One way to get through times when it seems one inhumane event is followed by another without pause, Myster lecturer Kathleen Norris told an overflow crowd at The O’Shaughnessy, is to remain open to moments of human connection.
“Insults and labels are easy,” said Norris, a poet and the best-selling author of The Cloister Walk; Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks and a Writer’s Life; and Dakota: A Spiritual Geography. “Encounter and discernment are hard. Encounters change us and that’s why they are a little scary.”
For Norris, encounter — used as a noun, an unexpected moment with another person — takes place in odd, surprising places. By way of example she described a past trip plagued by 26 hours of delays and missed connections where she found herself, stuck on the tarmac in the Twin Cities facing a two-hour wait for de-icing.
When a flight attendant asked how she was, instead of the customary “fine,” Norris voiced her annoyance — she was ready to be home, in Honolulu — and then apologized for unburdening herself. In turn, the stranger veered from the social script, too.
“She said, ‘No, thank you for telling me,’” Norris recalled. “’People get on this plane and we never know what kind of day they’re having.’ It was a small pleasure for us both.”
If the exchange seems trivial, to Norris the point was that the two women were momentarily truly open to each other. And it left her feeling nurtured a little, and by extension able to set down her annoyance and appreciate the view from the tiny window at her seat.
“A line of snowplows going down the runway like a line of Rockettes,” she quipped on The O’Shaughnessy stage. “Now when I can grab a metaphor like that, I know I’ll live.”
This combination of intimate detail and firecracker wit was woven throughout Norris’ Oct. 5 lecture, “Spiritual Practice and Social Justice.” “This compulsion to seek something better” — social justice — is a religious impulse requiring both belief and activism.
“They cannot be separated,” Norris explained. “Contemplation without action is a dead end that feeds our narcissism. Action without contemplation is another kind of trap. It also allows us to make idols of our opinions.”
For Norris, this balance is achieved by being selective about how she takes in current events. She attempts to consume neutral, middle-ground news sources and shuts the TV and the computer off at 5 p.m. Her prayer, she has noted, “has become richer.”
That contemplative space makes it easier for her to balance the crush of current events with an understanding of how often her reactions are grounded in her feelings about herself.
“Our anger is likely more over us than anything else,” she said. “In order to get that we need a keen awareness of our motives. We need hospitality to ourselves.”
Once we're grounded, she explained, it’s possible to see anger as a useful signal, to be turned against evil and not people. A tall order, Norris conceded, which she attempts to fulfill by catching herself “in the act.”
“Why am I standing in judgment over this person?” she asks herself. “Women are good at realizing that everyone is somebody’s child. We’re all born of women. That’s important.”
Asked her advice for college students, Norris urged St. Kate’s students to be as open as possible to other people’s perspectives: “I think Catholic colleges are doing a remarkably good job of fostering that.”
Finally, Norris told the audience she derives strength from the structure of her spiritual practice. She is grounded, for example, by the Benedictus, the morning prayer of gratitude, and its evening bookend, the Magnificat.
“They remind me that God is still in charge,” she said. “The challenge for all of us is letting God find you.
“Remember gratitude. If you’re really grateful for what you do have, it’s easier to pinpoint what you want to change.”
More about Kathleen Norris
When Norris was a child, her parents took her to Hawaii, where she graduated from Punahou Preparatory School in 1965. She went on to earn a degree from Bennington College in Vermont, after which she inherited her grandparents’ farm in Lemmon, South Dakota, where she moved with her husband. Though she lives in Honolulu now, her writing and her spirituality are informed by the Dakotas.
After becoming a Benedictine oblate in North Dakota in 1986, Norris spent two years in residence at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota. Her book The Cloister Walk chronicles her monastic experience, interspersed with meditations on virgin saints, Emily Dickinson, celibacy and loneliness. Much of her writing endeavors to ground religious concepts in the world in which we live.
More about the Myser Initiative
The Myser Initiative on Catholic Identity brings to campus professionals who exemplify in their life and work the values and principles inherent in St. Catherine University's mission. The initiative infuses Catholic perspective and understanding more deeply into St. Kate's curriculum and daily life through an annual lecture, workshops and discussion groups.
By Beth Hawkins