Poets are often good theologians, I think, because theology shares many tools of the trade with poetry: metaphor, mystery, witness. Poet, essayist, and Benedictine oblate Kathleen Norris, whose books include Dakota, The Cloister Walk, and The Virgin of Bennington, has written with theological eloquence about the monastic life and its significance for all Christians. The excerpt below is from Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith.
The polarization that characterizes so much of American life is risky business in a church congregation, but especially so in a monastic community. The person you’re quick to label and dismiss as a racist, a homophobe, a queer, an anti-Semite, a misogynist, a bigoted conservative or bleeding-heart liberal is also a person you’re committed to live, work, pray, and dine with for the rest of your life. Anyone who knows a monastery well knows that it is no exaggeration to say that you find Al Franken and Rush Limbaugh living next door to each other. Mother Angelica and Mary Gordon. Barney Frank and Jesse Helms. Not only living together in close quarters, but working, eating, praying, and enjoying (and sometimes enduring) recreation together, every day, often for fifty years or more. It’s not easy. But Christian monks have existed for close to eighteen hundred years, almost as long as the church itself . . .
. . . Christians believe that Christ himself is behind the mystery of whatever unity they maintain, and they find in this a sign of hope. A Trappist abbot recently told me about a psychologist who had conducted a weeklong retreat for his community, during which monks of all ages had gone to the visitor to talk about their lives. After a few days the man came to the abbot and said: “I thought the age of miracles was past! How in the world can these people stand to live together for one day, let alone for years?” The abbot responded, “I don’t know. I’ve never been able to figure it out. And I’m afraid to ask.”
I respect the abbot’s humility, the good sense he has to leave a mystery alone and accept it with gratitude. For him the age of miracles is not past because Christ is still present in his community and in the church. In the Gospel of John, when the disciple Thomas mistakes Jesus for the way to an abstract and certain truth, Jesus quickly sets him straight, saying “I am the way, the truth and the life.” And here, it seems to me, is the life of the church–any Christian church–as it struggles to interpret the scriptures, and the Word of God himself, in a life-giving way. Jesus Christ asks us to interpret ourselves, and each other, with the same hospitable, good-hearted diligence that we grant to him.
Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, pp. 158-160