A! Magazine for the Arts

Kathleen Norris

Kathleen Norris

Perspectives on Kathleen Norris: The January Buechner Lecture Series Speaker

January 22, 2013

Kathleen Norris presents the fifth annual Buechner Institute Lecture at 7 p.m., Jan. 26 at First Presbyterian Church in Bristol, Tenn. She will also do an on-stage interview with Jeff Munroe, of the Buechner Institute's National Advisory Board, at 4 p.m. Anticipating Norris' visit, the following readers offer their impressions and insights on Norris' work.

To say that Kathleen Norris is both a poet and the author of books that have been on the New York Times best-seller lists is to say several things at once. It is to say that she weighs every word she writes and places an enormous value on beauty, rhythm and the use of language. But it is also to say she has figured out how to be a commercial success in the dumbed-down literary world of our times. We honor and revere poets, after all, but we don't buy their books, at least not enough to put them on any best-seller lists.

So, like many other poets, it is not as a poet that Kathleen Norris has succeeded commercially. She has succeeded primarily as a memoirist who chronicles different passages and stages of her life. She has opened the curtain on the mysterious world of Roman Catholic monasteries - she's a sort of Protestant travel guide for those of us who are curious about what goes on inside those cloistered walls. She has also served as a sort of spiritual travel guide to South Dakota, of all places, another mostly unvisited location, and lifted the curtain on what happens in "fly-over" land. And most recently she's been our guide into "acedia," a mostly unknown word that describes the far-too-familiar terrain of listlessness, boredom, depression and ennui. It is acedia as a spiritual (more than emotional or mental) challenge that fascinates and haunts her, and we are compelled by the strength of the writing and gnawing sense of the truth of it all to go along for the ride.

Jeff Munroe

Buechner Institute National Advisory Board Vice President of Advancement and Communications, Western Theological Seminary; Holland, Mich.

Part memoir and part essay, Norris has crafted in "Dakota" what she calls a "spiritual geography." From the Greek "geo" [earth] and "graph" [write], Norris has created a beautifully written piece about the importance of places in our lives. Vastly different from either Hawaii or New York where she had lived before, the Great Plains of the Dakotas captured the imagination of this poet when she moved to the small town of Lemmon, S.D. She discovered that the legacy of her family included much more than just an old house. Beneath the vastness of the sky, exposed to the wind and weather and to God himself, Norris describes a feeling of smallnessand emptiness within her soul which reflects the barrenness of the countryside. But that emptying gives space for God to show her his blessings all the more clearly, like rain clouds rolling up in the distance for miles across the plain.

Maggie Rust
Buechner Institute Student Board King College senior majoring in philosophy, religion, and English

Improbable - a best-seller about a piece of real estate that most people have never visited, and most likely, very few would even want to. "Dakota." I almost didn't read this book just because of the title, but I had read "The Cloister Walk" a few months before and found Kathleen Norris to be an elegant and insightful writer. What in the world could she say about a state so "boring" that at times I have driven 80-90 miles an hour just to get through it and into Montana? She and her husband leave the bright lights of New York City and settle in Lemmon, S.D. And in that sparse country Norris discovers a luminous beauty in a desolate place, and she connects deeply with the people who have lived there for generations. Her prose is subtle and yet causes us to think differently about her unlikely "place," but even more, her reflections also invite us to re-imagine our own places and people - to see them with fresh eyes and to encounter the sacred in the ordinary.

Don Michael Hudson
Buechner Institute Governing Board Chair of the Philosophy and Religion Department at King


I started reading "The Quotidian Mysteries" more than 10 years ago: I'm still reading it. It's not a long book, only 88 pages, but I keep going back to it. I keep digging into Norris' thoughts about the quotidian or ordinary everyday tasks in our lives - that they are in fact of great import. Apparently, it's all God's work. I love to hang laundry outside, so the subtitle "Laundry, Liturgy and "Women's Work" really caught my attention. Norris discusses finding "holy leisure: in everyday tasks such as cooking, cleaning, laundry - chores that make us sigh." She states, "It is difficult for adults to be so at play with daily tasks in the world;" we can learn from little children playing with water while cleaning up their paint brushes in the preschool room. Realizing that we only have this moment and giving humble attention to the task at hand, we can start to find freedom in it, and even enjoy it. "The Cloister Walk" continues this theme of the quotidian mystery in the daily life of a Benedictine monastic community in Minnesota. For this reader, the book was a two-year journey of slow savoring, Norris gives us so much to consider. For example, the ancient and godly view of time by which the community operates: "The monastic perspective welcomes time as a gift from God and seeks to put it to good use rather than allowing us to be used up by it."

Heather Dotterweich

Irish Bristolian

Many folks have attempted, with varying degrees of success, to frame the essence of a meaningful existence in one taxonomy or another. However, I found what distinguishes Kathleen Norris' "Embracing a Life of Meaning" contribution to this attempt is not so much about getting the taxonomy right, as it is in the instantly recognizable language she uses to describe the sacred in the common. Her working definitions of concepts like belief are uncluttered and resound within my being as something I know is true, both on an intellectual and visceral level. And a life of meaning? Norris gently redirects our efforts. She demonstrates that the key is often receptiveness to our lives, and to "the fabric of the world God created." Many of the experiences Norris shares deal with learning how to practice and negotiate attention to our lives. But Norris' purpose here is to zoom in, not zoom out. She draws our attention to the world where we find God has presently placed us - helping to make meaning of our current assignment of exploration and wonder.

Matt Roberts
Buechner Institute Governing Board Assistant Professor of Education Dean of Academic Affairs at King

"Acedia & Me"

For those of us who are blessed/cursed with the call into professional pastoral ministry there is always a keen awareness of the peaks and valleys of human existence. One day you are celebrating the birth of a new child, the next you are sitting with a family trying to decide what to do about life support for their mother. Unfortunately, as high as the peaks often are, it's the valleys that stay with you. So I wasn't very surprised when my wife said, "I saw a piece on the Today Show this morning on men and depression, and it described you perfectly." A few weeks later, as I sat across from a pastoral counselor who was recommended to me by a trusted colleague, I heard the words, "You have moderate depression. It's not major, but it's not mild, either. There are a number of ways we can treat it." The next few months and years were spent coming to terms with this new identity. I declined medication in favor of diet, exercise and regular counseling. I learned to manage it; to put it in its place. Still, I never felt that it was right. Something about the diagnosis felt too ... well ... clinical. Then Kathleen Norris released her book "Acedia & me: A Marriage, Monks and a Writer's Life." Norris bravely chronicles her very personal journey with a forgotten spiritual condition known as acedia, an ancient Greek term used to describe a deep weariness of the soul and an inability to care. And there it was. I finally had something weightier to describe my condition. It wasn't that depression was wrong; it was that it wasn't enough. I had been addressing the health of my psyche when, in reality, it was my soul that was sick. There are very few books about which I can say, "It changed my life," but this is one of those few. I still wrestle with acedia, and I still struggle with depression. And I still am grateful to Kathleen Norris for helping me understand the connection - and the difference - between the two.

Tim Reynolds
Buechner Institute Governing Board Pastor, Sinking Spring Presbyterian Church,
Abingdon, Va.