A Spiritual Walk with Kathleen Norris
Best-selling author, poet, essayist and oblate Kathleen Norris talks to Beliefnet about her spiritual life and her latest book 'Acedia and Me'.
BY: Nicole Symmonds
Kathleen Norris has long been considered one of the most prolific spiritual writers of our time. With over 10 books ranging from non-fiction to poetry, her writing style resonates with Christians and non-Christians alike. Norris adds depth to her writing with life experiences that range from her monastic life—she is an oblate at Assumption Abbey in North Dakota—to her love of nature and all things earth-bound. While in the midst of working on her latest book “Acedia and Me” Norris chatted with Beliefnet about her love of nature, monastic life and her spiritual journey thus far.
Tell us about the biggest themes in your writing and your current understanding of your spirituality.
Well, so far I’ve mainly been a memoirist, which means I’ve been writing about my own life and my own experiences. Lots of other voices and other people come into the books because "it’s not all about me," as the culture would say. But, it's about my life, my directions with other people and how faith has shaped my life. When I was a child, I went to church gladly. I loved to sing and that went on all through high school. Singing in church choirs and enjoying church, but not really caring too much for the theology, not even thinking about it much. Just going to church to sing. Then, when I went to college, it made it sort of easy to drift away and stay away. Literature made a perfect substitute. I think a lot of people go through that journey. When the family is no longer there, you’re not going to church on Sundays, you simply drop out. And I did. In my mid-30s, I felt this urge to get back to church to try to rediscover religion.
So, the books have all reflected that journey, the move to and from New York City to South Dakota and then discovering all the monasteries out there on the plains and what that meant to me.
Because your writing is described as earth-bound and very caught up in nature, what would you say your relationship to nature is?
It varies. When I lived in the Great Plains for 25 years, nature and the weather patterns and everything were so vital. Now I’m back in Honolulu with my family and nature there is so spectacular and so beautiful. The weather there is fairly constant during the year. In South Dakota you’ve got incredible temperature extremes, but Hawaii is much less. In the Dakotas it would range from 112 degrees above zero to 30 or 40 below. And in Honolulu it will be more like 60 to 90 degrees. It's just a very small variation, but I think the weather affects us in ways that are very easy to ignore in an urban environment. And Honolulu is a city. It is an urban environment.
But, when the wind blows from the south, we all get a little antsy. When the trade winds start to blow again, everybody is happier because that’s the normal pattern and those are cooling breezes rather than the muggy winds that make us uncomfortable and hot. So, I think people are affected by weather in all kinds of ways. And I guess I consider myself more of an urban person now. I’m not living full-time in South Dakota anymore but I still like to watch the dawn. The light change at dawn and sunset are two of my favorite times of day. Just seeing the light change in the sky does something for me. It does something to me. It’s good to also honor those moments of change in the day.
How do the hours of the day—morning and night—play into your daily liturgy?
A monk years ago said those are the hinges in the day and that’s why we pray at those hours. So, that's when the dawn and twilight are lauds and vespers in the liturgical day, morning prayer and evening prayer. So, I think it’s just kind of respecting that these changes that often produce spectacular effects in the sky around us, these deep sort of rose-colored skies and blue and violet things at night. Those changes are something for us to notice and to honor creation and forces beyond our control.
One of my favorite New York City experiences years ago was in my 20s. I came out of the subway one night and I had noticed there was an absolutely spectacular sunset over the Hudson. I was in the west village. This man came out of the subway very disoriented and he said, “Can you tell me which way is east?” I just said “Do you see that? That’s the sun going down. I think if you go this direction, it’s east.” He was so urban-oriented that he had completely lost sight of the fact that the sun sets in the west! And I thought “Whoa! That’s really weird!” That's getting a little too urban.
In, The Cloister Walk you document your monastic life. Can you talk about your experiences in the monastery?
It was a great discovery. I wouldn’t call it "my monastic life" because I’ve never been a lifetime-vowed member of a community. But I have been an oblate now for about 21 years, which is like an associate of a Benedictine community. That was a community I got to know on the Great Plains. I was going there maybe once a month for small retreats, just enjoying the prayers of the monks, enjoying their library and stimulating conversation. One of my jokes is, "I’m living in a town that’s so isolated you go to monasteries for excitement."
But then there was an opportunity to go to St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota. And they’ve got a program called the Collegeville Institute where couples, families, and single people can go and live in an apartment on the monastery grounds --it’s also a university—and do their research and write. A lot of them are professors on sabbatical.
But I decided that my research would be to go to church with the monks four times a day for morning, noon, and evening prayer and the mass. I wanted to see what that would do to me, personally and as a writer, because it’s an immersion in poetry. The Psalms are all poems, you know, lots of poetry being read aloud, sung, lots of scripture. It’s kind of a total immersion in the words of scripture. I was curious to see what that would do to me. And that’s where "The Cloister Walk" came from, basically. It documents the liturgical year, as I was experiencing it. And, again, there are lots of other voices. There are conversations with graduate students there. Some of them are monks and nuns from Tanzania, South Africa, Australia--really fascinating people. [It was about] their experience of the monastic life and the monastic world. All kinds of issues that come up in the monastic life, like celibacy...It was my opportunity to explore that with all these people.
A lot of people don’t know that any monastery has a guest house. You can always go and stay. You can always say, “I want to make a retreat” and the door is open. I just was very fortunate that I was actually able to do it for such an extended period of time.
It sounds like there were a variety of people staying at the monastery. Would you advise Protestants and people of other faiths to take retreats at monasteries?
You know, I think so. I think Benedictine monks and nuns are known for their hospitality. How they interpret hospitality is you don't want people to be like you, you want to accept people as they are. I’ve taken Jewish friends to monasteries for vespers and one of them said, “Do they understand how Hebraic this is? That every prayer, really, is a Jewish prayer [although] there are a few Christian elements, [like] The Lord’s Prayer. But, even that, Jesus was praying it as a Jew.” So, in a sense it’s a Jewish prayer. But, basically the form of the office, the Psalms, is very Hebraic. So, I’ve even had Jewish friends who were quite comfortable going to a monastery and experiencing morning prayer or evening prayer. And certainly, Christians of all denominations have even become oblates. A lot of pastors, Presbyterians, Church of the Nazarene, Methodist, Lutheran. So the Benedictine hospitality is really broad and really wide. So people do feel comfortable going, more comfortable than you would think.
What lessons of the cloister experience have helped you in life?
I think that the deep understanding of hospitality has helped me as a writer because I think it’s my goal to welcome people into a book and try to make them maybe not comfortable, but at least feel welcome that the door is open. That’s been a sort of conscious thing that’s come out of it, a much deeper appreciation of the Psalms. And I think lots of Christian churches pretty much ignore the Psalms. You might hear a snippet on Sunday morning from a hymn of praise, but that doesn’t give you much sense of the full dimension of that book because there’s laments, there’s anger, there’s desire for revenge. There’s all of these human emotions just laid bare before God. I mean it’s really a very emotional book.
I really had never encountered the Psalms deeply until I started hanging out with these monks and nuns and praying with them because they do the Psalms every day, all day. You go through the whole book of 150 Psalms in about four weeks and then you start over again. So you really become familiar with them, and that has been a resource now when I’m angry or I’m grieving or something. I can think of a line from a Psalm. It’s sort of become part of me now. And so, that’s been really a blessing.
Then, I think these friends, both men and women, who have such good values. They know what it is to try to get along in that community of other flawed people. And they really work hard at it. They don’t spend a lot of time thinking about going shopping at the mall and what to buy. You know, it’s a very un-consumerist mentality, which is really refreshing.
And then, discovering the ancient desert stories, the fathers and mothers of the 4th century and their writings and sayings. And that’s been a big influence, and particularly in my new book—“Acedia and Me”—I talk a lot about that early literature. And I never have encountered it until I started going to monasteries. But it’s part of their tradition and they’re very proud of it.
How have the Psalms changed you, spiritually?
You can hear the accusing voice in the Psalm as yourself accusing yourself, saying, “The enemy is not out there. I am my own enemy here and I have to watch it.” So you start to hear the Psalms in a lot of different ways. You may come to the prayers feeling angry, and there’s a Psalm that really addresses that, or you may come feeling sad.
Or, on the other hand, you may come feeling really happy, and there’s a lament and you think, “Well, I am feeling very happy today, but I have to pray this for someone who might be feeling sad.” The communal dimension becomes really clear in a monastery.