Kathleen Norris is a best-selling poet and author. Kathleen was a Collegeville Institute Resident Scholar during the 1991/92 and 1993/94 academic years, and the Kilian McDonnell Writer-in-Residence during fall semester, 2011. Her substantial list of published and award-winning work includes Dakota, Acedia & me, Amazing Grace, and The Cloister Walk, which was written during her earlier residencies at the Collegeville Institute. We spoke with Kathleen by phone from her home in Hawaii.
This article was first published in the Autumn 2015 issue of Bearings Magazine, a semi-annual publication of the Collegeville Institute.
The particularity of place seems to mean a great deal to you. It’s key to Dakota and The Cloister Walk, and it also plays an important role in your other work. Can you talk about the importance of place in your life and writing?
When my husband and I went to New York City in the ’70s, all anyone wanted to talk about was South Dakota. That seemed odd to me at first, but then I realized that it was a place that few people knew, and that to them seemed like the most exotic place in the world. One of the key impulses behind my writing Dakota was the desire to describe this place that was so unfamiliar to most people.
They knew it from the map or from flying over it and looking down. Since I had known South Dakota from childhood, I knew that it is a real and important place, even if no one knows much about it.
In a funny way, The Cloister Walk had something of the same impulse. I was describing a place—the monastery—which again is unfamiliar to most people. I wanted to describe who these people are, how they sound, and how and where they live. So in a way those first two books share a similar source. In each case I wanted to describe a world that was important to me, but that few people knew anything about.
Dakota and The Cloister Walk are about remarkable places that not everyone notices. What about unremarkable places that most of us know all too well—the quotidian places of the everyday and the commonplace, of dishes and laundry?
In a letter to his mother the French poet Baudelaire complained that he found the necessity of living 24 hours a day intolerable. The intolerable—that’s one way to look at the everyday. People talk about the daily grind, where one day folds into another, and there doesn’t seem to be much purpose in life. The daily can get quite oppressive. I think everybody goes in and out of that state where it seems intolerable, especially since our culture encourages us to devalue it. Watch television and you’ll see that the daily is the realm of the boring stuff, while the important stuff happens when we are partying or on vacation or doing something out of the ordinary.
But it’s a self-defeating way to look at things because the daily is where we live most of the time. We have to do the dishes. We have to do the laundry. We can either regard these things as a terrible burden, or we can cultivate a sense that the daily can be more than it seems. Sometimes it is going to seem like a grind, but we should try to be receptive to the times when something else, maybe something sacred, breaks through. There is a wonderful line I quote at the end of Acedia & me. In Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton said that though God makes daisies every day, he never gets tired of making them. That is God’s strength—to exult in the daily rather than to despair over it.
God may not get tired of making daisies, but don’t you think that there seems to be something deep within us that longs for exciting times and places? Daisies don’t seem to be enough.
In The Quotidian Mysteries I write about another place, Hawaii. I talk about what the people who live here sometimes call “rock fever.” Here you are on this beautiful island, then at some point you find yourself calling it a rock, and can hardly wait to get away from it. Tourists only touch the surface of the place. They can’t understand that someone might say, “Oh my God, I can’t wait to get out of this place.” Even a so-called paradise has its limits. And can you guess the one place on the US mainland that is—by far—the most popular destination for residents who want to escape Hawaii? Las Vegas! It shows you how crazy people are when it comes to place—that they think, “I have to get out of Hawaii and go to Las Vegas.”
This connects immediately with Acedia & me, where you seem to address the opposite of being in place. You write about a restlessness born of acedia, of a dullness or distraction of spirit that makes any place no place. How do you understand the relationship between place and acedia?
At the beginning of Acedia, I quote Evagrius, the 4th-century monk and ascetic, who has a wonderful description of how it feels when acedia descends on you. He says it induces a hatred of place. When acedia is assaulting you, you are going to hate the place where you are, no matter where it is. So it might take the form of saying, “Oh my God, I hate Hawaii, and I’ve got to get to Las Vegas.” That’s the more comical side. More seriously, a state where you’re unhappy with wherever you are means you are unhappy with yourself and your life.
Acedia also can bring you to a growing dissatisfaction with the people around you. So, you develop a contempt for wherever you are and whatever community you are in. Acedia encourages you not to settle in any one place and not to make a commitment to any set of people connected with that place. And, of course, this contempt will follow you wherever you go. The monastic tradition offers wonderful desert stories about people who try to run away, only to discover that they’ve brought all of their problems with them. One of acedia’s temptations is to keep moving on. It’s like the George Clooney movie Up in the Air. Everyone in the film suffers from some form of acedia, but especially Clooney’s character. His apartment is more impersonal than a hotel room. All he does is pack his clothes and try to move on.
Can worship and ritual offer us a place to escape acedia?
To me, one of the great gifts in discovering monasteries was the gift of liturgical worship, where, ironically, it’s repetition and sameness that keeps things alive. If I were in acedia I would just be bored because in liturgical worship people do the same things over and over again. But I realized how important it was, and that’s a key reason why I’m an Episcopalian now. After hanging out with Saint John’s monks for two and a half years, I didn’t want to go back to a more non-liturgical form of worship. Once I had experienced the Benedictine liturgy I thought, “This makes sense.” Liturgy is a kind of scaffolding that holds you in place. There is still plenty of room to grow, but you are grounded.
Something else happens when you visit a number of monasteries. While every community has distinctive elements, once you are in prayer together, you are grounded again. You are in the same place no matter with what community you’re praying.
As a writer, do you see stories and poems as places in some way?
I’ve never thought of it that way before, but I do think that happens both for the writer and the reader. Writing takes the writer to another place. When you write, time slows down. If you are focused on your work, without distractions, it does feel like you’re in another place. I think that’s also true for the reader. A good piece of writing takes you to another place. You might be distracted by other things, but when you enter a story or a poem, you find a place that the writer found when she wrote it. It’s like Lectio Divina, which is the practice of sacred reading. If I’m concentrating on a poem, I slow down. I am not going to race through it. I want to dwell in that place. The same is true of a good story. It takes us out of our ordinary lives and, for a time, lands us in another place. I think that’s one of the reasons people still like to read poetry and fiction.
One of the values of the Benedictine tradition is hospitality. Do you see a connection between hospitality and place?
I think so. I am always happy when I hear from people who have visited a monastery for the first time. It doesn’t matter where. Whatever monastery or Benedictine place they visit, they are invariably overwhelmed by the hospitality. I first encountered the Benedictines when I went to hear Carol Bly—a wonderful Minnesota writer who was doing a two-day event at an abbey. I went there for literary reasons. I had all kinds of religious doubts—I wasn’t sure if I was a Christian or not—but all of a sudden I was surrounded by these men in long black robes who were wonderful and hospitable. I was thinking, “Who are these people?” When you are welcomed to a place like that, in that manner, it stays with you.You say, “I want to get to know these people better. Why would they be so hospitable to me?” And it is unmistakable. Almost always, when people talk about visiting a monastery for the first time, that hospitality is one of the things they mention. “I can’t believe they made me feel so welcome.” The sort of professional hospitality you experience in a hotel is very different from the hospitality you experience in a Benedictine monastery. Even though you might find very nice people in a hotel, there is a far greater depth to the hospitality in a monastery. That’s why Benedictine hospitality is so powerful. People are not used to being welcomed to a place, and in a place, in that deep, deep way.