As we celebrate our 50th Anniversary, Bearings Online is highlighting profiles of persons closely associated with Collegeville Institute’s history—that great cloud of witnesses who have accompanied us since 1967, and will journey with us into the future.
Kathleen Norris is an award-winning poet and writer who has inspired countless readers to connect with monasticism and the early Church. There is something magical about Norris’ relationship with the Collegeville Institute, which began when she met then-Director Patrick Henry at the American Benedictine Academy in South Dakota. Henry urged her to apply to be a Resident Scholar and, in 1991, she did. Norris said that her own journey back to church was what attracted her to the Collegeville Institute.
In her application, she wrote: “I stumbled upon a Benedictine abbey [Assumption Abbey in Richardton, North Dakota] and against all odds—I’m married, a feminist, have a thoroughly Protestant background and a myriad of doubts—I found that the abbey choir was the one place where faith seemed possible for me. I see a useful connection: just as it is in the process of writing I discover what it is I need to say, so it is in the Divine Office I begin to discover what it is I believe.”
The rest, as Henry said, “is theological and religious and spiritual history.” It was during her terms as a Resident Scholar (1991/92, 1993/94, Fall 2011) that Norris worked on three New York Times best-selling books of spiritual non-fiction: Dakota, The Cloister Walk, and Amazing Grace. She has described her time at the Collegeville Institute as one of great artistic inspiration, anchored in the Liturgy of the Hours recited by the monks at Saint John’s Abbey.
After the publication of The Cloister Walk, millions of readers found themselves intrigued by Benedictine communities. The monks at Saint John’s Abbey began joking about “the cloister walk effect,” which referred to the surge in new oblates, laypersons seeking spiritual affiliation with the monastic community. (You can even buy a candle with a cloister walk scent at the Saint John’s Abbey Gift Shop.) Norris has remained connected to Saint John’s Abbey by serving for a decade on the Saint John’s University Board of Regents, and she received the university’s Colman J. Barry Award for Distinguished Contributions to Religion and Society.
Norris recently returned to Saint John’s Abbey to deliver the keynote address at the Collegeville Institute’s 50th Anniversary dinner and celebration on April 27, 2017. In his introduction of Norris, Henry described her as one who “names and illustrates the dipping and darting of faith, the staggers, lurches, glides, Möbius strips, U-turns, pirouettes, M. C.Escher stairways, and surprises of faith. She shows what faith is like, she doesn’t just tell us what it is—or rather, she tells, but it’s stories she tells, not systems or dogmas. She validates the wisdom her readers already have but may never have known was theology.”
Norris is a Collegeville Institute Great because of her remarkable contributions to spiritual memoir and poetry. The following excerpt is from Norris’ keynote speech; the ellipses […] indicate where material was edited out for length. To read the full, unmodified version, please click here.
I found discussions with other residents at the Institute to be invaluable. It was wonderful to have access to great scholars, both among the other residents and in the St. John’s community, people who knew much more about church history, monasticism, and Christian theology than I did […]. My being an artist who had been living and working outside of academia wasn’t so much a problem for me as it was the occasion for many lively encounters.
I learned, for example, one thing that you should never say to a philosopher. Another resident was someone you suspected had begun citing Kant and Nietzsche when he was still in diapers, and while he was friendly he remained a bit suspicious of me. One day he grew exasperated with something I’d said and complained, “All you do is tell stories.” Instinctively, I responded: “What else is there?” Ouch!
But even so small an encounter did point to something valuable: that people’s intelligence takes different forms, and while we experience the world in vastly different ways, each way has its own validity. The philosopher pulls things apart to examine them and makes us think about what each part means. The poet yanks unlikely things together and says — here’s the poem — and whatever meaning you find in these words is the meaning. My conversation with the philosopher that day ended happily — we were able to laugh at each other, and at ourselves.
One poem I wrote at the Institute, in which I pulled together a wild variety of sources, led to a less happy experience. The process of writing it reflects the typically haphazard way in which poems come to be. One inspiration was a Pink Panther movie I’d recently seen, in which Peter Sellers takes a dramatic fall into a large fountain. After climbing out he addresses some spectators, announcing with great dignity, “I fail, where others succeed.” Somehow this made me think of Christ, and how his death by crucifixion had seemed a failure to his disciples; and continues to haunt even people of faith, because it can look so much like failure. Yet the Christian faith has succeeded; it’s still here after 2,000 years. I must have been reading Luke 14 at the time, because some of the things Jesus says in that chapter struck me as being worthy of Inspector Clouseau: “sit in the lowly place,” invite people you don’t know to your banquets. Advice most of us would consider foolish. I made the poem a kind of commentary on Luke 14, and ended with a punning reference to Romans 13. The last lines are: “He puts us on; we put him on; another of his jokes.”
When I shared this new poem with the other residents during a coffee break, one man was clearly displeased and said, “Some of us take Jesus seriously.” The response didn’t surprise me: it represents, in a nutshell, the conflict that often flares up between artists and Christians. If you bring Jesus together with Inspector Clouseau, you are somehow equating them, and it’s offensive. This man came from a conservative Protestant denomination, and I’d say that in general Protestants have a harder time accepting what artists do than Catholics. I have some evidence of this — that poem was later published in a Catholic magazine[…].
If I had to sum up in one word what the Institute has meant to me, I’d say “friendship.” It’s a place where friendships develop, and where you come to understand more about a variety of Christian traditions because people are willing to share their own faith journeys. The Institute reinforces what people involved in ecumenical and interfaith dialogue have long known: in being asked to talk about your own tradition, and better articulating it for another person, you come to a better understanding of what it means to you. My experience with this at the Institute was a direct inspiration for writing Amazing Grace. In that book I was trying to describe what I believed so that anyone — no matter what their religious tradition, or lack of it — could better understand the Christian faith[…].
Having the Institute residents establish a kind of community, with shared worship at the center, informal coffee hours, and some meals together, is a powerful and essential reminder that the Christian religion is communal. But it’s not a gathering of the like-minded. Our little groups, like a monastery, or a church congregation, for that matter, consisted of such an unlikely and motley crew that you suspected that only God could have brought us together, hoping for the best. (It’s so crazy, it might be seen as one of God’s Inspector Clouseau moves!) […]