A brief review of Kathleen Norris’s The Cloister Walk

It’s a bit hard to write this somewhat negative review since I actually really enjoyed the book, especially the first half. Her first memoir, Dakota (which I picked up on a whim at a used book store a few years ago) was surprisingly great. The Cloister Walk takes place a few years later and recounts the year she spent in a Benedictine monastery.

It makes complete sense that Norris finds living casually in a cloister to be a sublime and positive experience. She’s relatively wealthy and financially well-off without the need to work on a day-to-day basis and hold down a job to pay the bills. She has no children to care for, not even grown children or grandchildren to visit. She isn’t even tied down by her husband who is distant and independent, often living in foreign countries for a year or more at a time without her. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that her memoirs frequently glamorize and defend the monastic life. The defense is welcomed, but the other not so much. She might have learned a lot in her 9 months in the monastery and it’s often delightful when she shares what she has discovered. Still, she isn’t constricted by vows and frequently has to leave for a weekend to jet off to Hawaii or Manhattan to take care of business. I dare say that if she had been truly stuck there, like all the other residents, she might have written a different book.

Norris is highly critical of the anti-liturgical, anti-intellectual, and anti-art culture produced by much of America protestantism (often rightly so in my opinion), but the problem is that she isn’t in a position to appreciate or even recognize the motivation behind the theology and ecclessiology that has driven the reformation in the past and the evangelicism of our current time. She’s smart, she’s well-read, she’s poetic and gracious and observant and interesting and a skilled writer. But she’s no theologian, or shepherd, or mother, and frankly, sometimes she just doesn’t get it.

This is ultimately why I am far more inclined to listen to words of wisdom from Fr. Robert Capon. His approach to the beauty of creation and his appreciation of liturgy are remarkably similar to that or Norris. The difference is that he raised six children and pastored a flock for thirty years – living in one house with his wife for nearly his whole life. One side-effect of this is that he never takes himself too seriously. Fortunately, Norris usually doesn’t either and so she is still often enjoyable.. I would still highly recommend her work, especially to someone jaded by religion in their youth. I have one of her later books on my to-read stack. I’m optimistic.