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?