Cloister Walk

Cloister Walk

4.2 12
by Kathleen Norris

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What could a married woman learn from a Benedictine monastery? This is what Kathleen Norris asks herself as she begins an extended stay at one in Minnesota. Yet upon leaving the monastery, the daily events in her secular life take on new meaning.

In the monastery, time slows down. Immersion in the cloistered world -- its liturgy, its rituals, its sense of community


What could a married woman learn from a Benedictine monastery? This is what Kathleen Norris asks herself as she begins an extended stay at one in Minnesota. Yet upon leaving the monastery, the daily events in her secular life take on new meaning.

In the monastery, time slows down. Immersion in the cloistered world -- its liturgy, its rituals, its sense of community -- teaches Norris to appreciate and savor everyday events. In affecting prose, she takes us through a liturgical year as she experience it both within the monastery and outside of it.

"Vibrant and intelligent." (Publishers Weekly)

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The allure of the monastic life baffles most lay people, but in her second book Norris (Dakota) goes far in explaining it. The author, raised Protestant, has been a Benedictine oblate, or lay associate, for 10 years, and has lived at a Benedictine monastery in Minnesota for two. Here, she compresses these years of experience into the diary of one liturgical year, offering observations on subjects ranging from celibacy to dealing with emotions to Christmas music. Like the liturgy she loves, this meandering, often repetitive book is perhaps best approached through the lectio divina practiced by the Benedictines, in which one tries to "surrender to whatever word or phrase captures the attention." There is a certain nervous facility to some of Norris's jabs at academics, and she is sometimes sanctimonious. But there is no doubting her conviction, exemplified in her defense of the much-maligned Catholic "virgin martyrs," whose relevance and heroism she wants to redeem for feminists. What emerges, finally, is an affecting portrait-one of the most vibrant since Merton's-of the misunderstood, often invisible world of monastics, as seen by a restless, generous intelligence. (Apr.)
Library Journal
Norris's acuity, writing talent, and ten years as an oblate at a Catholic Benedictine monastery have well equipped her to enlighten outsiders to the true ways and spirit of monastic life or, as she refers to it, the real world. Norris, a Protestant, describes how community life is the essence of humanity and celibacy an opportunity for transformation. She demonstrates the applicability of ancient scriptures and liturgies to modern times and tells how daily psalm-reading and prayer, ceremonies, and rituals helped her to overcome depression and gain inner peace. Norris, herself a poet, draws many parallels between the monastic and the poet, both of whom are fine-tuned to see the sacred potential in all things. Actress Debra Winger reads Norris's refreshing and highly inspirational book. For popular spirituality collections.Barbara J. Vaughan, State Univ. Coll. at Buffalo Lib., N.Y.
Molly McQuade
She writes about religion with the imagination of a poet...the story of her faith is attractively incongruous, and more than a little receptive to rebellion...some bridling is worth it to a reader when a writer is as original as Norris, a Midwestern, late-twentieth-century mystic. -- Chicago Tribune
Robert Coles
Ms. Norris is subtle and The Cloister Walk, persisting in her wonderfully idiosyncratic ways, she gives us the result of an immersion into a liturgical world...Most of all, naturally, these pages offer the voice of Kathleen Norris, a person of modern sensibility who dares leap across time and space to make the interests and concerns of any number of reflective thinkers her own...She is one of history's writing pilgrims to offer a contemporary American one. Boldly willing to foresake any number of corporal trends and preoccupations in favor of this Walk, this searching expedition within herself. -- The New York Times Book Review
From the Publisher
"In The Cloister Walk, persisting in [Norris's] wonderfully idiosyncratic ways, she gives us the result of an 'immersion into a liturgical world'... She is one of hisotyr's writing pilgrims but also a contemporary American one, boldly willing to forsake any number of cultural fads, trends, and preoccupations in favor of this 'walk,' this searching expedition within herself." —The New York Times Book Review

"Norris continues to write plainspoken meditations that expand the purview of non-fiction... She writes about religion with the imagination of a poet... In reading Norris, one comse to feel like a spiritual collaborate and, when one's spirit fails, like a spiritual rebel." —Chicago Tribune 

"With her lucid, luminous prose, hardheaded logic, and far-reaching metaphors, Norris has brought us the cloister at its most alive." —San Francisco Chronicle 

"The Cloister Walk is a new opportunity to discover a remarkable writer with a huge, wise heart... you want to share this great discovery, giving her work as a gift— or you simply shove a copy in the face of a friend, saying, 'Read this.'" —Minneapolis Star-Tribune

"Norris presents ample proof that holy people don't have to be starchy... If you learn anything from The Cloister Walk, it's that monks are people too. They gossip, crack jokes, fall asleep in church, suffer through depression and doubt like the rest of us.... Perhaps there's hope for spiritual life outside the cloister after all." —Newsday

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Books on Tape, Inc.
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Unabridged, 8 Cassettes

Read an Excerpt

by Kathleen Norris



This reading group guide has been created to enhance your group's enjoyment of The Cloister Walk, which can be read as a chronicle of spiritual discovery or as a meditation, like daily passages of scripture. We hope it will prove to be a valuable accompaniment to Kathleen Norris's unique work --- "a gift of insight... one of those rare books too rich to race through" (The Kansas City Star).

Part memoir, part meditation, The Cloister Walk is the movingly written and thought-provoking record of a married, Protestant woman's time spent in a community of men in a traditional Benedictine monastery in Minnesota. Any reader seeking a meaningful life - not necessarily a religious one - will be inspired by author Kathleen Norris's experiences among monks who, while so little understood in our society, are admirable bearers of tradition, incorporating in their lives the values of stability, silence, and humility that we so desperately need, yet relentlessly avoid. An award-winning poet, Kathleen Norris brings her appreciation for language and metaphor to the reading of Bible, especially the psalms, and shares the way she slowly, sometimes painfully, "let words work the earth of her heart." Gradually she learns much about simplicity, patience, forgiveness, the value of community, and the responsibility of freedom. It is in the sanctuary of the cloister that she at last achieves healing - finding peace in her sometimes troubled marriage and gaining a new understanding of her challenging life in the outside world. Above all, she discovers the force of spirituality and the beneficial change it can effect - that "love can be the center of all things, if only we will keep it there."




p>Related Titles

If you enjoyed The Cloister Walk, you'll want to read these other works by Kathleen Norris, all available from Riverhead.



  1. In the book's preface, author Kathleen Norris admits that in the past she has employed literature as a substitute for religion in her life (p. xvii). What are the similarities for her between a writing apprenticeship and a spiritual quest? Why does the latter prove so much more fulfilling? What other things do people use as replacements for religion, and why do you think they so often fall short of the kind of life epitomized by the Benedictines?

Meet the Author

Kathleen Norris is the award-winning, bestselling author of Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith; The Cloister Walk; and Dakota: A Spiritual Geography. Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, in various anthologies, and in her own three volumes of poetry. She divides her time between South Dakota and Hawaii.

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Cloister Walk 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 12 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The heart of this book is about Norris¿s walk amidst a group of Benedictine monks at St. John¿s Abbey in Minnesota, experienced through her role as a lay oblate associate, which she structures over the course of a liturgical year. Norris uses her strength as a storyteller to welcome the reader along with her on this journey utilizing her casual, engaging writing style. There¿s an immediate familiarity that comes through as she weaves personal history with insights from her past and present experiences that point the reader to parallels between monastic life that has existed for over 1,500 years and her contemporary life as a married, Protestant, poet/writer. In a world that embraces individualism while shunning a commitment to community and ¿others,¿ I found myself joining those ¿others¿ who have been drawn into Norris¿ journey for understanding, healing and meaning. Norris finds balance and routine in the rhythms of Benedictine life, one in which she becomes aware of the freedom of time as gift, where faith is a discipline - a process - not a product. She rediscovers that there¿s no right way to do faith, just as there¿s no right way to write poetry. In another passage, she shares that there is something deeply connecting, practical and refreshingly realistic about belonging to a community that not only welcomes and accepts people as they are but shares willingly and at times with disarming humor. Along the walk, other themes and reflections are explored, shared and questioned. This is that special kind of book that the more you read and reflect about its diverse content, the greater your awareness becomes of the connection and relevance between spiritual grounding and ordinary daily ritual. Through the pain, suffering, depression and doubt, Norris discovers a place she feels she belongs.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book has achieved something quite mystical. The peace, tranquility and life perspective of the monastic life has been captured here. At first I found the book slow, until I realised that I was still at the pace I live my life - and slowly the reflections, almost meditations of each chapter, slowed me down. For those readers who have visited a monastery or convent to take a retreat, the experience of having your perspective changed and being brought 'to your senses' is a familiar one. It is magical for the author to have so immersed herself in the wisdom and peace of the Benedictine life that she can reach anyone who chooses to purchase this book. Reading 'The Cloister Walk' has been a life enhancing experience and just as I have finished - I feel inclined to start reading again from the beginning to more fully absorb what I may have missed the first time. Buy five copies and give four to people that you love.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Norris invites us into the daily life of the cloister, among those who live within the 'Rule of St. Benedict'. St. Benedict wrote his 'Rule' for daily community life in the early 6th century, during a time of societal upheaval. Through his wisdom, Benedict offer our world a life of prayer, hospitality, humility, balance, stability, compassion and spiritual maturity. All Benedictine monasteries offer hospitality for day-retreats or overnight retreats. I have retreated to the cloister over the past 15 years for at least a week every year, and now I go one day a month. Through these 'cloister walks', like Norris, I've marveled at the wisdom of Benedict and his practical vision for community life. For another title which explores Benedictine wisdom for parents, check out THE FAMILY CLOISTER: BENEDICTINE WISDOM FOR THE HOME, by David Robinson (New York, NY: Crossroad, 2000, 192pp., trade paperback). Peace to all who walk these ancient paths.
Guest More than 1 year ago
One of my favourite books. Definitely worth reading more than once. Christianity without hypocrisy.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
ArtandMusic More than 1 year ago
In her book the Cloister Walk, Kathleen Norris describes her spiritual journey into the monastic lifestyle. Through describing her nine months of experiences living with the Benedictines, practicing community living, singing psalms and embarking on other contemplative practices, Norris brings the reader along in her soulful evolution. Rather than shielding the reader from the challenging moments of this journey, she reveals them. Her concentration throughout the book is on the role of community in the practice of a religion often using metaphor to make the experience more accessible to her readers. She describes faith as a process, not as a goal to be obtained. The words, chants, and psalms, that a person learns to express faith is a vehicle for bringing about an experience where faith can be nurtured. She writes, "We can see the obvious truth of this by shifting our attention to poetry, and entertaining the notion that one might grow into faith much as one writes a poem" (Norris 61). As her journey progresses, she reveals "three elements as a kind of trinity always in motion" when monastic life is experienced in its fullest (Norris 252). She writes, "It would be impossible to love God without loving others; impossible to love others unless one were grounded in a healthy self-respect; and, maybe, impossible to truly love at all in a totally secular way, without participating in the holy" (Norris 252). Balancing these three facets of the monastic discipline requires practice and patience. Norris describes specific experiences of clergy whose confidences she has gained throughout her experiences. In telling their stories, Norris shows the human side of a lifestyle that is elusive and often misunderstood to most people outside daily religious practice. She spends ample time in the book explaining and exploring the many facets of one of the most misunderstood components of monastic life, namely celibacy. Through examples from full Benedictines, she explains that celibacy frees people to serve others and stay in community with mindful intent as one of her confidants explains "the fruit of celibacy is hospitality" (Norris 263). One of the meditative practices Norris describes is one most people can relate to and that is gardening. She connects with her readers, contrasting the image of a lush, ordered medieval garden built on the images of Eden, with her own down- to- earth version that probably more easily resonates with most readers. She is both literal and metaphorical when she writes, "The garden I've grown into, in my middle age, seems more a kind of purgatory, but I love it. It's a ratty little garden, not much at all. But I can call it mine. (Norris 271)" Throughout the text, Norris weaves esoteric notions of a practice of faith with a more tangible example so that the reader can follow her journey more completely. The skill Norris evokes to this end makes the Cloister Walk an engaging read throughout the 377- page journey of faith, ritual, and religious practice. Although she describes her experiences in specific situations that build her monastic journey, Norris does not go into detail about how these experiences translated into her everyday relationships with her husband, other relatives, and friends. Although not an immediate focus of a memoir detailing her journey seeking monastic ideals, more details about how she applied the knowledge of her religious experiences to the everyday mundane things would have serve
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