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
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.