Tag Archives: Kathleen Norris


no smokingConversion is an odd phenomenon. I’ve often observed that those who convert, who ”tum around” radically in some aspect of their lives, tend to embrace their newly adopted beliefs and behaviors with a sense of urgency and commitment that can border on fanaticism. Thus those who quit smoking become front line enforcers in the “No Smoking” brigade, those who cut caffeine (or sugar, or anything significant) out of their diet will regale those of us who have not quit with endless data about why what they just quit ingesting will kill us, and someone who just lost fifty pounds looks at the ten-pound-overweight person with a judgmental eye.

But such converted commitments pale in comparison to the righteous energy of the religious convert. I’ve known many people who professed a st-paul-conversionSaul-on-the-road-to-Damascus type of conversion experience, reporting that while once they were blind, they now see. And that new vision often looks more like tunnel vision than anything else. The beliefs and accompanying rules of their newly found religious perspective, beliefs and rules that they either rejected with disdain or were entirely ignorant of just yesterday, suddenly become the instruments according to which they measure the acceptability quotient of those outside their group. And the outsiders are generally found to  be seriously wanting.

I was raised in a religious environment in which such “once for all” conversions were the hallmark of membership. But since I never had such an experience, born againI felt something like an outsider on the inside during all of my childhood and adolescent years. Although I stopped thinking of myself as a part of that religious community many years ago, issues of my religious identity were frequently front and center during my recent sabbatical residence at an ecumenical Institute on the campus of a Benedictine University and Abbey.Abbey

I am comfortable as a non-Catholic in Catholic surroundings, having spent my last twenty-five years teaching philosophy in Catholic higher education. This was different, though, because the whole focus of my sabbatical experience turned out, unexpectedly, to be about my own spiritual identity. I’ve always called myself a “person of faith,” even a Christian, but was no longer sure of what I meant by that—all I knew was that the usual definition of  “Christian” was becoming less and less meaningful all the time. Seeking some sort of reawakening I took full advantage of the daily prayers at the Abbey, achoir stallsnd even received behind-the-scenes permission from one of the monks to receive communion if I wished, in total violation of Catholic exclusivity.

So I was somewhat taken aback by  a conversation with a fellow resident scholar at the Institute shortly before the end of my four and a half month stay. The topic of conversation was a former Institute  scholar who, during two year-long residencies at the Institute in the early nineties, wrote two books that spent several months at the top of the New York Times bestseller list. She’s now a very famous author, and made a couple of brief visits to the Institute, Abbey, and campus while I was there. She even ate corned beef dinner with the current residents on St. Patrick’s Day; I got to speak with her for ten or fifteen minutes and, just like any other groupie, got her to sign my copies of three of her books.

Although she was on campus for several reasons during her brief stays, it was clear to me that she, as non-Catholic as I, was getting her spiritual batteries recharged as she sat a few seats over from me during morning, noon, and evening prayers. So it surprised me when my fellow Institute resident, a Catholic convert whose powerful intellect and even more powerful spirit I’d come to respect and admire, expressed annoyance at the famous author’s behavior. “It bothers me that she for years has come here to the Abbey, catholic_guiltand to other monasteries (as described in her books) to bask in the liturgy, take full benefit of the prayers and services, and get reviled, yet she remains non-Catholic,” he said. “If she’s going to reap the gains, she should also have to suffer through the shit that we Catholics have to put up with on a daily basis.”

I assured my colleague that Catholics have no comer on dealing with religious excrement; my whole stay at the Institute had focused on struggling with the constricting grave-clothes of my own conservative Protestant upbringing. Protestant guiltFurthermore, I reminded him, the transformation of spirit and  soul that had been taking place in me over the past months, about which the two of us had conversed many times, had centered around my full participation, as  a non-Catholic ,in the liturgical and prayer life of the Catholic Abbey. “Your criticism of her applies to me too,” I said, to which he replied “but this is all very new and unexpected for you.”Implied but unspoken was his expectation that I would eventually convert to Catholicism.

But I won’t be converting to Catholicism, any time soon or ever. I used to think this was because of the powerfully top-down hierarchy of the Catholic Church, ordain womenas well as its positions on any number of issues including the ordination of women and abortion. I still  believe its positions on these issues are utterly wrong. But I know many Catholics, including the one with whom I was having this conversation, who long for the day when the Catholic Church will adopt a stance that engages honestly with all of the complexities of the abortion issue and will finally come to the realization that women are full-fledged members of the human race and are just as suited, perhaps more suited, to pursue ordination as men.

The real reason I won’t become Catholic is because I have  no desire to become anything with a recognizable  religious label other than  committed seeker after God. I am officially an Episcopalian, confirmed in my late twenties as a response to a church whose liturgies and music I loved and to a specific faith community that embraced and nurtured me when I badly needed to be embraced and nurtured. For years I was not a regular attendee at any church services, Episcopal or otherwise, and my current regular attendance at Trinity Episcopal began three or four years ago when a close friend became their interim rector.

I told my fellow resident at the Institute that, as far as I was concerned, what happened to me at the Abbey had nothing to do with its being a Catholic place of worship. indexIt had everything to do with its being the place that, unexpectedly, I met the Divine in a new and exhilarating way. Under different circumstances, it could have happened in a synagogue, a mosque, on a mountain-top, or in my chair at home. “Oh, I have to disagree with you there,” he said. “I know you do,” I responded as I thought “but it is my encounter with God that I’m talking about. That’s bigger than any religion.”

The Sounds of Silence

220px-ELP_Trilogy[1]During my senior year in high school, I joined a record club for the first time, one of those “buy ten for ten cents, then buy five more at regular price over the next three years” sort of deals. These were vinyl records, of course, LPs that no one seems to know what to do with any more except try to sell them on Ebay or make dishes and ash trays out of them. The albums in our house were mostly classical, some religious, a few movie scores (like Sound of Music and Man of La Mancha). My joining the club coincided with the sad recognition that I was not going to be a concert pianist, as my selections from the record club reflect. For the first time Jethro Tull - Thick As A Brick(Front)[1]I turned my back on classical music and chose an eclectic introductory package, including Neil Diamond’s Hot August Night, Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s Trilogy, America’s Homecoming, Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick, and Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Elton_John_-_Goodbye_Yellow_Brick_Road[1]The Elton John double album was the beginning of a continuing love of Sir Elton’s music, culminating in Jeanne buying me tickets to one of his concerts two years ago for my birthday, a concert which he gave on the day after his 60th birthday and I where I celebrated over 35 years of being an Eltonophile. My how time flies.

imagesCAIHMC4WMy favorite album in the introductory package was Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water . It contains one masterpiece after another, the lyrics to which I don’t even need to use Google to remember. I listened over and over again to “I am a Rock,” which includes these life-affirming lyrics:

simon-and-garfunkel-i-am-a-rock-1966[1]A winter’s day
In a deep and dark December;
I am alone,
Gazing from my window to the streets below
On a freshly fallen silent shroud of snow.
I am a rock,
I am an island.

I’ve built walls,
A fortress deep and mighty,
That none may penetrate.

I have my books
And my poetry to protect me;
I am shielded in my armor,
Hiding in my room, safe within my womb.
I touch no one and no one touches me.
I am a rock,
I am an island.

Yes, I liked that song, so much that I sort of thought of it as my personal statement, the “Vance anthem.” My girlfriend said “that song sort of sounds like you”—imagine someone with this song as his anthem having a girlfriend. I guess it’s not surprising that our subsequent marriage failed. But “I Am A Rock” fit me so well—sandman_island[1]an extreme introvert, addicted to books, trying to develop a sense of identity, sick to death of trying to live up to others’ expectations. Not that different from a lot of sixteen year olds. And to John Donne and his “no man is an island” crap—up yours.

I hope I’ve changed at least a little bit in the intervening years. I found out that I’m not an island pretty quickly when two sons arrived and I ended up being a single parent for a while. I had to modify the “shielded in my armor” routine at least a little bit if I expected my second marriage to work out any better than the first one. I discovered that other human beings aren’t really that bad or scary, although I’m still very wary of ones I don’t know. INFJ+poster[1]And in the classroom I learned that I could only be an effective teacher if I was willing to be virtually naked. But I’m still a 19 to 1 introvert on the Myers-Briggs test, I still am exhausted by being around lots of people without any down time, I still get my batteries recharged by being alone with a book. So when I headed off for a four-month sabbatical five years ago, I prepared myself for a lot of alone time, a lot of solitude, and a lot of silence. Bring it on.

Silence is interesting; great writers from God to Paul Simon have something to say about it. A character in one of Iris Murdoch’s novels says “Love is action, it is silence,” while weil[1]Simone Weil writes in one of her essays that “Christ is the silence of God” (I’m not sure what that means). KNorris1[1]Kathleen Norris writes that “without silence, there is no ecstasy.” Samuel Beckett says that “writing is a sin against silence,” while W. H. Auden thinks that “truth is a silence toward which words can only point.” If you can put together a coherent definition of silence from all of that, you’re a lot smarter than I am. But over the past few years, I’ve discovered a couple of things about silence.

First, silence is not the lack of noise. In our daily lives, filled with traffic sounds, human chatter, television noise, doors slamming, and thousands of other unwanted aural invasions, I think many of us long for a length of time filled with nothing but no noise. At least I do. But even in my little sabbatical apartment overlooking a lake in rural Minnesota, it was almost never completely quiet. Birds always have something to say (do they ever shut up?), squirrels are chattering, the furnace comes on—mpr_logo[1]it can be downright noisy. And that’s a good thing, because I discovered that I don’t like absence of noise. It creeps me out. This is why I like to read in the cafeteria at school with all sorts of noise swirling around me. It reminds me that something other than myself exists. On sabbatical, I always had the local NPR classical station on—really local, since National Public Radio began several decades ago on the campus of St. John’s University in Minnesota where I spent sabbatical–even though I seldom listened to it. It drowned out the noises in my head that I wasn’t sure I was ready to hear, the noises that only pop up when it’s completely quiet.

Second, silence does not require being alone. As a matter of fact while on sabbatical I began to experience the most profound silences of my life, pregnant with meaning and transcendence, in the company of anywhere from fifteen to forty other people. Noon prayers at100_0023 St. John’s Abbey only take fifteen minutes, but at least eight to ten of those minutes are silent pauses between and amidst the three Psalms assigned for the day. It took me a while to get the hang of the reading break at the end of each line about a second longer than I was expecting, and to make it through the one minute pause between each psalm without fidgeting or looking at my watch. After a couple of weeks, though, I found a space inside myself that the pace of noon prayer fit exactly. And I discovered for the first time what the Psalmist means by “Be still, and know that I am God.”bible-verse1[1] Silence has to do with stillness, with listening, with quietness, with Adorno’s “fearless passivity.” Even in the cavernous Abbey, there are always sounds—the ventilation system, someone’s cough, the rustle of papers. But something began to happen to me while sitting in the choir stalls. The quietness of disciplined monks, in the company of less disciplined non-monks, regularly helped me to notice, for the first time, an internal space for God to inhabit and, amazingly enough, to perhaps say something. I continue to listen.

The Fertility of Silence

This may sound odd coming from a person who started this blog a few weeks ago, but over the years I’ve not been a fan of social media, electronic readers, and the like. A year and a half ago, a couple of good friends and I were conversing about a topic that had been on everyone’s minds for a few weeks—the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. In short order, however, the conversation turned into a rant (from me) about the generally self-absorbed quality of online communication. The earthquake/tsunami topic arose because one of my friends said “I have something I want to read to you,” then proceeded to start reading from the top a multi-entry exchange on an acquaintance’s Facebook page about the disaster and subsequent tragedies in Japan.

Is anyone else struggling with how to feel about all the suffering in Japan? None of the usual feelings—anger, sadness, empathy—seem right. So I just feel numb. Am I the only one? Can any-one help me out? 

I know what you mean. I’m usually a very sensitive, caring person, but I’m numb too. How am I supposed to feel? 

I haven’t been able to sleep because I’m so upset.

We’re watching one of the most culturally developed countries in the world disintegrate in front of us. I turn the TV off but I can’t stop thinking about it. 

I know—I’m at a loss.

And so on. My blood pressure started to rise. My friend never got to his own contributions twenty or so more slots down the line, because I interrupted him with more force and annoyance than was probably warranted.

This is why I hate Facebook, blogging, chat rooms, and all that e-crap! This whole conversation has turned a great and profound tragedy into yet another obsessive round of “Me Me Me”! How should I feel, tell me I’m okay, do you think I’m right, how fast can I get this to revolve around me? It’s still all about me, isn’t it?”

Well!, my friend replied, I didn’t read it that way at all! These are good people—What do you want them to say? 

“NOTHING!! Let me read you something from a book I finished today. Bruce Barton’s The Man Nobody Knows: “There are times when any word is the wrong word; when only silence can prevail.” This is one of those times! If I posted on that Facebook thread I’d say, in my son’s words, “Let me serve you a large helping of shut the hell up!”

Oh my. I’m glad my friends love me, because that was not only rude, it was definitely a conversation stopper. Where did that come from?

Actually, I know exactly where that came from. This conversation took place while I was back in Minnesota during Spring break, getting my every-six-month Collegeville fix. I was staying with these friends in their apartment at the Ecumenical Institute where all of us had been resident scholars during the spring of 2009. At morning prayer on this particular day, the closing prayer had included the petition that God would assist us during the Lenten season in being responsive to “the fertility of silence.” An evocative phrase, “the fertility of silence,” especially in a world in which the white noise of television, radio, the internet, and just plain old daily life threatens to make silence into nothing more than a fossilized reminder of something that human beings used to have available. Some claim that “God is in the details”—I’m learning, rather, that God is in the silence. I’m reminded of a couple of lines from a beautiful Advent song I heard a few years ago at an Advent Lessons and Carols service: “As we await you, O God of silence, we embrace your holy night.” In response to our frequent complaints that God never says anything, perhaps we need to embrace the fertility of divine silence.

This should not be surprise to anyone who takes stories in the Bible seriously. Consider Elijah, for instance. In First Kings we find the prophet exhausted, fearful for his life, hiding in a cave from Queen Jezebel. Elijah has just scored a major victory over the forces of idolatry and for Yahweh by destroying the prophets of Baal on top of Mount Carmel. And Jezebel wants him dead.

Exhausted from running, Elijah eventually collapses and wants to die. After an angel makes Elijah breakfast while he sleeps and gets his batteries recharged, Elijah still feels very mistreated and sorry for himself. With what must have struck Elijah as a cosmically stupid question, the Lord quietly asks him “What are you doing here, Elijah?” “WHAT AM I DOING HERE?” Elijah sputters—“I’ve been the only one in the kingdom seeking to do your will, I’ve torn down their altars, I’ve killed the priests of Baal just as you told me to, AND SHE’S TRYING TO KILL ME!” Is that any way to treat your favorite prophet? In response, God says “come over here on top of this hill—I want to show you something.” In succession, Elijah experiences a rock-shattering wind, an earthquake, and a fire—perhaps similar to the fire that brought the victory on Mount Carmel a few days earlier. Elijah probably thought, “There you are! It’s about time! Now drop some of that on Ahab and Jezebel!” But—amazingly—“the Lord was not in the wind,” or the earthquake, or the fire. All of these are followed by “a still small voice,” or as another translation puts it, “sheer silence.” And in the midst of that silence, Elijah knows what he is to do.

Silence is divinely fertile because it shatters our expectation that God is transactional, that if we ask for X properly, we’ll get it. The transactional God is a projection of our human need to find at least a small part of reality that we can control. This is understandable, since the obvious truth that we are small fish in a large ocean of reality is never far below the level of consciousness. A wise person recently wrote that it’s a pretty good sign that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you hate, likes all the same people you like, and holds the same values that you do. There’s a reason why the first commandment is a prohibition against graven images—human beings are incurable idolaters. The ancient Israelites found Baal attractive because they thought they had him figured out. Elijah in the cave was upset because he thought he had God on a leash and found out otherwise. God is not transactional—God is indwelling. God is with me wherever I go, but never in ways reducible to formulas. As Jacob said after encountering the divine in a dream, “surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it.”

I came out of my sabbatical three years ago with a mantra from Psalm 131: “Truly I have set my soul in silence and in peace; As a weaned child on its mother’s breast, so is my soul.” Silence reminds me, as a first grader told Kathleen Norris once, “to take my soul with me wherever I go.” When I remember that God is in the space of silence and peace within, I realize that the divine’s response to my need is something entirely unexpected but absolutely God-like. In an encounter with divine reality we do not hear a voice but acquire a voice; and the voice we acquire is our own.