(This is the third, and final, in a sermon series about modern-day mystics.)
Whether she defines herself as such or not, to me Kathleen Norris is a modern-day mystic. She is well-known for her spiritual writings, much of which germinated in the silence of the Great Plains of North and South Dakota. Her language to describe these experiences is decidedly mystical. She speaks of personal experiences of the Divine, of the interconnectedness of all things, she is not promoting a particular theology or doctrine, but supersedes those with a deeper inner spirituality.
(For the full video version, click here.)
In her book Dakota, Kathleen Norris shares how living in the Great Plains impacted her life, her way of looking at the world, and her spirituality. I’ve distilled what I’ve read into three important lessons: silence, space and simplicity.
To even experience silence, true silence, is difficult these days – to get away from every manufactured or human sound. We can close our windows and doors, yet still hear the furnace kick in and the muffled street sounds. We can take a walk in the woods, yet still hear the traffic or planes overhead. Plus, we live in a culture that abhors silence. Many people seem to always need some noise, even if it is just the television or music on in the background. They won’t even leave their pets in silence! We have a rough time stopping, stilling ourselves, listening to the silence, waiting, seeking the face of God, and just being… it seems like doing nothing, but in essence we are doing something very important. We are finding our center. That quiet still place of calm within our souls needs to be cultivated, and it is much harder to do when we don’t have quiet in our outside world.
Norris grew up in Hawaii, went to college in Vermont, and then spent six years in New York City. From there she moved to her grandmother’s home in Lemmon, South Dakota (a town of about 1,200 people on the border of North and South Dakota and just outside of Standing Rock Indian Reservation). Can you imagine? New York City to rural South Dakota? I doubt many people could handle the switch!
Have you ever been to the Great Plains? Driven across North or South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas or Oklahoma? The Great Plains are actually even bigger than that, spanning the area west of the Mississippi and east of the Rockies. There is nothing for miles and miles and miles, but sweeping grassland. Yet, Norris learned to appreciate the “Plains silence” and the gifts it had to offer. She talks about the power the silence has to re-form you, to reconnect you to the cycles of the earth, and to teach you to wait and to hope, as the farmers wait and hope for rain. As she acclimated to her surroundings, she found that instead of lamenting the loss of urban life and stimulation, she sought more ways to quiet her life. She even stopped watching television and became an oblate, or associate member, of a monastery.
The amazing thing about cultivating that quiet calm place with in is that once that silence is absorbed into the depths of one’s soul, you carry it with you. Norris shared,
[T]he Plains have changed me. I was a New Yorker for nearly six years and still love to visit my friends in the city. But now I am conscious of carrying a Plains silence within me into cities, and of carrying my city experiences back to the Plains so that they may be absorbed again back into silence, the fruitful silence that produces poems and essays.
Have you had the experience of walking into a chaotic situation, or crowded place, and yet it felt separate from you, as if it swirled around you, but it couldn’t disturb the groundedness and centeredness at your core. Silence is what cultivates this. It is sacred and healing.
By space I mean physical separateness. Being removed from the distractions of daily life oddly enough seems to give us the ability to see more clearly, more lovingly. Norris found that the isolation and solitude of the Plains paradoxically made her feel more connected to others in a positive way. Perhaps it is the ability to see the forest instead of getting hung up on the trees.
Space grants us perspective.
In her return visits to New York City, Norris said she was able to watch the diverse people around her from a place of amazement and joy. She found herself recognizing that each person is “a treasure-bearer, carrying our souls like a great blessing through the world.” Having space in her life gifted Norris with the awareness that there are “no strangers” and that “the gate of heaven is everywhere.” In other words, we are all connected and access to the Divine is everywhere.
Norris shares some of her experiences as the artist-in-residence for the North Dakota Arts Council, a job that took her throughout the entire state to teach poetry. Many times she found herself in very small rural schools, in towns with no motels (where she’d stay with a family), or if there was a motel, it was often on its last legs, with a rusty shower stall, a paper bath mat and a pay phone in the parking lot. The more civilized motels, she said, had that red and black flocked velvet wallpaper making her feel like she stumbled into a New Orleans bordello.
But over time, she was able to change her perspective and began to see the gifts of these grim surroundings and flourish there. These rooms “became as monks’ cells for her, full of the gifts of silence and solitude where she could knit, write and do serious reading.”
Living more simply, she insisted, is not about denigrating the body, but “a way of surrendering to reduced circumstances in a manner that enhances the whole person. It is a radical way of knowing exactly who, what and where you are, in defiance of those powerful forces in society – alcohol, drugs, television, shopping malls, motels – that aim to make us forget.”
Sometimes I wonder if we aren’t deprived enough. It’s when we don’t have something, or someone, that we learn to have gratitude for them and for the smaller things in life. We also learn how much we really don’t need. Every time I go camping I realize how much I can live without and wonder why I really need so much stuff! At night I’m grateful for a warm meal over the fire, for the stars in the sky, and a dry tent and sleeping bag. They are things I don’t even think about at home.
Norris tells a story about a monk who went to visit one of the desert fathers, Abba Moses, and asked him for a word. The old man said to him, “Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”
Silence, space and simplicity… these are the spiritual lessons of the Great Plains. For those of us who seek the face of God, it is important to find time to cultivate those things – even in small amounts – wherever we are. For it is in letting the silence soak into us that our souls become calmer and more peaceful; it is in finding space to be that we accept and treasure others more; and it is in living more simply that we live more in gratitude, lose some of our need for material things, and replace it with what is truly important: a deeper relationship with the Divine.