People of the Books: The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris

Reading this book is roughly like drinking tea—it helps to take it in pieces, slowly, and preferably while you have time to sit down and truly pay attention to it. It took me a long time to read, and I don’t regret that at all.

It’s kind of a diary/journal/series of essays based around Norris’s time with the St. John’s community in Minnesota. I know of St. John’s because of their Bible project (which is so UNBELIEVABLY COOL), but otherwise I was flying blind.  I’ve never been there, I’ve never stayed at a monastery; I’ve been to several, but as a tourist, a historian.  I strongly suspect a lot of my resonance with this book is due to being a medievalist:  she mentions the Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo several times, which is A Really Big Deal among medievalists, and also I know more about monastic life and saints and such than most might simply because I study them a lot.

But I also resonate with this because it is a conversation, a beautifully soft love letter to the quiet comfort of people you trust and the self you may not but hope to one day. It made me want to write poetry and pay attention to the land around me, which is always a surefire way to get me to love a book. And I have a forest of sticky notes for quotes I wish to keep when I have to return the book (a friend loaned this to me saying he thought I would like it; I am ever so glad he did), like “To be American is to move on, as if we could outrun change. To attach oneself to place is to surrender to it, and suffer with it.” (244)  How true, especially for a nomad like me!  I take a sort of pride in never having lived in only one place for more than a handful of years, which is part of what draws me to the United Methodist Church—it’s an itinerant system.  You move around.  Yet I realize when I talk with my friends who are truly from somewhere that that is its own kind of love and life and adventure, to be part of the history of a place, to have the memory of it.

I love that Norris redirects me to several other books and histories that I didn’t understand when I encountered them in grad school, likely because I was reading them as a scholar rather than a person searching for the God mentioned within. She invites me to see where I am, not necessarily where I’m going, and that is fantastically marvelous.

Here are several of the quotes I found striking:

“Human relationships are by their nature incomplete—after twenty-one years, my husband remains a mystery to me, and I to him, and that is as it should be.  Only hope allows us to know and enjoy the depth of our intimacy.”  (122)

St. Augustine:  “Let us sing now, not in order to enjoy a life of leisure, but in order to lighten your labors.  You should sing as wayfarers do—sing, but continue your journey.  Do not be lazy, but sing to make your journey more enjoyable.  Sing, but keep going.”

Ernest Becker:  “There are two basic ways to experience a radical change:  to undergo a nervous breakdown, and to fall in love.  And love is preferable.  Love, if we can move beyond projecting onto another person and see them as they really are, also makes us more aware of who we are.”

Desert monk Anthony:  “[T]he prayer of the monk is not perfect until he no longer realizes himself or the fact that he is praying.”


Rating:  4.5/5 stars  People of the Books:  Why I Am a Catholic by Garry Wills

One thought on “People of the Books: The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris

  1. Sheila Bigelow says:

    I will have to see if my copy of this is still around.  If so, I will give it to you.  I fear it may have gone the way of rummage sales, however, as I enjoyed your selection of quotes far more than i enjoyed the book.  Oh well.


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