Stalking the Divine: Contemplating Faith With the Poor Clares
by Kristin Ohlson
Published by Hyperion
272 pages, 2003
Realm of the Numinous
Reviewed by Margaret Gunning
When journalist Kristin Ohlson set out to explore her lapsed Catholic faith by interviewing members of the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration, she was deeply curious about what had drawn these women, most of them frail and elderly, to a lifetime of continuous prayer in complete isolation from the world. Their answers made her skin prickle with awe:
"It was the perpetual adoration," Mother James said in that silk-scarf voice. "It's Jesus, really. Jesus, right there. We're going to be doing that for all eternity, adoring God. When you do this, it's like your heaven begins on earth."
Surely the realm of the numinous with its manifold mysteries is the most difficult area to try to nail down in cold print. Ohlson is aware of this conundrum, and a lot of other things too: the multiple paradoxes of faith, the difficulty of maintaining spiritual devotion as a lifelong discipline and her own frailty as a seeking, yet doubting, former Catholic.
What set her off on this intense three-year faith trek was a certain feeling of emptiness on Christmas Day, 1998. Divorced and recently remarried, her two grown children with their father, Ohlson was spending the day alone: "Without the children, I was desperate for joy, so desperate that I decided to go to church."
She finds St. Paul Shrine in her Cleveland neighborhood, a place that exudes a slightly threadbare holiness: "The church was incredibly beautiful, detailed in delicate ways that belied its heavy stone exterior. I felt as if I had walked into a Fabergé box."
Though the sanctuary is nearly empty, she feels the stirrings of something long-dormant, the burning faith of her childhood which she struggles to put into words: "It was very much like the drifting-out-of-your-skin ecstasy that I later felt at political rallies, or when I was falling in love, or when holding my children in my arms."
When she glimpses the shining eyes of the nuns who remain cloistered behind a grate in the sanctuary, her curiosity is ignited. She learns that these are the Poor Clares, an order founded by an associate of St. Francis of Assisi in the 13th century. Carefully maintaining the medieval tradition of poverty and separation from the world, the order exists solely for the purpose of prayer, a strange and seemingly-passive goal that grabs Ohlson with its sheer unlikeliness.
"During most of my life," she admits, "I had considered faith a kind of sickness, something that softened the brain and allowed the soothing delusion of divine power." But it is her particular combination of skepticism, intense curiosity and the yearning to believe that charges this memoir with such passion and awe. She approaches these aging, otherworldly women whose order is dwindling out of existence with a deep respect and, in spite of the tight restrictions on their contact with the public, they open up to her in surprising ways.
"It was very sudden," Sister Thomas tells Ohlson about her own call. "I was making pilgrimages to all the different churches during Holy Week and I was asking God to show me how to be closer to him. And he drew me toward adoration."
Though the sisters' statements of faith may seem romantic, their lives are highly disciplined, austere and, by the world's standards, lonely. Virtually cut off from family and friends, they spend most of the day in contemplative silence. But there is an unexpectedly lighthearted quality in these women, a quiet but radiant joy that reflects their clarity of purpose: "These nuns fell in love with God," Ohlson comes to realize, "married him after a long, careful courtship, and have stuck with him year after year."
Her own engagement with the nuns eventually deepens into a special affection. When her mother falls ill and nearly dies, the Poor Clares pray for her in a way that Ohlson experiences as palpable: "I imagined their prayers circling the two of us like soft, gray winged things." She makes a dramatic recovery, and Ohlson's tiny spark of faith begins to flame up and warm her life: "I felt subtly buoyed and connected and illuminated by this experience."
Ohlson is a thorough investigator, which means that Stalking the Divine includes a detailed history of Clare of Assisi and her order through the ages. All this background work gives her story depth and context, but it is her personal reflection interwoven with the nuns' thoughtful, passionate revelations of faith that make this book such a compelling read. After Ohlson talks to 93-year-old Sister Agnes, she is completely disarmed by what happens next: "She took my hand in hers and kissed it. 'I love you,' she said."
What the Poor Clares stand for is a particularly pure form of love expressed through the daily devotion of prayer. Ohlson is grateful for the fact that, while her own faith continues to blaze up and cool down, there is someone in the world to "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." | September 2003
Margaret Gunning has been reviewing books for many years but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International, Capilano Review and Room of One's Own. She is the author of the novel Better Than Life, published in 2003 by NeWest Press. She lives in Vancouver with one fat cat named Murphy and one nice husband named Bill.