The Common Good
January-February 1999

Wrestling With the 'Scary' Words

by Julie Polter | January-February 1999

Kathleen Norris' Amazing Grace

As a poet estranged from the faith of her childhood, Kathleen Norris found that poetry was "for many years a suitable substitute for religion." The concrete, specific power of words in themselves were icons enough. Conversely when—almost despite herself—Norris began a slow return to her Christian heritage, she "felt bombarded by the vocabulary of the Christian church." It was both an abstract, unknown code and a minefield of distorted doctrine, childhood pain, and family ghosts.

For Norris the poet, the church could not become her home if she ignored these "scary" religious words. She had to experience them, live with them as incarnated reality. She describes Amazing Grace as her report on this process, a lexicon offering stories in place of definitions so as to "remove the patina of abstraction or glassy-eyed piety from religious words" by grounding them in the world and human life.

Amazing Grace

completes a loose trilogy on Norris' spiritual journey. Dakota (an exploration of the high plains and spiritual search) and The Cloister Walk (essays on her time spent in Benedictine monasteries) are the previous installments. In the '70s Norris moved with her husband, poet David Dwyer, to her late grandmother's home in rural South Dakota. Subsequently she began a move toward her grandmother's faith as well. Now she is both an active member in her small-town Presbyterian church and an oblate at a Benedictine monastery.

At her best, Norris manages to hold in dynamic and creative tension things that our culture would most often place in forced opposition: the sensibilities of a former member of the Manhattan arts and literature community with a deep respect for and rootedness in the life of rural middle America; poetry and contemplation with clear and engaged cultural analysis; Christian orthodoxy with a full embrace of doubt, pluralism, and creativity.

If you've been living in or with any of these creative tensions, reading Norris can be like greeting a trusted friend: Finally, someone who understands how both head and heart can remain in full engagement with the soul. If you don't think maintaining such tensions is viable, then reading Norris may only make you mad. She's received some equally displeased responses from fundamentalist and liberal Christians, as well as secularists. Sometimes simultaneousness confounds and comforts. As a friend commented in the midst of reading Amazing Grace, "She alienates me, then draws me back in."

Norris' writing is marked by an understated elegance and grace. Some writing shoots fireworks off the page; hers unfolds slowly in your mind. But don't let the quietness fool you into thinking she is avoiding the tough issues. In the chapter on "Intolerance/Forbearance," for example, she moves frankly through anecdotes that illustrate what she describes as the "brittle and divisive climate" within the church around issues such as sexuality. Her conclusion gives no pat answers, but reminds us that "Jesus Christ asks us to interpret ourselves, and each other, with the same hospitable, good-hearted diligence that we grant to him. He offers the truth not as a thing but as a way."

The "dictionary" approach sometimes challenged my full engagement with the book. Norris' books never have a strictly linear feel—in both Dakota and The Cloister Walk, the chapters build and elaborate on each other, but don't necessarily form a clear narrative thread. This in parts reflects the nature of their core topic, faith, which is rarely a straightforward story.

But I could not seem to read Amazing Grace straight through. Each chapter is on a word (interspersed with occasional essays on themes of inheritance, conversion, and other topics). I skipped, I hopped, I flipped to the end, I looked for words that intrigued me, avoided those that bored me. Yet even reading in such a scattershot fashion, the thoughtfulness and quality of Norris' insights was apparent. I finally decided that my sometimes spotty attention span was a reaction to the inherent idiosyncrasy of any person's "lexicon" selection (something Norris notes in the preface).

My questions aren't always the same as Norris'; the words that trigger my fear or passion often differ. But in the end, Amazing Grace expanded my definitions and pushed me to have the courage and curiosity to wrestle with my own "scary" words; to bring words and the Word and worship and the world into true communion, come what may.

Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith. Kathleen Norris. Riverhead Books, 1998.

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