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'.
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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.
How have the Psalms impacted you as a poet?
Just enjoying the knowledge that I do have of the Psalms, they’ve sort of become like old friends who always tell you the truth. And I think the fact that there’s this great respect for poetry and language just built into that way of life [monastic life]--that you sit still and you listen to scripture being read, is great. Hearing scripture read aloud, you hear more. You hear things that you didn’t know were there, even in familiar stories. That’s been the most important discovery for me as a poet, that the effect our words have even when we’re not aware of them; that those words are going to go out there in the world and have an effect that I don’t control.
What is your favorite Psalm?
I love Psalm 27. “The Lord is my light and my salvation. Whom shall I fear? The Lord is the light of my life.” There’s this incredible confident faith. But then, as you read on in the Psalm, you find this person who really feels besieged and very threatened. There are just some beautiful lines in there. To me, it’s a very complete Psalm because it has the confidence, it has the fear, and it has a little doubt and a real human situation. And “There is one thing I seek, to dwell in the house of the Lord and to inquire in the Temple.”
“It is your face that I seek, oh, Lord.” It's just such a powerful Psalm. And it ends with an admonition to just wait and hope, which are two of the things that we resist doing but we always have to do. And to turn waiting and hoping into a real spiritual practice is so important. And so, that Psalm just addresses me on so many levels.
What is your understanding of what it means to "wait"?
There are many admonitions in the prophets and all the way through the Bible that waiting is so important. Of course, in our culture, we regard waiting as a waste of time. And every increment in efficiency always asks the question, "Why wait?" We don't want to wait. But when I wrote a little bit on waiting, I looked at the etymology of the word “wait” to see where the word came from, it said “see vigor.” Vigor. So waiting is not passive. It’s active. It’s vigilant. It’s a watchful activity. And I’m going “vigor, vigor.” We’ll pay money so we don't have to wait because waiting is for losers. Waiting is for wimps. But here, “see vigor.” There’s something to this. Waiting can become a serious spiritual discipline, if we allow that to happen, if we don't just fritter away our time stamping impatiently thinking, “When is the light going to change?”
I had an experience of this years ago. I was upset because something on the computer was taking so long. It was something that was a recurring thing. I had to keep doing it and I said “Wait a minute, I’m going to see how [long] this really is.” It was 10 seconds. And I said “Okay.” Like, I had a monk moment. “Watch yourself here. Be vigilant here. You are making a fool of yourself over 10 seconds worth of time.” So that taught me something about waiting and how endangered we are with it right now because computers and email make everything instant. When things aren’t instant, we don't know who we are anymore. And we [need] to sort of sit back and say, “Wait a minute. Who am I, really?” and not give in to that impatience and anger. It’s a real spiritual discipline.
You know, if you only let yourself wait, something good might happen. And there are so many processes in nature, and in art. Learning and art take a lot of waiting because it’s not an instant thing. The first time you do it, it’s not going to be right. You’re going to have to revise it. So there are lessons to be had from waiting.
Many Christians struggle with the biblical admonition to be “in the world but not of it.” How do you make sense of this scriptural edict?
Well, in some ways I could do it-- and some ways I don’t do it well at all. And I think that’s probably true for most of us. I remember walking in a shopping mall one time, I was helping this monk. He had gone in because he wanted to find a birthday card for his mother. As we were passing by this department store, I said, “Oh, gee. You know, I love their shoe department. But I don’t really need any shoes. And gee, I wonder if I go in there, I know I’ll buy a pair of shoes.” And he just said, “What are you talking about? Why open yourself to the temptation?” And I’m going, “Duh!” I probably would have gone in and looked--at least looked over the shoes. And so, when I shop now, I have a list and there’s something I’m looking for. If I don’t find it, I’m out of there in half an hour, empty-handed or not, because it’s a little more focus there.
When I visit New York City, I try to be very conscious that what makes New York City sacred is the people. I just got off the subway and all of these faces, all of these ages, all the races - all of them in the same subway car, little kids and old ladies, and young families and high school and college students. And you think everyone’s all crammed together in this subway car, and God loves each of us. I mean, it’s amazing. It’s just the human richness.
And then, when I’m in the Dakotas, the sort of the natural richness of the place. It’s almost devoid of people. But, you know, when I’m in a crowded situation on a bus or something, just that little voice reminding me these are all creatures God made and loves, that really transforms the situation. And I can’t always do it. I mean, sometimes I get irritated with someone on an airplane and it’s very easy to lose yourself. But, trying to keep those reminders alive, that this is a world that God made and these are people God made.
Tell us about your experience reading the book of Jeremiah.
That was one of the strangest, most difficult, and wonderful experiences I ever had in a monastery. The monks were reading Jeremiah at morning prayer. And Jeremiah is, like a lot of the prophets, he’s on point. He is direct. He doesn’t mince words. He knows things aren’t right and wants you to see that and help make them better. But he thinks you’re a damn fool and he’ll tell you that. And so, you’re sitting there listening to these words and these accusations and everything, going, “Oh, this is not fun. This hurts. I mean, this is painful to hear.” And also Jeremiah is one of the more grieving prophets. And he had a lot of reason to grieve.
But as I entered into that listening every morning, it was so amazing, the insights that I got into myself and to my life, to other people. And the monks were funny because they were all talking about how difficult it was to go every morning and know that you were going to get hit over the head again by Jeremiah. But, how it was worth doing.
I ended up writing a whole chapter, because my life took a rather difficult turn at that time. I had an injury that still plagues me. Things just weren’t going well. And Jeremiah was a great friend to have when things aren’t going well. I love Isaiah for all the poetry. And, of course at Advent and Christmas you hear a lot of Isaiah. I love Amos because he’s so fierce. And I like the other prophets for other reasons. But, Jeremiah, I guess partly because of that experience, you know, became like this friend, a companion.
There was a Christian Century lecture in 2003, where you quoted Evelyn Waugh, who wrote, "Malice of sloth lies not merely in the neglect of duty, though that can be a symptom of it, but in the refusal of joy. And it’s allied to despair." Considering this, do you think sloth is the deadliest of the seven deadly sins?
This is what the new book "Acedia and Me" is about. That Christian Century lecture in 2003 was just a part of what I’ve been working on. Most of the time we think of sloth as just physical laziness. But what I’m writing about there, and I think what Evelyn Waugh was referring to is what the ancient monks would call "acedia," which is not a familiar word. But any monastic person, any Benedictine or Trappist would know what it is because they experience it. Before there were seven deadly sins, the monks had a system of eight bad thoughts. And anger, pride, and acedia were considered the worst of the bad thoughts. But when they became the seven deadly sins, people thought only monks will experience [acedia]. Nobody else is going to have to deal with it. And so, it got put into the sin of sloth, which became physical laziness.
So we lost the word. But I think of it as a spiritual side of sloth. Acedia actually means indifference. It means being unable to care, and that, by extension, believing that God couldn’t possibly care about you. You don’t care about anything. And I really think indifference, in that sense, is a major problem in our world today. And so, this new book is going to be kind of exploring that word. Exploring the differences I see, anyway, between acedia and depression because they share some [of the] same symptoms and effects, but they’re not exactly the same. I discovered this word 25 years ago in a monastery library. And I thought, “Oh, my God. This man is describing something I know, but I never had the name.” That naming it was so powerful. So, I’ve really been wanting to write this book for all that time. And finally, I managed to overcome my sloth enough to do it.
Losing that ability to care...That's a really scary prospect, but I think that’s the state that a lot of us are in a lot of the time. And not being able to care about things that deep down we know we really want to care about, but we just can’t even get there. And that’s why the ancient monks thought of it as such a deadly thing, because it really starts to disconnect you not only from God but from other people and being able to find meaning in life. If you lose your ability to care about that, you’re really kind of lost. And you really need help. And so, that’s why it’s so deadly.
In a Christianity Today interview you said that religious traditions have been shortchanged and that there are three things that are badly taught: faith, poetry, and mathematics. Which means why we worship, what prayer really is and isn’t, and how our children are poorly taught these spiritual practices. What is the solution to this?
I think when I hear 7th and 8th graders say science is boring, I want to scream because I’m not very good at math or science, but I have figured out that science tells amazing stories. I think the same is also true of faith. Church is boring. Religion is boring. And you think, wait a minute, we have some incredible stories. They’re stories that are going to be replicated in your life of exile and exodus, and rediscovering good things. Rediscovering your life. Of maybe dying on the cross of drug addiction and working your way out, being reborn into a new life, a life that you couldn’t imagine when you were still addicted to your drugs, you know? Leaving the empty tomb and finding a new life.
So, all of these stories have great relevance. But, somehow, just the way they’re taught turns people off. And, of course, the saddest thing, I think, with both science and religion is that often just when kids are getting to be 7th and 8th graders they’re asking the most wonderful, crazy, intelligent questions, that’s when they get shut down because either the teachers don’t know that much good theology, they don’t know that much about science, they can’t answer the questions, or they answer them in a way that shuts the kids down.
Parents need to be aware of that. And if the schools themselves or the churches are deficient, to try to make up for that --find a way that the kids just won’t get turned off by what are pretty amazing, ancient, and wise stories, and traditions.