By Effie Caldarola | Catholic News Service
Waiting isn’t easy, and yet Advent asks of us just that: to wait on the Lord.
Sometimes in this busy world, we need some help to put ourselves in a waiting frame of mind. Brew a cup of tea, settle into a comfortable chair and let a good spiritual writer help you put aside the busyness of this season.
Kathleen Norris is a beloved spiritual poet, essayist, writer and speaker. It may surprise some to know that even though she is not Catholic (she now attends an Episcopal church in Hawaii), she is a Benedictine oblate.
She was drawn to the monastic life when living for many years in rural South Dakota, where she discovered a nearby Benedictine monastery.
And it’s her devotion to the Rule of Benedict, and the history of the early church fathers and mothers that make one of her first books, “The Cloister Walk,” so intriguing and so enlightening for those of us who don’t know much about our church in its infancy.
The book is essentially a spiritual memoir, and it serves to inspire the need for God in modern life, and the need to slow down, pray and, yes, wait.
Norris admits she didn’t even know monasteries still existed when she found Assumption Abbey in North Dakota. Now, the cadences and lessons of monastic life lend depth to her writing.
The trajectory of Norris’ life began with a sheltered childhood. Her memoir, “The Virgin of Bennington,” is titled after the mocking nickname her fellow students gave her at that college.
She was shocked by the hedonistic college lifestyle, but eventually found herself giving way to the cultural lifestyle of the New York City arts and literary scene.
Things changed when she and her future husband traveled to Lemmon, South Dakota, to take up residence — briefly, she thought — in her deceased grandmother’s farm home.
Norris found the beauty and austerity of the Great Plains, and the nearby monastery, the perfect incubator for her poet’s soul, and the couple made it their permanent home.
The changing seasons, the often-fierce weather, the small population and her willingness to lead the tiny nearby Presbyterian congregation where her grandmother had worshipped for 60 years, were all fodder for Norris’ reflection.
Her book, “Dakota: A Spiritual Geography,” published in 1993, was followed by “The Cloister Walk” in 1996 and “Amazing Grace” in 1998. Each of them is relatable and accessible, the story of a married woman seeking God, sometimes in doubt and confusion, always in thoughtful prose. Some compare her style to the essayist Annie Dillard.
Norris is a sought-after speaker, and during an appearance at the Collegeville Institute at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, she spoke about the issue of waiting.
“I’ll always be a person who doesn’t like to wait,” she admitted to the crowd. “My impatience is just is a form of pride — thinking I’m too important be kept waiting.
But the Benedictine rule of hospitality has helped her to see the value in waiting. The act of slowing down and being present, listening quietly to someone’s story, means being hospitable.
“If you take the Benedictine value of hospitality seriously, it wrecks your life,” she said jokingly, describing an encounter during an otherwise frustrating commuter trip when she became immersed in the life story of a fellow traveler.
People talk about being “spiritual but not religious,” said Norris, but the Christian life is “inescapably communal.”
But church community is “never a perfect place.” Quoting Groucho Marx, Norris said, “I’m mistrustful of any group that would have me as a member,” and that, she said, is probably a good way to look at the Christian community.
“I realized the only hypocrite I needed to worry about was myself.”
Norris, now a widow, has also been a visiting professor at Providence College, a Dominican school in Rhode Island. A full list of her many books can be found online.
Effie Caldarola is a columnist for Catholic News Service.