The Cloister Walk

by Kathleen Norris

Paperback, 1997




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 Kathleen Norris herself asks as, somewhat to her own surprise, she found herself on two extended residencies at a Benedictine monastery. Yet upon leaving the monastery, she began to feel herself transformed, and the daily events of her life on the Great Plains - from her morning walk to her going to sleep at night - gradually took on new meaning. She found that in the monastery, time slowed down, offering a new perspective on community, family, and even small-town life. By coming to understand the Benedictine practice of celibacy, she felt her own marriage enriched; through the communal reading aloud of the psalms every day, her notion of the ancient oral tradition of poetry came to life; and even the mundane task of laundry took on new meaning through the lens of Benedictine ritual. Kathleen Norris here takes us through a liturgical year, as she experienced it both within the monastery and outside it. She shows us, from the rare perspective of someone who is both insider and outsider, how immersion in the cloistered world -- its liturgy, its rituals, its sense of community -- can impart meaning to everyday events and deepen our secular lives, no matter what our faith may be.… (more)


Riverhead Books (1997), Edition: 1st, 385 pages

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(356 ratings; 4)

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LibraryThing member ctpress
The Cloister Walk offers a bridge into the life in a monastery from the viewpoint of an outsider - Norris comes from a protestant background, she's married - but have in different periods over some years been a Benedictine oblate (as a lay person attached to a monastery).

In this book she shares
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her experiences of the daily rhythm in a monastery - going to morning prayers, vespers in the evening etc. - trying to be immersed in Benedictine spirituality. The chapters are structured to follow a liturgical year - so we can get a feeling for the shifting periods of the church-year.

The book is partly memoir, partly contemplation - a lot of small and larger essays and devotions put together. Some reflections on books in the Bible, about prayer, reading, listening to Bible readings, some about Catholic saints, a lot about daily life of monks and nuns - and collected what Benedictine spirituality can offer us modern people living in a stressful world. Here's one reflection on time:

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 time as a gift from God, and seeks to put it to good use rather than allowing us to be used up by it….Liturgical time is essentially poetic time, oriented toward process rather than productivity, willing to wait attentively in stillness rather than always pushing to "get the job done".
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LibraryThing member lilithcat
Why would a married woman with a thoroughly Protestant background and often more doubt than faith be drawn to the ancient practice of monasticism . . .?

I'm not sure Norris ever really answers that question; indeed, I'm not sure she can. It's evident that she is drawn to ritual and structure, to
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simplicity in life. But it seems that the two connections which draw her in most strongly are two which connect to her life as a poet.

One is the concept of lectio continua, reading though whole books of the Bible at morning and evening prayer. She describes it thus: "The monastic discipline of listening aims to still body and soul so that the words of a reading may sink in. Such silence tends to open a person . . ."

The other is metaphor, although she says, "Poets believe in metaphor, and that alone sets them apart from many Christians . . ." The scriptures, she notes, are full of strange metaphors. Interestingly, she, a believer, and I, a non-believer, both feel quite strongly about the attempts to modernize and make "relevant" hymnals and the language of worship. I agree with her wholeheartedly when she says " . . . contemporaries are never the best judges of what works and what doesn't. This is something all poets know; that language is a living thing, beyond our control, and it simply takes time for the trendy to reveal itself, to become so obviously dated that it falls by the way, and for the truly innovative to take hold." This "metaphoric poverty" of the modern church causes her to seek to go back to an earlier time, when theology was written as poetry.

There is so much meat to this book! It begins as though it will be a straightforward account of her time at St. John's. But it becomes a series of meditations, some short, some long, on subjects as esoteric as Mechtild of Magdeburg, as current as the debate on celibacy, as mundane as laundry.
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LibraryThing member LibrarysCat
As a Catholic, it was fascinating to read about another person's, not Catholic, walk of faith. Beautifully written - with many opportunities to examine one's own spirituality.
LibraryThing member nilchance
This is dense reading. Norris speaks from the perspective of the convent and of the Christian, but what she says about spirituality, community and poetry speaks to everyone. I had to read this slow to savor the images.
LibraryThing member camcleod
This is a re-read, actually, as is Dakota. I love Norris's writing and her take on spirituality and liturgy. A wonderful (in every sense of the word) exploration of how liturgy and ritual inform spiritual reflection.
LibraryThing member mykl-s
The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris (1997)
LibraryThing member labwriter
This book saved my life at a time when I was trying to take care of my mother after yet another fall and yet another set of broken bones. Without Norris, I think I wouldn't have made it.

Norris has a way of drawing me to her for different reasons at different times of my life. The craziness of the
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political world has been getting to me lately. Opening up the book to the chapter "Dreaming of Trees," I find this: "What does it mean to be simple? What would I find in my own heart if the noise of the world were silenced? Who would I be?

Norris speaks to me. I guess it isn't any more complicated than that.
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LibraryThing member carka
Such beautiful poetic language that evokes the sounds of the monks chanting the liturgy. Made me long for such an experience.
LibraryThing member sarahinfla
This is the book that introduced me to Benedictine spirituality. It is written by a Protestant woman who spends some time with Benedictine monks.
LibraryThing member thornton37814
I really wanted to like this book, but I found myself struggling with it because it was not quite what I expected. I expected more of a unified narrative detailing how the author became closer to God because of her sojourns in the monastery. Instead, I got a lot of short, choppy thoughts with a few
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more thoughtful narratives thrown in the mix. When I got to the end, I saw that some of the sketches had been previously published in various publications. I prefer Brother Lawrence's The Practice of the Presence of God as a depiction of monastic life and intimacy with God.
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LibraryThing member Tpoi
Quite incredible. I actually wanted to go to church after reading it, even to go to St John's (monastery). What a wonderful writer on spiritual, reflective topics--passionate and brilliant without being preachy or showing off. Wow.
LibraryThing member lisaflip
I am glad I read this book. It was a little slow and quiet but that was part of its charm. I learned a bit about faith and religion and it inspired me to reflect more about my own faith. The various topics chosen by the author were well suited for reflection.
LibraryThing member Neftzger
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
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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.
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LibraryThing member Harrod
Quite meaningful
LibraryThing member mahallett
I have read other things by Norris and found her religiousosity so tiresome. I decided to try this because Naples had it and Ottawa didn't. It was my last read in Naples and I really enjoyed it. I learned a lot about monastic life--who knew there were monasteries-- and ancient saints.
LibraryThing member shannonkearns
a beautiful collection of meditations on monastic life and the ways in which those rhythms can enrich the non monastic life.
LibraryThing member Arctic-Stranger
After moving to the Dakotas from New York, Norris made a spiritual move as well. Her first book, Dakota focuses on the geographic move, with constant references to the spiritual moves she made in the process. In The Cloister Walk, Norris goes into detail on how this former New York City atheist c*m
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Presbyterian finds spiritual nurture at a Benedictian monastary.
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LibraryThing member patl
Kathleen Norris is a poet who, with her husband, move from Hawaii to rural South Dakota to take over her family farm. In the process of rooting herself in this new place, she discovers a local Benedictine monastery, and she's attracted to the rhythms and depth of life she sees there. It's a
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gorgeous book about being pilgrims and learning from where you are. Norris is one of a few authors who I'll read everything she produces. Some of her work is less spiritually focused, but none is better.
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