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Hope built on a usable past

by
15 October 2021

Rod Garner celebrates the spiritual insights of Kathleen Norris

Ian Dagnall/Alamy

Clapboard church on South Dakota plains

Clapboard church on South Dakota plains

KATHLEEN NORRIS arrives in New York in 1969, with a dream of becoming a writer and poet. Fresh out of Bennington College, Vermont, where she has been a shy and bookish student — described unkindly (and, as she will later reveal, incorrectly) by her freewheeling contemporaries as “The Bennington Virgin” — she finds the move to the big city exciting and unsettling. A job in arts administration opens the door to public poetry readings and literary receptions, which Andy Warhol sometimes attends.

Five years later, after the death of her grandparents, Norris makes the surprising decision to move with her husband to South Dakota, to live in the small house that her forebears built in 1923, in the isolated town of Lemmon: a community of 1600 souls. Colleagues in New York think her mad, but her heart is fixed.

Over the next 20 years as a freelance writer, taking any work that she can find, Norris becomes acclimatised to the limitations and values of prairie life and a physical environment that is desolate, unforgiving, silent, and extreme. But, in the emptiness and strange grandeur of “this great unpeopled landscape of earth and sky”, she finds herself being changed. It forms her spiritually, and nurtures her craft as a writer.

The practical wisdom of farmers, lives governed by the earth and climate, confronts her with the recurring facts of survival, suffering, death, and renewal which are so easily masked by the noise, speed, and consumerism of the frenetic urban life that she has left behind. She is moved by the ancient religious traditions and hospitality of endangered Native American tribes.

After ten years, and out of a felt need to rediscover the religious heritage of her Protestant childhood, which, she belatedly realises, has significantly shaped her life — “but for years I didn’t know that” — she goes back to church. She also becomes an oblate of a Benedictine monastic community in North Dakota, and a frequent guest at various monasteries on the Great Plains. The silence that punctuates the liturgical rituals and manual labours of the monks sinks into her bones as she learns that the first word of St Benedict’s Rule is “Listen.”

 

NORRIS proves an attentive learner. Worship and the wisdom of the past enable her to breathe and believe more deeply than ever before. Her writing becomes a form of spiritual discipline, leading in 1993 to the publication of her bestselling book, Dakota: A spiritual geography. The Great Plains emerge from its pages — part memoir, part spiritual journal and poetry —as more than a desert defined only by the Black Hills and the Badlands. For Norris, it is a place of disclosure and wonder.

In its ostensible emptiness, she observes Nature’s astonishing profligacy as birds, grasses, flowers, animals, and reptiles turn a dry void into a cornucopia of small, delicate, and fascinating things. With the eye of a contemplative, she chronicles what Thoreau described as “our need to witness our limits transcended”, and recounts the experiences that reveal the stoicism, contradictions, and richness of the ordinary lives that daily touch her own.

She portrays the frontier as a place where townsfolk are frequently forgotten, “viewed by the rest of the world as irrelevant or anachronistic”. In this respect, they are, for her, rather like the Benedictine monks whom she encounters going about their prayers and tasks. But she also sees the desert making space for resilient faith, decency, and kindness. It offers the possibilities of stability, community, and a settled place for the conduct of religion’s proper business: that of becoming more human.

In the little town of Hope, which consists of not much more than a gas station and a general store, Norris begins to attend the outwardly unremarkable Presbyterian church that bears its name. In time, she accepts an invitation to become its unpaid lay pastor. She is nervous, but follows the lectionary, stays close to the texts, and talks about the stories that she finds there, and how they might chime with the raw experience of the small congregation.

Listeners are responsive to her promptings, and she, in turn, is impressed by their generosity: the wider world of human need and misery exacts more than their intercessions. They are also realists, unsure who will replace ageing church members, but content “to go on living graciously and thankfully, cultivating love”. Desert wisdom has taught them that “all flesh is grass”; that institutions, however venerable, are also provisional, bowing eventually to the corrosion of time.

Worship at Hope is not a desiccated theological primer consisting of strange yet familiar doctrinal propositions. It is, for Norris, a communal act, where “we gather together to sing some great hymns, reflect on our lives, hear some astonishing scriptures (and maybe a boring sermon; you take your chances), offer some prayers, and receive a blessing.”

Through her encounters with Benedictine wisdom, and the vitality of a church that is barely on the map, Norris discovers what is essential to her identity and survival: rootedness and silence; the value of the liturgical year; the reality of the incarnation, and a living tradition — a “usable past” — that is open to the future.

To paraphrase a prescient comment of the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, in a world that is always passing away and where “the barbarians are already within the city gates,” we are not entirely without hope. Some things remain precious and inviolate.


Canon Rod Garner is an Anglican priest, writer, and theologian.

Forthcoming Events

27 November 2021
An Advent Retreat with Poetry and Music
With Esther de Waal, Gregory Cameron, Peter Graystone, Richard Carter, and Rachel Mann.

25 January 2022
Preaching Lament and Hope
A Durham workshop from the College of Preachers.

More events

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