I asked my Facebook friends earlier this summer to list three or four books that changed their lives. Not necessarily books that belong to the Great Books program, but books that arrived at just the right time and spoke to them in a special and memorable way. I’ve written about two of mine in the last two months – here’s another one.
In a year, I will be on sabbatical for the fall semester of 2023 (the fourth and possibly the last sabbatical of my career). It’s hard to believe, given the passage of time, but fifteen years ago, I was in exactly the same situation: a sabbatical semester (the second of my career) on the horizon. On my first sabbatical, all the way back in 2002, I was going nowhere; instead, I locked myself in my office and wrote the first draft of an academic book that was published two years later. As I started to think about my second sabbatical, I knew I wanted to go somewhere for at least part of the semester (that’s what normal academics do on a sabbatical), but my career was shaped to s adapt to the campus where I have now taught. for twenty-one years. I didn’t even know where to start.
A few months earlier, I had bought a book called The cloister walk walking across borders. I liked the photo on the cover, which announced that the book was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and contained the following review taken from The Boston Globe:
It is a strange and beautiful book. . . If read with humility and attention, Kathleen Norris’ book becomes lectio divinaor holy reading.
The cloister walk has become my evening read – a book that defies description or summary. Following Norris’ eccentric faith through the liturgical year was both strange and beautiful, as the NYT reviewer promised; as another reviewer wrote, “she writes about religion with a poet’s imagination”. Before picking up the book, I had no idea it was exactly what an unknown part of me was looking for, nor did I know that, on a practical level, it would tell me where I would be spending my gap semester. one year later.
Kathleen’s experiences that frame The cloister walk performed during two separate residencies at the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research on the campus of St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota. While there, she immersed herself in the daily liturgy of the hours with the Benedictine monks of St. John’s Abbey about ten minutes up the hill. She writes that Benedictines refer to their daily office as “the sanctification of time”. The cloister walk is the fruit of this liturgical immersion – a “strange and beautiful book” written by a woman whom I would come to know as equally strange and beautiful. As I read, I unexpectedly felt the eclectic spiritual vision of a fellow traveler steeped in the Protestant tradition that I follow, except that she was strangely drawn to the Benedictines and their ancient rule.
An important aspect of monastic life has been described as “watchful waiting”. A spark is struck; an event registered with a message—it’s important, be careful— and a poet scatters a few words like seeds in a notebook.
Kathleen described in The cloister walk the frustration her fellow resident researchers at the Institute felt at the poetic and decidedly unacademic energies she brought to their collective work, a frustration that I must confess that as an academic I have also sometimes felt in wandering through the intuitively organized maze of his book. But then, those who seek God must learn that there are as many paths to the divine as there are people seeking a path.
When it comes to faith. . . there is no one right way to do it. Flannery O’Connor once wisely remarked that “most of us come to church in a way that the church does not permit”, and Martin Buber suggests that discovering this way could be the work of our life. He states that “everything [of us] have access to God, but everyone has different access. The inclusiveness of God is manifested in the infinite multiplicity of paths that lead to him, each of which is open to a [person].”
I had no idea at the time how badly I needed to hear that. On a deep level, I had given up hope of finding my unique spiritual path over the years, tired of rushing headlong toward what one monk described to Kathleen as “the well-worn idol named” but we didn’t. have never done it this way before! ‘ And people wonder how dogma begins!
At the time, I had no confidence in my ability to hear a possible word from God – I relied entirely on my intuitively and spiritually tuned wife to do that for me. But as I worked through The cloister walk I realized there was something more going on than my usual resonance with being a good writer –I wanted what she wrote on. Literally. I contacted the Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research in Collegeville and applied to be a resident scholar for my sabbatical semester during the first five months of 2009. They accepted me.
The day Barack Obama was inaugurated as our 44e Mr President, on a crystal clear January day in Minnesota with zero degree high temperatures, I found myself in a small apartment in the same complex on the shores of the same lake that I had read about eighteen months older early. What the hell was I doing here far from Jeanne and my dachshund Frieda, all alone surrounded by a bunch of people I didn’t know? The only correct answer was that I wanted what I had read. And the rest is (my recent history).
Professionally, what I took away from this sabbatical was a new way of writing (which, three years later, became this blog) and a bunch of academic essays that were never published ( because I never sent them). But I was changed inside. While in Collegeville, I immediately tested the waters of daily midday prayer with the monks on Abbey Hill, an engagement that within weeks became a three-times-a-day habit. The prayers were important, but inhabiting the Psalms as a collective body opened up a space of “deepest me” that I have come to recognize as where the divine within me holds. Every possible human emotion and every possible encounter with the divine is found in these ancient poems.
[The Psalms’] the real theme is a longing for the sacred which, whatever its form, seems to be part of the human condition, a longing easily forgotten in the pangs of everyday life, where groans of despair can predominate.
One day, at noon prayer, a friend of mine from the Institute directed my attention to the row behind us. “It’s Kathleen Norris!” murmured my friend in a voice a little too loud for the midday prayer. That evening, Kathleen – on campus for a meeting of the university’s board of trustees – visited the Institute for dinner. For current resident scholars, it was like a visit from the Beatles. Like any groupie, I made sure Kathleen signed my copies of her books (I had them all in my apartment) and we spent three or four minutes alone (which I was sure she wouldn’t miss). would not remember). But just meeting the person whose book had taken me to this wonderful place in the middle of nowhere was enough.
A year and a half later, when I was back in Collegeville for a writing workshop at the Institute. Unexpectedly, Kathleen and I were both staying at the Abbey Guesthouse (she wasn’t part of the workshop – I forget why she was on campus). We ate several breakfasts and lunches together, had a chat on the guest house patio overlooking the lake, and a friendship was formed. I especially enjoyed the envious looks on the faces of my shop colleagues when they watched me having lunch with a world-famous author in the cafeteria one day. Several years later, Kathleen was an endowed scholar on campus for an academic year and lived in the office across from me. I am proud to say that it was I who suggested her to the selection committee for researchers in residence.
For my birthday this academic year, Jeanne and I invited Kathleen over for dinner – she is a great conversationalist and we had a wonderful time. It’s strange how things go. In August, just days before the start of this new academic year, I was sitting in the atrium of our student center minding my own business when I heard a voice on the stairs behind me: “I know you ! It was Kathleen. And I know you too, I thought. “You wrote the book that changed my life.”