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Insert Comma • A Portfolio of Leigh E. Rich
Wit, candor highlight tale of nuns

A glimpse into the lives of the Poor Clares

By Leigh E. Rich

Stalking the Divine: Contemplating Faith With the Poor Clares
By Kristin Ohlson
August 2003
272 pages

When she was alive, my 98-year-old Jewish grandmother used to say that though she never doubted the existence of God, she was sure he’s senile.

Which could explain why the sect of Poor Clare nuns in Ohio prays in perpetual adoration—literally, 24-7. Day and night, one of these contemplative nuns says a prayer for someone in particular, for those in need, for all humankind. They do so because it is their job and, in so many words, their only job.

This dwindling group of nuns who live in (and own!) the St. Paul Shrine, a Franciscan church in downtown Cleveland, are cloistered contemplatives. Living their day-to-day existence in seclusion and silence, they do not leave St. Paul’s. They do not even attend mass with its parishioners. Instead, they worship from behind a wooden grate.

Through the slats, St. Paul regulars learn to recognize the individual nuns, who often wave at their brethren at the conclusion of the ceremony, before disappearing into their hidden hallways of the windowless monastery.

It is the lives of the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration, the story of St. Clare of Assisi, and her own struggle with faith that freelance writer Kristin Ohlson grapples with in her book, Stalking the Divine. A former Catholic turned “radical communist atheist” who’s stumbling back toward her forgotten faith, Ohlson’s tale is witty and wry, insightful and inspirational—even for the non-Catholic, the non-Christian or those teetering on the heretical.

One of the many reasons why Stalking the Divine succeeds is that Ohlson exposes herself as a skeptic not so different from the rest of us. Happening upon St. Paul’s on Christmas Day (by accident or fate? we can hear her unconsciously question throughout the book), Ohlson returns time and again though remains hesitant to be considered a regular churchgoer—not wanting to be deemed a true believer in God and simultaneously not wanting the faithful to see the chinks in her delicate Catholic armor.

A “dilettante by trade and by nature,” she writes: “I was just sliding around the surface of faith, and I was afraid that I would soon fall off.”

But with the idea of a book about the Poor Clares, Ohlson stayed the tide, the tentativeness of the nuns, and the five years it took from her first mass at St. Paul’s to publication.

Though Stalking the Divine is interesting for its sketches of St. Paul’s nuns and for its history lessons about St. Clare—the wealthy and beautiful daughter of a nobleman who chose “poverty, prayer, and seclusion until her death”—and Mother Agnes who brought the Poor Clares from Austria to Cleveland in 1921, it is Ohlson’s humorous and intimate search for faith that gives an erect posture to her story.

In 1998, before even knowing of the Poor Clares’ existence just miles from her home, Ohlson berates her almost year-old New Year’s resolutions: “A few days before Christmas, I reviewed my list and shook my head at the things not done; I said, ‘Oh no, I forgot to believe in God!’ mocking my own foolishness for putting faith on the same list with reupholstering Aunt Leah’s rocking chair.”

And so begins Ohlson’s spiritual tour as a lost soul with the sense “that whatever I knew of the world wasn’t enough. … Now I wanted faith, but I wasn’t sure if I hadn’t inoculated myself against it for good.”

Dancing about the “Fabergé box” that is the St. Paul Shrine like a bee directing its cohorts to the sweetest honey, Ohlson is also an amateur anthropologist, candidly flitting between an etic (objective) and emic (subjective) perspective with the desire “to watch [the nuns] as they sliced apples or searched for the cord to the curtains or swung their feet to the floor after a night full of dreams. Did all these ordinary moments have greater meaning because of their faith? … I wanted to discover what there was to learn about faith from those who never left it in the first place.”

She lets the Poor Clares’ story unfold alongside her own journey, allowing readers a privileged vantage point from inside the head of a hopeful, native Californian, remarried, former Maoist mother and writer. Her disparaging humor (wondering whether God was “really such a comedian” when he perhaps answered her prayer for the fortitude to stay awake for an all-night vigil but never giving her “the divine tap on the shoulder, the cosmic come-hither that other people have experienced”) is balanced by her affection for the Poor Clares.

“There was hardship in the monastery,” she discovers, “but it seemed to me that it wasn’t just the denial of HBO and cross-country skiing and new leather jackets that made the nuns’ lives tough. Rather, the hardship came from their constant struggle for faith in a place where there was little to distract them from its absence. There was also joy, but not primarily from the time they spent in community or even in their escape from the strains of ordinary life.”

Stalking the Divine does lose a bit of its easy style and pace when the third chapter breaks from Ohlson’s immediate timeline and gives readers a quick rundown of her family’s religious lineage. She abandons this narrative as abruptly as it began and never returns to it, leaving a few pages from an otherwise charming tale somewhat confusing and as out of place as she that first day at St. Paul’s.

But in the end, unlike countless other spiritual tomes, Ohlson is sincere enough to refrain from placating readers with an ending to her journey or a divine revelation. The “moving target” that is religious faith, even for the Poor Clares, has replaced Ohlson’s few answers with many new questions.

“It’s hard working my way back to belief from nonbelief,” she realizes, even after half a decade of searching. “There’s a tremendous chasm between the two, and it’s only some inexplicable determination that pushes me to keep making the leap. Logic can pull you away from God but I don’t think it can bring you back.”

Rich, L. E. (2003, August 15). Wit, candor highlight tale of nuns. [Review of the book Stalking the Divine: Contemplating Faith With the Poor Clares by Kristin Ohlson.] Rocky Mountain News.

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