The Cloister Walk.
In The Cloister Walk, Norris explores how the practices and disciplines of spirituality and writing mirror each other. She struggles to reconcile traditional doctrine and scripture with her own feminist beliefs, and to discover the poetry inherent in ritual. In A Zen Romance, Boehm recaptures a time in the late 1960s when she lived in Japan, producing an intermittently entertaining memoir in which virgin Valley Girl finds Zen.
Kathleen Norris is best known for the reflective, personal essays of Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, which detailed her relocation from urban New York City to rural South Dakota after she inherited her grandmother's home. In that book, Norris first shared with readers her budding relationship with a nearby Catholic Benedictine monastery where she went for retreats. Although married and Protestant, Norris felt a pull to the monastic experience. As she explains in The Cloister Walk,
For a long time I had no idea why I was so attracted to the Benedictines, why I kept returning to their choirs. Now I believe it's because of the hospitality I've encountered in their communal lectio, a hospitality so vast that it invites all present into communion with the text being read. (p.217)
That she was welcome despite her ambiguous faith and her penchant for challenging the rules made the monastic experience possible. She writes,
I have lately realized that what went wrong for me in my Christian upbringing is centered in the belief that one had to be dressed up, both outwardly and inwardly, to meet God, the insidious notion that I need to be a firm and even cheerful believer before I dare show my face in "His" church. Such a God was of little use to me in adolescence, and like many women of my generation I simply stopped going to church when I could no longer be "good," which for girls especially meant not breaking rules, not giving voice to anger or resentment, and not complaining. (pp.90-91)
Over time, Norris finds that her writing has a dual purpose. "I'd begun to realize that the apprenticeship as a writer that I'd embarked on in my early twenties was in essence a religious quest," she explains in her preface. So, with a struggling marriage, a husband embarking on his own journey of self-discovery and a depressing tendency to writer's block, Norris applies to the Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research at St. John's Abbey and University at Collegeville, Minnesota. She then proceeds to spend two nine-month terms in residence, immersing herself in monastic rituals and routines, researching and writing.
In The Cloister Walk, she peripatetically chronicles her life in the monastery, where time is experienced primarily through the liturgical calendar. For the uninitiated, the liturgy (regardless of order, monastery, or location) is composed of predetermined readings and prayers that are heard or chanted as a community at intervals throughout the day, along with celebration of the Eucharist and periods of silent meditation. The Liturgy of the Hours is an integral component of monastery life, generally held at early morning, noon, later afternoon and evening. Norris parallels her experience as a participant in the liturgy with that of being a day-to-day participant in, and witness of, the domestic routines of monastic life. Through the hands-on sharing of cooking and cleaning, of the variety of labors necessary to maintain communal life, whether monastic or familial, she learns the value of attending fully to ordinary tasks.
Since it would be impossible for Norris to comment on every aspect of the liturgy, she is eccentrically selective, juxtaposing crusty old misogynist prophets like Jeremiah with the process and power of lectio, the communal oral reading of entire books of scripture. (Her commentaries on scripture are interspersed with chapters called "Degenerates," "Saved By a Rockette" and "At Last, Her Laundry's Done.") The perspective is that of the outsider looking in, questioning and probing. Forays back to her South Dakota hometown, her own Protestant church, her stumbling marriage and assorted professional obligations add grist to Norris' reflective mill.
"Scholars speak with authority, and they must, as they are trying to convince the reader that they have a worthwhile point of view," she writes. "On the other hand, poets speak with no authority but that which the reader is willing to grant them." Although Norris is a poet, her writing in The Cloister Walk is often scholarly. She consistently draws connections between poetic process and spiritual process: "The monastic life has this in common with the artistic one: both are attempts to pay close attention to objects, events, and natural phenomena that otherwise would get chewed up in the daily grind." She comes to recognize
the dynamic nature of both disciplines; they are not so much subjects to be mastered as ways of life that require continual conversion. For example, no matter how much I've written or published, I always return to the blank page; and even more important, from a monastic point of view, I return to the blankness within, the fears, laziness and cowardice that, without fail, will mess up whatever I'm currently writing and, in turn, require me to revise it. The spiritual dimension of this process is humility, not a quality often associated with writers, but lurking there, in our nagging sense of the need to revise, to weed out the lies you've told yourself and get real. (p. 142)
I particularly appreciate the way in which Norris ferrets out what is relevant in scripture to her. In Psalm 137, she hears the "bitterness of colonized people everywhere":
For it was there that they asked us, our captors, for songs, our oppressors, for joy. "Sing to us," they said, "one of Zion's songs."
O how could we sing the song of the Lord on alien soil?
"All too often, for reasons of gender, as well as poverty and race, we find that our journey from girlhood to womanhood is an exile to 'alien soil,'" she comments, drawing her own connections.
And how do feminist women, who often feel as if we're asked to sing in the midst of an oppressive patriarchy, asked to dress pretty and act nice, read such a psalm? We may feel, as radical feminists do, that the very language we speak is an oppressor's tongue. How, then, do we sing? (pp. 103-104)
While posing such intriguing questions and engaging the reader in a dialogue, Norris provides few answers. She doesn't tell us how to resolve our own turmoil, but simply shares her own. Her thematic emphasis is on reflection rather than resolution. But her process is researched, intelligent, thoughtful, and she has produced an often provocative book.
Take, for example, the subject of celibacy. Her relationships with the monks, celibate men, challenge her to redefine her prior understanding of community, celibacy and spirituality. Norris moves past a view of celibacy as mere abstinence - or as even a "highly suspect" or infantile denial of adult sexuality - toward an understanding that includes celibacy as a giving of self. For her, the monks have "learned how to listen without possessiveness, without imposing themselves.... And this is the purpose of celibacy, not to attain some impossibly cerebral goal mistakenly conceived as 'holiness' but to make oneself available to others, body and soul." She also notes,
One reason I enjoy celibates is that they tend to value friendship very highly. And my friendships with celibate men, both gay and straight, give me some hope that men and women don't live in alternate universes. In 1990s America, this sometimes feels like a countercultural perspective. Male celibacy, in particular, can become radically countercultural if it is perceived as a rejection of the consumerist model of sexuality, a model that reduces women to the sum of her parts. (pp. 119-120)
Norris compares celibacy with monogamy, with choosing a focus that eliminates other options - not for the sake of denial, but for a much desired long-term goal. In her eyes, both are purposeful. "And it is precisely the skills of celibate friendship - fostering intimacy through letters, conversation, performing mundane tasks together (thus rendering them pleasurable), savoring the holy simplicity of a shared meal, or a walk together at dusk - that can help a marriage survive the rough spots."
She finds her own marital commitment renewed by her monastic experience; her tenuous faith is strengthened, her sense of creative potential expanded and her appreciation for the ordinary enhanced. Personally, I found the chapters on celibacy alone to be worth the price of the book. In the weeks since my first reading, I've found myself reevaluating the priority placed on sexual vs. "celibate" expressions of love and caring in my own long-term marriage.
The Cloister Walk is not a book to be read as one would a novel. Its usefulness will vary, reader to reader, even chapter to chapter. It works best in increments, small pieces, in which the reader can savor the meaningful while weighing or discarding that which does not apply. Some may feel impatient, as I did, with chapters that felt too brief (when covering areas that intrigued me) or rambling (when exploring issues that did not). The parts are more gratifying than the whole.
The Cloister Walk lacks the seamlessness of Dakota, in which Kathleen Norris' poetic voice sang. There are fewer skies, more intellectual themes. Time moves differently though the pages and in the reading. The truly evocative moments are random. But the prose itself pays off in full.
That is not the case with A Zen Romance by Deborah Boliver Boehm. Even Boehm's erotic fantasies, which chronically interrupt any possible focus on the benefits of meditation or a spiritual journey, lack zip.
Boehm does not seek out the monastic life. She falls into its lap by accident when she rents a room in Kyoto that happens to be on monastery grounds. She grows to appreciate the Buddhist monks, their chanting and ritual, but her vision remains incurably self-focused. It's rare that she tackles an idea without such an intrusion of self that the reader has no room to process.
For example, when chastened by a monk for improper position during meditation, she doesn't explore how the norms evolved, or attend further to the process. She turns back to herself:
My entire body seemed to be blushing, and my skin felt prickly all over, as if I had fallen into a blackberry patch. "I'm sorry," I said, and then added, with an attempt at self-mocking charm, "I'm just an embryonic meditator, you know." That modular line ("I'm just an embryonic something-or-other," with the blank filled in to suit the occasion) had always disarmed people in the past, but the ruddy-faced monk just glowered at me and said, "Now concentrate! This isn't a game!" and walked away. (p. 114)
Such self-involvement might be okay if Boehm were more interesting. Or if her journal entries, quoted verbatim from journals apparently written in the late 1960s, were not so palpably adolescent (Describing the monks, she effuses, "I was petrified with wonder to think that I was actually acquainted with such mythical-looking beings.") Or if she would contrast her now mature woman-self with the naive-virgin-in-heat of the journals. It is hard to swallow lines like "What I wanted to be was a woman - preferably the only woman - in a monastery full of fascinating men." Humor, or a few tan bites of sarcasm, could have made a big difference here.
That Boehm is a travel writer is a plus. Apparently fluent in Japanese, she is at her best in describing specifics. Meals are often mouth-wateringly present:
We began with hand-made noodles at my favorite sobaya, followed by chawan-mushi (a gossamer egg custard, loaded with savory morsels of vegetables, ginkgo nuts, and mushrooms) at a closet-sized bistro...and a few crisp rolls of cucumber sushi at a fifth-floor aerie, overlooking the dark river.... [W]e stopped at a sidewalk stand, its calligraphic curtains flapping in the wintry breeze, and bought three greasy parchment bags of "yam candy" for dessert. (p.70)
She explains idiosyncrasies of Japanese culture and prejudices against consorting with non-Japanese. She is at her best when describing the interior courtyard of a monastery, the chanting of monks, or the rich ginger-and-garlic cooking smells wafting through the street. It's just the story that loses its grip.
Boehm doesn't ever get beyond her desire to do Zen "right." Her focus is often on outcome, and she is incessantly preoccupied with what others will think of her. She describes adolescent sexual fantasies while clinging to her virginity. She drools over monks. Celibacy is not a subject to be reflected on so much as a factor that compounds the mystery, hence desirability, of a man. While enamored of the look and feel of Zen Buddhism, there is little here of authentic spiritual quest.
Consider this entry, where Boehm describes going for a walk in the pre-dawn light:
Not to see or be seen, but just to greet the light, and to have the temple grounds to myself. It was a clear morning, and as I walked out under the starry sky I felt a curious peace in knowing that I was doing this for the pleasure and not for the picture it created. I wandered around in the lavender light, listening to the coo and cluck of gray flannel doves and stepping over the puddles of the previous day's rain (likened later, in my journal, to blobs of fugitive mercury from the broken thermometer of the gods). (p. 104)
Many of us have journals left over from our adolescence, even our twenties, filled with self-indulgent prose. But we have the good sense not to publish them, or at least to edit out the most embarrassing of our metaphors.
The difference between Norris and Boehm is the difference between writing for "the pleasure" (or because she must) or "the picture." Norris is a strong but almost invisible presence in her book, while Boehm is distractingly front-and-center. Where Norris' tone is searching, pragmatic, mature, Boehm is incessantly self-conscious. She laughs at her own jokes and is amazed at every insight.
By the final pages of A Zen Romance, Boehm seemed like a bright, attractive, but much younger (even though she isn't) acquaintance, with a good heart but a shallow soul, hungry for validation and compliments. Though her chatter might be amusing, her narcissism would always be a distraction. But by the end of The Cloister Walk, Norris had become a companion, a reflective and eternally curious friend with whom conversation was satisfying. She became Kathleen, someone I could sit with in silence and share the changing light at the end of a day.