I am not at all above checking out and reading books solely based on their titles or illustrations. Whoever was actually talking about books when saying that you can’t judge a book by its cover had obviously never simply wandered through the wealth of imaginative discourse that is a library—some of the covers are awful and make the book seem entirely uninteresting, some of them simply steal your attention like a beautiful woman, beckoning you to take a closer look. We are judges, we humans, drawn by fascinating phrases and strange ideas. So I freely admit to going in search of books for a paper I’m writing and, quite unexpectedly, taking home Stalking the Divine by Kristin Ohlson.
It is a memoir, of sorts, mixed with a telling of the history of the Poor Clare order. Poor Clares have come up on my radar before; as a medievalist, I’m well aware of Francis of Assisi and his various counterparts. Ohlson recounts her own various encounters of stalking faith (this really is quite a good description of it) after having stumbled into a Christmas Mass looking for something rather less tangible in her life.
What I liked very much about this (besides the intermittent history lessons, which in no way feel textbook-y but rather are intriguingly told stories, which is what history really is) was that it isn’t a neatly ended memoir. It’s a faith journey, a mid-life crisis rediscovery of things. This has been done. A lot. I have my own faith crisis story (though it wasn’t at mid-life, in the literal or usual sense), as I’m sure you do, Reader. Hell, I’m in another one now. What makes this one interesting to me is that Ohlson doesn’t catch her prey. The stalking continues. Ohlson admits that her “hold on faith is tremendously insecure” and that she “might always be at the fringe of this and every congregation. That I might never have the faith to walk in their midst.” (pp. 244, 245)
Part of why I liked the title of this book was that it was an interesting change from what I feel my life is right now. The Divine seems to be stalking me, spotted lurking in the opposite pew of things like going to my friend’s graduation from local pastor school ceremony last week. (Yeah. Let’s not even.) As Interpreter somewhat gleefully said afterward, I can run, but I can’t hide.
So to think about it in the other direction was new, and lovely, and it’s not the theological tearing apart that I’ve been doing so much of—Ohlson remarks on the incredible power of constant prayer, of the idea of living a life in which God really is your constant companion. The Poor Clares are cloistered, which means that they don’t leave the convent. They don’t speak to each other except at set times. Their lives are built around this faith, this absolute dedication to accepting the dark nights of the soul and moving forward anyway in the hope and the promise of the morning.
Ohlson works with and interviews the nuns of the convent, trying to use their faith to construct any of her own as well as simply being interested in them. She tells us their stories and we see the women behind the veil, see the fire that burns slowly, constantly; through these women we see the universal Church, the world, history, personality, family, Catholicism, grief, loss, hope, gain—life. And we see Ohlson’s life, stumblingly doubt-filled in the manner of all serious faith seekers.
I appreciate Ohlson’s writing style, gently and not-so-gently engaging the questions that have no answers, this weird expectation that we can’t understand and yet must try. I appreciate that she sees the beauty of this, looking past what we consider to be the oddity of women wanting to spend their lives in literally constant prayer away from other people to seeing that they are, in some ways, closer to others than anyone else, standing on the rooftops to pray for the city. I appreciate that she sees the intensity of Clare herself. “Some writers burnish the lives of Clare and other saints until they’re flat; only their spiritual sheen is left behind…I think of her death as spontaneous combustion, the final self-immolation of a soul on fire.” (pp. 159-60)
Again I see the hand of the Divine in having this on my desk for this week, the week that Help’s sermon was on the ubiquity of prayer and my own lecture in Sunday school was on the necessity of prayer in our relationship with God. We are called to be in constant prayer ourselves (1 Thessalonians 5:17, one of the handful of verses I’ve actually memorized because it’s the shortest one in there), though most of us don’t have a convent in which to practice this.
What difference would we notice if we actually took that seriously?
Rating: 5/5 stars
By the by, I found some rather beautiful recordings of some Poor Clares in concert, here, if you’re interested.