Monastic life is as much about practicalities as high-flown spirituality. Deborah Jones on two very different glimpses of the cloister
The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris, Lion £16.99 New Habits by Isabel Losada, Hodder & Stoughton £7.99
KATHLEEN NORRIS is a poet. A real poet, not the "anything goes" jingle-maker type. She takes her calling seriously and asks the questions only real poets do: "By what authority does the poet, or prophet, speak? How dare the poet say 'I' and not mean the self? How dare the prophet say 'Thus says the Lord'? It is the authority of experience, but by this I do not mean experience used as an idol, as if an individual's experience of the world were its true measure. I mean experience tested in isolation, as by the desert fathers and mothers, and also tried in the crucible of community. I mean a 'call' taken to heart, and over the years of apprenticeship to an artistic disci
pline, developed into something that speaks to others."
But this is not a book of poetry, although it deals at times with poetic matters: metaphor, teaching poetry to primary-school children, and so forth. It is primarily about monastic life. Can a Protestant married woman, even if she is a poet, say much that is useful about the life of Benedictine monks (and, to a lesser extent, nuns)? Well, the Oblate Master of Prinknash Abbey was clearly impressed with the author of The Cloister Walk when I spoke to him, and he should know.
Ms Norris observes a wide range of traditional Catholic practices, attitudes and beliefs from the position of a sympathetic outsider who sees more of the game than do many born-to-it insiders. She examines all with an enriching freshness, thoughtfulness and gentle erudition. Saints, scripture and spirituality are given relevance to people of today. The subject, for example, of Mary of Egypt, whose icon the author once gave to a counsellor of teenage prostitutes, provokes this observation on repentance: "Repentance is valuable because it opens in us the idea of change. I've known several young women who've worked in the sex trade, and one of the worst problems they encounter is the sense that change isn't possible. They're in a business that will discard them as useless once they're past thirty, but they come to feel that this work is all they can do. Many, in fact, do not like what they become. The facile thinking of middleclass America I'm OK, you're OK, your pimp is OK isn't of much use to these women once they recognise that they need a change."
The reaction of the author to her first reading of St Benedict's Rule is like that of my reaction to her book: "The Rule surprises people who expect the ether that often wafts through books on spiritual themes, the kind of holy talk that can make me feel like a lower life form." She goes on: "Benedict knows that practicalities — the order and times for psalms to be read, care of tools, the amount and type of food and drink and clothing — are also spiritual concerns. Many communal ventures begun with high hopes have foundered over the question of who takes out the garbage."
ESPITE BEING a
Protestant, a woman, married and all that, Kathleen Norris was able to share the liturgical life of the male community of St John's Abbey, Collegeville, Minnesota, for several years. The book is an assemblage of reflections arising out of and ordered around the liturgical year. Don't leave this book beside the bed in the guest room if you hope to see your guests during their stay.
The same cannot be said of the other book on religious life, New Habits. Working
on the assumption that young women who wish to enter religious de today are fascinating freaks, the author has interviewed several of them, transcribed their utterances and is now selling her book to the curious. E's all rather golly-gosh. especially the coy bit about "How can they give up sex?" and "Are they just running away?". The ten women tiemselses, obliged to talk about themselves and their deepest thoughts and feelings h frontof an interviewer wih her tape-recorder running,come across as pleasant aid conmitted. All seem ken to appear as normal aTossible. which I found touchingly sad.
I tired if reading after the first two c three, Like many Catholic women who flame tried the religiouv, life, I find the subject terribly stale unless sonebod2 with Kathleen Norri's gifts shines new light on i all. The Cloister Walk mal well encourage new vocaions; I can't see New Habts doing so.