Flowers in the Desert
Kathleen Norris was born in Washington, D.C., was raised in Lemmon, South Dakota, but went to high school in Honolulu, Hawaii.
After graduation from Bennington College, she moved to New York City and works as the arts administrator at the Academy of American Poets.
In 1971, while in her early 20s, she published her first book of poetry, Falling Off. Other works of poetry followed: Little Girls in Church, How I Came to Drink My Grandmother’s Piano and The Year of Common Things.
When she and her husband, poet David Dwyer, moved from New York to South Dakota, their life on the Plains inspired Norris’ first nonfiction work and best seller, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography. This book was followed by The Cloister Walk, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith and the autobiographical The Virgin of Bennington.
A Benedictine oblate since the late ‘60s, she has published essays on monasticism in the Gettysburg Review, The Hungry Mind Review, The Massachusetts Review and the North Dakota Quarterly.
We met with Norris between sessions of the Religious Leadership Conference sponsored by the Iliff School of Theology in Denver where she was a featured speaker, attracting an SRO audience at Sturm Auditorium at the University of Denver.
HOMILETICS: In Amazing Grace, the phrase “scary words” recurs. How can a word be scary?
NORRIS: Coming back to church after I had been gone for 20 years. I had become a writer in that period. The Protestant worship service just seemed like a word bombardment. There were all these heavy-duty words, lots of baggage, lots of meaning, but I had lost touch with them.
So I had to find a way to define them for myself, to understand not just their intellectual meaning, but what they could mean in a life of faith. So I gave myself that assignment. And I talked to pastors, too, about this, but when I decided to write a book, it was about the words that gave me the most trouble - the scary words - and then as the book went along I added some words.
HOMILETICS: So a scary word, for example, is justification.
NORRIS: Justification, sin, hell, damnation. All these powerful words.
HOMILETICS: Should we change the nomenclature?
NORRIS: No, I think it’s crazy when the church borrows all this language from the corporate world, and it really doesn’t make sense, when you have this wonderful traditional language. It’s just that when I’m preaching I try to be aware that there may be someone in that congregation who may be like I was when I was making my way back to the church. I can’t just toss out those words without giving this person something to hang on to. “Oh, so that’s what this means! That’s her experience with this word!”
Like “righteousness.” It really has a very deep meaning in the Bible. It doesn’t mean self-righteousness at all. It refers to someone who is doing “just” things. Someone who is seeking justice for the poor, the widow, the orphan - it’s a classic, prophetic use of the word. Discoveries like this were very important to me, and I try to make them available to others.
HOMILETICS: Clearly, you are interested in the etymology of words. Where did that come from?
NORRIS: It came from being a poet, and also, when I was in college my professors who were writers made me aware of etymological dictionaries and the fun it can be to find out how words were used over the centuries. Like the word “gossip,” for example. Originally, it meant “god-parent,” it had a holy meaning, and of course now it has an unholy meaning. It ended up as a chapter in the book.
HOMILETICS: Amazing Grace begins with a chapter called “Eschatology,” and it ends with “The New Jerusalem.” Was that part of the organizational design?
NORRIS: No, it really wasn’t designed. That book was written in fits and spurts, with no set organization. It was very hard to figure out how that book should be organized, but then I realized that it needed to start with “Eschatology.” And I thought, “Well, I’ve made a joke now. That’s really funny, and some people will get it and others won’t. It doesn’t matter.” It proved to be a strong chapter and my editor loved it. And doing that, it had to end with “The New Jerusalem.”
HOMILETICS: What’s the New Asceticism? You write somewhere that “asceticism reminds us that our time, our bodies, are not truly our own.” I think you were making the point that whereas the old asceticism had to do with the mortification of the body, the new asceticism has to do with the spirit.
NORRIS: The new asceticism doesn’t have to do with sitting on top of a pillar and whipping yourself. It has to do with learning to live in community. Being with other people in some productive way. We’re so pressured by the consumer culture to put ourselves first, be individuals.
Asceticism in marriage, for example. There are times when one partner has to sacrifice for the other in that community of two. And it is always a mutual thing. It goes back and forth. When one is sick the other takes care of that person, and vice versa. But that’s hard. It really is a form of asceticism. I think raising children in this country is a form of asceticism. The discipline, the time, the patience are really, really serious matters. So there are these things that are forms of asceticism, but they all involve living in with other people.
HOMILETICS: In The Cloister Walk, you cite a monk who was commenting on the problem of diversity when he said, “The biggest problem here is that we all had mothers who fried potatoes in a different way.” What was he saying?
NORRIS: And that’s a monastery that only has 11-12 people. It means that if someone has cooked potatoes the right way, he feels he’s done a good job. Someone else says, “That’s not the right way to cook fried potatoes.” Now, that can lead to bad feelings, and in a tiny community like a monastery, that can be difficult. He was pointing to something that is a problem: Individual differences matter a lot. In a monastery that’s one thing you’re supposed to do: eat what is put in front of you with gratitude.
HOMILETICS: You refer to Wendy Kaminer’s work occasionally, and I think she wrote a book about the culture of argumentation that we live in. The culture wars have slopped over the cup into the religious saucer. How can we tone down the rhetoric?
NORRIS: One of the ways our society has corrupted the Christian community is by this emphasis on polarizing. Insulting other people has become a form of argument. It doesn’t matter what the issue is. The stand you take on a particular issue is more important than baptism, the Lord’s Prayer, the Nicene or Apostles’ Creed. Somehow our opinions on political matters are more than those other things. It’s just not true. It’s healthier in general to look at what unites us as Christians.
There are plenty of areas where we differ - in practice, theology, all sorts of things - but there is all that essence of the faith that remains. It’s foolish for us to pretend that we’re like political parties and not church denominations. I’m hoping that people are finally going to get tired of this; it’s certainly not productive.
HOMILETICS: You cite the Buddhist monk who said, “To me, I am the Way is a better statement than I know the way.”
NORRIS: Yes, isn’t that lovely? Thich Nhat Hanh. He wrote that beautiful book Living Buddha, Living Christ. It’s about his new understanding of Christ that he’s gotten from Western monks and Western religious people to where he really thinks of him as a kind Buddha - in his framework.
HOMILETICS: Of what value are the creeds if no one understands what they mean, and if they do, don’t seem to pay much attention to them theologically anyway? And we sound like William Blake!
NORRIS: There are some phrases, “True God from true God.” Whew! That’s a little strange. It’s just not the kind of language people would normally use. But that’s okay. It doesn’t have to be. It’s basically the retelling of our story. It’s our story as a people. It’s a unifying thing. It’s who we are. We are a people who have come out of this.
Creeds used to drive me crazy. I thought I had to understand everything intellectually and agree to it, and I would make a big deal about it. But once someone said to me, “Well, it’s just like speaking in tongues.” And I thought, “Hmmmm.” Maybe not exactly, but that’s a useful way to think of it. But now I just think that this is our story. This is who we were, who we are, who we’re going to be.
HOMILETICS: Why did you feel for so many years that being a Christian and being a writer were incompatible?
NORRIS: It was largely my education. I grew up in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Psychology was a part of it. A lot of writers were very interested in the growth of psychology after World War II and in the Freudian view, religion was infantile and you want to outgrow it. So I think that filtered down into my education and the culture. Religion was something for children and little old ladies, but if you were really sophisticated and really adult, you didn’t need it. And you still see this attitude. I didn’t have a lot of contemporary writers who l liked who were Christians or expressed Christian ideas in their work. It’s changing now. There are a number of writers of my generation and younger who see no problem at all. And I don’t see it any more either. But it really was a struggle. I thought that I would have to give up my mind, that my writing would suffer -
HOMILETICS: That it would be inferior quality.
NORRIS: Yes, and there were other writers who worried about that and said, “How can you write now?” I remember being at a reading one time, and I had written some poems that were based on biblical themes, and it was like, “See, I can do this!” And it was fun to bring them together and to say, “These are not polar opposites. One feeds the other. One inspires the other. They work together.”
HOMILETICS: The Rule of St. Benedict has obviously played a huge role in your spiritual formation. But you argue that it is one of the most influential books in Western history. Isn’t that overstating it just a bit?
NORRIS: You know, I don’t think so. It has endured for so long, for 1,500 years. One of the reasons we have the literature that we do coming from the classical era is because of the Benedictines themselves. The book itself is not as well known as it was in the 18th and 19th centuries when it was part of your education. If you were highly educated, you at least knew of the existence of the Rule.
One of the things I love about the Rule and that most Protestants don’t realize is that if you took the Bible out of the Rule you’d have almost nothing left. Benedict quotes Scripture in every chapter, on every page. It’s a major part of the Rule.
HOMILETICS: Before becoming a Benedictine oblate, you say that one of the biggest obstacles was the “many doubts about the Christian religion” that had been with you since you were a teen. What kind of doubts?
NORRIS: A lot of it was misunderstanding. It also comes out of my education. I thought I had to intellectually understand all this stuff. I wasn’t really looking at the experiential/existential aspect of religion so much. I was thinking that my intellectual doubts were really important. And it was a couple of older Benedictine monks and nuns who cut me down to size and made me see that “Oh, you have doubts? That’s good. God can work with doubts.” I’m thinking, “These people are crazy!” But the other thing was that intellectual objections really didn’t hold up against the draw of faith. There was something going on in my life that was so powerful, it couldn’t be ignored. So a lot of the doubts that I had gradually sloughed off, went away.
But it was a real struggle for a couple of years of just really wondering what I should be doing. And the monks would say, “Well, you sit with us in the choir, you sing the songs, this is where you should be, this is what you should be doing. Let’s see what happens.” It was not a conversion. Here’s a list of things to believe and do. It was: “Keep showing up. Something good will come of this.” Also, going to church. This has meaning. This is above and beyond my experience. Eventually I could see that all these things had more weight than my doubts and my frustrations.
HOMILETICS: In Dakota: A Spiritual Biography, you obviously feel that there on that windblown prairie one can discover a sense of the sacred. What is the sacred, and where can it be found, other than Lemmon, South Dakota?
NORRIS: Well, it can be found anywhere. You can find it in any neighborhood. In cities, you find it in humanity more than in nature. What I meant by a “sense of the sacred,” is the sense that this is a created world, and we are a very small part of it. We influence things greatly, but when you’re standing out in the prairie and there’s just this open sky and open land around you, you realize how small you are. How vulnerable. That’s a spiritual humbling that reminds you that God is greater.
In Job 38 God is responding and saying, “I made all this stuff. Where were you then?” There’s that sense of being a small part of this huge, incredible, wonderful creation.
HOMILETICS: Given your involvement with the Benedictines, why not convert and become a Catholic?
NORRIS: You know, it never really occurred to me as something to think about. I have a kind of conservative attitude - coming strongly out of the Protestant tradition dating actually from the time of the reformation in England. Those are my roots, and for me to uproot myself, that would take a lot of doing.
HOMILETICS: And that would mean Grandfather Norris would be spinning in his grave.
NORRIS: Well, actually not him so much. He was good friends with the Catholic priests in the towns he served. He was ahead of his time in terms of wanting to be neighborly and wanting to have friendly relations with the Catholic priests and Catholics in the town. My grandmother Norris would have a harder time with it, I think. She was just more set in her ways and more narrow in her thinking about matters like that. But there hasn’t been any internal pressure to convert.
In a sense, The Cloister Walk is my “Catholic” book, written about the liturgical year. It came out of spending a lot of time in monasteries. Then I turned around and wrote a book about my own roots, and that was Amazing Grace, which is my “Protestant” book, and I asked some Protestant pastors and theologians to comment on it to see if there were any egregious errors, and with The Cloister Walk I used monastic theologians and historians.
HOMILETICS: You’re a poet, preacher, Christian, writer, wife, teacher -
NORRIS: Caregiver. The last four years. Commode-emptier. Real basic roles. [laughter all around]
HOMILETICS: So, do you have a sense of who you are? Is it a mosaic Kathleen Norris you see and we see?
NORRIS: That’s hard. Like a lot of writers, I’ve had to put together a patchwork of jobs, but now it’s mostly writing that I do, and it’s wonderful. I think I had a much better sense of who I was over the past 30 years when I was with my husband. The thing now is that I really am in this limbo between the old life I was living for 30 years married to David, including the last four years in a very intense relationship when I really was care-giving for him, and now this new life. I don’t know what shape it will take. Everyone says it’s normal. Tells me not to make important decisions quickly.
Of course, it legitimizes laziness, too. I know that this new life has to be different from the old one. But I am still connected to that old life. It’s been the recent event of David’s death that has really turned things around.
HOMILETICS: Maybe this is a good time to ask this question which comes out of Dakota. The Dakotas are not necessarily a “barren landscape,” but still there’s that image that’s evoked of a barren landscape out there on the prairie, and it’s a metaphor, of course, for the way we can experience our own lives. When we feel like we’re on that barren plain, is it our task to try to transform it into a Garden of Eden, or to live through it and be one with it? How do we come to terms with the barren landscapes of our lives?
NORRIS: I think living through it is the key. And when the flowers bloom in the desert, it’s God’s doing. We can go about nest-building and making gardens of our lives, and nurturing relationships with other people that will make the desert bloom, but when you’re really in the dryness, the darkness of depression or grief - like a woman was just saying to me, “The two most important men in your life have died,” and I’m going, “I know!” Yes, for the last two years, this has been a major shift. The desert has really been opening up. [NOTE: Kathleen Norris’ father passed away two years ago.]
Isaiah 35 is such a powerful chapter. When the desert blooms, it really is God’s doing. Living through it and knowing that there is a through path and trying to stay on it or asking God to help you stay on it, is really the key. Because it is God who will bring water out of the rock. We need to make ourselves receptive to these moments when this happens.
HOMILETICS: You’ve stepped into the pulpit numerous times now -
NORRIS: Occasionally. For a while when I was writing Dakota, I was preaching one to three sermons a month for almost nine months. And that was a trial by fire. I was crazy to do it, and they were crazy to ask me, but it worked out fine. Now it is much more occasional. I enjoy it, but it is a much more occasional thing for me.
HOMILETICS: Okay, so let’s say you’re at preacher school and you have a class of first-year would-be preachers. What do you tell them?
NORRIS: Develop a capacity for reading, especially the reading of the lectio divina, and getting immersed in the text - letting the text work on you. Devote a couple of weeks, or days at least, but do not try to force the process. Much better than expecting this to happen on a Saturday night.
HOMILETICS: Anyone accuse you of having ADHD?
HOMILETICS: You have such an active life; on the other hand you have a contemplative side. Are you Mary or are you Martha?
NORRIS: Both. I love this quote that I first heard in a monastery. I think that the Mary/Martha story was the text for the morning: “Martha is who we are; Mary is who we wish to become.” There is some truth to that.
No, I can multitask, and I was multitasking before the word was invented. But there was also a time when I realized that I can’t multitask. I didn’t want to. It wasn’t desirable. I like to be alone. I like to be with groups of people. I once took the Myers-Briggs, and I was completely lopsided, except on the extrovert/introvert where I was totally balanced, and that made sense to me. I like quiet time alone, I like to read. I was a complete bookworm as a kid. A child who can sit for hours reading a book is not going to be diagnosed with ADD.
HOMILETICS: Obviously, you attract great audiences wherever you go. What is the appeal of Kathleen Norris?
NORRIS: You’ll have to ask them! I’m a storyteller. I really like to tell stories, and I think that makes my books accessible. And I also am crazy enough to tackle difficult subjects like a vocabulary of the Christian faith and life on the Great Plains. Who would buy a book about poets, monks and farmers on the plains of the Dakotas? That’s what I was thinking when I wrote the book. People hunger for stories, good language and books about serious things that aren’t huge scholarly tomes that are hard to read.
HOMILETICS: Literature and authors seem to inform your work more than systematic theologians.
NORRIS: When I find a scholar who is also a good writer, I always rejoice. There’s Simon Tugwell, for example, who’s a Dominican who’s written on the saints, Walter Brueggeman, Peter Brown, a scholar of the early church, and Raymond Brown is one of the greatest. If I find someone who is a good writer, okay, but if I find something that has too many abstract words in it, it just numbs my brain. I’d much rather read a novel.
HOMILETICS: You say that you finally realized that you couldn’t escape the “burden of all that preaching in my blood.” What do you mean, and in what sense has it been a burden?
NORRIS: [Laughs] I wasn’t going to church. I was writing. I probably would have called myself spiritual, but not religious. I had a great-grandfather and a grandfather who were Methodist pastors, and my brother is a pastor, and it goes back even farther. My father found some Anglican preachers in England. So the preaching tradition in our family is rather strong. I thought I had successfully escaped that - becoming a poet and a writer. And then I end up joining a church, and they say, “Oh you can write; you can preach.”
It was just so funny that I couldn’t escape it. I’m not sure it was a burden so much. I thought it was a burden, and it turned out not to be. It turned out to be liberating and to be very enjoyable. It’s like a lot of things: We avoid something or try to evade it because we think it’s a burden and it turns out to be the biggest joke. It’s really funny.
HOMILETICS: You’re a writer - you can preach!
NORRIS: This wonderful woman in Lemmon, South Dakota. Been a lifelong church member and churchgoer. I think she was on the worship committee, and it made perfect sense to her. I’m going, “Ah, this is too funny.” I’m very grateful, though.
HOMILETICS: You prefer Hawaii or South Dakota?
NORRIS: I definitely prefer Hawaii in the winter and South Dakota in the summer. Because summers in Hawaii can be very hot and sticky if the trade winds don’t blow. My little place there is wonderful, but it’s not air-conditioned and I don’t really want it to be. It’s fun, but our ideal schedule is to leave South Dakota in early November and come back at the end of May. June through October in South Dakota is beautiful.
HOMILETICS: Could you write a book called Hawaii: A Spiritual Geography?
NORRIS: I’ve actually thought about this. It would be a difficult challenge and extremely complex because the history of the Hawaiian people is even more recent than what’s happened to Native Americans.
Culturally, Hawaii is so different. I’m probably going to write a few essays about Hawaii and different aspects of it. I think it would be of interest to people who don’t really know much about Hawaii. They don’t know much about Dakota. They have a lot more images of Hawaii, but it has mainly to do with surfing, and tourists, and volcanoes. All interesting, but there’s a lot of ordinary life there that doesn’t get noticed much.
One of the interesting things about Hawaii is that it’s the most isolated island chain in the world, physically distant from any continent. You think that it’s only a six- hour flight from Denver, so it can’t be isolated, but it really is. I don’t know if I would write a spiritual geography - we could see. I think I would write more about people and family. I’m not sure I want to lay claim to that in Hawaii. I wasn’t born and raised there. The family connections in South Dakota go back a couple generations; in Hawaii they go back to 1959, right before it became a state. And that’s not long enough for me.
HOMILETICS: What’s next for Kathleen Norris?
NORRIS: I don’t know. That’s the basic answer. I’m going to do more lecturing, and preaching and talking and reading. I’m hoping to get back to writing some time this year. That would be very good. And we’ll just see. I’m very close to my mother. She’s 87. One of the reasons I’m not going to spend the whole summer in South Dakota is because I see my mother almost every day. I can walk over to her place. We do things together. We go to the movies. I take her shopping. Just being able to enjoy her companionship at this time in her life is so wonderful. I had the same experience with my dad. I was grateful to be stranded in Hawaii with David, my husband, because it meant that I spent much more time with both my parents. And that’s just a joy. I really love it. I have a wonderful church community in Hawaii. And of course, I’m still in touch with the church community in Lemmon. So all of that is part of my life now, so we’ll see.