Monday, November 16, 2009

In Praise of Kathleen Norris

Whenever I make a trip to Mepkin Abbey, people always ask me how and why I came to make regular visits to a monastery. What's even more odd is that I used to live only 20 miles away from that monastery, but I had no interest in visiting it then. But now that I live over 700 miles, I try to go at least once a year.

Before we moved to South Carolina, I had no interest in theology, except for some lingering left over thoughts from my idealistic youth. Those thoughts pointed me down a social justice path, and I figured I didn't need a church for that. Of course, I didn't do a good job of social justice on my own, but I tried not to think about that.

When we first moved down here, I went to the public library several times a week. Kathleen Norris had just published Amazing Grace. The first time I pulled it off the shelf and saw the subtitle, A Vocabulary of Faith, I shoved it right back on the shelf. I certainly wasn't interested in that.

One week, though, the offerings at the library were slim, and that book just called to me, as it had been for many weeks. I took it home and devoured it. Then I read Dakota. Then I read The Cloister Walk. That book really wanted to go to a monastery. Those books also awakened a fierce desire to return to church, which I finally did (although I'd give Nora Gallagher's books more credit for that yearning than Kathleen Norris).

I had friends back in South Carolina who were reading Kathleen Norris at the same time. They, too, really wanted to go to a monastery. They knew about Mepkin Abbey, and they went to explore. Finally, in 2004, we had a reunion there.

I've often said that if the monks accepted married, female Lutherans, I'd have never gone back. I fell in love with the buildings, the food, the magnificent library. But more than that, I fell in love with their way of life. To be able to gather as a religious community to pray eight times a day--that really appealed to me. The balanced pace appealed to me even more.

I have always idealized lives that aren't my own, and luckily, I had Kathleen Norris to bring me down to earth. In The Cloister Walk, she gives us a look behind the cloistered walls to show us that the monks are living regular lives just like the rest of us. Being a monk doesn't mean that you'll feel holy every day. However, I did suspect that their daily circumstances left them more open to the Divine than most of us.

Here again, Norris pointed the way. At the time she wrote, she was an oblate, which meant that she wouldn't be living a cloistered life with the monks, but she would try to carry their lifestyle into her daily life as a married, Protestant, female writer. Reading her books, it occurred to me that I could do that too.

While I'm not an oblate, I have tried to adopt some of the habits of the monks. I try to pray several times a day (I'm partial to Phyllis Tickle's The Divine Hours series). I try to practice radical hospitality and generosity. I try to eat healthfully. The Mepkin monks are mostly vegetarian, and I'd like to be too.

My surroundings are not as beautiful as those at Mepkin. I don't worship in that kind of space, alas. My daily life is not set up to encourage balance, although I try to achieve that balance that I glimpsed at Mepkin (equal times for sleep, study/reading, worship, life-supporting work that earns money, and all the daily activities that one most do, like eating).

I don't know that I would have ever begun my exploration of monastic traditions without Kathleen Norris. Those explorations have changed my life in ways that I can only barely articulate, and therefore, I am so grateful to her.

No comments: