Stalking the Divine: Contemplating Faith With the Poor Clares (Theia, 272 pages. $23.95) is the latest in that dreary genre of books written by self-absorbed Baby Boomers wanting to fill us in on mid-life crisis they’re suffering. After decades of turning their backs on the things their Eisenhower-era parents held dear, many boomers have begun to turn back to those old institutions in a frantic attempt to achieve some inner fulfillment. It’s not surprising to see the generation that believes it discovered sex now now deluding itself to think it’s the first to suffer a crisis of faith in its autumn years.
Kristin Ohlson manages to transcend the typical examples of the genre with a touching story of her search for faith. A self-described former “radical communist atheist” who spent part of the 1960s agitating on behalf of a Maoist group, Ohlson began life as a Catholic who one day dreamed of being a nun. She gradually drifted away from the church, however, and it wasn’t until a lonely Christmas morning in 1998 that she felt the need to attend mass again. In one of those events that will have Christians smiling, Ohlson picks at random Cleveland’s St. Paul Shrine to attend.
It is there that a parallel story begins. St. Paul’s Shrine happens to be the home of a cloistered order of nuns called the Poor Clares. Their mission is to literally pray for the world 24 hours a day, seven days a week. As she comes to learn, the ranks of these Poor Clares have steadily dwindled over the decades but the nuns, who have little contact with the outside world, continue their mission armed with a faith in God that Ohlson finds difficult to comprehend. Yet despite her own lack of faith she is filled with gratitude that these nuns watch over Cleveland and the world and attempt to protect us with a web of prayers.
After some initial resistance the nuns agree to talk to Ohlson, which initially leads to a newspaper story that draws attention to the near forgotten group. Gradually they allow Ohlson a more expansive view inside their sheltered world, one that she quickly finds demands an incredible reservoir of faith to commit to. It demands an adherence to a lifestyle that both rejects the outside world and its temptations in favor of a relationship only with Jesus Christ and yet their mission is to care for the world through prayer. It’s a supremely rigorous life that few people, including Ohlson, can fully understand but she admires them nonetheless.
“So why do I now find this devotion admirable rather than stupid? I guess I’m tired of a world with so little faith. I’m tired of marriages that fall apart because people won’t persevere through the dry, dull, miserable periods; I’m tired of people who have given up on making the world better; I’m tired of people who cynically deconstruct everything for their own amusement — and I’ve been all these people. These nuns fell in love with God, married him after a long, careful courtship, and have stuck with him year after year.”
Ohlson’s education about the nuns takes place as she begins to nurture her own faith. She ultimately admits that she doesn’t understand the Poor Clares because she doesn’t, and likely even can’t, share the same level of faith in a higher power that they do. At times she seems more interested in arguing against some of the positions of the Catholic Church, such as its stand against abortion. A committed Catholic might say that she isn’t humble enough, that she seems more interested in debating theology and history than she is in submitting to God. Yet, as Ohlson’s journey attests, she seems committed to making the journey to becoming a believer.
“For me, it takes a combination of things to reach the belief side of the chasm, where I cling from time to time with gnawed and ragged fingernails. One is certainly pattern: the pattern of visiting the nuns, the pattern of weekly mass, and the pattern of prayer when I manage to stick with one. Retreat, which I learned from the nuns: pulling away from the world to enter a cool interior cave that feels very much like the nuns’ own shadowed, silent hallways. And then, finally, the tiniest of convictions that God is like a fire burning in the darkness, whether I’m aware of it or not. Faith keeps me turning to that fire over and over … for refreshment, for solace, for strength, for the thrilling surprise of its presence. During these moments of belief, there is simply more of life — it’s as if the laws of physics have changed and my capacity for presence has expanded.”
Stalking the Divine is a compelling exploration of one person’s spiritual journey juxtaposed with the almost inhuman devotion displayed by the Poor Clares. Stalking God, the effort to find and place faith in the context of a person’s life, is no simple matter regardless of who is questing. The journey, like any journey of personal discovery, is far from a straight road and there’s never a promise of an answer at the end. Ohlson rises above the ghetto of the well-populated mid-life crisis genre with a beautiful and deeply personal story of a search for answers.