Wrestling With the 'Scary' Words

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.

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 1999
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