The Psalms, A Monastery, A Woman's Self-Renewal


By Kathleen Norris

Riverhead Books

384 pp., $23.95

Kathleen Norris knows about faith. She also knows a lot about doubt.

Although she grew up a "thorough Protestant," she struggled during adolescence with what seemed to her "an impossible standard" for formal prayer and faith. Like many women of her generation, she says, "I simply stopped going to church when I could no longer be 'good,' which for girls especially meant not breaking rules, not giving voice to anger or resentment, and not complaining."

For 20 years, Norris lived a totally secular life. As a poet and writer, she viewed literature as "an adequate substitute for religion," believing that religion wasn't worth exploring if she couldn't "do it right."

Then an unexpected encounter with Benedictine liturgy, with its heavy emphasis on the Psalms, drew her back to the Bible and her church. It also set the stage for an unusual spiritual odyssey - two nine-month stays in a religious and cultural institute at St. John's Abbey in Minnesota, an experience she recounts in "The Cloister Walk."

As a married Protestant woman, Norris appears to be an improbable candidate to live in a community of celibate men. Yet as she "walks" with the Benedictine monks, spending days in continual reading, prayer, and singing, she gains new perspectives on their life and her own.

Marriage, family, clothing, the tiny prairie town in western South Dakota where she and her husband moved from New York - all take on deeper meaning. Shut off from the world of secular clocks and workday schedules, Norris finds new rhythms of life in "liturgical time." She compares it to "poetic time," explaining that both poetry and monasticism involve "attentive waiting."

Both prayer and poetry, she adds, "begin deep within a person, beyond the reach of language." Norris also comes to value the discipline of listening, which "aims to still body and soul so that the words of a reading may sink in."

Norris avoids the outsider's tendency to romanticize monastic life. She offers no holier-than-thou portrait of herself and places no carefully polished halos on the monks.

Noting that abbeys are full of real people struggling with everyday problems - doubt, boredom, disagreement - she sums up the challenges of communal living by quoting one Benedictine, who told her, "Our biggest problem is that each man here had a mother who fried potatoes in a different way."

Weaving autobiography into her spiritual journey, Norris describes her peripatetic childhood in a military family. She writes lovingly about her younger sister, Becky, whose brain was damaged at birth. And she movingly recounts her experiences as an artist-in-residence at Midwestern schools, coaxing hidden talent and poetry out of children often labeled difficult or slow by their teachers.

Norris sees "an enormous hunger for spiritual grounding" among baby boomers, many of whom, like herself, left church long ago. "I have lately realized that what went wrong for me in my Christian upbringing is centered in the belief that one had to be dressed up, both outwardly and inwardly, to meet God, the insidious notion that I need be a firm and even cheerful believer before I dare show my face in 'His' church."

She emphasizes the central role of hospitality in religious institutions, the need to reach out with welcoming arms to doubters and unbelievers, the dressed-down as well as the dressed-up.

Whatever inadequacy Norris feels as a worshiper, she knows how to "do it right" as a writer. Her prose reflects the cadences of a poet's ear, and her candor grounds this book in reality.

By sharing her own immersion in a liturgical world - her doubts, her triumphs, her perspectives on the Bible, particularly the Psalms - Norris indirectly encourages readers of all faiths to find a cloister without walls in their own lives, a place where they can discover the joyous possibilities for rebirth, the spiritual bounty that comes even after extended "drought times," when one must "hunker down and wait for rain, for hope."

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