Posted by: Mark Nielsen | March 23, 2009

Walk, Do Not Run, To the Fringe and Look Inward

oblation (noun):   “an abbeviated yet powerful profession of monastic vows; you attach yourself to a particular monastery by signing a document on the altar during Mass, in which you promise to follow the rule of St. Benedict insofar as your situation in life will allow.”

I’ve been reading some material by Kathleen Norris this week, who supplied the informal defininition above in the preface of her book The Cloister Walk (1987). Kathleen is another of those great, inclusive Protestant/Catholic devotional writers and thinkers with a serious literary bent, and/or a poetic streak. In this she is not unlike T.S. Eliot (Anglican), Fr. Richard Rohr (Franciscan), John Updike (Episcopalian), Wendell Berry (Baptist), and Thomas Merton (Trappist/Catholic/Buddhist), all of whom I’ve been getting “schooled” by in my reading these past six to eight months.

I’m even basing one of the female characters in my novel, in part, on Kathleen Norris. She used to hang with the Andy Warhol/Manhattan bohemian crowd in the mid-Sixties, before she was called to a more … ahem… quiet life of writing and prayer in South Dakota. So like Joni Mitchell, she has looked at life “from both sides now” — which makes it all the more important that she chose (or let herself be drawn into) the life of prayer, family, and writing that she has lived for many years now.

“Although I had little sense of where I had been, I knew that standing before the altar in a monstery chapel was a remarkable place for me to be, and making an oblation was a remarkable, if not incomprehensible, thing for me to be doing.” (from Norris’ preface to The Cloister Walk)

It is that ability to trust, accept and talk about what is “incomprehensible” that I aspire to understand better through these writers. What I am struck most by in encountering such wisdom on the page (or in person, in the case of the Franciscan Father Rohr) is their monastic observation of reality, and their rugged ability to accept both the beautiful and the ugly/mundane parts of God’s Creation and human experience. There is a cultivated sense of wonder that they maintain, and yet alongside it, a realistic point of view and a deep compassion toward others.

They often feel no great need to be clever or put their own spin on what they are describing, either. They are, above all else, authentic. And they stay true to that vision they have been gifted with, irrespective of social trends or their perceived audience. “Listen to me, or ignore me,” they seem to be saying. “I am not defined by your attention. I’m just doing my job here, listening and translating what the Spirit has taught me.” 

In a world that celebrates irony and cynicism, many of these heroes of mine have been delivered by God through that space of cynicism and into a sense of grace and a humble awe. They not only are comfortable with great mystery, with just the occasional glimpse behind the veil — they seem to relish it. They live for it, and they have learned to cherish and memorialize those moments in print, precisely because they are so rare.

On the other hand, with discipline and practice –other monkish qualities, to be sure– they have learned how to increase the frequency of these minor but miraculous revelations. They know how to focus on the essentials, in other words. And they let themselves be constantly changed by the experience of walking with God.

The best writers –not all of them “devotional” in the classic sense, and certainly there are more than the handful of recent samplings I have listed above– know their place, which is working the fields with the rest of us schmucks. Thus they can speak about the sinful tendencies of human beings –themselves included– in a way that does not smack of condemnation or superiority, but with simple understanding about human nature. For they know that God is love, and nothing we can do will cause Him to love us less. Meanwhile, perfect love casts out fear, which makes the more “contemplative” writers mentioned above some of the most grounded and secure teachers, as well.  Or, in the rare case that they do become doubtful or fearful, they have the good sense to confess that fear and thus take away much of its power. (For example, one of Updike’s last novels, Terrorist, took a brave and respectful look at America’s biggest “boogey man” of late, Islamic fundamentalism. I just finished it, and recommend it highly.)

Finally, the way they flesh out that mystery and beauty in their prose and poetry, holding the veil aside a few moments on behalf of their readers, is as much a “spiritual gift” as any preacher, prophet, or speaker in tongues has ever exhibited. The world may be passing away, like withering grass, but while we are in it, let us be encouraged by keen observers such as these. Like them, let’s take off our shoes, run through that grass with abandon, love life, and enjoy what there is to be seen and heard and felt. And if we can’t always do that literally, then a guide along the path can at least be found between the pages of a good book.



  1. Hi Mark,

    Your blog just struck me, just having read a chapter on the contemplative movement in the Renovare handbook of Richard Foster. I can recommend you to read Anselm Grun (benedictine monk) and Henri Nouwen, two guides on my path. And of course the following website for daily nurture:

    May the road rise to meet you…

    Egbird of the Lowlands

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