Meet Kathleen Norris

KATHLEEN NORRIS

"Faith is still a surprise to me, as I lived without it for so long. . . . My new understanding of faith as like energy itself—fluid, always in motion but never constant—has been instructed by the Bible, the Christian theological tradition, and my own experience."—Amazing Grace

Just as Jacob wrestled with the angel, acclaimed poet and author Kathleen Norris grappled with doubt, confusion, and despair for years until she finally experienced the blessings of faith. She chronicles her spiritual journey in a trilogy of best-selling memoirs that includes Dakota: A Spiritual Geography; The Cloister Walk; and Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith. Widely praised for her graceful, down-to-earth style, Norris has won the hearts of millions of readers for the way in which she infuses everyday events with a larger spiritual meaning. Her reflections offer a compelling portrait of a contemporary seeker who has found fulfillment in her walk with Christ.

Born in Washington, D.C., in 1947, Norris moved to Hawaii as a child. She inherited a rich religious legacy from her family. Her paternal grandparents were both born-again Christians, and her grandfather became a pastor. On her mother’s side, her grandfather was a physician while her grandmother was a woman of "quiet piety" whose Christian belief later illuminated Norris’s own spiritual journey. Yet in spite of her religious upbringing, Norris wandered away from God. In Amazing Grace she notes, "I had a radiant faith as a child, mostly related to song and story. Like many people of my ‘baby boomer’ generation, I drifted away from religion when catechism came to the fore, and the well-meaning adults who taught Sunday school and confirmation class seemed intent on putting the vastness of ‘God’ into small boxes of their own devising."

Her disaffection from church and the spiritual life continued while she was a student at Bennington College in Vermont. After her graduation in 1969, she moved to New York City and became a member of the literary set. It was while she lived in the city that her award-winning collection of poetry, Falling Off, was published. However, her success did nothing to diminish her sense of purposelessness: "For years I had drifted through life, more or less aimlessly, with little in the way of religious moorings, little sense of connection or commitment to other people." (Amazing Grace)

In 1974, Norris’s life took an unexpected turn when she inherited her grandparents’ farm. She and her husband, David Dwyer, also a poet, left a city of millions of people for Lemmon, South Dakota, a tiny town of 1,600. There she rediscovered her religious roots and began attending the small Presbyterian church her grandmother had been a member of for 60 years. She also made frequent visits to a nearby Benedictine monastery, where she delved even more deeply into the mystery and beauty of the Christian life.

As Norris’s faith grew, so did her commitment to Christian service. She served as a temporary pastor of Hope and Spencer Memorial Presbyterian Churches in Keldron and Lemmon, and has been an oblate, or lay associate, in the Benedictine Order since 1986. She has also used her gift for writing as a means to explore and share her faith. In Dakota: A Spiritual Memoir, she transports readers to the vast expanse of the Great Plains, where she examines the contradictions of small-town life and shows how a sense of place can shape one’s own inner spiritual, emotional, and psychological landscape. The Cloister Walk describes in detail Norris’s two nine-month stays in a Benedictine monastery. Echoing many of the same themes found in Thomas Merton’s writings, she presents an intimate account of the depth, beauty, and simplicity of monastic life, as well as its challenges. Finally, in Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, she offers short reflections on words such as "judgment," "prayer," "dogma," "salvation," "sinner," and other terms that often distance or discourage people from embracing their religious heritage. Her luminous meditations reveal not only her own struggles with faith but also her growth as a Christian, enriching the lives of believers and seekers alike.

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