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By Virginia Stem Owens

Augustine and the Rockettes

"The Cloister Walk"

By Kathleen Norris

Riverhead Books

384 pp.; $23.95

Three years ago, Kathleen Norris was surprised by the success of "Dakota: A Spiritual Geography," her meditative appraisal of how living on the sparsely populated, meagerly vegetated upper Great Plains affects one's soul. This time she is prepared for the acclaim that her new book, "The Cloister Walk," will surely receive. Her two nine-month residencies as a Benedictine oblate at Saint John's Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, where days are ordered by the Liturgy of the Hours, both helped her absorb her new fame and provided material for the current book.

The liturgical year encircles "The Cloister Walk's" 75 chapters, holding within its sphere what might at first appear disparate elements--everything from memories of family Christmases in Honolulu to interesting tidbits about the fourth-century hymnist and theologian Ephrem of Syria. Without this encompassing structure, the book could seem little more than a collection of occasional pieces. Saints' feast days at the monastery alternate with book-tour cocktail parties. Commentary on the Psalms is interspersed with homage to Emily Dickinson. Some chapters are personal, revealing details of Norris's childhood and her marriage to poet David Dwyer; others are scholarly accounts of the Desert Fathers. Even the pieces' length varies greatly, some taking no more than a page and a half, while others are ten-page essays.

But one should read this book neither for confessional titillation nor for esoteric information about early Christianity--though a useful reading list could be combed from these pages. The value of "The Cloister Walk" lies in the way it maps a modern consciousness confronting almost 1,500 years of religious tradition. Saint Benedict, in the sixth century, drew up a monastic Rule for his monks, most of them laymen, at Monte Cassino. The main purpose of the community remains corporate prayer, called the Liturgy of the Hours, for which the members ...

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