said something similar, “Having gone to Catholic grade school and high school, I attended enough masses for a lifetime; I’ve done my time.”
In my case, however, once I had my first child and then “felt I should” have him baptized, I experimented with the idea of practicing Catholicism for about five years – the time it took for me to have and baptize two more children and be enraged by what my first born was learning in Sunday school – before giving up on the church once again. I “felt I should;” I never decided to have my children baptized for sound reasons; the superstition reinforced by my family that a child who died without being baptized would stay in purgatory and never get into heaven was the reason. I don’t believe superstitions and I don’t believe in the concept of heaven as a place you go to after you die, but I still acted as if I did, out of family pressures, tradition, ignorance and guilt.

Years later, when my children were teenagers, I accepted a job teaching art at a Catholic school. Being familiar with and thinking I knew in part what to expect in such a setting, I was the one who focused my job search on Catholic schools for a teaching position.

I soon learned: Compared to the religious education provided at the Catholic high school I attended in the late 60s and early 70s, in a small Iowa town, religious education in the large urban Catholic school, in Minnesota, was more inclusive and more about theology. In my hometown the school was run by Diocesan priests and The Sisters of Notre Dame, along with a few lay teachers. In the large urban school: out of over one hundred faculty there was one Sister of Notre Dame, one Benedictine nun and an affiliated priest. The Notre Dame sister at the urban school happened to have been my teacher in Iowa, when I was in Junior High; she retired from teaching two years after I joined the urban Catholic school, leaving just the one Benedictine nun and the affiliated priest to model The Sacrament of Holy Orders.

The two similarities relevant for this discussion, between the rural and urban schools, are that teachers and students are required to attend mass. I listened to students at the urban school make some of the same observations I made when I was in high school, about how some teachers serve up great glops of Catholicism, when students only have room for a tablespoon or two.
My parents were just as culpable. Forcing religious practice down someone’s throat, “because I said so,” when she is not ready to receive it, is down right destructive. As a consequence, not only did I acquire a distrust of religion, but I also, inadvertently, passed that mistrust onto my children.

The Cloister Walk is a vehicle for understanding spirituality today. It was an engaging read for me, especially when Norris’s views about religion and god and what he or she is responsible for, differed from my own. While The Cloister Walk goaded me toward renewed conviction in some beliefs, it also caused me to examine others. Of additional interest were Norris’s observations on human behavior, ideas inspired by monastic writers going back centuries, that are still relevant today and are perhaps the basis for much of modern psychology, along with her personal story and her often captivating revelations about saints and monastic life, which she attempted not to romanticize.

These lines and content from the book are especially instructive in late 2016, after the recent presidential election:

“The person with a gift for passionate intensity squanders it in angry tirades and, given power, becomes a demagogue.” (p. 127)

Paraphrased from a chapter on virgin martyrs: Women who speak out anger male rulers. The more women talk back, the more they mock those in power – “the more frenzied is the male response, and the more the violence escalates.” (p. 194)

Norris makes many observations about her relationships with various priest, monks, and holy order sisters. Some of her comments caused me to wonder: Do women prefer their enemies to be other women? Are women more intimidated by male anger than female anger? Do women more readily concede part of themselves and some of their rights to appear more favorable to men?
For the last question, in regards to the work place, I need less proof for an answer. I’ve observed women and men in the work place for over forty years, long enough to recognize the “cheerleader complex” in women who flirt and fawn over men, as though they are gods, or at least minor deities. Women who consistently find men’s words more valid.

Males inhabit the Catholic Church’s hierarchy and the church sanctions and promotes male superiority. In the Bible women are born from Adam’s rib, after all, and are responsible for the downfall of Eden. So it is less surprising that the “cheerleader complex” is common among hyper religious women – in rare cases hyper religious men, as well. At the sight of a priest’s collar, some women have a Pavlovian response they can’t overcome.

The various reactions from priests to this phenomenon are worth observing: Look for a priest with a throng of women surrounding him and you will see that some priests lean in to the group of women, flattered by the attention. While other priest in the same situation, signal their wariness by stepping or leaning back, to give the women who have invaded their personal space more room. While still others become curt and escape the attention as gracefully and quickly as they can. It’s much, much more rare to see women or men react this way with holy order sisters. In the church hierarchy sisters are ruled by priests and their input is less valued.

Out of high school I went to a nursing school run by Catholic nuns at a Catholic hospital. I worked as a nurse for many years before I went back to school to pursue art and teaching. During my years as a nurse, we had a mean phrase, one I am now embarrassed to admit, for women who intimidated and bullied other women, or made work unjustifiably more challenging – we said they suffered from “congested pelvis syndrome.” And were in need of a “readjustment.” Some of the women who suffered from “congested pelvis syndrome” also showed signs of the “cheerleader complex.” I can only guess at their reasons for acting as though they despise other women – is it from self-hate, or insecurity, or their interpretation of how to act in positions of power, or what? It’s puzzling. Unfortunately, I observed the same “male adoring/female demeaning” behavior from some women at the Catholic school where I taught several times in my over twenty years at the institution.

I am not saying Catholicism is solely responsible for these behaviors in women. I think they are found in many religions and throughout cultures. I just happened to be working in Catholic affiliated institutions, when I encountered them.

Many of the chapters in The Cloister Walk are about the lives of particular saints and what we want when we pray for their help. In Norris’s writing about the virgin martyr saints, she questions why myths about virgin martyrs evolved in the first place? And why the clergy and some historians have since suppressed their stories?

Of the virgin martyrs, Norris says the most about Maria Goretti, Saint Goretti. For Norris and myself, Goretti’s story stands out among the virgin martyrs. But not as a unique example of how the church’s patriarchy operates. Goretti’s story, as church propaganda, is just one example of why I’m a “fallen or falling away,” Catholic. At the age of twelve, in 1902, Maria Goretti was stabbed to death resisting rape. In 1950, for political reasons, to keep women in their place in the wake of post-war modernism, the church expanded its qualifications for sainthood, from serving God and faith to include dying for your virginity. At a time when attitudes toward marriage and sex were changing, Goretti, second only to the Blessed Virgin, was the model for how women should behave.

“The purposes to which the Catholic church wished to put Goretti are made abundantly clear in the address given by Pius XII at her beatification in1947, when he criticized the press, the fashion and entertainment business, and the military (which had begun to conscript women) . . .” (p. 226.)

A priest “called Goretti ‘a saint of the Christian home’ who stood for divinely ordained family values and against ‘parental absenteeism and juvenile delinquency.’ He blasted Hollywood movies, and the popular press in general, for ‘lurid descriptions of sex crimes and of the lives of notorious murderers,’ and even took a stab at comic books, which he termed ‘the marijuana of the nursery.” (p. 227)

“And Monsignor Morelli, in a chapter entitled ‘The Little Madonna,’ takes the opportunity, over Goretti’s dead body, to complain about educated women. ‘Look at all the `career girls,’’ he writes, ‘who can’t even mend a torn dress, or cook a simple meal, let along manage a household.” (p. 228)

Church proclamations critical of popular culture have long been a staple, if not a purpose, for all religions. Historically, they are even more prevalent during conservative presidencies, when it is perceived that positions of power have shifted in their favor. Norris relates more examples of how Church officials continued to write about Goretti, getting increasingly absurd in their comparisons of twelve-year-old Goretti to girls, men and women of the 1950s and 1960s.
“Girls often got a milder version of Goretti’s significance. One friend recalls, ‘If you had an impious thought, you were supposed to pray to her, but I never understood why. . .” (p. 231) The friend did not know what impious meant or what constituted an impious thought. Coded language. Sums up much of my experience with Catholicism in grade school and high school.

I no longer work for a Catholic school.

A reason for termination, for a Catholic school teacher, is telling students you disagree with church doctrine. As a teacher, you can encourage students to explore their own ideas that differ from church doctrine, but you can ONLY impose your beliefs on them if your beliefs are aligned with church values.
Among religion teachers, the degree of tolerance for students to question church doctrine varies greatly. Some gracefully show a great deal of tolerance, while others sometimes lose it and, unfortunately, shut down explorations of faith and values.

It’s luck that I didn’t find the time to read Norris’s 1996 book until now. I might have lost my job had students or an administrator or some other teacher read my blog or Goodreads review. When it comes to published work or work available to a wider audience online, I was told by administration that I had to use a pen name and that I couldn’t advertise my work to anyone connected to the community, or promote my work in places where community members might encounter it. Two other teacher/writers were given similar advice. The only exception was for work that promoted the church and Catholic education.

The school I taught at provides an excellent education for certain types of students. I could not afford to send my children there and at least one or, maybe, two of them would have benefited by going to a school with smaller class sizes, in which the chances of personal attention and accountability are likely to occur.

Norris provides many examples of the idiosyncratic behavior, humorous conversations and the dry sense of humor found in monasteries. The attitudes conveyed were familiar from my experiences with nuns and priests. One of my least sympathetic retorts to someone who complains, excessively, about the mundane is to say, “Life is hard and then you die.” In reaction a few people smile, but more, look at me aghast. Some find the phrase shocking, others recognize the truth in it.

The phrase is blunt, but I do not consider it harsh. People who possess a certain outlook and intolerance of folly embrace it. Why some get it and laugh, while others see the phrase as insensitive is curious. What it is about the way we have, or perhaps haven’t, experienced obstacles that make my comment so shocking for some. What kind of filters allows people to expect gentleness and others to challenge it as real?

Gender is part of it. As a woman I’m supposed to be perennially nurturing and such a comment, as I’ve observed, coming from a man is somehow more acceptable. It somehow doesn’t reflect negatively on their character. Women are soft; men are hard stereotypes persist. As a teacher, I saw this cultural construct played out in other ways, in how male teachers and coaches engaged students, compared to the kind of interactions students expected from female teachers. And what was said, especially about the female teachers, if they didn’t conform to society’s expectations.

Norris points out contrasts between female and male monastics through out her book. She touches on differences and similarities between celibacy and marital fidelity. She addresses the differing views of celibacy between genders and how, since Vatican II, there has been a debate among Benedictine sisters around what they wear and what it symbolizes. She touches on people’s differing expectations in what they tolerate from celibate sisters in comparison to celibate men, and the differences between what the sisters think their clothes say and how people react to what they wear.

Norris tells us that Benedictine practice requires monks and nuns to acknowledge every day that they are going to die.

Faced with an incurable form of cancer and my immortality, I do wonder if I would have benefited by such a practice. Perhaps then it would make the idea of dying more acceptable, instead of something I fiercely resist accepting. I wonder if I’ll ever resign myself to accepting the inevitable and what the process will be like that allows one to be okay with dying.

I hear people say they are ready to die, they are no longer afraid.
I wonder: if you’re not feeling well and suffering and can do nothing but be sick, how long does it take before you just want to die. . . and are okay with dying?
I’ve had four surgeries for cancer. Last year I had surgery, radiation, treatment a
Profile Image for Annie.
442 reviews38 followers
July 6, 2015
I wanted to read this book ever since it was in a box of books to add to the collection back in 2012 when I worked at a college library. The title suggested nuns to me more than monks, but that is a minor quibble.

For the first 200 pages, this was a solid, four star reading: thoughtful, quoting the Desert Fathers, a Presbyterian who likes hanging out with Benedictine monks, which did make me a little nervous about if she was illicitly going to Communion all those times she talks about going to Mass.
At St. John's I discovered the true purpose of vespers, which is to let my body tell me, at the end of a workday, just how tired I am. Often I'd come to vespers after dinner, and in the middle of a psalm, or in the silence between psalms, I'd find that my great plans for the evening-- to attend a concert, lecture, or a film-- were falling by the way. I'd sometimes notice monks who seemed as tired as I, and recall the maternal mercy of Abba Poemen, who when he was asked about the problem of monks falling asleep during communal prayers, had said, 'For my part, when I see a brother who is dozing, I put his head on my knees and let him rest.'
Sitting in the choir, in the wooden seats that hadn't seemed so hard at morning prayer, or at noon or at Mass, I would realize that I'd been running for hours on nervous energy. Grateful for the quiet flow of vespers that had nudged me into acknowledging my weary state, I'd become more willing to do what my body asked of me: let the day suffice, with all its joys and failings, its little triumphs and defeats. I'd happily, if sleepily, welcome evening as a time of rest, and let it slip away, losing nothing."

The tone of the book started to shift subtly around the time she talked about the significance of the virgin martyrs, and by the time she got to Maria Goretti, who has nothing to do with cloistered life or the previous 250 pages of the book, Norris seemed to be seriously off-topic and way out in left field. Although, to be quite honest, the obsession with Maria Goretti is kind of creepy, but not as bad as the way Norris puts it.

I read this book around the same time as reading a couple books on marriage, like "Things I'd Known Before We Got Married" by Gary Chapman. Norris' frank discussion with several monks and nuns who fell in love after taking their vows seemed to fit well with some of Chapman's ideas, about stages of romantic love, how forgiveness is not a feeling, and most of all with his chapter on how a sense of spirituality is not equated with just going to church. Norris also reminded me of some of T. G. Morrow's distinctions of different kinds of love in "Christian Courtship in an Oversexed World." Morrow maintains that erotic love, while not characterized by the deliberate choice of agape love, does fade away when the passionate feelings are not nurtured. One of the nuns who talks to Norris gives an amazing insight about falling in love, particularly when you're already taken.

"I learned to accept my need for my love... and my ability to love, as great gifts from God. And I decided that, yes, I did want to remain in the monastery, to express my love within a celibate context. It was not difficult to see falling in love as a part of seeking God. But it was also good to realize that while infatuation might be an impetus to seek God, it puts you out of balance, and therefore is something to be treated with care.
I finally realized... that I had to keep in mind that my primary relationship is with God. My vows were made to another person, the person of Christ. And all of my decisions about love had to be made in light of that person."
(p. 251)

This passage helped to underline for me one of the Church's teachings that celibacy and marriage are complementary, a point seldom explained with Norris' and this nun's candor.

Another sister shared this with Norris:
"Unless we're open to the gift of friendship, allowing ourselves to be loved and to really love in return, only then can we know what it might be to have God love us and to love God. I really believe that the experience of love is the only teacher of love." (p. 255)

Waiting. Sin. Contemplation. Holiness. Lovely topics, but "Into Great Silence" this is definitely not, to Norris' detriment. Next time I just won't read the last hundred pages or so. I'm reminded of a teacher who encouraged students to cut Spenser's "The Faerie Queene" in half to make it easier to carry around and read.
July 13, 2020
DNF at page 149. Scattered. I was expecting more of a moving book of the life of Benedictine monks. It seemed like a disjointed rambling of all aspects of her life and marriage. She was very clear that she was a poet. But the language on the page was not evidently poetic. There was some profound and moving essays about monastic life and the men she met. But this book was much different than expected and sadly isn’t for me.
Profile Image for Nate.
349 reviews2 followers
January 3, 2009
Kathleen Norris has an uncanny way of being theologically astute and real-world practical at the same time. This book was amazing. It was hard to put down. Her chapters were usually short, but the book was over 350 pages. It provided a lot of bite-sized chunks of wisdom gleaned from interacting with monks as an oblate, living life in a small, South Dakota town, and being a professional writer and poet.

Norris would usually tackle an issue concerning monastic life, such as celibacy, for example, and examine it from many angles, including insiders' perspectives. She was able to hit the nail on the head while using the shape of story, parable, and metaphor. This is the book that I've been looking for to translate the monastic life for people who live in the 21st century. She also does more than that -- she shows that monks and nuns are living their lives as an expression of giving themselves totally to the gospel of Christ in community. These people are not escaping the world; rather, they are confronting the world by struggling daily with their own fleshly desires to become like Christ in their entire being.

I am looking forward to reading more of Norris. She has so many acutely perceptive insights into the Christian life. She is earthy, yet erudite, and she doesn't make me feel weird like Ann Lamott. Ann Lamott seems to drag you through all of her baggage and gory life details to center on the same message -- God give us grace. Norris has that message too, but less gory details and more facets of truth.
Profile Image for Sheila .
1,936 reviews
January 20, 2013
What a fascinating book. There is a blurb on the cover from The Boston Globe which says in part "This is a strange and beautiful book." and I have to say I agree completely with that sentiment.

The book is strange because of the variety of things included. Some chapters are basically journal entries from the author, diary entries of her life. Some chapters are her thoughts about the Benedictines that she has spent time with, about their beliefs, their practices, their lifestyle, etc. Some chapters are a history of the church. Some chapters tell of the Psalms and The Rule of Benedict. Some chapters tell about different saints and people in history related to the church. And all of these things are mingled together in no real specific order, yet somehow it all flows and becomes complete. Strange.

The book is beautiful because so many of the chapters are almost meditative. They are easy to read, yet contemplative. The author is a Protestant woman, who has become an Oblate (a person dedicated to) the Benedictines. She is the outsider sharing her experiences. And her thoughts and experiences were beautiful and thought provoking to me.

I really enjoyed this book, and enjoyed reading it slowly, with just a chapter or two a night, with time spent to think them over before continuing.
Profile Image for Kristi  Siegel.
192 reviews596 followers
December 13, 2009
Wonderfully moving and engaging book describing Kathleen Norris's experience living in a cloister. I read this book years before I converted to Catholicism, so it's clearly not required to have "insider knowledge" to relish this book.

There was a passage somewhere in the book that has stayed with me. I can't remember enough of the wording to even Google it successfully. Norris was speaking to a monk, I believe, who had a view of the many and varied people walking by. She asked him, given that these people represented worldliness in various dubious forms, what he thought of them. His answer, both simple and wise, was something like I see different people on their way to God.

As someone often too judgmental and often unable to turn off my judge-o-meter, the answer stopped me in my tracks, and the monk's response is one I've thought of again and again.

To get the actual scene, I guess I'll have re-read the book or locate it among our many bookcases and book dumping grounds (finding it will probably take more time than re-reading it).
Profile Image for Emilia P.
1,719 reviews50 followers
January 12, 2008
I got the chills approximately every 5 minutes reading this book. Norris meanders through her stays in a Benedictine monastery in Minnesota, her thoughts (and Benedictine thoughts) on the scriptures and on early saints and theologians...the poetry of liturgies and the sacramental and sacred in daily life. Oh, dang, so great.

Norris has lived in DC, Illinois, Hawai'i, Vermont, and NYC, but ended up in South Dakota. There is a peaceful prairie way about her work and a great sense of curiosity in it too.

I especially enjoyed this book because it really put the Bible, as used by the Catholic Church, in its proper and important place as the poetry of our faith...since our practice and belief involves so many other liturgies as well (oh hey, the Eucharist), I often overlook it....Thanks K.Norris. I might just go read the book of Jeremiah.

Profile Image for Willa Guadalupe Grant.
388 reviews2 followers
November 26, 2012
I took longer to read this book than I have ever taken to read any book. Not because it was difficult but because the author gave me so much to think about. I had to go & get books to read that she was commenting on & wanted to think about things she brought up carefully. I especially liked Ms Norris' take on the Book of Revelation. I also realized that one of the things I most love about litugy is the sanctifying of the everyday things. I love ritual, I love liturgy & I am going to buy a copy of this book for my library.
109 reviews1 follower
March 23, 2019
One of the best written books I've read in some time. I now regard the book of Psalms quite differently, after hearing this poet's take on it. For spiritual growth, it is wonderful. From a mental health perspective, open and honest.
22 reviews1 follower
June 16, 2007
this book was significant for me. one that was read at the right time, ya know?
Profile Image for Katie Krombein.
377 reviews2 followers
July 16, 2017
I have been meaning to read this for about 15 years and am glad I finally did. I laughed out loud reading it, as well as got teary at a few parts. I enjoyed some interesting literary/biblical connections, and I didn't understand some other references that were made. Some thoughts I enjoyed:

p. xix: Gradually my perspective on time had changed. In our culture, time can seem like an enemy: it chews us up and spits us out with appalling ease. But the monastic perspective welcomes times as a gift from God, and seeks to put it to good use rather than allowing us to be used up by it. ..."you never really finish anything in life,' she says, 'and while that's humbling, and frustrating, it's all right. The Benedictines, more than any other people I know, insist that there is time in each day for prayer, for work, for study, and for play.

p. 8: I was also surprised as I hadn't read the Bible in years, how much of Benedict's advice came straight from scripture. In his prologue, he takes that enticing question of Psalm 34: Which of you desires life, and covers many days to enjoy good?" and states that God has already given us the answer in the very next verses of the psalm: 'Keep your tongue from evil, your lips from speaking deceit. Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it (Ps. 34:12-14). It was good to be reminded, as I thought of the conflicts in my town and church and family, that peace is not an easy thing, but something that must be struggled for.

p. 19: equal treatment does not translate into equality...the ongoing Benedictine experiment demonstrates a remarkable ability to take individual differences into account while establishing the primacy of communal life.

p. 27: Near the end of [Emily Dickinson's] life, she wrote in a letter: 'When Jesus tells us about his Father, we distrust him. When he shows us his Home, we turn away, but when he confides to us that he is 'acquainted with Grief,' we listen, for that also is an Acquaintance of our own.

p. 33: Monks know very well how easy it is to lose track of one's purpose in life, how hard to maintain the discipline that keeps "our minds in harmony with our voices" in prayer, the ease with which aimless desire can disturb our hearts.

p. 54 Loved the "my very first dad" poem story

p. 61 The ancient understanding of Christian worship is that, in the words of the liturgical scholar Aidan Kavanagh, it "gives rise to theological reflection, and not the other way around," We can see the obvious truth of this by shifting our attention to poetry, and entertaining the notion that one might grow into faith much as one writes a poem. It takes time, patience, discipline, a listening heart. There is precious little certainty, and often great struggling, but also joy in our discoveries. This joy we experience, however, is not visible or quantifiable; we have only the words and form of the poem, the results of our exploration.

p. 84: My favorite photograph of my parents, taken not long after they eloped, shows two pretty young people dressed in style, who most likely had no idea of the moral courage their marriage would require of them. They were still vain children--Mom's showing off her great legs, Dad his rascal grin--but they soon found that matrimony would plunge them headlong into the strenuous process of redemption, in which even the worst things may eventually work to the good. ...her sister said of their parents: "They have large human hearts, getting larger. As they age, they're becoming more intensely themselves, and it's so good. Good for them, good for us, good for the children to see."

p. 106: I remember the Benedictine sister retired from a university professorship on account of a debilitating illness who said, "For so many years, I was taught that I had to 'master' subjects. But who can 'master' beauty, or peace, or joy? This psalm [131] speaks of the grace of childhood, not of being childish. One of my greatest freedoms is to see that all the pretenses and defenses I put up in the first part of my life, I can spend the rest of my life taking down. This psalm tells me that I'm a dependent person, and that it's not demeaning."

p. 115: "I wonder if one of the reasons I love the Benedictines so much is that they seldom make big noises about being Christians. Though they live with the Bible more intimately than most people, they don't thump on it, or with it, the way gorrillas thump on their chests to remind anyone within earshot of who they are. Benedictines remind me more of the disciples of Jesus, who are revealed in the gospel accounts as people who were not afraid to admit their doubts, their needs, their lack of faith. 'Lord, increase our faith,' they say, 'Teach us to pray.' They kept getting the theology wrong, and Jesus, more or less patiently, kept trying to set them straight.

p. 135: Abba Elias said, "what can sin do where there is penitence? And of what use is love where there is pride?" -The sayings of the desert fathers
p. 135-136: Where are you? How do we respond to the good [gifts that we are given]?
Profile Image for Valeska.
243 reviews
May 1, 2019
I feel like I learned more about monastic life from this book than I did in 20 years of being a Catholic. It took a while for me to get used to the pace and the tone of the book. The author is a poet and is very meditative, so has lots of insight and joy in her experiences.

I appreciated the discussions of day-to-day life at a Monastery. I also enjoyed the discussions of traditions of Lectio Divinia, listening to the reading of scriptures. It was a good reminder that we have an amazing way to get perspective from traditional texts. I liked how she discussed even if you aren't in a place where the particular scripture affects you personally (e.g. concerning despair or loss when you don't have that at the moment). It seems like a great way to develop empathy - remembering that others may be dealing with those feelings when you are not.

I also liked her take on parts of the traditions that I hadn't considered, such as the Virgin martyrs (which usually make me cringe). Also, I did like her discussions about the monks and all the people she met along the way. It was a very interesting read.
Profile Image for Amanda E. (aebooksandwords).
81 reviews17 followers
March 17, 2023
I’ve always been drawn to the monastic way of life, if I’m honest, so I was likewise drawn to this book. I appreciated being able to look into the life of the Benedictines that Kathleen Norris spent much time with, their way of life which is something I myself aspire to in their focus on prayer, simplicity, the reading of the Scriptures and such.

Although a small handful of chapters were of less interest to me, for the rest of this book I would rate it four stars.

Furthermore, the author has such a profound way of “noticing” in the many details of every day life, a noticing that led her to see God at work and receive wisdom from life’s happening and those around her that is greatly refreshing.

I finished this book praying that I too may learn to “notice” in this way, that God may use it for my good and the good of others to His glory.
Profile Image for Haley Baumeister.
110 reviews64 followers
January 4, 2022
It only took me 12 whole months, but a slow reading of this was the perfect companion through this year. I think I renewed the kindle book loan at least 15 times. Such a meandering and unique memoir of sorts, in the best kind of way. Who knew you could find yourself so wrapped up in the life of monks and nuns, in awe of their way of life, and fascinated by their ancient communities? The vignettes of stories & commentary lent themselves to being read by a tired mom who kept picking up and putting down the book over the course of a year. I’m now freshly determined to re-read her book Acedia and Me, because Kathleen Norris is a fun hang and a treasure trove of eclectic experiences & good, perceptive wisdom.
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