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TALES FROM THE MONASTERY
Part One

Kathleen Norris

I believe it was ten years ago that I addressed the ABA at that monastery just down the road: my Dakota had been published, containing many "tales from the monastery," and I was hard at work on my next manuscript. It became The Cloister Walk, with tale after tale about you people, and the influence you were having on my life. It was easy for me to talk to you then, but less so now.

In the last five years, I have been unable to spend much time on retreat in monasteries, much less write about them. I have been immersed in my own community, that of my immediate family. I have helped my parents enter their eighties, and saw my lively, wise-cracking father slowly fade away from aplastic anemia. He died in 2002, at the age of eighty-five. I also took on the care of my husband as his health diminished. Over the last fifteen years, David had survived one medical crisis after another, using up at least a dozen of the eighteen lives I'm sure he had. But lung cancer and the accumulated side effects of chemotherapy finally proved too much for him.

David died last October at the age of fifty-seven, following the sudden onset of an infection and pneumonia. He became ill in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, rallied on Wednesday, started to slip away on Thursday, and died on Friday morning, a good Catholic boy to the last. Exactly a week later-to the hour-I accompanied my sister Becky, the sister I wrote about in Cloister Walk, who was brain-damaged at birth, to the chemo ward where she was to begin treatment for breast cancer. She wanted me there, she explained, because I knew all about this hospital stuff, and I'd know the right questions to ask. So you see, I have had a load on me, all ordinary things, but a lot to deal with . . . and I won't even go into the Mad Hatter's world of hospital bills and medical insurance!

The good news is that my sister Becky's prognosis is excellent, and my mother is going strong at eighty-seven. She's a great lunch and movie date. There's other good news that is more mysterious. After David's diagnosis of cancer, the surgery to remove one lung, the radiation treatments, and the nightmare of chemotherapy, we entered into a period of our marriage that I can only call graced. We both knew that he was living on borrowed time, and we made the most of it. After having known each other for over thirty years, we became closer than ever.

I would not call this a "happy" period. I watched my husband, who used to walk five miles a day or more, having to use a walker around our apartment; I pushed him in a wheelchair when we went out. But we did go out: for family celebrations, movies, and wine-tasting dinners. All things considered, he had what we and his doctors agreed was a good quality of life, even if, at times, an underlying sense of loss and diminishment would occasionally swell and wash over us like a rogue wave. But all in all, it was a blessed and graced period that I wouldn't trade for anything. And what I want to say to you today is: Thank You. Thank you, God. Thank you, Jesus. And thank you, Benedictines. Because you were with me on this desert journey without even knowing it, and you have helped me get here today.

You've done all of this because of what Sister Judith Sutera calls the "non-negotiables" of the Benedictine way. Stability, for example. And community. And prayer. Stability first. David and I made a home in Lemmon, South Dakota, for over twenty-five years, and it was a terrible blow to us when he could no longer travel back and forth between Honolulu and our beloved prairie lands. We had become country folk-enamored of quiet, and of true stillness and darkness at night-suddenly stranded in a noisy city. A lovely city, to be sure, but still a city. It was disorienting, even liturgically. I spent Holy Week of 2000 with a companionable real estate agent, Jewish, of course, looking for an affordable condominium. I signed for one, naturally, on Good Friday.

Because we couldn't move into the condo right away, David and I spent the next three months living in a cell: a 300-odd-square-foot hotel room with a microwave, a mini-refrigerator, and a glorious view. Courtesy of a friend in the hotel's management, we had all of this for only $25.00 a night. We had occasional medical emergencies with all of the attendant drama: ambulances, ERs, ICUs. David bounced back from these recurring bouts of pneumonia and bronchitis. But most of the time he slept, between twelve and eighteen hours a day. In the mornings, I worked on The Virgin of Bennington, and in the afternoons, I shopped. I do not enjoy shopping, but I found myself, in my early fifties, having to furnish a place completely for the first time in my life. The indignity of having to look for drapes, for a mattress, clothes hangers, and salt shaker. It was humbling. I clipped coupons from the Honolulu papers and every weekend, I turned up in the kitchen or furniture sections of the department stores. That's a period of my life that I'm glad is over.

The important thing is that I was able to make a pleasant space for David and me, in a sunny, airy apartment. And after David died, I could still feel happy there, because he had loved it so much. You Benedictines helped me to realize that throughout all the turmoil, my stability, our stability, was in our marriage, and the love we had for one another. And that foundation-that non-negotiable-was a blessing.

Community is another non-negotiable. The caregiver's world can turn dangerously small; it's easy to feel isolated, and to be isolated. But I had several blessings that kept me more or less engaged. The first was my family. My greatest joy of the past five years has been living close to my parents, and being with them in their precious last years. I've been unofficially adopted by the senior citizens community where my mother now lives, and I spend more time with eighty-year-olds than with people my own age. It's not hard at all for me to "keep death daily before my eyes."

The other blessing, the other community that sustains me, is an Episcopal Church, St. Clement's, which consists of a church and a preschool. At a time when I felt that I had not much spiritual life at all, I entered that church as "Kathleen," no last name. When I returned the next Sunday, a woman who had greeted me the week before, came up to me, gave me a hug, and said, "It's so good to see you again." And she meant it. You Benedictines have helped me recognize and appreciate genuine hospitality when it manifests itself in a community.

The third non-negotiable is prayer. You people reintroduced me to the psalms, and of course the entire psalter is included in the Book of Common Prayer. For both literary and spiritual reasons, I am grateful. But for so many years, before I met you folks, I was convinced that I couldn't pray. You taught me two valuable lessons. First of all, prayer is easy: you haul ass to church, and even if you are sleep-walking through the psalms, you're present, you're where you're supposed to be, and you're praying. And secondly, you've taught me that prayer is hard: to quote one of our elders, it is "warfare to the last breath."

One of the more bitterly comic aspects of my life these past few years, when both my writing life and my spiritual life have felt so battered and diminished, is that the hype about me as a spiritual writer has escalated. The theologian Ronald Rolheiser called me "an Augustine for our time." All I'll say about that is that I hope I've treated the men in my life better than he treated his women! And, to top that, an over-excited newspaper columnist declared that I have done for Christian monasticism what Elvis Presley did for "race music," when he made it accessible to the masses as "rock and roll." Augustine, Elvis. Elvis, Augustine: it doesn't get better than that.

But it does. When I look back over all the terrors of the last five years, and the blessings, I can honestly say that I never felt abandoned. I had a sense of God's presence, even when I could not sense it. And even when I could not pray, I knew that someone was praying. You were praying, and that, to me, is the utter stability of God's love.

And now, to close, I'll give you what in Hawaii we call the "chicken skin" stuff. It gives you goose bumps. It's the stuff, that if you're like me, weak and in need of reminders of how God's mysteries work in and through and despite us, is like a bracing wind. A reminder.

I'll begin with last summer, when I was asked to sub for the youth minister at St. Clement's when she was on vacation, and teach a confirmation class of fourteen teenagers. I loved them so much I stayed on. And as we went through our curriculum, based on the baptismal covenant, I realized that I wanted to be confirmed along with them when the bishop came in the fall. I didn't know if this was allowed, mind you-I am still a member of the Presbyterian church-but on October 19, 2003, I was confirmed as an Episcopalian. I came home happy, having been given several beautiful, fragrant leis to show David who was happy for me. By the next Sunday, he was gone.

This reminds me of what happened so long ago in South Dakota, when my pastors who had guided me back to church membership were being forced to leave. I was emotionally and spiritually vulnerable, still in "formation," if you will, and I felt utterly lost. But before those pastors left, they helped me find you people. We stumbled across a place in North Dakota called Assumption Abbey. God does provide.

Nearly twenty years ago, when I became an oblate, I had to choose a name. I chose Raphael, and not just because I didn't want Henry. Raphael was important to me because of the story in Tobit, in which he helps to bring about the healing of a young couple, and blesses their marriage. At my oblation, the abbey's oblate director, Fr. Robert West, presided, and he read from Tobit the passage in which the angel blesses Tobias. "No need to fear," Raphael says, which is what all angels say when they reveal themselves to us. And then, Raphael says, "Write down all these things that have happened to you."

Well, I've tried. But there's more. With God, there is always more. I was with David when he died, holding his hand in the ICU, which kind nurses had turned into a hospice for us. A few weeks later, I looked up the date he died in a silly paperback, Saints Preserve Us: Everything You Need to Know About Every Saint You'll Ever Need. I had bought it for David as part of a running joke between us. He was, I assured him, my very favorite pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic. David had died on October 24, traditionally the day of Raphael, patron of pharmacists, lovers, and travelers. A healer of marriage, and, according to Flannery O'Connor, the angel of "happy meeting." There are no words. But I will close with a poem by David, entitled "The Higher Arithmetic."

 

Poem reprinted by permission of the estate of David J Dwyer

 

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