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Two weeks ago author Kathleen Norris presented the James I. Cook lecture in Christianity and Literature at Western Theological Seminary. For those unfamiliar with her work, Norris is a New York Times Bestselling author who weaves together themes of faith, community, simplicity in elegant prose and poetry that delights. Norris is also a Benedictine oblate. Her conversations with faculty and students at Western Seminary were brimming with insights, quotes, and wisdom gleaned from the Christian Patristic and mystical writers as well as her own experience.
I had the good fortune of being invited to lunch with Norris and three other women colleagues. I imagined scintillating discourse about spirituality and the craft of writing. And then I realized that it had been many years since I had read any of Norris’ works and that I ought to familiarize myself with more of them. This was born of respect, on the one hand, and to be honest, of fear that I wouldn’t keep up with the conversation, on the other. As for the latter, graduate studies and nine years of scholarly conversations have socialized me into a competitive academic culture too often built around proving one’s erudition. I’ve been part of far too many conversations characterized by insecure attempts to demonstrate one’s intellectual capacities—and actually I’ve avoided much of this, perhaps to my detriment, because I find it so far from life-giving.
As an aside, I would offer this response to Jessica Bratt’s “Doctoral Student Dispatches.” The posturing, the politicking, and the pressure to conform to a particular form of self-expression: it can all be deadening and you are right to notice it and carefully attend to its impact on your soul. Shaping a vocation that avoids what Kathleen Norris calls an “assault of verbiage” and what others have identified as a lack of nuanced, thoughtful, clear intellectual work for the sake of branding is no easy task. And it won’t end with the completion of a doctoral degree. In fact, in my experience, it becomes more difficult. Add to this the challenge of attending both to the life of the mind and to the nitty-gritty of daily life and the academic vocation becomes even more challenging, perhaps especially for women. Here I recall one of my colleagues saying to me in exasperation sometime ago: “Our dear friend and colleague (a man) has a goal of reading 100 books in the next six months as he teaches a full load. And you know he’ll accomplish that. Do you know what I’m going to be doing? Reading Pat the Bunny 100 times to my kids!”
And that brings me right back to my time with Kathleen Norris. I arrived late, in part, because I had been lying down to alleviate the swelling in my ankles as well as the preterm contractions that persisted with little letup for six weeks. I sat down, trying to accept my finitude, cognizant of how this new vocation of motherhood has been recalibrating my vocation as a practical theologian. To my amazement, Norris is personally as grounded in daily life as is her writing. Our conversation touched on writing and spiritual formation but it did so in the context of talking about my pregnancy, her grandnieces, the weather, paleo diets (which I still don’t quite understand), and life in Minnesota among the Lutherans. Upon completion of our lunch, three of us, including Norris, walked down the block to shop at a baby store. She persisted with me for well over an hour as I agonized over what outfit to buy for my daughter’s first pictures, the most fitting diaper bag, and the best books for little ones. As I deliberated, she texted her niece to gather information on the brand of bottles that mimic the breast and prevent gas. All unsolicited and completely congruent with her writing.
Surprise and delight sum up my own response to this short time with Kathleen Norris. It was a weaving together of new themes in my own spiritual journey and, as best as I can discern, the Spirit’s work in my own life. Over the next couple of days, I finished her book which I had begun just hours before lunch, The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy, and “Women’s Work.” It resonated with my own sense of call begin reshaped from deep within the mystery of my pregnancy. She begins the book with this vignette about her visit to a Roman Catholic church:
“Look,” I said, tugging on David’s sleeve. “Look at that! The priest is cleaning up! He’s doing the dishes!” My husband shrugged; others in the pew looked at me and then at him, as if to say—Dave, your girlfriend has gone soft in the head.
But I found it remarkable—and still find it remarkable—that in that big fancy church, after all of the dress-up and the formalities of the wedding mass, homage was being paid to the lowly truth that we human beings must wash the dishes after we eat and drink. The chalice, which had held the very blood of Christ, was no exception. And I found it enormously comforting to see the priest as a kind of daft housewife, overdressed for the kitchen, in bulky robes, puttering about the altar, washing up after having served so great a meal to so many people. It brought the mass home to me and gave it meaning.
As for me, I can only hope (and pray) for something of that kind of sight that finds profound spiritual meaning in the mundane, ordinary, and messiness of created life. And if it makes me soft in the head, well, so be it. I need to go put my feet up again anyway.