Stalking the Divine: Contemplating Faith with the Poor Clares
by Kristen Ohlson
(Hyperion: 2003, hardcover, 237 pages)
Remember Kathleen Norris' bestselling, critically acclaimed 1996 memoir The Cloister Walk? That lyrical, lovingly crafted book about one woman's deepening faith, nurtured by her regular retreats at a Catholic monastery>
Stalking The Divine, on the other hand, is a book about a woman who wants to write a bestselling, critically acclaimed memoir like The Cloister Walk.
The surprise success of Norris’s autobiography reinvigorated the “spiritual memoir” genre. Countless writers ran off to the nearest convent and dutifully scribbled down their experiences. In this case, writer Kristen Ohlson stumbled off to Christmas Mass in an unfamiliar parish in 1998, and discovered a community of Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration connected (literally) to an inner city Cleveland church.
By her own admission, Ohlson is a lazy lapsed Catholic, religious “dilettante” and “spiritual voyeur”:
“I had worked a little at the faith thing during the past year, but my sorties were few and unpromising. I'd gone to one lovely old church for a few weeks, but then the priest railed about abortion and homosexuality one Sunday and I knew his wasn't a universe I could fit into. Besides, that church was located in an Italian neighbourhood famous for toughs who were known to jump black people as they passed through. I'm not black, but still, I kept looking at the faces around me and wondering if they would be so keen to share a pew with me if I were. Being in that church reminded me of my seventeenth summer, when I lived with a family in Austria — I'd eye the faces of the friendly villagers and wonder where they'd stood when the Nazis were killing the Jews."
So, how's your blood pressure? I needed a little lie down after typing that paragraph, and we're only on page 5. If you're a Gen Xer like me, your trusty Hippie Radar has gone off. (Does yours beep to the tune of “The Load” or “Share the Land”…?) Sure enough, we soon learn that Ohlson is “a former radical communist atheist,” "the long retired member of a group of Vietnam War-era radicals" — the worst kind, as a matter of fact: a Maoist and Black Panther collaborator.
Ohlson is undergoing a predictable spiritual midlife crisis when she becomes obsessed with the Poor Clares, whose voices she hears raised in prayerful song behind their grille in St. Paul’s Church.