Cloister Talk


Katherine Hauswirth


Surely I’m not the only person who sometimes wishes I lived a cloistered existence. Life would be simpler, dictated by the well-defined parameters of my chosen path. I’d have a legitimate excuse to say no to so many distracting obligations. And, as a writer, I’d have oodles of time for contemplation and creation.

Mark Salzman writes about just such a life in Lying Awake, a novel about Carmelite Sister John of the Cross. The novel is made up of mostly simple language with occasional spurts of the poetic, a combination analogous to Sister John’s existence. She follows the hour-to-hour rituals demanded by her calling, but the lyrical moments interspersed between the many mundane tasks of sisterhood allow us to see past the stark black and white of her habit into the stimulating life of her mind. Sister John is a poet, one who’s carried a hopeful message to her readers and has been invited to the Vatican to share her gift on a special occasion. But soon we learn that devoting oneself to a straight and narrow path doesn’t guarantee a smooth and predictable journey.

Sister John loves her God with impressive passion; she finds God pulsing with intricate layers of meaning transmitted in sudden, searing flashes of perception: “A mockingbird sang in the heat. Sister John heard the sky in its voice. Cicadas, the rustle of eucalyptus leaves; the music of sun and shade. Sister John opened a fresh notebook and began to write. Adoration welled up through the pain, closing the gap between lover and the Beloved. The force of his presence curved eternity in on itself…”

It all seems so straightforward and pure for Sister John, but before long this awesome clarity is turned on its head. Her headaches lead her to a doctor; the doctor leads her to a diagnosis of temporal lobe epilepsy and the knowledge that her condition may explain her visions, her intense spiritual experiences, even her prolific writing. She’s faced with a decision—should she accept medical treatment and risk eradicating the illuminated ecstasies that have thus far defined her spiritual life? Salzman shows us, through this central crisis but also through snapshots from Sister John’s decades-long service to God, that the life of the cloistered soul is peppered with peaks and valleys, certainties and doubts simply by virtue of being human, as much as the life of the average secular Joe.

Unlike Sister John, Ira Wagler inherited his sequestered existence, the ninth of eleven children born to Amish parents. In his memoir, Growing Up Amish, Ira recounts another tale of very human challenges scattered along a strictly defined religious path. Ira’s life among the clan famous for its simplicity is fraught with confusion and complexity. Part of him loves the security and comfort of home, family, and tradition; part of him is compelled to break away. The angst of his adolescence doesn’t seem very different than that of the typical teen; he has a lot of wild energy to expend and is trying to figure out his own place in the world. But the teenage years come and go and still Ira struggles.

Ira’s father must farm; it’s part of his Amish identity. But at heart he’s a writer, famous among his peers for newsletters and magazines that link the dispersed Amish communities together. This love of words may be one of the few things Ira carries forward from his dad, and he channels it into a detailed description of Amish day-to-day life. There is a wide variation among communities; some are especially rigid and frown upon their more relaxed cousins. Even in comparatively lenient groups, elders dictate parameters for fine details of dress, for how many weeks must pass before courting young men and women can see each other again, for what type of tires are acceptable on the buggy. But these same critical elders can also be immensely earnest and equally forgiving; those who stray are always given a chance to reintegrate into the fold, as long as they’re willing to prove their commitment.

Life outside the protected enclave calls loudly to Ira, and he finds his warmest companions at a coffee shop run by outsiders, “the English”, not far from home. Like several brothers before him he leaves the farm under cover of night to explore the wider world. He recounts the first time he wears store-bought jeans, sans “barn door” pockets, and his work as a cowboy on the wide-open range. He relishes learning to drive a combine, and the freedom of his first car. But still he feels pulled back to his origins, and for years he’s in an immense revolving door where on one side he commits to being Amish and on the other runs as far as he can from the stringent limitations of this choice.

As for many of us, the way that opens up for Ira is one that he never anticipated. It comes to him as a complete surprise, and through a completely surprising person, and I felt a sense of relief when he finally stumbled into the calling that seemed meant for him all along. And I found myself thinking about the question implied in both Lying Awake and Growing Up Amish. What is the ideal balance between discipline and freedom that helps us grow most in our sense of connectedness and completeness? Restriction and revolution each contain their own lessons. It’s wise to be open to the possibility that peace may come in the aftermath of either extreme; it may come to us down a convoluted road, disguised as a headache, a set of rules, or a compulsion that just won’t let us alone. Cloistered or not, we are each charged with the task of figuring out our ultimate role, of recognizing peace and giving it the proper welcome when it finally arrives.

Books mentioned in this column:
Lying Awake by Mark Salzman (Vintage, 2001) 
Growing Up Amish by Ira Wagler (Tyndale House, 2011)

Katherine Hauswirth is a medical writer by day and a creative writer by stolen moments. She writes creative nonfiction and poetry. She is the author of the book Harriet’s Voice: A Writing Mother’s Journey and contributed to the anthology Get Satisfied: How Twenty People Like You Found the Satisfaction of Enough. Katherine has been published in many venues including The Writer, Byline, The Christian Science Monitor, Pregnancy, The Writer's Handbook, The Writer's Guide to Fiction, Chronogram, Women of Spirit, Wilderness House Literary Review, Poetry Kit, Eat a Peach, Lutheran Digest, and Pilgrimage. A Long Island native, Katherine lives with her husband and son in Deep River, Connecticut. Harriet’s Voice: Home Base for Writing Mothers is her personal website. Contact Katherine.



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