Kathleen Norris, award-winning poet and New York Times best-selling writer, is a longtime friend of the Collegeville Institute. On April 28, 2017, Norris returned to Minnesota to deliver the keynote speech at the Collegeville Institute’s 50th Anniversary dinner. The next day, she sat down with Stina Kielsmeier-Cook at the Saint John’s Abbey Guesthouse for this interview.
In the first part of their conversation, Norris discusses liturgy, the asceticism of bad movies, and why spirituality is best experienced communally. Click here to read part two of this interview.
You’re back at the Collegeville Institute 27 years after you first came here as a Resident Scholar, although you have visited frequently over the years. I want to start out by asking you about joining the monks for prayer. You write in The Cloister Walk that praying the hours at Saint John’s Abbey was grounding for you during concentrated times of writing when you were creating a new poem every day.
That was amazing. That’s the only writing experience in my life that’s happened with that kind of intensity. Poems were coming up nearly whole, when normally my work needed a lot of revising. It was astonishing.
Because I had the scaffolding of the liturgy to help structure my time, I wasn’t becoming manic, even though I was working very hard. Sometimes I would go to my office at six in the morning and work until seven o’clock, and then go to morning prayer, and then I’d work the rest of the morning until noon prayer. Having that liturgy – having to stop for prayer – kept me in balance. I know a lot of writers who go off the rails when they get into a very creative period like that. It can be dangerous. One reason writers have a problem with alcohol is because having a couple of stiff drinks is one of the easiest ways to come down from that high. Well, the liturgy is a lot healthier. Stopping and going to noon prayer would tap me down again.
What was it like leaving the Collegeville Institute and writing without the structure of praying the hours?
It’s difficult. I still do morning and evening prayer with Liturgical Press’s Give Us This Day. It’s a daily prayer companion that includes morning and evening prayer, plus all the Lectionary readings and commentary. I love the section on the “Blessed Among Us,” about people who aren’t necessarily Saints or even Catholic. They have featured Gandhi, Martin Luther, a lot of Catholic Saints, of course. It helps.
But finding structure and balance is difficult. One of the problems of being a freelancer is you can work all the time or you can not work at all. After I left the Collegeville Institute, much of my time was taken up in caregiving. I was working on a book, but it was very slow because sometimes I would be spending ten to twelve hours a day either at the hospital or taking people around to medical appointments and consulting with doctors and that kind of thing. That was a huge change.
I still think the Benedictine perspective helped me because caregiving was what God was asking me to do, so that’s what I had to do. I didn’t waste time fretting about it. I finally realized that the best use of my time was to be with these people at the end of their lives. I didn’t regret not having more time to write because this was obviously more important. That went on for a long time. Both my parents and my husband died, and my sister died only four years ago. Life throws these things at you. I never anticipated being a caregiver at all. I thought I’d be terrible at it. But as it turned out, I wasn’t that bad.
You have written and spoken about how family commitments can be a “new asceticism.” Can you tell us more about that?
I believe that you don’t have to go out and seek asceticism. Asceticism will find you where you are and tell you, this is what you must do now. It will tell you that today you are going to take your sister to the cancer center. It forces you to give up something you would rather do.
One of my favorite examples of this was going to the movies with my sister, which meant that she got out of the care home where she was living. She’d get a free lunch off of me. She’d get popcorn and a Diet Coke and a movie. So how could a movie be bad because of all this fun stuff associated with it? But then I would have to watch really bad movies, like Jennifer Aniston romances, and I’m thinking – is this what Jesus meant by going the extra mile? For me it was a form of asceticism. Having time with my sister was fun, but it meant sitting through these terrible movies. I once fell asleep during the climactic fight scene in the Bourne Ultimatum. I was proud of myself in an ascetic sort of a way.
I think it’s legitimate to call these ascetic practices because it’s what God is asking you to do right then and, if left to your own devices, you would never do it.
There are a lot of people who go through periods of doubt or drought in their spiritual faith. I’m wondering if you could speak to people who are spiritual but not religious.
There are spiritual depths in nature that can lead you out of yourself to a truer self. The problem for me with all forms of self-directed meditation has to do with the dynamic between self and community. Let’s say you have a spot in nature that you love to go to meditate. What happens when someone else shows up? Do you welcome them, or look at them as an intruder on your space? In the Christian world, worship is communal. People do a lot of things on their own and for themselves. In itself that’s okay. People can find themselves, in a sense. But if they just find themselves, what about the rest of us?
So you would say, seek spiritual truth where you can find it, but don’t forget about others?
Sure. A spirituality that’s all about me becomes a problem, I think, not just for individuals but for our culture. I know a lot of people look at the church and see hypocrisy, which is one reason to pursue a more individualistic spirituality. That’s where Christianity is a big help, at least to me. One day I realized the only hypocrite I had to worry about was myself. I didn’t have to worry about anybody else. I also realized that in pretty much any congregation out there you find these people who are just models of faith who really are saints. They do so much for other people and they would never consider themselves saints. They are the polar opposite of hypocrites. They live their lives out of commitment to the church, to God, and to the community. Why would I isolate myself from them?
But there’s another angle to participating in a community that has to do with what you bring. An Episcopal priest once said to me that when you go to church on Sunday you may have all kinds of doubts. You may not want to be there. It may seem very dry. But just think, she told me, what your presence in that place might mean to someone else. You’re not in a community just for yourself. You’re there for the other people. Sometimes that has been the only thing that’s gotten me to church on Sunday morning, because if I don’t show up I’ll be missed. I know it’s quite possible that it could be encouraging to someone else if I do show up.
I think that’s also what happens in a monastery. Many times these guys don’t want to go to prayer, but they know that showing up is an important part of supporting and respecting the community. Sometimes they’re experiencing spiritual drought, spiritual dryness, and nothing seems to matter. They go to prayer, and it still remains dry. But the community sustains them. Then it can reverse. There are other times when they’re on fire and they’re present to sustain other people in the community. Mutual support. That’s the miracle, the mystery really, of being part of a church community or a monastery.
Do you think our high expectations for church keeps us from feeling content?
Discontent can come from expecting that you’ll go from one mountain top experience to another. Something similar can happen with poetry. The poet Baudelaire was always looking to be on a high all the time. That’s one of the reasons he quit young, because that kind of writing and inspiration is not sustainable.
To get the highs you also have to travel through valleys and deserts. That’s just life. It’s true of making art, and true with church going. It’s true in general. The problem is when you have the mountain top experiences, it’s hard when you don’t have them. It’s good to have high expectations of church, but you also have to expect the lows, as well as the ordinary. Don’t forget the ordinary.
This is part one of a two-part interview with Kathleen Norris. To read part two, click here.