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    When I began attending church again after 20 years away, I felt bombarded by the vocabulary of
    the Christian church. Words such as 'Christ,' 'heresy,' 'repentance' and 'salvation' seemed dauntingly
    abstract to me, even vaguely threatening. They carried an enormous weight of emotional baggage
    from my own childhood and also from family history.   For reasons I did not comprehend, church
    seemed a place I needed to be.  But in order to inhabit it, to claim it as mine, I had to rebuild my
    religious vocabulary. The words had to become real to me, in an existential sense.

    This book is a report on the process by which they did so.
        -Kathleen Norris, Preface to Amazing Grace
 

In her other books, Kathleen Norris has written about the life journey that took her away from home, to Bennington College in Vermont and then to New York City, as she became a poet and lived in the eminently secular literary world; then back to the Great Plains of South Dakota, where she began attending her Grandmother's church and gradually found herself drawn to the Christianity she had forsaken many years before.  In this book she tries to do exactly what she describes above, take individual words that she found, and many others still find, off putting from the Biblical and Christian lexicons and reconcile herself to their meanings, however harsh or judgmental or intimidating they may seem.

She does this in a series of very brief essays--about 80 in less than four hundred pages--covering such words as : Dogma, Heresy, and Pentecostal.  Between the number of topics she covers and the very personal reflections they provoke, no one will agree with everything she has to say, and many will disagree with most of it.  But she brings two extremely important qualities to the task : humility and skepticism.

One aspect of her humility is particularly important, her open-mindedness with regard to the traditions and teachings of the past.  One of the most unbecoming aspects of modern man is the assumption that all that came before us was a kind of superstition blinded Dark Age, from which we have nothing to learn.  Norris tries very hard, more often than not successfully, to assume that there were reasons, perhaps good ones at the time, perhaps good ones still, for even the most initially unappealing of the concepts she contemplates.

Meanwhile, though most do not associate skepticism with religious belief, for many people in the modern age it is one of the surest paths to eventual belief, and Kathleen Norris is an excellent example of this.  In the first place, a rigorous skepticism, one which we turn back even upon ourselves, serves admirably to keep us humble.  You can not seriously question everything that you assume you know to be true and come away from the exercise close minded.  Nor can you open up this kind of intellectual abyss (the recognition of how little we truly know) without feeling the need to cling to something, if just to avoid being sucked in.

For some folks, like the Existentialists, it is enough to exist in conjunction with the abyss.  Others, of whatever religion, believe in a God beyond the abyss or find it sufficient to partake of the abyss.  But wherever you end up, this is the process of questing and questioning by which we orient ourselves in time and space and give meaning to our own existence.  The number of us who over the history of the species have ended up on the common ground of the great monotheistic religions--while it does not prove that such beliefs are necessary--does suggest that they have some lasting value, and are worth investigating and taking seriously.  This realization is a common enough first step on the path to faith.

We've left out one group though, the scientific rationalists, who deny the abyss and insist that we (really they) do know a great deal and know it with great certitude, and it is here that we see the importance of genuine skepticism.  Many people today feel that they can kind of amalgamate Physics and Evolution into a grand set of theories that explains everything and removes the cloud of unknowing.  There's an obvious arrogance to this mind set, particularly in the easy assumption that we are the special generation that gets to know it all.  But, worse than arrogant, it is so plainly short-sighted and close minded  as to be somewhat frightening.  Let's give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that within five years we'll understand perfectly the entire process by which the Universe developed from Big Bang to today; well and good.  But what came before the Big Bang ?  And what is going on in all the other Universes that we aren't part of ?  If infinity really is endless and limitless, then even when we understand this Universe, we'll have only scratched the surface.  Skepticism is due.

Kathleen Norris has the appropriate skepticism.  She questions everything, including, and most importantly, the things she most devoutly wishes to be true.  And she has the appropriate humility, open to the idea that even the things she instinctively rejects or simply does not fathom may be important.  Here's an extended passage, from the essay on "Belief, Doubt, and Sacred Ambiguity" that nicely illustrates these qualities; she's discussing the worship service :

    As a poet I am used to saying what I don't thoroughly comprehend.  And once I realized that this
    was all it was--that in worship you are asked to say words you don't understand, or worse, words
    you presume to think you have mastered well enough to accept or reject--I had a way through my
    impasse.  I began to appreciate religious belief as a relationship, like a deep friendship, or a
    marriage, something that I could plunge into, not knowing exactly what I was doing or what would
    be demanded of me in the long run.

    And when doubts still assailed me, when what I believed or didn't believe flew around in circles in
    my mind, buzzing like angry bees, I would recall the wise words of William Stafford, who once
    said that he never had writer's block, because when a poem failed to come, he simply lowered his
    standards and accepted whatever came along.  So, I lowered my standards. And I began to carry in
    my notebook another great koan of Stafford's : 'Successful people cannot find poems, for you must
    kneel down and explore for them.'  I decided that this applied to religious belief as well as to
    poetry: I became an explorer.  And with the words and concepts that seemed most suspect, that
    were impossible for my intellect to grasp head-on--the Virgin Birth is a good example--I learned
    not to rush to judgment but to be attentive and vigilant, not absenting myself from the church but
    participating as much as possible.  ...

    Above all, I waited.  And most often, not much happened.  With some words, I failed utterly.  But
    gradually, others came to life.  Fortunately, believing, like writing, is more process than product,
    and is not, strictly speaking, a goal-oriented activity. There is no time limit.  And if some words
    remain 'theirs,' words or concepts that I recognized as part of my Christian heritage but which I
    may never comprehend in any meaningful way, I can live with it.  And even call them 'ours,'
    without fully understanding the how or why.

    Perhaps my most important breakthrough with regard to belief came when I learned to be as
    consciously skeptical and questioning of my disbelief and my doubts as I was of my burgeoning
    faith.

People of faith are commonly caricatured as people whose minds are closed to all but their own beliefs.  Kathleen Norris exemplifies the fact that quite the opposite is often true, that faith often comes to those whose minds are most open, to both doubt and possibility.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (A)

  

Websites:

See also:

Religion
Book-related and General Links:
    -Meet Kathleen Norris (Lion Books)
    -POEM : Prayer to St. Jude (Kathleen Norris)
    -POEM : ALL SAINTS, ALL SOULS  (Kathleen Norris)
    -POEM : "Luke 14, a Commentary" - Kathleen Norris
    -EXCERPT : Chapter One  of The Virgin of Bennington
   -ESSAY: The Serene Contradiction of the Mother of Jesus: Why I reclaimed the virgin mother as a significant figure in my faith (Kathleen Norris, 12/23/02, Christianity Today)
   -ESSAY: The Company of Sinners: A divinely inspired institution, the church is full of ordinary people who sometimes say and do cruel, stupid things. (Kathleen Norris, April 3, 2000, Christianity Today)
    -ESSAY : Turning From Beauty "What is true is that each moment of life is a gift of unfathomable beauty. But we don't want to know it." (Kathleen Norris, Forbes ASAP, 10.02.00)
    -ESSAY : Waiting for Dakota (Kathleen Norris, Modern Maturity)
    -ESSAY :  Lessons from next-year country : The author of The Cloister Walk reflects on apocalypse and hope (Kathleen Norris, 12/97, US News)
    -ESSAY : On the Farmer's Wife (Kathleen Norris, Frontline, PBS)
    -REVIEW : of God and the American Writer by Alfred Kazin (Kathleen Norris, Hungry Mind Review)
    -INTERVIEW : Words of Worship : A Conversation with Kathleen Norris (Amazon.com)
    -INTERVIEW : What I took home from the cloister : The editors interview Kathleen Norris (US Catholic, October 1997)
    -INTERVIEW : Harvest of Risk : In 'A Spiritual Geography,' Kathleen Norris writes about the pride and pain of high plains people (MARY ANN GROSSMANN, Pioneer Planet)
    -INTERVIEW : Guardian of the Metaphor: An Interview With Kathleen Norris (Scott Sawyer, Mars Hill Review, Winter/Spring 1997)
    -PROFILE : Everyday Mysteries (Leonard Gill, APRIL 12, 1999, Memphis Flyer)
    -PROFILE : Poetic Pilgrim: The Spiritual Journey of Kathleen Norris (Steve Rabey, 9-April-1998, Religion News Service)
    -ARTICLE :  Duo's books on faith leave room for doubt (JULIE IRWIN, April 09, 1999 ,  The Cincinnati Enquirer)
    -ESSAY : "Turning Talk into Wisdom": The Significance of Audience in Kathleen Norris's Little Girls In Church (Amy Brown, Poetry and the Public Sphere)
    -LECTURE : Faith, Hope and Poetry: Science  and (Pre-)Postmodern Ways of Knowing in the Writing of Kathleen Norris ("Last Lecture" Series, Springfield College in Illinois, March 9, 2000)
    -READERS GUIDE :   Dakota by Kathleen Norris
    -READING GROUP GUIDE : The Cloister Walk
    -REVIEW : of Amazing Grace (Michael Milburn , NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Amazing Grace (Julie Polter, Sojourners)
    -REVIEW : of Amazing Grace (Paula Powell Sapienza, Collegium News)
    -REVIEW : of Amazing Grace (The Reverend Donna Schaper, Book Page)
    -REVIEW : of Amazing Grace ( Jean Blish Siers, Knight Ridder)
    -REVIEW : of The Cloister Walk (Robert Coles , NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Cloister Walk (Molly Finn, First Things)
    -REVIEW : of The Cloister Walk (Robert Brow)
    -REVIEW : of Cloister Walk (Patrick Quinn, Urban Desires)
    -REVIEW : of The Virgin of Bennington (ERICA GOODE, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Virgin of Bennington ( Francine Prose, NY Observer)
    -REVIEW : of The Virgin of Bennington (Leonard Gill, Memphis Flyer)
    -REVIEW : of The Virgin of Bennington (Joanna Smith Rakoff, Book Page)
    -REVIEW : of Leaving New York: Writers Look Back Edited by Kathleen Norris (Kendra Hurley, Blue Moon Review)

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