Catechism As Catch Can
They maintain the fire of prayer, taking turns to tend it and feed it through the dark nights of the soul - mine and yours. We ache for love and compassion, we warm ourselves at the flames but we often forget to add our own tinder. Blessed are these women, for they continue to nourish the blaze.
Kristin Ohlson, Stalking the Divine: Contemplating Faith with the Poor Clares
Upon returning from a gut-wrenching week involving the relocation of my youngest child to a city far far away, I began opening Fed Ex packages and found Stalking the Divine: Contemplating Faith with the Poor Clares along with a pile of other books. Curious, I glanced at the back cover and decided to take a break from the depressing post-moving letdown and settle in a comfortable chair to read for a bit.
Stalking the Divine begins on a lonely Christmas morning. Author Kristin Ohlson reflects on Christmas past as well as the long day ahead of her. Then she threw out the bait and I snatched it, hook, line, and sinker. Here’s a woman, searching for faith—a journalist with questions—and an uncanny way of gently probing the reader’s convictions as she searches for her own answers. After reading for about half an hour, I realized Ohlson’s conversations with herself sounded suspiciously like a few of my own I’d had lately. “I had made my annual checklist of things I wanted to accomplish in the coming months, and sidling up to faith, as usual, was one of them—it had been on the list for several years, along with lifting weights and reading Proust.” You’ll find most reviewers use this quote in their critiques.
Imagine a small group of cloistered nuns, right in the middle of Cleveland, who pray for the City, all day, all night. This is their calling. In 2003. Gives you chills, doesn’t it? The Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration, cloistered in a monastery, they’re praying for you. Ohlson’s journey, her longing for a spiritual epiphany she can call her own, is both charismatic and compelling.
Ohlson, a professed nonbeliever, finds herself longing for a spiritual journey, something to afford her a state of grace. But she knows, as do others, that such a state cannot be attained consciously, it just is. Curious, she slowly winds her way through the lives of the Poor Clares, seeking to find out the why of their existence. The answers lie in the quest of a skeptic seeking solace. It’s a hauntingly beautiful, passionate route. She relates her thoughts after attending her first service at St. Paul Shrine.
I found all this fascinating, though in a detached way. I was already fashioning the story into one of ironic amusement for my family and friends: the nuns who sang like sparrows when I expected angels, the altar boys given way to altar geezers, the odd and plaintive and sometimes decidedly one-note-short-of-an-octave voices I could hear from the pews around me. I relished the artwork at St. Paul but was untouched by the spirit that had inspired it. As with the other churches I had visited, I assumed that I probably wouldn’t come back.
She returns, Sunday after Sunday. Becoming enmeshed in the personalities of all those around her, from Father Senan to the parishioners to the nuns, the Poor Clares, Ohlson begins to sketch out the details for a book about the Shrine. She feels drawn to Mass. Eventually, she contacts the priest for more information about the nuns, and, unknowingly, begins a slow, deliberate stroll down a long, winding, spiritual sidewalk.
It takes time, but eventually Ohlson gains access to the nuns. They grant her interviews and over three years pass as she talks with them. In a conversation with Sister Thomas, Ohlson becomes aware of the distance between perpetual adoration, prayer, and the real world where bills must be paid and every day items purchased.
They told me that they spent their days in prayer and work. They used to support themselves, at least in part, by making altar breads for the Greater Cleveland diocese. Several years ago, their ancient, creaky machinery broke down and they were unable to find replacement parts. Now they make their living as distributors, ordering the breads from outside the area and repackaging it for area churches. I asked if the churches came to pick up their supplies of bread, imaging a long dark line of priests standing outside their door on Saturday afternoons. Sister Thomas shook her head. “UPS.”
The Catholic Church could use a little positive publicity these days. While it’s a sure bet Ohlson didn’t write this book to justify Catholicism or to bring others back to the Church, the power of this book might just put a few agnostics into the pews. And not just lapsed Catholics.
Who knows what Thomas Merton would say if he were alive today, but it seems that he believed then that even one person’s prayers - seemingly small and insignificant - can change the world. Perhaps this conviction is what keeps the Poor Clares praying, even as their numbers drop. All through the day, all through the night, they believe they’re dropping prayers like tiny bits of gold on the plate of goodness, weighing against the hatred and despair and cruelty piled on the plate dangling on the other side of the fulcrum.
Stalking the Divine does more than recount Ohlson’s own spiritual trek through her agnostic wilderness. It also gives a chronological account of a group of people whose faith in Christianity has not strayed. While Ohlson often disagrees with dogma, she respects the right of others to follow its tenets. By tracing the individual stories of each of the nuns, we begin to understand the longing to serve God, the motivation behind the women.
In presenting her account of one Baby Boomer’s quest for self-actualization, Ohlson delivers a popular culture text without succumbing to trite, trivial insight. Her book invariably presents a dialogue that will become more and more apparent as the generation ages and begins to feel a sense of urgency regarding spiritual matters. I suspect it will become a guide, an opaque map charting the strange and compelling force that drives many to seek understanding of their place, their purpose, in the universe.