It was a great discovery. I wouldn’t call it "my monastic life" because I’ve never been a lifetime-vowed member of a community. But I have been an oblate now for about 21 years, which is like an associate of a Benedictine community. That was a community I got to know on the Great Plains. I was going there maybe once a month for small retreats, just enjoying the prayers of the monks, enjoying their library and stimulating conversation. One of my jokes is, "I’m living in a town that’s so isolated you go to monasteries for excitement."
But then there was an opportunity to go to St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota. And they’ve got a program called the Collegeville Institute where couples, families, and single people can go and live in an apartment on the monastery grounds --it’s also a university—and do their research and write. A lot of them are professors on sabbatical.
But I decided that my research would be to go to church with the monks four times a day for morning, noon, and evening prayer and the mass. I wanted to see what that would do to me, personally and as a writer, because it’s an immersion in poetry. The Psalms are all poems, you know, lots of poetry being read aloud, sung, lots of scripture. It’s kind of a total immersion in the words of scripture. I was curious to see what that would do to me. And that’s where "The Cloister Walk"came from, basically. It documents the liturgical year, as I was experiencing it. And, again, there are lots of other voices. There are conversations with graduate students there. Some of them are monks and nuns from Tanzania, South Africa, Australia--really fascinating people. [It was about] their experience of the monastic life and the monastic world. All kinds of issues that come up in the monastic life, like celibacy...It was my opportunity to explore that with all these people.
A lot of people don’t know that any monastery has a guest house. You can always go and stay. You can always say, “I want to make a retreat” and the door is open. I just was very fortunate that I was actually able to do it for such an extended period of time.
It sounds like there were a variety of people staying at the monastery. Would you advise Protestants and people of other faiths to take retreats at monasteries?
You know, I think so. I think Benedictine monks and nuns are known for their hospitality. How they interpret hospitality is you don't want people to be like you, you want to accept people as they are. I’ve taken Jewish friends to monasteries for vespers and one of them said, “Do they understand how Hebraic this is? That every prayer, really, is a Jewish prayer [although] there are a few Christian elements, [like] The Lord’s Prayer. But, even that, Jesus was praying it as a Jew.” So, in a sense it’s a Jewish prayer. But, basically the form of the office, the Psalms, is very Hebraic. So, I’ve even had Jewish friends who were quite comfortable going to a monastery and experiencing morning prayer or evening prayer. And certainly, Christians of all denominations have even become oblates. A lot of pastors, Presbyterians, Church of the Nazarene, Methodist, Lutheran. So the Benedictine hospitality is really broad and really wide. So people do feel comfortable going, more comfortable than you would think.
What lessons of the cloister experience have helped you in life?
I think that the deep understanding of hospitality has helped me as a writer because I think it’s my goal to welcome people into a book and try to make them maybe not comfortable, but at least feel welcome that the door is open. That’s been a sort of conscious thing that’s come out of it, a much deeper appreciation of the Psalms. And I think lots of Christian churches pretty much ignore the Psalms. You might hear a snippet on Sunday morning from a hymn of praise, but that doesn’t give you much sense of the full dimension of that book because there’s laments, there’s anger, there’s desire for revenge. There’s all of these human emotions just laid bare before God. I mean it’s really a very emotional book.
I really had never encountered the Psalms deeply until I started hanging out with these monks and nuns and praying with them because they do the Psalms every day, all day. You go through the whole book of 150 Psalms in about four weeks and then you start over again. So you really become familiar with them, and that has been a resource now when I’m angry or I’m grieving or something. I can think of a line from a Psalm. It’s sort of become part of me now. And so, that’s been really a blessing.
Then, I think these friends, both men and women, who have such good values. They know what it is to try to get along in that community of other flawed people. And they really work hard at it. They don’t spend a lot of time thinking about going shopping at the mall and what to buy. You know, it’s a very un-consumerist mentality, which is really refreshing.